American nature film: representations of dominion and imperialism

Figure 1: detail of book cover image Film and the American Moral Vision of Nature: Theodore Roosevelt to Walt Disney (2011) by Ronald B. Tobias

Figure 1: detail of book cover image Film and the American Moral Vision of Nature: Theodore Roosevelt to Walt Disney by Ronald B. Tobias (2011)

Note: the following is an extended review of this original post, with more information of other research in this area and full references (26 July 2014)

 

This post is a book review of  Film and the American Moral Vision of Nature: Theodore Roosevelt to Walt Disney (2011) by Ronald B. Tobias, Hardcover: 320 pages, Publisher: Michigan State University Press; First Edition – First Printing edition (June 1, 2011)

 

‘The representations of nature in early American cinema reflect an increasingly aggressive assertion of dominion, coterminous with the national expansion of empire… one by one, the presumptuous moral authority of the Western juggernaut humbled the beasts of the world – and the countries they inhabited.’ Ronald B. Tobias, 2011, p.14.

Recently I have been thinking about the different types of “nature cinema” in all its forms and definitions, from natural history/wildlife documentary cinema, to the growing number of overtly environmental themed films and less well known experimental, more ecocentric1 cinema. I have looked closely at the surprisingly recent number of books and articles on this topic. Surprising, given both the proliferation and global reach of nature cinema (here I am broadly including all its various audio-visual forms and platforms) when the degradation of the earth has been exponentially accelerating since the mid 20th century.

Nevertheless, these recent writings are important in helping us begin to think ecocritically about the enormous influence cinema, and particularly our hugely popular forms of “nature cinema” have, on how well we perceive and relate to the earth and its inhabitants. Before the late 1990s there were few academic books that ecocritically explored cinema but it is exciting to see in very recent years growing interest in this small but rapidly developing field. A number of academic texts and journal articles have examined natural history/nature documentary cinema, mainstream environmentally-themed films, animation and experimental cinema, bringing insights from literary theory, media studies, film theory, animal studies and cultural studies. Some examples that show the breadth of this developing field include; overviews of mainstream environmental and experimental film, Framing the World: Explorations in Ecocriticism and Film (Willoquet-Maricondi, ed., 2010), Ecocinema Theory and Practice (Rust, Monani and Cubitt, eds., 2012), Ecologies of the Moving Image: Cinema, Affect (Ivakhiv, 2013); reviews of transnational cinema, Chinese Ecocinema in an Age of Environmental Challenge (Lu, ed., 2010), Transnational Ecocinema (Gustafsson and Kääpä, eds., 2013); animals in cinema, Watching Wildlife (Chris, 2006), Creaturely Poetics: animality and vulnerability in literature and film (Pick, 2011); animation, The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation (Whitely, 2013); specifically exploring experimental cinema, The Garden in the Machine – a field guide to independent films about Place (MacDonald, 2001), ‘Towards an Ecocinema’ (MacDonald, 2004), to those that explore how cinema and visual culture represents nature, Mediating Nature (Lindahl-Elliot,2006), Ecosee: image, rhetoric, nature (Dobrin and Morey, eds., 2009). A comprehensive listing of books and journal articles can be found on the ecomediastudies.org site that has evolved from seminars hosted at the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) conferences in recent years.

I am embarrassed to admit that a recent book, that is both more accessible than most and which has an important contribution to make as an introduction to this field, and for natural history/nature documentary cinema in particular, has laid on my shelf unopened for several months. Film and the American Moral Vision of Nature: Theodore Roosevelt to Walt Disney (2011) is written by an experienced US Natural History filmmaker and Professor of Science and Natural History film-making, Ronald B. Tobias[a]. Perhaps my slowness was partly because the book has on its cover a rather grizzly photograph of President Theodore Roosevelt standing behind the corpse of a large elephant which he had just hunted (Figure 1: detail of book cover above image).

However, after reading the book, I found that the cover image captures the central arguments of the book very well. The introduction gives a broad but absorbingly detailed and engaging account of how Western culture has changed its perceptions and practices towards non-human species over the centuries. It is an important overview for this field in describing how different visual media technologies over the centuries have been used to instill widely adopted and powerful societal norms of human supremacy over the non-human world. If you have a background in visual culture/art history/theology with knowledge of ecological concerns, you will find Tobias’ overview at this point somewhat familiar; for any reader this broad context that explores the visual ‘ancestry’ of cinema is succinct, persuasive and compelling. Such material also provides the context for one of Tobias’ most interesting arguments, that limiting ideologies toward nature conveyed by earlier visual devices were carried into early nature cinema.

This is detailed by Tobias in his discussion of American natural history dioramas[b] that arose at the forefront of American culture in the early decades of the 20th century. These dioramas he proposes, were the “visual and ideological template for the natural history film.” Particularly influential and hugely popular were the large and visually engaging 1936 dioramas[c] in the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial atrium, in the “Africa Hall,” displayed at the entrance of the American Museum of Natural History in New York (AMNH)3.

Tobias’ diorama research reveals how the design of these visually evocative “peepholes” into nature strongly influenced the conceptual and moral conventions of early nature cinema. Moreover, because American cinema since the early 20th century were consumed by large global audiences, such conventions continue to have a strong impact for contemporary film-makers, their films and today’s audiences. Interestingly, journalist Helen Burrowes (1956), wrote of an interesting interplay between dioramas and early cinema, describing how early cinema also influenced diorama design. She presents how the acclaimed designer of the 1936 AMNH dioramas, Carl Akeley, a talented taxidermist, photographer and enthusiast of early cinema, gained inspiration for the innovative curved painted backgrounds of his dioramas (which confronted the viewer with an arc of painted panoramic landscapes) from the “Daguerre Cyclorama,” a popular curved prototype of early cinema theatre. A Cyclorama theatre was at the time very near the AMNH.

In the early 20th century many of these large dioramas, such as those in “Africa Hall”, were often created at great cost. Containing many specimens, simulated and reconstructed habitat material and painted panoramic landscape backgrounds they were collected and created by teams of natural scientists, explorers and landscape artists who visited, collected specimens and observed wildlife in exotic locations. Tobias’ research revealed that there were widespread claims at the time (and still largely unquestioned today) that these dioramas, because of the scientific authority surrounding the specimens displayed and the realism of their re-constructed and painted landscape backgrounds, gave audiences the “truth” and ”reality” of nature, so precise as they were with their superb physical specimens and painted habitat details (Tobias, p.145).

Tobias convincingly shows the power of these dioramas to hold and present to early 20th century American audiences ‘the story’ of their new nation, one that had “successfully” conquered wild America. A nation that had achieved a totalising dominion over the natural world. These carefully composed “windows on nature,” also confirmed humanity’s separation and supremacy over the natural world when humanity and humanity’s effects in these miniature habitats and landscapes were starkly absent. This is the unspoken acknowledgment and convention that continues in much of natural history/nature documentary cinema today. It is discussed in one of the two landmark books that were the first to academically survey the history of natural history/nature documentary cinema, Gregg Mitman’s Reel Nature: America’s romance with wildlife on film (1999, updated in a new edition in 2009) and Derek Bousé’s Wildlife Films (2000)). Like Tobias, one of Mitman’s central points about the natural history/nature documentary cinema genre over the last century, which is still often true for contemporary forms, is the absence of human activity in such cinema. Mitman writes:

‘Despite the contrasts in these sentimental and violent framings of nature, a single continuity would be found. Every effort would be made to eliminate the urban and human setting from the scene. If this vicarious experience of nature–lived through the camera lens – is to feel intimate and pure, the artifice of civilization must be hidden, for any sign of artificiality would destroy the illusion of this recreated nature as God’s place of grace. The separateness of humans and animals must be maintained’ (p.208).

Mitman’s and Bousé’s books were both pioneering, scholarly works and introduced topics that Tobias also reflects upon. Mitman’s and Bousé’s combined work and analysis has done much to chart the history and politics of natural history/nature documentary cinema in general over the 20th century, though they differ in some of their focus and conclusions. Briefly, Mitman concludes that such cinema, if concerned with ecological realities, is best when linked to activism; Bousé, argues that natural history/nature documentary cinema owes much to Hollywood storytelling rather than documentary filmmaking and that it has created a enormously successful genre and industry but has popularised science, rather than environmental concerns. Cynthia Chris, in a more recent book Watching Wildlife (2006) extended some of these arguments, reiterating how this film genre is so little studied and explored the huge influence TV natural history/nature documentary has as a multi-million dollar industry serving large global audiences. More recently, a careful film theory and ethical examination of how film and other cultural forms negate the non-human are presented in Creaturely Poetics: animality and vulnerability in literature and film (Pick, 2011).

There are other significant points to Tobias’ diorama research when he reminds us that such exhibits were wildly popular among the public and the scientific community of their day. Tobias connects how natural history exhibits had been embraced earlier by the charismatic president, Theodore Roosevelt (1901–1909), who had an intense interest in wildlife being preserved (Mitman has also detailed Theodore Roosevelt’s influence on early nature cinema). Tobias writes that Roosevelt is still remembered for having created many of America’s first national parks during his presidency. However, Tobias describes how Roosevelt’s writings and actions (he was an avid hunter of big game), reveal that while he initiated conservation of large areas, they were established not to preserve ecological habitats but chiefly created to preserve the right to hunt as part of the heritage of the new ruggedly individualistic and assertive nation. Tobias notes that this was to prove to be a popular and uniting ideology which Roosevelt used successfully throughout his two terms as president, conveying America as a new and powerful nation, both at home and abroad (Tobias, p.23-4). President Roosevelt was therefore astutely supportive and aware of the power and influence of the AMNH and early natural history/nature documentary cinema (he was at times a collector of specimens for the AMNH and appeared in over 100 early films). Tobias concludes that dioramas in general and those in the gallery of “Africa Hall” effectively “made Roosevelt ‘lord’ of both the hunting and political realms,” reinforcing the continuation of America’s imperial story (p.144).

But Tobias analysis goes deeper still, as he outlines how such animal exhibits conveyed a suspended ‘visual statement’ of the newly understood superior “natural order” of nature. That they contained a new “moral vision” that became a powerful analogy to the rising and powerful modern America. Such ‘visual statements’ Tobias proposes were absorbed and spread globally by the early and enduring popularity of natural history/nature documentary cinema. Tobias sees this clearly in the arrangement of the hierarchy of animal species in their separate diorama cases and also how behind their glass windows, the animal specimens were grouped in idealised “family” arrangements that reflected the ideology of this new empire and its “necessary” class, race, and gender divisions. In regards to gender for example, Tobias writes, that ”the male of the animal species dominates the diorama: he is father, husband, protector and provider. The female is wife, mother, and provider for her children… the composition of figures in the diorama support her subordinancy; the male stands vertically in the frame while the female huddles beneath him” (p.132).

Tobias then surveys the decades of nature cinema that followed, in a similar vein to Mitman’s and Bousé’s research. He writes for instance, detailed and fascinating accounts of women in early safari films, from the intrepid and adventuring Osa Johnson (1894-1953), part of celebrity husband and wife silent and early sound film-making team that traveled to then wild and exotic countries, to the American Western film genre and then later to Disney’s animal animations. Throughout American nature cinema, from early films of the American West, to Africa and the South Pacific, to Disney’s animations and True Life Adventure nature documentaries, Tobias agrees with Mitman and Bousé, that much of American nature film “couched nature within a uniquely American moral code” (p. 181) and imperialistic perspectives.

Above: Osa Johnson and her husband—their 1920s “safari-travelogue” narrated documentaries of the wilds of Africa to the Pacific South Seas, caught the imagination of early cinema audiences and turned the couple into international celebrities. Such cinematic formats, with a focus on exotic locations and megafauna were replicated decades later, as in the popular Born Free film and are still part of much nature cinema today.

Although I have only briefly touched on some of the topics in this book, Tobias’ evident deep knowledge of early nature cinema, visual culture and experience in nature film-making in general, has made him acutely aware of the parallels and exchanges between the diorama and early nature cinema. His research also not only keenly reflects on the diorama and early nature cinema’s role in the wider politics of imperialism, but also the class and gender stereotypes inherent in such works at this time and over later decades. There are also fascinating descriptions of the changing concerns in nature cinema: from its first years when many films concentrated on humans feeding animals, which changed relatively quickly to a succession of popular silent and then sound films of big game animals being hunted in local and exotic overseas locations (animals were twice hunted “by gun and by camera”), to the later 20th century preoccupation of animals being used to convey the “naturalness” of preferred American human “family” norms, as in Disney’s TrueLife “animals as families” documentaries. These conventions in early American cinema and the ideological ideas of nature have changed little since. As the US cinema industry has dominated much of the world these conventions influence global audiences still and are important for film-makers to understand today.

As such, this book deserves to be widely read by scholars and filmmakers as an accessible introduction to this new field. It is an important as it indicates further the overlooked breadth and influence of natural history/nature documentary toward how contemporary society regards and relates to the natural world. However, at the moment this book is only available in hardcover from Michigan University Press, which is disappointing considering that more media-savvy filmmakers and culture theorists in general would likely appreciate a less expensive paperback or digital format. However it is good to see, considering the topic, that it is published as part of the Green Press ecological responsible publishing initiative.

To gain more of an insight into Professor Tobias’ work and his teaching, a student on his MA Natural History film-making course made an informal video interview of him last year2. While the interview did not focus directly on his recent book, Tobias nevertheless commented on the continuing “commodification of animals” on screen, and asks whether or not ‘we should stop making Natural History films altogether?’ Undoubtedly he believes we should continue, as he has garnered support for the students on his Natural History film-making course by developing student opportunities with the major and now international Natural History Discovery channel.

However, given the wide and powerful influence of cinema, and how for a great proportion of the urban population it is the primary means of perceiving the non-human world, it is a question more of us should perhaps be asking —and urgently. We need to greatly deepen our understanding that cinema as a media is not value-neutral, be hyper-aware that high-definition (HD) and 3D cinema do not convey the whole “truth” and “reality” of nature and that all media technologies carry with them the ideologies (not to mention production and material costs) that may negate the supposed aims of nature cinema.

Finally, we need to urgently investigate other forms of nature cinema, particularly more experimental cinema, that aims to move away from the limited conventions of current nature cinematic forms. To assess if we can see more ecologically and ethically by our cameras as a means to perceive the earth, its inhabitants, and our effects towards our environments, particularly if life on earth is to survive as we know it.

Tobias at the end of his book is more pessimistic than in the video interview previously mentioned writing that the “wild frame created by Akeley and Disney eighty years ago… has a new guise in the weapons of science…” and he fears that “the camera continues to play its slavish role in the service of the ideologies that continue to rule it.” Nevertheless it is books such as Tobias’ that will help point out how natural history/nature documentary cinema has eclipsed the earth and how it may radically improve.

 

REFERENCES

Bousé, D. (2000). Wildlife Films. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Burrowes, H. (1956). ‘Museum’s famed muskrats started display revolution’. [online] The Milwaukee Sentinel, Oct 24, p.6, part 1. Available from: http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1368&dat=19561024&id=tgUkAAAAIBAJ&sjid=GhAEAAAAIBAJ&pg=7252,2338129 (Accessed 27 Nov, 2012).

Chris, C. (2006) Watching Wildlife. Kindle edition: University of Minnesota Press.

Dobrin, S. I. and Morey, S. (eds.) (2009) Ecosee – image, rhetoric, nature, Albany: SUNY Press.

Gustafsson, T., and Kääpä, P. ,(eds.) (2013) Transnational Ecocinema. Kindle Edition : Intellect Ltd.

Ivakhiv, A. (2013) Ecologies of the Moving Image: Cinema, Affect, Nature. Kindle Edition. Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Lindahl-Elliot, N.  (2006) Mediating Nature. New York: Routledge.

Lu, S. (ed.). (2010) Chinese Ecocinema: In the Age of Environmental Challenge. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

MacDonald, S. (2001) The Garden in the Machine – a field guide to independent films about Place. Berkeley: University of California Press.

MacDonald, S. (2004) ‘Toward an Ecocinema’. J. Interdisciplinary Studies of Literature and Environment (ISLE), p. 107-32.

Mitman, G. (2009). Reel nature: America’s romance with wildlife on film. 2nd edition. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Pick, A. (2011) Creaturely Poetics: animality and vulnerability in literature and film., N.Y. and Chichester, West Sussex: Columbia University Press.

Rothstein, E. (2012). ‘Bully! Museum restores its shrine to Roosevelt: Theodore Roosevelt Memorial at museum of Natural History’.[online] The New York Times, Oct 25. Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/26/arts/design/theodore-roosevelt-memorial-at-museum-of-natural-history.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&  (Accessed 27 Nov, 2012).

Rust, S., Monani, S., and Cubitt, S. (eds.) (2012) Ecocinema Theory and Practice. AFI Film Readers Series, Kindle edition. Routledge.

Tobias, R. B. (2011) Film and the American Moral Vision of Nature: Theodore Roosevelt to Walt Disney. Michigan: Michigan State University Press.

Willoquet-Maricondi, P. (ed.) (2011) Framing the World: Explorations in Ecocriticism and Film. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Whitely, D. (2013) The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation: Ashgate studies in Childhood, 1700 to the Present. Kindle Edition. Ashgate.

NOTES

ecocentric films I briefly define here are those aspiring to create more ecological filmic formats. Ones that are less anthropocentric; for example nature films which are not narrated and explained by human voice-overs. US film critic Scott MacDonald who coined the term ‘ecocinema’ in 2004 proposed that some experimental film may have a potential to approach a more ecocentric form. However ‘ecocinema’ as a term is now loosely ascribed to much mainstream environmental cinema as use of the prefix ‘eco’ has become widespread. The definition of the term ‘ecocinema’ and other terms continue to be debated in academia.

2 (2012) The Pensively Repeatable Ronald Tobias Portrait from UAB Media Studies video interview: https://vimeo.com/33471331#at=0; (Accessed 27 Nov, 2012).

[a] Montana State University

[b] Dioramas are the glass encased specimen exhibits that are common to many older museums.

[c] These dioramas are still significant to American culture with their historical connection with Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, as indicated when they were recently refurbished at a cost of $40 million Rothstein, E. (2012).

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