Winnie L.M Yee looks at how the content and production of Hollywood genre films and world cinema reflect man’s place in the postwar landscape of nuclear fear and climate crisis.
Jennifer Fay, Inhospitable World: Cinema in the Time of the Anthropocene (Oxford University Press, 2018), 272pp.
“Consider these and many other major and still growing impacts of human activities on earth and atmosphere, and at all, including global, scales, it seems to us more than appropriate to emphasize the central role of mankind in geology and ecology by proposing to use the term ‘anthropocene’ for the current geological epoch. The impacts of current human activities will continue over long periods.”
– Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer.
Debates on climate change and environmental sustainability, and critiques of human destruction of nature focus on the pressing and imminent. As many scholars have noted, our understanding of these issues can be informed by analysing the correlations between ideas and representations; facts and fiction; texts and contexts. Jennifer Fay’s Inhospitable World: Cinema in the Time of Anthropocene is such an analysis: it transcends time, space, and cultural contexts to unveil the interconnectedness of the natural and cultural. Fay applies an ecocritical perspective to the understanding of film – its production process, ideological input, and sociohistorical circumstances. Working with examples of feature films, documentaries, and digital photography, Fay succeeds in illuminating the intricate connection between filmmaking and the Anthropocene. More importantly, Fay successfully charts the evolution of American film genres within the contextual framework of the Anthropocene.
With reference to Bill McKibben’s concept of “Eaarth” (a planet that uncannily appears to be our home but with a difference), Fay argues that the cinema creates a similarly supernatural experience. As a technological product of the Anthropocene, cinema illustrates the way an “unnatural and unwelcoming environment as a matter of production, a willed and wanted milieu, however harmful… is inseparable from but also made perceivable through film.” (4) In a broader sense, in order to come to terms with the Anthropocene, cinema “enables us to glimpse anthropogenic environments as both an accidental effect of human activity and a matter of design” (4).
In formulating her argument on the intricate relationship between filmmaking and the Anthropocene, Fay creates an assemblage of theories of film scholars such as Siegfried Kracauer, Miriam Hansen, and Vivian Sobchack; philosophical meditations of Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, and Peter Sloterdijk; and ecocritical insights of literary critics such as Rob Nixon. In particular, the presence of Siegfried Kracauer is the most prominent in Fay’s framework. Fay maintains that “What Kracauer helps us to fathom is that cinema mirrors the practice of human worlding, inclusive of its natural environment and thus, in a sense, he theorises a world concept through a production design that is unique to cinema” (7). By linking cinema’s materiality more closely with the formulation of socio-cultural imaginaries (world-making), Inhospitable suggests a new perspective on the relationship between cinema and ecocriticism. Against this rich theoretical backdrop, Inhospitable World broadens the scope of film criticism to include reflections on the materiality of cinema and the carbon footprint of filmmaking. Fay finds and demonstrates persuasive parallels between film production and the role and responsibility of human impact in the Anthropocene.
The discussion also goes beyond textual analysis of representation and highlights the underlying connections between history, politics, and our vision of the world. The notion of “hospitability,” referenced in the title, is crucial. The world has become an inhospitable place; it has not always been so. Different readings of hospitality provide the organising principle for Fay’s chapters. If we need to learn how to live and die in an unpredictable and inhospitable world, the cinema has something to teach us about how and why we got here and how we envision our unthinkable future. “Hospitality” echoes the Enlightenment ideal which assumed the hospitality of the world and humans’ liberation from nature. “The Anthropocene means that the subject, the home, and the planet at the heart of hospitality (and the Enlightenment subject it once placed at its center) are already past” (15). Many of Fay’s examples illuminate inhospitable conditions such as homelessness, dispossession, estrangement, alienation, and destruction. Fay traces the etymological roots of “hospitality” to show its connections with the “eco” of “eco-cinema.” “Eco” originated from “oikos,” the word for home or dwelling. In each chapter, Fay focuses on specific filming locations “in which earth and world, hospitality and its negation are in acute and destructive tension, places that bring to the fore cinema’s world-making powers and its denatured, unhomely optics” (16).
In Part I, Fay looks at American filming locations that reveal the exploitation of natural resources that enabled America’s rise to become the world’s greatest economic and military power. In films such as Buster Keaton’s slapstick comedy Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), acute weather conditions are simulated for the sake of popular entertainment. For Fay, these portrayals of extreme weather reflect an “interwar awareness that ‘natural’ disasters were often attributable to industry and war, that ‘nature’ was already a product of ‘culture’ (26). Such films foreground the human attempt to control and manipulate the environment and thus make our world even more inhospitable. Using the example of Keaton and others, Fay locates the beginning of the acceleration of environmental destruction at a much earlier point in modern history and popular memory.
Nevada’s atomic testing site serves as yet another example of human egotism and drive to “produce predictability and repeatability against (and with the effect of effacing) the unpredictability of nuclear materials and the consequences of the planetary radioactive fallout” (17). Fay argues that these atomic films transform “explosions in to aesthetic experiences, turns the chaos of fallout into comprehensible narratives, and train viewers to survive or endure the culture of nuclearism” (17). As opposed to films that show extreme weather, the atomic bomb films anaesthetise the audience to the long-term and unpredictable effects of nuclear arms. This distracts them from the realisation that its devastation is the consequence of deliberate human choices. Proceeding from the Cold War imagination of nuclear apocalypse, Fay turns her attention to film noir to further critique the postwar urban plight. Fay maintains that noir is a way of encouraging people to submissively accept their fate, as most of the characters live at the edge of poverty, with no permanent residence, uprooted as the result of consumer capitalism. The world is becoming inhospitable given humans’ increasing urge to control it. “Shelterlessness is the new global condition either intellectually, as in the experience of exile, or materially, as in the fate of most of the world’s impoverished citizens” (109).
Part II titled “… at the End of the World” contains two chapters dealing with two extreme filming locations – Three Gorges Dam in China and Antarctica – that expose the influence of human action on nature. Comparing Jia Zhangke’s film Still Life (2006) to Liu Xiaodong’s oil paintings and Yang Yi’s digital photographs, Fay presents a shared vision of the manipulation of nature and the displacement of villagers during the creation of the Three Gorges Dam. Fay references to Rob Nixon’s view of the mega-dam as a kind of “national performance art” (133). For Nixon, the mega-dam instantiates the “monumentality of national modernity” and “a country’s power to alter the world and move its people” (133), rather than pursuing the betterment of human lives. Fay observes that the world has become increasingly inhospitable now that development worsens, rather than improves life and draws attention to the emergence of the “developmental refugee” as a consequence of massive construction projects. Together with Liu Xiadong’s oil paintings Hotbed (2005) and Three Gorges Displaced Population (2003) and Yang Yi’s Uprooted (2007-2008) photographs, Still Life shows homes completely destroyed. The “stillness” of the Chinese people’s lives are reflected in the style of each of the three artists, who position their subjects against the backdrop of reckless development. Describing Yang’s digital photographs, which feature residents posed in front of deserted ruins and devastated “rubblescapes,” Fay notes that “Yang takes flexibility and finitude to an extreme fantasy of human extinction represented as Anthropocene adaptability – digital anagenesis. If these are human subjects, they have already learned to be at home in a submerged world of ruination with no intent on (or capacity for) rebuilding what is gone… Without a home to return to, Yang invites us to take up residence in the image, to find refuge in the digital ruins” (159). Once again, Fay draws attention to how art can reveal the fatalism that accompanies overdevelopment in today’s Anthropocene.
In the final chapter, Fay returns to Siegfried Kracauer’s theories on film and photography to explore the ways in which the way the Antarctic provides an alternative and denaturalised history of the present. Kracauer’s ideas, particularly in his later writings, are applied to early films about Antarctic exploration, highlighting “cinema’s relationship to brute and brutal physical reality and, more pointedly, to a vanishing natural history that marks the experience of living in the time and place of catastrophe” (167). By defamiliarising the world, technologies such as cinema and photography enable viewers to experience life as outsiders. Fay argues that “Kracauer helps us to imagine an estranged and selfless relationship to an inhospitable or even posthospitable earth that may not accommodate us” (20).
Hannah Arendt’s meditation on the theoretical/political differentiation between Earth and world also reinforces Fay’s argument. According to Arendt, the world is “related to the human artifact, the fabrication of human hands, as well as to affairs which go on among those who inhabit the man-made world together” (10). Cinema has taught us how to understand the way our world is being created by us. It also suggests the paths for us to take in order to make the world hospitable again. Jennifer Fay’s work compels us to reflect on the massive environmental destruction in the age of Anthropocene and to strive to create rituals of hospitality.
Winnie L.M Yee is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Hong Kong.