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The Garden in the Machine

A Field Guide to Independent Films about Place

Scott MacDonald

Publication Year: 2001

The Garden in the Machine explores the evocations of place, and particularly American place, that have become so central to the representational and narrative strategies of alternative and mainstream film and video. Scott MacDonald contextualizes his discussion with a wide-ranging and deeply informed analysis of the depiction of place in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature, painting, and photography. Accessible and engaging, this book examines the manner in which these films represent nature and landscape in particular, and location in general. It offers us both new readings of the films under consideration and an expanded sense of modern film history.

Among the many antecedents to the films and videos discussed here are Thomas Cole's landscape painting, Thoreau's Walden, Olmsted and Vaux's Central Park, and Eadweard Muybridge's panoramic photographs of San Francisco. MacDonald analyzes the work of many accomplished avant-garde filmmakers: Kenneth Anger, Bruce Baillie, James Benning, Stan Brakhage, Nathaniel Dorsky, Hollis Frampton, Ernie Gehr, Larry Gottheim, Robert Huot, Peter Hutton, Marjorie Keller, Rose Lowder, Marie Menken, J.J. Murphy, Andrew Noren, Pat O'Neill, Leighton Pierce, Carolee Schneemann, and Chick Strand. He also examines a variety of recent commercial feature films, as well as independent experiments in documentary and such contributions to independent video history as George Kuchar's Weather Diaries and Ellen Spiro's Roam Sweet Home.

MacDonald reveals the spiritual underpinnings of these works and shows how issues of race, ethnicity, gender, and class are conveyed as filmmakers attempt to discover forms of Edenic serenity within the Machine of modern society. Both personal and scholarly, The Garden in the Machine will be an invaluable resource for those interested in investigating and experiencing a broader spectrum of cinema in their teaching, in their research, and in their lives.

Published by: University of California Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 2-9


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pp. 10-13

List of Illustrations

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pp. xiii-xviii

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pp. xix-xxvi

...obviously professional, the other more obviously personal; or to be more precise, the eleven essays that follow are the product of a decade-long intersection of these two explorations. Since the late 1970s, nearly all of my scholarly and critical energies, and a substantial portion of my pedagogical energy, have been devoted to what is variously termed “avant-garde film,” “independent film,” “experimental film” (in recent years, I have included “video art” as well): that immense world of alternative media that has developed...

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1 The Garden in the Machine

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pp. 1-22

...One of the primary reasons I became interested in film studies was the seeming open-endedness of the field. Cinema was new, I reasoned, and would continue to be new, unlike other academic fields, particularly those devoted to historical periods: as a scholar and a teacher, I would face the future, endlessly enthralled and energized by the transformation of the potential into the actual. That my development as a film scholar-teacher increasingly involved me in “avant-garde film” seemed quite natural—a logical extension of the...

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2 Voyages of Life

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pp. 23-44

...When I arrived in Utica, New York, in fall 1971 to teach film studies and American literature at Utica College of Syracuse University, I brought with me a set of aesthetic prejudices—common to my generation, I’m sure—that led me to admire the twentieth-century art at Utica’s Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute (the collection includes paintings by Dalì, Picasso, Gris, Mondrian, Sheeler, Hopper, Pollock, and Rothko) as fervently as I despised the highlight...

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3 Avant-Gardens

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pp. 45-88

...In both of the creation stories in Genesis, the Garden of Eden is created separately from humankind. Actually, in the earlier creation story, no garden is mentioned: God creates the heavens and the earth in six days and places man and woman in charge of the creation. In the second creation story, God first breathes life into man, who he has formed from the dust; then He plants a garden in Eden and places man there, to till it and keep it...

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4 Re-envisioning the American West

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pp. 89-124

...Franklin defines three forms of narrative that developed during the first centuries of European expansion into North America, as a means of “domesticating the strangeness” of the vast new continent Europeans were in the process of “discovering,” exploring, and settling. In the “discovery narrative,” the writer stands in rapt wonder at the magnificent vista before him (the earliest writers were all, so far as I know, men), astonished at the immensity...

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5 From the Sublime to the Vernacular

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pp. 125-146

...It is difficult to imagine a more typically American film than Twister (1996). The focus, of course, is the tornadoes that rip through the American Midwest— particularly Oklahoma, North Texas, and Kansas—during the spring, annually pelting the region with hailstones the size of quarters, golf balls, or baseballs and tearing the roofs o¤ of houses and, in some cases, the houses...

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6 The City as Motion Picture

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pp. 147-222

...I’ve long recognized that, whatever pretensions I have about being an individual, for the most part my experiences are typical of large numbers of people; and, therefore, if I say that in my lifetime I am aware of three distinct attitudes toward the American city, I do not mean to privilege my personal experience but to recognize it as an index to the experiences of at least a portion of a particular generation. As I was growing up in Easton, Pennsylvania...

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7 The Country in the City

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pp. 223-246

...On a map or from the air, nothing defines New York City more clearly than the rectilinearity of Central Park at the heart of the curvilinear island of Manhattan. And nothing encodes the paradox of the thinking that created Frederick Law Olmsted’s first great park—and simultaneously distinguishes it from many of the parks inspired by Central Park—than the virtually perfect geometry of its outline. The park simultaneously confirms the grid structure of...

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8 Rural (and Urban) Hours

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pp. 247-288

...From our perspective at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the fascination of so many nineteenth-century American painters with rural and wilderness landscape can seem—depending on one’s predilections—a poignant, quaint, or silly refusal to come to terms with the arrival of the industrial revolution in North America. Some painters saw that further development was inevitable but used painting to warn those indi¤erent to the beauties of...

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9 Expulsion from the Garden

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pp. 289-318

...was widespread during the nineteenth century, one might assume that, as the continent was changing rapidly, the theme of the expulsion from Eden might also have been popular among artists and writers. And yet, because of the widespread assumption that the natural resources of North America were virtually inexhaustible and that it was not only our right but also our manifest destiny to exploit these resources, few artists or writers felt...

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10 Satan’s National Park

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pp. 319-350

...of Olmsted-inspired city parks in many cities and restored or protected historical landmarks—remain one of the more convincing arguments for federal governmental action in the public interest during an era of privatization and transnational capital. And the success of this concept and accomplishment is confirmed by the degree to which it has been emulated around the world by nations hoping to preserve some crucial physical remnants of their natural (and national)...

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11 Benedictions/New Frontiers

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pp. 351-376

...Few words are more likely to cause consternation in recent generations of American academics than “the spirit” and “spiritual.” Whether in the context of traditional religion or in the more recent New Age context, admitting to a spiritual connection seems to a good many educated people tantamount to admitting to a disease of the intellect. There are, of course, good reasons...

Appendix: Distribution Sources for Films and Videos

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pp. 377-386


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pp. 387-446


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pp. 447-462

E-ISBN-13: 9780520926455
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520227385

Page Count: 487
Publication Year: 2001