Laura Kissel's new film Cabin Field (2005) picks up where her previous work Finding Lula (2002) leaves off, as it attempts to read the surface of the land for evidence of what humans have done there. Through this film Kissel paints a portrait of a site, a mile-long parcel of agricultural land in rural south-central Georgia, and of landscape more generally, marked and remarked by human use through time. Her task in making this film is excavation, pursued through media old and new: oral histories, maps, digital video, home movies, satellite imagery, and archival film footage. Cabin Field weaves together these materials to manifest, rather than simply tell about, the complexity of a single piece of land called Cabin Field and, more generally, of the unrecognized richness of our landscape.
Much contemporary experimental film and video that makes use of archival footage does so less as a means to directly illustrate an idea or provide a window onto some past reality than as a method for reflecting on the very idea of "history" or "representation" or "cinema," true to modernist strategies of reflexivity. Documentary filmmaking conventions dictate that archival footage be used primarily in the service of a film's claims to truth, whether to provide visible evidence of a specific event, person, et cetera, or to paint a general impression of an era or place. In Cabin Field, an experimental documentary or essay film, these differing uses for archival material collide in important ways. "Important" because as much as Kissel's film contributes to a body of knowledge about agricultural life and cultural landscapes in south Georgia, it also significantly challenges quaint renderings of farm life and fields as aesthetic objects as well as conventional methods for telling the story of a place. While the film is, in the tradition of documentary, about a specific piece of land, the people who have lived and worked on it for the past fifty-odd years, and the dynamics of race and gender in the rural South more generally, it is also, in an experimental tradition, as much about the languages and media we use to document and narrate our understanding of place and culture.
Cabin Field weaves a visually dense fabric of archival and original footage and images, combining transferred 16mm film from the Fox Movietone News and Fox News collections at the University of South Carolina Newsfilm Library and the Andrew Avery Home Movie Collection at the University of Georgia Libraries' Walter J. Brown Media Archives, original 16mm film, digital video, and photographs. The film opens on a vividly colored satellite image of a large area of what appears to be agricultural land but looks more like abstract, irregular shapes marked with lines in shades of green and brown. The image starts to spin as we zoom in on it, as if tumbling and falling to the ground far below. More muted, much closer photographs of the area [End Page 124] taken from the U.S. Geological Survey emerge as the satellite image fades out. The almost treeless surface of the land resembles faintly stained paper; decades-old patterns made by the planting of cotton rows, invisible at ground level, here form their own kind of watermark on the land. These are the kinds of archival images everyday geographers are becoming more familiar with as applications like Google Earth and Web sites like Terra-Server now allow Internet users to view high-resolution images of the surface of the Earth and zoom in on precise addresses at the click of a button. All of this has the effect of defamiliarizing these archival images and the land itself, prompting us to consider the natural landscape as something that is made, something covered in marks, signs, and patterns to be deciphered, something discursive, written and written upon.
Geographers and landscape historians use the concept of "landscape autobiography" to describe how a person's life and the "life" of a physical place can be understood as mutually constitutive. To write any history of a place, environment, or landscape one must actually develop an intimate familiarity with the...