- Ecologies of the Moving Image: Cinema, Affect, Nature by Adrian J. Ivakhiv
Five years ago, at an Association for the Study of Literature and Environment conference in Victoria, British Columbia, I had the unique privilege of hearing Adrian Ivakhiv present an initial version of a short paper that would later evolve into the central ideas of his groundbreaking new book, Ecologies of the Moving Image: Cinema, Affect, Nature. While other scholars have discussed the representation of environmental concerns in film and the potential effects of environmental films on viewers, Ivakhiv is the first scholar I know of to conceive of a comprehensive and holistic theory of cinematic ecology. As I consider how to summarize the book’s argument, the phrase rings within rings comes to mind. At the outermost layer are the three rings of anthropomorphism, biomorphism, and geomorphism that characterize cinema’s interaction with the biophysical world. Cinema is anthropomorphic in that it is a human invention that [End Page 211] tells stories from a human perspective (i.e., the camera’s gaze reflects our gaze). Cinema generates perception through movement and sound by seeming to reproduce the very textures of life itself, or, as Ivakhiv puts it, “an interperceptive relationality of things.” Through its combination of sensory stimulation and narrative potential, cinema creates unique worlds that are characterized by an individual sense of territoriality. If this sounds complicated, it becomes much clearer as Ivakhiv uses the Andrei Tarkovsky film Stalker to explain how the theory works.
After the two opening chapters establish the book’s foundations in process-relational philosophy, subsequent chapters delve deeper into these three key aspects of Ivakhiv’s theory. Chapter 3 explores the geomorphic relationship between filmic worlds and the world outside the theatre. After delving into complex discussions of the relationship between cinematic landscapes and the real landscapes where they are filmed, or which they are meant to represent, the chapter grounds its theories in close readings of well-known films, including John Ford’s westerns and Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth. Chapter 4 delves into the anthropomorphic nature of cinema. Here, Ivakhiv is not content to simply discuss how films typically extend human qualities to non-human animals and objects but is concerned primarily with how film produces subjects that are like us, and thus also produces our understanding of the “other” (both human and non-human others). His reading of Nanook of the North is particularly useful for understanding this distinction. Chapter 5 extends the concerns of the previous chapter to films about non-human animals, thus weaving the theories of geomorphism and anthropomorphism into biomorphism. Through analysis of basic filmic techniques like shot-reverse shot editing and multiple camera perspectives, this chapter explores how cinema has played an important role in constructing our social understanding of the biological world, combining theoretical sections with close readings of Grizzly Man and other films that challenge the nature-culture binary.
Chapter 6 brings the argument full circle by challenging readers to think about the relationships of scale, primarily between representations of family life and global politics. By building on the work of Frederic Jameson, Ivakhiv demonstrates how films with no overt environmental themes are often the richest places to uncover instances of a repressed ecological consciousness brooding below the surface of stories primarily concerned with gender, race, and class. Thus, a close reading of films like Children of Men shows seeds of repressed environmental concern that would burst into the mainstream in films like Avatar. Finally, it is worth mentioning that the book includes a thoughtful afterword that opens avenues for extending the book’s theoretical model to the larger sphere of digital media production, as well as a useful set of study questions for each chapter to help guide conversations about the book in the classroom. As I first listened to Ivakhiv present his theory of cinema as an [End Page 212] anthrobiogeomorphic machine all those years ago, I immediately sensed that the relatively new field of ecocinema studies (or green film criticism) finally had its theoretical groundings secure. I...