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  • Ecodiegesis:The Scenography of Nature on Screen
  • Jennifer Peterson (bio)

The Anthropocene is a concept that reveals monsters. Among its many horrors is the catastrophic realization that climate change is an unintended consequence of industrialization. Another horror is its unpredictable time frame, with traumatic backstories and impending deadlines lurching in and out of view. Then there is the dread of uneven suffering: the terrible knowledge that, while everyone will be affected, those harmed first and worst are not the humans who are most responsible for creating this condition. These are monsters of such [End Page 162] vast proportions we can hardly comprehend them, and we would not be off base in observing that some of their qualities are cinematic. Indeed, although the Anthropocene is more than a spectacle, as a discourse it bears structural and affective resemblance to both horror and melodrama. As I argue here, we can even find traces of the Anthropocene in the Hollywood musical. The Anthropocene is a kind of narrative structure: from its perspective, we understand that human stories are not autonomous but bound up with the history of earth and the environment. From this perspective, anthropocentrism is knocked on its side, and setting (or habitat) becomes newly prominent.

It is the contention of this short essay that film history can help us unpack the idea of nature as it developed in the Anthropocene epoch. How has cinema produced "nature"? Not just in stories about nature but in its most basic characteristic of rendering the world, cinema constructs a sense of the environment. Films set outdoors, particularly those staged in wilderness, frontier, or rural settings, have defined a range of possibility for imagining the natural environment. Each film's diegetic world can be thought of as a dramatic ecosystem, and film can be considered a machine for envisioning a series of ecosystems. It is well known by now that nature does not stand outside of history. What we understand as nature—a densely signifying word that conventionally refers to the nonhuman realm of plants, animals, mountains, oceans, stars, space—has been displaced from its once-secure definition as pure material (subject to analysis by science) and has come to be understood as a category that is both material and a product of culture, or what Bruno Latour calls "nature-culture" and Donna Haraway refers to as "natureculture."1 It has become a task of the environmental humanities to destabilize this combine.

In tracing the history of nature visualized on film, we can observe how conventional ideas about nature changed across the twentieth century. Although a clear break is not discernible, one measurable change is the shift between nature rendered as eternal to nature rendered as something endangered. Science historians Fernando Vidal and Nélia Dias call this the "endangerment sensibility," which is a "particularly acute" way of understanding the world through an attitude attuned to preservation, loss, and disappearance.2 The endangerment sensibility can be traced through the history of film style, specifically by focusing on the history of mise-en-scène. Following the lead of climate scientists, we can begin to measure how the visualization of nonhuman nature shifted from eternal to endangered during the Great Acceleration after World War II.3

The Scenography of Nature

Generally speaking, we can identify two broad tendencies in the representation of nature in film history: the analogical and the artificial. These tendencies correspond roughly to films shot on location versus films shot on a (sound)stage, although the relationship between realistic nature and artificial nature is [End Page 163] dialectical rather than a static opposition. While films shot on location remain committed to mimetic realism—similar to what Timothy Morton has described as a process of "ecomimesis" in literature about the environment—there are equally strong traditions of constructing artificial nature on the studio set, producing what I call "ecodiegesis," or theatricalized nature.4

Shooting on location is a fundamental cinematic strategy for creating the sense of a concrete, objective world of landscapes, bodies of water, vegetation, and so forth (as well as cities, streets, and the built environment), and the history of this practice can be traced to the emergence of cinema in the 1890s...


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pp. 162-168
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