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American nature film: representations of dominion and imperialism

The representations of nature in early American cinema reflect an increasingly  aggressive assertion of dominion, coterminous with the national expansion of empire… one by one, the presumptuous moral authority of the Western juggernaut humbled the beasts of the world—and the countries they inhabited.

Ronald B. Tobias, 2011, p.14

Recently I have been thinking about the different types of “nature cinema” in all its forms and definitions, from natural history/wildlife documentary, to the growing number of overtly environmental themed films and less well known experimental, more ecocentric cinema. I have looked closely at the surprisingly small number of books and articles on this topic. Surprising, given both the proliferation and global reach of nature cinema (here I am including all its various audio-visual forms and platforms) in an environment where the degradation of the earth is exponentially accelerating.

These writings are very important in helping us begin to think ecocritically about the enormous influence cinema, and particularly our hugely popular forms of “nature cinema” have, on how well we perceive and relate to the earth and its inhabitants.

I am embarrassed to admit that a new book, that is both more accessible than most and which has an important contribution to make in this field, written by an experienced Natural History filmmaker and Professor of Science and Natural History film-making, Ronald B. Tobias  (Montana State University) Film and the American Moral Vision of Nature: Theodore Roosevelt to Walt Disney (2011), has laid on my shelf unopened for several months. Perhaps my slowness was partly because the book has on its cover a rather grizzly photograph of President Theodore Roosevelt standing behind the corpse of a large elephant which he had just hunted (above image).

In my view, the cover image captures the central arguments of the book very well. The introduction gives a broad but absorbingly detailed and engaging account of how Western culture has changed its perceptions and practices towards non-human species over the centuries and the visual media technologies that have been used to convey these widely adopted and powerful societal norms (if you have a background in visual culture/art history/theology with an interest in ecological concerns, you will find the Tobias overviews at this point somewhat familiar; for any reader they are succinct, persuasive and compelling).

But there is much more; one of the chief topics among the many that Tobias details, is the development of natural history dioramas (dioramas are the glass encased specimen exhibits that are common to many museums), that he believes created the “visual and ideological template for the natural history film.” Tobias discusses in detail the dioramas that arose at the forefront of American culture in the early decades of the 20th century. Particularly influential and hugely popular were the large and visually engaging 1936 dioramas in the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial atrium, in “Africa Hall,” at the entrance of the American Museum of Natural History in New York (AMNH) (their importance to American cultural history and its strong connection with Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency are still preserved. They were recently refurbished at a cost of $40 million—for stunning images see the NY TimesOct 2012).

Tobias’ research reveals how the design of these visually evocative “peepholes” into nature strongly influenced the conceptual and moral conventions of early nature cinema. Interestingly, Helen Burrowes (1956), showed in turn, that early cinema influenced these dioramas. She writes that the acclaimed designer of the 1936 dioramas, Carl Akeley, a talented taxidermist, photographer and enthusiast of early cinema, gained inspiration for the innovative curved painted backgrounds of his dioramas (which confronted the viewer with an arc of painted panoramic landscapes) from the “Daguerre Cyclorama,” a popular curved prototype of early cinema theatre. A Cyclorama theatre was at the time very near the AMNH.

Many of the specimens, habitat material and panoramic landscape paintings in these large dioramas were often derived at great cost by teams of natural scientists and explorers visiting, collecting and observing actual wildlife in exotic locations. Tobias’ research revealed that there were widespread claims at the time (still largely unquestioned today) that these dioramas, because of their scientific authority and the accuracy of their specimens and the realism of their painted landscape panoramas, gave audiences the “truth” and “reality” of nature, so precise as they were with their superb physical specimens and habitat details (Tobias, p.145).

Tobias convincingly shows the power of these dioramas to hold and present to early 20th century American audiences a reflection of their new nation, one that had “successfully” conquered wild America. A nation that has achieved a totalising dominion over the natural world. These carefully composed “windows on nature,” with humanity and humanity’s effects in these miniature habitats and landscapes starkly absent, confirmed humanity’s separation and supremacy over the natural world (an unspoken acknowledgment and convention that continues in much of nature cinema today). Such exhibits were wildly popular among the public and the scientific community of their day. Tobias connects how natural history exhibits had been embraced earlier by the charismatic president, Theodore Roosevelt (1901–1909), who had an intense interest in wildlife being preserved. Roosevelt is still remembered for having created many of America’s first national parks during his presidency. However, his writings and actions (he was an avid hunter of big game), reveal that while he initiated conservation of large areas, they were established not to preserve ecological habitats but chiefly created to preserve the right to hunt as part of the heritage of the new ruggedly individually and assertive nation. It was to prove to be a popular and uniting ideology that he used successfully throughout his two terms as president, conveying America as a new and powerful nation, both at home and abroad (p.23-4). President Roosevelt was therefore astutely supportive and aware of the power and influence of the AMNH and early nature cinema (he was at times a collector of specimens for the AMNH and appeared in over 100 early films). Tobias suggests that the later dioramas and gallery of Africa Hall effectively “made Roosevelt ‘lord’ of both the hunting and political realms,” reinforcing the continuation of America’s imperial story (p.144).

But Tobias analysis goes deeper still, as he outlines how such animal exhibits conveyed a suspended visual statement of the newly understood superior natural order” of nature, a new “moral vision” that became a powerful analogy to the rising and powerful modern America (such conventions he notes were absorbed and spread globally by the popularity of nature cinema). Tobias sees this clearly in the arrangement of the hierarchy of animal species in their separate cases and also how behind their glass windows, the animal specimens were grouped in idealised “family” arrangements that reflected the ethos of this new empire and its “necessary” class, race, and gender divisions. In regards to gender for example, Tobias writes that “the male of the animal species dominates the diorama: he is father, husband, protector and provider. The female is wife, mother, and provider for her children… the composition of figures in the diorama support her subordinancy; the male stands vertically in the frame while the female huddles beneath him” (p.132).

Tobias then surveys the decades of nature cinema that followed, writing for instance, detailed and fascinating accounts of women in early safari films, from the intrepid and adventuring Osa Johnson (1894-1953), part of celebrity husband and wife silent and early sound film-making team that traveled to then wild and exotic countries, to the American Western genre and the later to Disney’s animal animations. Throughout American nature cinema, from early films of the American West, to Africa and the South Pacific, to Disney’s animations and TrueLife nature documentaries, Tobias reveals  that much of American nature film “couched nature within a uniquely American moral code” (p. 181) and imperialistic perspectives.

Above, Osa Johnson and her husband—their 1920s “safari-travelogue” narrated documentaries of the wilds of Africa to the Pacific South Seas, caught the imagination of early cinema audiences and turned the couple into international celebrities. Such cinematic formats, with a focus on exotic locations and megafauna were replicated decades later, as in the popular Born Free film and are still part of much nature cinema today.

Although I have only briefly touched on some of the topics in this book, Tobias’ evident deep knowledge of early nature cinema and visual culture in general has made him acutely aware of the parallels and exchanges between the diorama and early nature cinema. His research also not only keenly reflects on the diorama and early nature cinema’s role in the wider politics of imperialism, but also the class and gender stereotypes inherent in such works at this time and over later decades. There are also fascinating descriptions of the changing concerns in nature cinema: from its first years when many films concentrated on humans feeding animals, which changed relatively quickly to a succession of popular silent and then sound films of big game animals being hunted in local and exotic overseas locations (animals were twice hunted “by gun and by camera”), to the later 20th century preoccupation of animals being used to covey the “naturalness” of preferred American human “family” norms, as in Disney’s TrueLife “animals as families” documentaries. These conventions in early American cinema, how ideological ideas of nature have little changed since, influence global audiences still and are important for cinema makers to understand today.

As such, this book deserves to be widely read and not only by natural history filmmakers and scholars. However, at the moment it is only available in hardcover from Michigan University Press which is disappointing considering more media-savvy filmmakers and culture theorists in general would likely appreciate in paperback or a digital format. However it is good to see, considering the topic that it is published as part of the Green Press ecological responsible publishing initiative.

To gain more of an insight into Professor Tobias work and his teaching, a student on his MA Natural History film-making course made an informal interview of him last year. While the interview did not focus directly on his recent book, Tobias nevertheless commented on the continuing “commodification of animals” on screen, and asks whether or not we should stop making Natural History films altogether? (Undoubtedly he believes we should continue, as he has garnered support for the students on Natural History film-making course by developing student opportunities with the major and now international Natural History Discovery channel.)

However, given the wide and powerful influence of cinema (and how for a great proportion of the earth’s human population, the primary means of perceiving the non-human world) it’s a question more of us should perhaps be asking—and urgently. We need to greatly deepen our understanding that cinema as a media is not value-neutral, be hyper-aware that high-definition (HD) and 3D cinema do not convey the “truth” and “reality” of nature and that all media technologies carries with them the ideologies (not to mention production and material costs) that may negate the supposed aims of nature cinema.

Finally we need to urgently investigate other forms of nature cinema that aim to move away from the limited conventions of past nature media, to assess if we can see better by our cameras, a means to perceive the earth and its inhabitants more ecologically, ethically and sustainably, particularly if life on earth is to survive as we know it.

Tobais at the end of his book is more pessimistic than in the interview (above) and fears that the “wild frame created by Akeley and Disney eighty years ago… has a new guise in the weapons of science…” and that “the camera continues to play its slavish role in the service of the ideologies that continue to rule it.”

It is books such as these that will point out where nature cinema has eclipsed the earth and how it could radically improve.



Cathy Fitzgerald
Cathy Fitzgerald is a rural-based experimental filmmaker / visual artist with a background in research biology. Born in New Zealand she has lived in Ireland for 16 years. She is presently a Visual Culture PhD Scholar at the National College of Art & Design (NCAD), Dublin, Ireland. She is looking at experimental film (practice and theory) and ecology in this age of biospheric crisis. Her research work can be seen at www.ecoartflm.com
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