"A Field Guide to Exit Zero: Urban Landscape Documentary, 1921 till Now"
Landscape is central to the lexicon of visual art, yet landscape in film is often positioned as merely the background; not the subject of media itself. Consequently, landscape film remains a marginalized form of media in both film studies and in art history. This dissertation shifts that focal plane, expanding the definition of landscape to be understood as an orientation to documentary practice in which collective forms of subjectivity and agency are represented. It analyzes three categories of non-narrative landscape media-making in which place is the subject of documentary. The first section re-evaluates the city symphony genre in relation to its representation of the politics of everyday life. The second section explores queer relationships between voice and image in landscape essay film. The final section demonstrates how documentary media-making can be an improvisational practice that asserts urban environmental ideals of collective action and stewardship of the public commons.
The severity of the environmental and social problems we face today call for new understandings of and approaches to media. In the field of documentary film studies, the act of representation has been theorized by various film scholars such as Michael Renov, Bill Nichols and Jane Gaines as having direct political implications for disempowered peoples. In the service of advocacy goals, single character-driven story arcs are often used to provide compelling examples that elicit empathy and increase concern in viewers for pressing the social and environmental issues faced by many. Although character-driven narratives can create powerful and effective media, the focus on individual action and portraiture often offers hero frameworks which can obscure complex inter-relationships, collective forms of action and the operation of timescales beyond individual action. Bringing theories and methodologies from eco-criticism, art history, urban studies geography, visual studies, and performance studies to bear on documentary film theory and history, this dissertation proposes three modes of non-fiction, non-narrative documentary that offer alternatives to the notion that subjectivity is a function of individuality. Advocating for a “landscape mode” of nonfiction moving image practice, this dissertation analyzes media works that configure place, environment and ecosystem as their subject, exploring the agency of human and nonhuman collectives and assemblages. Reframing central film studies concepts of narrative, linearity, voice and agency, this work challenges canonical ideas about point of view, temporality, authorship and property. Focusing on approaches that resist single-character frameworks and linear story structures, my study provides a counter-history of filmmaking practices. It demonstrates how authorship and place-making can be collaborative and improvisational forms of representation, ones which foster diverse forms of belonging and practices of care that assert urban environmental ideals of collective action and stewardship of the commons.
In Landscape and Power (1994), art historian W.J.T. Mitchell argues that landscape should be understood “not as an object to be seen or a text to be read, but as a process by which social and subjective identities are formed.” Describing landscape as an agent of power, Mitchell asserts that landscape is a cultural medium that naturalizes ideologies such as property and nationality. But, although he identifies moving image landscapes as the subtext of the revisionist accounts of the art works analyzed in the book, his collection does not include essays about cinematic landscapes, a lacuna which Mitchell himself calls out to be addressed. In the introduction to Landscape and Film (2006), one of the first theoretical studies of landscape in the film form, Martin Lefebvre questions why “landscape is not a genre in the dominant cinema, as it is in still visual media,” despite the important role it has played in film’s earliest developments. Lefebvre points out that, although the history of two-dimensional landscape art has been narrated as a progression toward an emancipation of natural space from reliance on human figures or events, in the domain of cinema landscape has generally been viewed as playing the role of setting, subordinated to the needs of characters, actions and events.
My dissertation seeks to subvert this established dependence of landscape upon character and story. It asks how non-narrative urban landscape film challenges canonical ideas about subjectivity, authorship and property and instead can express collectivist and urban environmentalist values. Taking Mitchell’s provocation to turn landscape “from a noun into a verb,” this work analyzes the kinds of political and cultural work that urban landscape documentaries do. Engaging with a fundamental representational problem of landscape media, this work explores moving image experiences which lack individual protagonists or stories. Building upon Jodi Dean’s central provocation in Crowds and Party that subjectivity has been captured and enclosed by the ideology of individuality, my work argues for ways that the urban landscape moving image form articulates collective subjectivities and compelling alternatives to ideologies of individualistic property and identity. Expanding the definition of landscape beyond visual art categories in two-dimensional art, this dissertation proposes a landscape orientation toward documentary practices through the examples of three categories of urban landscape media-making in which place is the subject of documentary and not simply its setting. Beginning with the earliest city symphony film, Manhatta (dir. Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand, USA, 1921, 10m), this dissertation is comprised of six chapters, divided into three separate sections, each section defining a distinct mode of non-narrative, nonfiction landscape moving image practice.
Section 1: Visual Music, The City Film and The Objectification of Time
This first section of the dissertation is comprised of three chapters, each highlighting a different period in the “ City Symphony” genre. As a non-narrative film form that aspires to sonic visuality, the city symphony genre takes the everyday city as its subject. This form developed novel techniques to represent and define urban ideas about time, particularly those associated with American modernism. It asserts a uniquely present tense experience for viewers, in which time continually unfolds in the present. Each chapter in this section of the dissertation attends to subsequent developments in film technique, yet all three explore how the city is represented as a collective entity in which linear time is placed in a dialectic with cyclical time and the politics of everyday life.
The first chapter, entitled “The City Symphony as Genre of the Ever Present Now,” provides a definition and re-evaluation of the genre of city symphony filmmaking. My chapter reframes conceptions of this genre away from the model of Berlin, Symphony of a Great City (1927) and onto the work the Kinoks,
Chapter two, “Jazz Infrastructure Etudes” and centers on the work and contributions of Joris Ivens, Shirley Clarke, DA Pennebaker, Marie Menken and Hilary Harris, among others and the ways they owned this genre as an overtly political form of filmmaking practice. In this genre of filmmaking, conventional ideas about narrative and character are eschewed in favor of a collective orientation toward the urban commons. Time is plastic. The second chapter, “Infrastructure Études,” explores short jazz film experiments by mid-century American feminist filmmakers Shirley Clarke and Marie Menken and other infrastructure jazz films by American filmmakers Jordan Belson, Hilary Harris and Ray and Charles Eames and Dutch documentary film master Joris Ivens. Each of these filmmakers employ improvisational structures akin to jazz as forms for experimentation with representing elements of the urban infrastructure such as city bridges, highways and the street. The final chapter for this section, “The Postmodern City Symphony: Organism in the Space Age,” is an in-depth analysis of Hilary Harris’ film Organism and the techniques of long-lensed, panning, time-lapse cinematography of the city that he pioneered. In this last chapter, I argue that Harris’ film illustrates key aspects of Jameson’s theories of postmodern aesthetics, contextualized as techniques expressing the “World Trade Center moment” in which global neoliberalism was first developing.
Section 2: Audio/Visual Queerness
This single chapter section, entitled “‘Are You Together?’: Queer and Ironic Relations
between Picture and Voice in Urban Landscape Essay Film” explores the dialectical relationship between the personal, individual viewpoint of the disembodied voice-over and the impersonal representations of landscape which populate its visual field. Using literary and film theories about irony and voice, this chapter explores landscape as a field of scrimmage between the multiple species of subjectivity which roam, graze, argue, and give voice to thwarted or failed attachments to place, experiences of displacement, exile, nostalgia and solastalgia. Building on ideas about the epistolary form in cinema articulated by Hamid Naficy’s in An Accented Cinema (2001) and queer and performance theory by José Esteban Munõz and others, I will focus on films which critique suburban monoculture sprawl, gentrification, tourism and other identity crises related to place and belonging. Comparing works by Chris Marker, Laura Poitras, Hito Steyerl, William E. Jones, Jenni Olson, Diane Bonder, Harun Farocki and Nicole MacDonald, this chapter explores the dialogue between a retrospective vocal register and the insistent present tense of a mute and unresponsive landscape.
Section 3: EXIT ZERO: an atlas of one city block through time
As a hybrid, theory-practice dissertation, this work offers both critical and practice-based frameworks for understanding urban landscape documentary. Exit Zero is both the title of the interactive documentary project which comprises the practice-based component of my research and the title of the written dissertation. It is a metaphor for the states of impossibility which we are approaching as urban industrial dwellers dependent on petrochemical ways of life. As a theory-practice work, this dissertation contextualizes formal “landscape” approaches, such as time-lapse and spatial compression cinematographic and editing techniques, to theorize how a variety of types of subjectivity are represented. My work also theorizes how these techniques can imply agency for “inanimate” or uncontrollable elements such as crowds, ecosystems, infrastructure and earthquakes. Applying methodologies from a diverse set of disciplines including feminist film studies, performance studies, queer theory and media ecology to my analysis, this dissertation argues that certain documentary media-making should be considered as a form of improvisation, validating collaborative structures and intentions of “making with” that move beyond individual authorship. It uses the analytical lenses of permaculture (environmental justice), spatial justice and “right to the city” (social justice) ethics to view landscape media. In short, this dissertation brings contemporary research questions from eco-criticism into conversation with ideas from urban studies, geography and social practice art into nonfiction film studies.
Contributions to the Field:
In documentary studies, questions of subjectivity and agency are central to an understanding of who has power to act and make change in the world. Yet, for most of documentary studies, subjectivity has been conceived as something that only individuals possess. Throughout documentary history, the representation of networks, ecosystems, groups, collectives and other kinds of assemblages is often subordinated to the role of individual characters and portraits. This dissertation asks, what does it mean to take a “landscape” approach to representation. My work challenges the assumption that moving image subjectivity has to be the viewpoint of an individual; arguing for a radical and politically engaged understanding of landscape documentary practices that offer alternatives to the kind of subjectivities that we are trained to expect and predisposed to want. In his article “The Ecocinema Experience,” Scott MacDonald argues that the job of ecocinema is “to provide new kinds of film experience that demonstrate an alternative to conventional media-spectatorship and help to nurture a more environmentally progressive mindset.” In defining and locating three different approaches to the representation of the urban landscape, this dissertation offers an environmentalist framework for conceiving of both media production and spectatorship to film studies.