Poll position: an ecocinematic future

As environmental concerns grow more intense, it’s time we formed a sustainable cinematic canon.

30 November 2023

By Kevin B. Lee

The Gleaners and I (2000)
Sight and Sound
  • From Sight and Sound, November 2023

In my last column, I proposed a contemporary film studies curriculum based on the top ten films in Sight and Sound ’s 2022 Greatest Films of All Time poll. While writing it, I considered Singin’ in the Rain (1952) – which placed tenth – in the context of the present climate crisis. This notion was inspired by scholar Hunter Vaughan’s essay ‘500,000 Kilowatts of Stardust: An Eco-Materalist Reading of Singin’ in the Rain’, which reframes the musical as an outdated paean to Hollywood’s systematic exploitation of natural resources. Clearly the film wouldn’t make Vaughan’s all-time top ten, but how many S&S voters, and how much of film culture at large, might be shaken over the next decade by the growing menace of environmental calamity?

If last year’s results marked voters’ reckoning with the era of equality, diversity and inclusion, equally pertinent issues of ecological sustainability seemed less prevalent. This may be attributed to a lack of eco-themed films with canonical status, or to the perhaps related fact that ecological film studies are less established than fields focusing on race, gender and sexuality. Nonetheless, ecocinema may well advance amid a growing number of climate-related disasters. When I summarised Vaughan’s argument to a critic who had put Singin’ in the Rain in her own top ten, her response passed from outrage to bemusement to agreement within minutes – a rapid renegotiation of cinematic legacies in the face of looming planetary realities.

If ecocinema is waiting in the wings to straddle the film canon, what would be its Jeanne Dielman (1975)? Looking at the present top 100, I can find no better candidate than Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I (2000). For Varda, ecoconsciousness not only serves as virtuous subject matter, but ingeniously articulates a practice for both art and living. Her early adoption of handheld digital cameras enables a cinema that opens our eyes to everyday beauty, appropriating the practices of scavengers and recyclers for an ecocinematic avant garde.

La Jetée (1962)

One might assume that a selection of ecofilms from the list would be littered with documentaries, but of the six other nonfiction titles in the top 100, the only other compelling candidate is Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-98). Perhaps this betrays my own predilection for seeing the video essay as an ecocinematic practice that recycles existing media to make greater use of their intellectual and aesthetic properties. Godard’s four-and-a-half-hour odyssey attests to the infinitely renewable nature of re-viewing and remixing the cinematic archive.

Resourcefulness with limited means has long been a hallmark of experimental filmmaking, as found among the regrettably few avant-garde titles that made the list. Utilising montage techniques as impressive as Godard’s, Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) brings a series of still photos to cinematic life. And if Godard turns his film collection into an ever-expanding universe, Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) focuses intensely on a single location: a small southern California home that unwinds into an endless dance between states of being.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

My remaining candidates for a ‘sustainable’ S&S top ten include fiction films that reflect ecocinema to varying degrees, either in subject matter or production practice. Even if it doesn’t evince ecological themes on screen, a film such as Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) exemplifies a minimalist world-making approach, while Jeanne Dielman could rank as an ecofeminist landmark in both subject and method. Reflecting on its tragic heroine’s life of obsessive, ritualised frugality, which the film’s austere form examines with a profound critical empathy, one thinks of how much the social roles and moral responsibilities of maintaining sustainable living practices have fallen upon women and marginalised peoples (as further evidenced by films such as Killer of Sheep, 1978, and Daughters of the Dust, 1991).

One can also make a case for films like Au hasard Balthazar (1966), a work that brings us nearer to the animal world than any other on the list; or even Do the Right Thing (1989), which appears frequently in ecocinema syllabi: to what extent is its depiction of social unrest informed by global warming? Stalker (1979) may be one of the most breathtaking explorations of an apocalyptic wasteland, made all the more poignant by the likelihood that the eventual death of director Andrei Tarkovsky and other crew members resulted from exposure to toxic chemicals on location. On the other hand, Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966) features perhaps the most explicit and disturbing exploitation of an animal in any film in the top 100 – a horse shot in the neck, pushed down a flight of stairs and then stabbed (though Tarkovsky insisted that the horse was dispatched humanely and that the cinematic ends justified the means).

Such methods are bound to receive greater scrutiny in the coming years, as established masterpieces are subjected to an emerging set of ethics connecting filmic and planetary realities. The jungle destruction, animal slaughter and exploitation of Filipino labourers in Apocalypse Now (1979); the elaborate sets of sci-fi masterpieces such as Blade Runner (1982); and, yes, the extravagant use of public water and electricity in filming Singin’ in the Rain – such practices have had their day. One may object that the films I’ve designated as heralding a turn to the ecocinematic seem too collectively modest, even austere, given all the spectacular splendours that movies can offer. But just as a century of patriarchal and colonialist elements in cinema have been starkly reconsidered in the past decade, a similar reckoning may be coming for unsustainable practices in moviemaking.

The Greatest Films of All Time

In 1952, the Sight and Sound team had the novel idea of asking critics to name the greatest films of all time. The tradition became decennial, increasing in size and prestige as the decades passed. The Sight and Sound poll is now a major bellwether of critical opinion on cinema and this year’s edition (its eighth) is the largest ever, with 1,639 participating critics, programmers, curators, archivists and academics each submitting their top ten ballot. What has risen up the ranks? What has fallen? Has 2012’s winner Vertigo held on to its title? Find out below.

The Greatest Films of All Time

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Inside the mind of Christopher Nolan Plus: The Zone of Interest – All of Us Strangers – American Fiction – Wim Wenders – Marc Isaacs – The Kitchen – Samsara – Alice Guy-Blaché

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