Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Regional Depiction in Contemporary Film

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Regional Depiction in Contemporary Film

Article excerpt

GEOGRAPHERS, long interested in documenting the history of cultural landscapes, increasingly explore the subjective and ideological origins of environmental images. Recent studies in cultural geography, influenced by critical literary theory, thrust issues such as class, race, values, language, gender, and sexuality into the forefront of geographical debate (Tuan 1974; Jackson 1989). Although geographers have studied literary and other texts in landscape representation, so far popular film has attracted little serious geographical study. Yet film and filmmakers provide a rich artistic medium for regional analysis. As with other texts, films are best not treated as transparent realist documents; instead, a director's auteuristic vision, the circumstances of film production, and cultural preoccupations of the time inevitably filter and even distort empirical regional realities. With this essential caveat in mind, I seek to demonstrate the geographical utility of film analysis by critically examining the relationship of nature and culture in three contemporary popular movies about Amazonia.

The immense, luxuriantly verdant, yet imperiled Amazon Basin has inspired filmmakers to grapple with the problematic interrelationships of society and environment. If film reflects the preoccupations of the director, along with the cinematic genre and cultural moment, Amazonia has served as an especially pliable medium for the filmmaker's artistic and political viewpoints. Views on the rain forest are polarized. For John Boorman, director of The Emerald Forest (1985), encroachment of modern civilization on "the most exuberant celebration of life ever to have existed on earth" is another "metaphor for our insensitivity to nature" (Holdstock 1985, 205). Werner Herzog has a more jaundiced view. He laments the rain forest's "overwhelming growth and overwhelming lack of order" (Blank and Bogan 1984, 243).

Herzog's attitude mirrors his own personal struggles to complete two films, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982), in the midst of political intrigue, logistical disaster, and even the death of crew members in remote areas of the Peruvian Amazonia.

Boorman and Herzog are only two of the many directors to depict, in their own distinctive fashions, the Amazonian rain forest and its peoples in an overarching conflict between culture and nature. Other contemporary films on Amazonia with environment-society themes include Armando Robles Godoy's The Green Wall (1970); Jorge Bodansky's Iracema (1980); Hector Babenco's At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991); and John McTiernan's The Medicine Man (1992). The seemingly dominant role of directors in conceptualizing and realizing Amazonian films lends credence to auteurism, a theory of film interpretation that first emerged in France in the 1950s. The auteur approach assumes that film directors, guided by their own singular artistic visions, are the primary creators of works of art rather than mere technicians transferring a story to screen. Auteuristic vision, however, is not an entirely sufficient criterion for deciphering cinematic meaning. Additional forces affect film ideology: the general cultural concerns of the historical period; the specific studio and production circumstances, such as financing, relative autonomy of the director, and logistical conditions on the set; and the broad tradition or genre of a film (Mast and Kawin 1992).


Director Werner Herzog, a major force in postwar German cinema, filmed Aguirre, the Wrath of God along the Urubamba, Huallaga, and Nanay rivers of eastern Peru in early 1972 (Magill 1985, 47). The visually stunning film about an ill-fated Spanish expedition into the Amazon Basin portrays a historical figure, the Basque renegade Lope de Aguirre, who rebelled against Spanish rule in the New World (Keen 1991, 66-69). Herzog actually combines and dramatizes aspects of two separate sixteenth-century journeys. …

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