Academic journal article CineAction

From Recoil to Ruination: Petropolis and the Future of the Canadian Landscape

Academic journal article CineAction

From Recoil to Ruination: Petropolis and the Future of the Canadian Landscape

Article excerpt

The war against Nature assumed that Nature was hostile to begin with; man could fight and lose, or he could fight and win. If he won he would be rewarded; he could conquer and enslave Nature, and, in practical terms, exploit her resources. But it is increasingly obvious to some writers that man is now more destructive towards Nature than Nature can be towards man; and, furthermore, that the destruction of Nature is equivalent to self-destruction on the part of man. (1)

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In order to posit some ideas about the future of Canadian cinema, I will focus on a primary motif in much of this nation's expressive arts: the landscape. From the paintings of the Group of Seven to the poetry of E.J. Pratt, the landscape has served as a powerful determinant of a Canadian sensibility. As Bart Testa demonstrates in his book Spirit in the Landscape (1989), there is even a landscape tradition in Canadian cinema, consisting of experimental films by David Rimmer, Rick Hancox, Jim Anderson, Raphael Bendahan, Joyce Wieland, Jack Chambers, Michael Snow, Richard Kerr, Barbara Sternberg, and Bruce Elder. (2) The predominance of the landscape as subject matter in Canadian art is related to a number of other tendencies such as realism, and particular attitudes towards nature and technology. In the ensuing study, I examine these themes in relation to Peter Mettler's documentary Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta Tar Sands (2009). Although the subject of landscape may have receded from more recent discussions on Canadian cinema (3), I argue that it remains an important aspect of contemporary Canadian art and consciousness. Like the Canadian landscape cinema discussed by Testa, Mettler's film eschews characterization and plot in favor of an aesthetic more akin to painting. At the same time, Petropolis displays formal features distinct from the previous generations of landscape cinema, and points to new questions regarding environmental concern. It is these elements that bare insight to some possible futures of Canadian cinema.

In Image and identity; Ref1ections on Canadian Film and Culture, R. Bruce Elder notes that Canadian art has tended to take on a realistic and often documentary character. (4) According to him, one of the primary factors in the constitution of this tendency has been the Canadian landscape. The feeling that the harshness of the landscape and climate was unknowable led to the development of a dualistic view of reality, consisting of a rupture between human consciousness and nature. (5) For Elder, a realistic image can reconcile the conflict between the mental and physical, as long as the accuracy of the representation of nature allows for human expression. (6) Although he acknowledges that every medium can achieve a harmony between accuracy and expression, he regards photography to be the best suited for representing the landscape and the anxiety it causes, as the mechanical recording process produces a high degree of accuracy, while formal and stylistic choices can allow for ample expression.

Whereas Mettler's forty-three minute documentary is comprised almost entirely of mobile aerial footage of the Athabasca oil reserves and the surrounding area, the fm achieves a symbiosis between accuracy and expression through balancing content and form in its representation of the blighted landscape. The film begins with an inter-title instructing the viewer about the oil operations and its environmental implications. The text states that the ancient plant life compressing underneath the boreal forest in northern Canada is now the second largest oil reserve in the world. Known as the "tar sands," this dirty mixture of sand and bitumen (a heavy crude oil) is mined in open pits or extracted through injecting superheated water underground. Not only is the project on its way to industrializing an area of forest the size of England, everyday the oil operations release the same amount of carbon dioxide as all the cars in Canada. …

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