Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Film Studies

On Landscape in Narrative Cinema

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Film Studies

On Landscape in Narrative Cinema

Article excerpt

Résumé: Des spécialistes des études du paysage ont identifié une tension entre le paysage conçu comme objet d'observation (le paysage de la peinture) et le paysage conçu comme espace vécu (le paysage de la géographie). Dans cet article, je montre que, de toutes les formes de médiation qui président à l'émergence du paysage, c'est au cinéma que cette tension se manifeste de la façon la plus vive et, jusqu'à un certain point, qu'elle se résout d'elle-même. Au coeur de cette question réside la capacité unique du cinéma de conjuguer espace et temps, représentation picturale et récit, et de les projeter sur le paysage. L'argument nécessite un parcours qui nous conduira de la peinture au cinéma en passant par la photographie avant de retrouver, enfin, le cinéma.

Film has a long history of showing views of the natural world. In fact, a number of the earliest films - including some in the Lumière catalogue - were celebrated by spectators for capturing just such views. The natural world also came to occupy a significant role in one of the first film genres, known as the "travel film" whose success lasted until about 1906. The genre was immediately popular with tum-of-the-century audiences and grew out of a visual culture where landscape had come to occupy a dominant position. As had been the case with 19th century landscape art and imagery, the popularity of travel films greatly benefited from several important and deep cultural transformations that affected the modern Western world throughout that century, though in some cases with increasing speed as of 1850. These include, for instance, the colonization of Africa and of the Indies which brought about a taste in Europe for "exotic" scenery but also served to strengthen metropolitan identity by giving new impetus and meaning to national landscapes; the drive to settle the American west, which had a similar role in some respects in the U. S., and led to a fascination for new national landscapes such as the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone, or the Rocky Mountains; the new, faster and more efficient modes of locomotion that made travel easier and safer; industrial capitalism's production of a new leisure class of tourists soon to be emulated by the rising middle-class; and, finally, also of import, were developments in travel literature, the emergence of anthropology, ethnography and the natural sciences in the context of Darwinism, all of which managed to secure a substantial amount of curiosity. Not surprisingly the second half of the 19th century also saw the introduction of the postcard which was soon to be illustrated with an image- most often a drawn or photographed landscape.

With hindsight it is hard not to see early cinema's attraction towards landscape views as something obvious, almost "natural," an appeal not unlike that which, in the contemporary era, has brought IMAX films to equally turn towards landscape views from the onset by way of modern nature films and travelogues. A few years later, when fictional narrative became the dominant mode of filmmaking, the new medium's ability to harness natural settings in support of plot and realism helped reinforce its specificity over other forms of representation, especially theatre. Thus while natural settings did not provide cinema with its media specificity, they nonetheless offered a formidable expression and exemplification of the "cinematic" whenever one compared film to the traditional stage, as was so often done in the early days of film criticism. As pioneer critic and scholar Victor Freeburg wrote, in 1918 in The Art of Photoplay Making, "For the first time in the history of the arts which mimic human happenings it has become possible for the spectator to go to the very spot where the action takes place;"1 "The photoplay," he added, "is the only art of dramatic representation which can dispense entirely with artificial settings. "2 One can look at Laurence Olivier's 1944 film adaptation of Henry V as providing a textbook illustration of the differences between theatrical and cinematic space, using a natural setting for the battle of Agincourt as the definitive term of distinction. …

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