The Holocene is over and the Anthropocene defines our epoch. Mankind’s irreparable and irreversible influence on the face of the planet will totally define its fate from now on. Several films that have as their central idea man’s impact on the planet.
Koyaanisquatsi, “Life out of Balance”, the epic 1982 documentary by Godfrey Reggio with music composed by Philip Glass and cinematography by Ron Fricke.shows the impact of man on his own environment and culture through a cornucopian montage of time-lapse, slow motion and panoramic vistas of spectacular yet fragile landscapes. I first saw it on film at the Valhalla Cinema, a repertory theater in Richmond, Melbourne whose audience was mainly students, and switched on counterculture types. I remember the kaleidoscopic cascade-like film playing to row after row of amazed Melbournites.
The semi ad-hoc nature of the way Koyaanisquatsi has been made complements the wild theme-based structure. It is a symphony of shots that leave you with the sense that the world is mad with development and that our impact as a species on the planet is without limit or direction.
Three Hopi prophecies sung by a choral ensemble during the latter part of the “Prophecies” movement are translated just prior to the end credits:
• “If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster.”
• “Near the day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky.”
• “A container of ashes might one day be thrown from the sky, which could burn the land and boil the oceans.”
Wax: Or the Discovery of Television by the Bees an experimental science fiction film by David Blair (1991) was prescient in fusing a vision of a world in which a Middle-Eastern war, photography, mathematics, and geometry had resulted from fusion of communication between bees and humans.
Wax arrived at a time when both its means of production and the themes it was addressing converged elegantly via the then brand new dimension of the Internet. I was able to count on one hand the number of people I could email when the film was released, and the terror and possibilities of new modes of communication we all felt in these early days are beautifully embodied in the film. William Burroughs himself wanders through the film, ambassador of all that is juxtaposed and otherworldly, and it is fitting that he should preside in this world, which seems to speak to our neoliberal wasteland today, devoid as it is rapidly becoming, of its UBER influence over Alles.
Powers of Ten by Eames Studio (1977) took the time to show the relationship of Earth to its planetary neighbors, and at the same time revealing the makeup of human matter at the atomic scale.
This mind-boggling animated journey into scalar depiction and scientific humanist relativism became the mainstay for many a high school and college study session. It ponders the big questions about our place in the universe and the universe in us. It was not the first film to examine the universe from the point of view of relative exponential scale (Cosmic Zoom predated it by several years) but it was certainly the first to do so in a way that precisely understood the relationship between all this cosmic measurement and the role of companies like IBM who distributed the film, and the way that such corporate sponsorship of the eternal would come to define the world in which we live today. The Anthropocene is nothing if not brought to you by the Biggest of the Big Players, then as now.
The Stalker (1979) by Andrie Tarkovsky is noted for its stark use of gritty, earthy close ups of mud, swamps, and the very material makeup of the planet itself. It shows a journey led by the ‘Stalker’ (Aleksandr Kaidanovsky) to take his two clients, a melancholic writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) seeking inspiration and a professor (Nikolai Grinko) who seeks scientific discovery, to a place known as the ‘Zone’, which has a place within it with the supposed ability to fulfill a person’s innermost desires.
The three travel through unnerving areas filled with the cast-off material of modern society. They yell at each other, and on confronting the ‘Zone’ it would appear that it is in fact alive. Traversing “The Zone” can be felt but not really seen. The Cacophany Society’s Carrie Galbraith has said that the original “Burning Man” event was in fact one of several “Zone Trips” that were inspired by “The Stalker”, number 4 in fact, and the idea that a sentient earth receptive to the thoughts of those that engage with it is entirely consistent with the ideas of utopian groups who offer alternative uses for Federal desert land such as the Center for Land Use Interpretation. The contemporary Burning Man is a far cry from the ad hoc aims of those who interpreted the same site for “Zone Trip Number Four”, and the world is worse for it.
Don’t look up to heaven for transcendence, look down; at the shit, the mud, the earth, the swamp and all the fine grained individual particles of dirt and muck that make up our lives on this most finite of planets. For the effect-of-man-on-the-earth should be measured thus, the better to take account of all that has been moved out of place in the name of modernity, and all that has unfolded since.
The documentary Manufactured Landscapes, directed by Jennifer Baichwal is about the work of photographer Edward Burtynsky whose work concerns itself with the impact of massive manufacting plants on the earth’s environment. Enormous factories, large scale infrastructure programs, many of which are in mainland China form the basis of this extraordinary film about the bigger picture of global trade and its scarring effect on surface of the earth, and demands it makes on those caught in its seemingly unstoppable flows.
Together combined, the above films make for an elegant mini film festival on the Anthropocine – call it Anthropocinema. Thankfully, most are online for free.
Wax: Or the Discovery of Television by the Bees:
Powers of Ten – Eames Studio (1977)
The Stalker (1979) by Andrie Tarkovsky
Manufactured Landscapes, directed by Jennifer Baichwal (trailer)
Article: After Anthropocinema by Mohammad Salemy at the Brooklyn Rail website.