Thursday, May 20, 2010

A crude summary of my paper

So, I'm going to not worry too much about the completeness or appropriateness of what I post will mostly be a sort of stream of consciousness series of thoughts about my paper. I think I'll start by summarizing my paper, which will help myself and others to know the general sense of my argument already, and help me to add to it. I think I'll also include the full paper somewhere, but I'll have to figure out how to include it in a reasonable format that doesn't overwhelm this blog, since it is 13 pages long.

So, to the summary:

1. The main thing I am analyzing in the paper is the use of landscape in the silent film-maker Victor Sjostrom's 1916 film Terge Vigen, or A Man There Was.

2. I argue that natural landscapes that once existed in early "cinema of attractions" disappeared in favor of cheaper movies shot in studios. Sjostrom led a trend back to using natural landscapes.

3. I argue that Sjostrom not only brought landscape back, but used landscape in such a way to actually give the landscape personality and character. This may have shown up first in Scandinavian films because of unique cultural feelings about landscapes.

4. Landscape can be distinguished from setting in that setting is merely a backdrop for action; landscape by contrast is a focal point. Landscape can also be contrasted to "nature," in the sense that it is man's "interaction with nature and environment that produces the landscape."

5. The theorist Martin Lefebvre argues that "the birth of landscape should really be understood as the birth of a way of seeing." In other words, landscape actually represents a choice for the viewer/reader to see landscape instead of mere setting. To see "landscape" creates a pause or rift with narrative.

6. I argue that landscape in film in general is a special thing, different than landscape in other mediums, because of the special quality of film: motion and change over a period of time. So, the viewer has the frequent opportunity to make the decision to see natural elements as "landscape" or "setting," to step back from the narrative and consider or to be neatly led along by the narrative. Also, that Victor Sjostrom did this earlier and better than anyone.

7. I argue that nurturing a "landscape gaze," both from a film-maker's perspective and from a film-watcher's perspective, is important because it transfers some of the power and responsibility of creating meaning to the viewer, allowing the viewer to make choices and be more than a mindless consumer.


  1. Why would you say that Victor Sjostrom integrated "viewer choice" better than anyone else? Do you think that the use of landscape in film was kind of a pre-cursor to other digital technology, because it allowed people to "interact" more with what they were viewing? I'll be honest, I know almost nothing about film, so I don't know what else to say... these were just some questions floating around in my head as I read your post.

  2. It's hard to respond to this purely as either a proto-paper (conventional paper-based literary analysis) or as a blog post. But here ware are in the twilight zone between two worlds of discourse.

    Anyway, it's nice to see the movie poster, but an older film like this needs to give us web readers more reasons to pay attention to it. How about a web clip, or even a link to the whole thing online (if it exists there)? And given how prominent landscape photography figures in contemporary media (think IMAX venues, Discovery channel, or incidentally in so many other things on TV or in movies). Could you give us a hook, a way into the past from the present? I'm a film buff and know something about this period, but even so I'm hungry to know the contemporary relevance of this view on the past.

    Oh, and as a scholar, I'd refer you to the seminal article on the male gaze by Laura Mulvey ("Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema"). It obviously has a gender angle (and has itself been much debated) but it put onto the intellectual map the concept of "the gaze" and I think it would be interesting to compare her thinking with the more constructive kinds of looking you are talking about. You might also check out information about the term "scopophilia" from narratology / film studies.

    And of course you are invoking the appreciation of nature, which goes the range from Romanticism and transcendentalism up through studies of environmentalism and literature (or film). I'm sure you can work your way toward a discussion of Avatar!

  3. Heather: I wouldn't necessarily say that Victor Sjostrom allowed the viewer the most choice, but rather that landscape in film generally does just that, and that his film "Terje Vigen" brought landscape back to feature films in a really magnificent, unparalleled way. I'm note sure I'd say "digital technology" allows people to interact more with what they are viewing, depending on what "digital technology" means. My argument about landscape has less to do with technology and more to do with a way of seeing, and one that is unique for the medium of film, which is a comparatively new medium.

    Dr. Burton: I've found a few clips to some of Sjostrom's later films: The Outlaw and His Wife (1918), and The Wind (1928) with Lilian Gish. I'll put those in a post because they also have natural/landscape elements, and are relevant to Sjostrom's unique use of landscape and indicate his "trademark" of prioritizing natural elements. "Terje Vigen/A Man There Was is not online as far as I can tell, though it is in the LRC. I've ordered it from Amazon and will try to figure out how to post clips from it as soon as I get it in the mail.

    I would say that why Terje Vigen matters is that the prominence it gives to landscapes (or seascapes) is a valuable one that we need more of today, and that we can see in such films as Lawrence of Arabia or Baraka or Koianisquatsi. Long live the landscape view, that breaks from narrative and encourages viewer contemplation!

    I have not actually read Mulvey's article, but I actually quoted someone else quoting it, in my paper. Martin Lefebvre suggests that her discussion of landscape in the "political context of 1970's feminism" indicates that "while men advance the story through their action, women threaten to arrest its development in so far as their presence onscreen can introduce moments of contemplation." I'm not sure I want to sink too far into gender-talk, but it's interesting to think of landscapes as analogous to women within films. And a gendered pair suggests the kind of balance or give-and-take I see in motion pictures - where you can see the land as either landscape or setting, and must choose between.