Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Landscape and Narrative: Using Victor Sjostrom's Early Films as a Case Study

This post forms the "head" for an exploration of landscape in narrative, and with a heavy emphasis on narrative in film. While many of my arguments stem from a close look at the use of landscape in Victor Sjostrom's silent films, they use elements of Sjostrom's films also as illustrations of what landscape generally can do within the context of the moving image, the motion picture. Why use Victor Sjostrom's work? Partly I have a desire to see his name fixed more prominently amongst the great filmmakers of our age; many are familiar with D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, etc, but Sjostrom rarely enters prominently into a discussion of the early great auteur filmmakers. Nevertheless, Andrew Sarris (the man who popularized the "auteur theory" in America) wrote of Victor Sjostrom that he was possibly "the world's first great director, even before Chaplin and Griffith." Why was he great? Sjostrom came to film from the theatre, and developed characters and situations that had great depth and emotional significance, as with one of his first acclaimed works, the 1913 film Ingeborg Holm. But in addition to Sjostrom's nuanced sensibilities about character and story, he also introduced natural elements into his films that brought the spectacle of the natural world to a level rarely achieved before, or after. His films A Man There Was and The Outlaw and His Wife, released in 1917 and 1918, were at the time described as "the most beautiful films in the world." Sjostrom brought subtlety and beauty to the mise en scene of the natural world, surpassing the sort of place-holding role that setting and set design had been relegated to in a transitional period between the prominence of a "cinema of attractions" and the triumph of the feature film. Consider the opening sequence of A Man There Was, and how powerfully Sjostrom uses the natural world (and note that it is Victor Sjostrom himself in the title roll):

I am a lover of outdoor spaces, of big skies and distant horizons, of the sublime grandeur of mountain ranges and the infinite repetition of waves in a choppy sea. And while this love is personal, and forms the impetus for my exploration of landscape in media, it is also communal, as it follows a general societal impulse to see the world's awe-inspiring natural locations, whether in person or vicariously through whatever medium may be available. We can find, for instance, in an early silent film produced by
Thomas Edison, a short film of a natural setting in which no specific action takes place other than the motion of the train and of the water roaring by in the gorge outside the train's windows.

Audiences flocked to see these types of films, called "phantom rides," "scenics," "travel films," "travelogues," or "foreign views." There are clearly echoes of the "travel film" in
A Man There Was...but Sjostrom takes the camera's ability to capture natural spectacle and weaves it into a story that uniquely benefits from the union. He did this at a time when many films had removed from natural settings, because of the expense of transporting actors and film crew and for concerns about weather and disruption of extremely tight shooting schedules.

The many terms synonymous with "travel film" is indicative of the huge volume of such films that were produced in the early days of film, generating copious descriptions and labels. And it is clear that natural locations are still important in film, that they strike a chord in audiences in ways that deserve to be explored further. We might look at a scene from Lawrence of Arabia, for instance, and note the ways that the framed depictions of a desert world worked to create one of the most celebrated films of all time. In a more current example, we might consider moments from Baraka, a film that was filmed in 152 locations in 24 countries, and that was neither cheap nor easy to make.

Why make it? Because it was meaningful both for the filmmakers, and for the audience, just as Edison's film from 1900 was. The fact is, that along with narrative stories and action and events, both historical and modern audiences are drawn to landscapes.

The popular affinity for the grandeur of our world is a sensibility that Victor Sjostrom tapped into. But I argue that landscape in film is much more than a pretty thing to entrance us. Martin Lefebvre, Associate Professor in the Mel Oppenheim School of Cinema, Concordia University, Montreal and author of
Landscape and Film, says that "landscape is everywhere in film, but it has been largely overlooked in theory and criticism...What kind of landscape is cinematic landscape? How is cinematic landscape different from landscape painting?" Lefebvre poses such questions in his volume, and I hope to articulate a response that enriches the discussion. I also intend to note differences between the use of landscape in literature and the use of landscape in film.

Ultimately, it is my view that developing an understanding of the way landscape can work within a text will aid the modern viewer in determining valuable aspects of visual aesthetics, especially aesthetics in film. I also suggest that this understanding may help modern viewers to be reflective and discerning in consuming media, so that the viewing process is one of growth, rather than cheap thrills or stagnation.

The following points delineate the different areas that I will consider in my exploration of and arguments about landscape:

1. A historical look at the transition period between the "cinema of attractions" and the feature film
2. The biography of Victor Sjostrom and the events that led him to consider his natural environment as an important aspect of his films.
3. A comparison using film clips of Victor Sjostrom's films and representative films of the same time period.
4. A historical look at the way that landscape has developed in art and literature, and in film, and an analysis of the differences between them.
5. An extrapolation of Roland Barthes' thoughts about "Readerly" and "Writerly" texts to the film paradigm, and the ways that landscapes can promote the creation of a "writerly" text.
6. Personal experiences in creation of landscape painting and film that inform my thoughts about landscape
7. Theorists and texts that might add to the discussion that I have not yet explored.

Edit 6/15/2010: I reformulated ideas generated in this exploration in a new hub-post that crystallized my thinking and went in some new directions.


  1. I thought putting in the video to kind of break up the text was a really good idea. They are interesting and demonstrate your point well. Also, I think it was a good idea to delineate the points you will argue. Maybe you could have a clearer thesis closer to the beginning of the post? But I guess because this is a "head" post that you will be referring back to, you can take as much time as you want to lay out your argument.

  2. Thanks,
    Theere are plenty of links to the side of your page. Please allow me to look through them.