The Garden in the Machine: A Field Guide to Independent Films about Place

Scott MacDonald,
The Garden in the Machine: A Field Guide to Independent Films about Place.
Berkeley and Los Angeles: University California Press, 2001.
ISBN 0 520 22738 7 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by University of California Press)

Scott MacDonald has some claim to being the leading contemporary authority on American avant-garde cinema. His dedication to this expansive if loosely defined field demonstrated by a string of significant publications including The Critical Cinema series (three volumes containing highly informative interviews with a range of key figures in avant-garde or independent cinema) and Avant-Garde Film/Motion Studies (a collection of extended essays on seminal individual works within the field).  The Garden in the Machine: A Field Guide to Independent Films about Place is both a continuation of the investigation (and approach) of these earlier volumes and a significant departure. It continues a meditation on avant-garde cinema as a marginalised form that desperately needs to be promoted, analysed, taught and documented, while also placing this cinema within broader arguments related to the representation of a largely American landscape in painting, literature and non-independent cinema. MacDonald’s book also sees the cinema as both a potentially romantic form (lyrical, spiritual, personal) and the embodiment of a modernity which has transformed not just the physical reality of the landscape, but also the way in which it is perceived and represented (the way most of us experience it). The cinema, that last machine, is positioned – in the garden, landscape, nature – as a medium that is paradoxically caught between its reliance upon and concomitant denial of the natural world. Taking his cue from Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal of America (Oxford University Press, 1964), MacDonald examines how the “machine” is no longer in the garden, but contains, controls and defines it.

Somewhat problematically, The Garden in the Machine does not survey the existing writing on the representation of place in the cinema, aligning itself with both more general writing on the American landscape and avant-garde cinema (this is perhaps one reason it tends to generalise about more narrative-based cinematic representations of place). MacDonald’s prose throughout is mercifully free of jargon and does not get lost in a welter of cultural theory and cross-disciplinary analysis (though it does favour such an approach). His book feels, in some ways, like a life’s work, a summation of the thinking and teaching he has carried out in a particular location and on a specific range of subjects – for this reason references to key talismanic nineteenth century painters of the eastern United States such as Thomas Cole, keep recurring. The Garden in the Machine is thus very much a situated work, an outcome of a particular “personal” and cultural history, as well as an existence in time and space (and place). In this regard, The Garden in the Machine is both provocative and somewhat unwieldy, breathtakingly expansive and frustratingly exclusive, highly critical of aspects of American culture (particularly capital intensive mainstream Hollywood filmmaking and the correlative effects of modernity on the American landscape) and a sign of American cultural hegemony. Although it presents itself as a “field guide” to “independent” films about place, its focus is almost exclusively American, reflecting a canonical – though it does breaks from this at times – perspective on alternative practice within the place of dominant cinema (as alternately garden or machine). MacDonald’s book moves elegantly, and sometimes elegiacally, from a discussion of perceptually deceptive single-shot landscape films (Larry Gottheim’s Fog Line and J. J. Murphy’s Blue Water Light Sign), through a wide-range of avant-garde, independent and mainstream films, to works which look afresh at the physical implications and effects of place: finally arriving at the sea in David Gatten’s “organic” What the Water Said, nos 1-3. The Garden in the Machine can be seen as an episodic, digressive journey through and across the landscape of both America and avant-garde cinema (particularly of the last forty years).

In an explicitly critical review of this book, it would be easy to give a long, counter list containing the names of films and filmmakers from outside of the United States who have explored many of the same or connected themes as those who MacDonald includes. Nevertheless, this focus and reliance on place – as well a genuine attentiveness to it on a phenomenological level – also renders MacDonald’s limited focus both excusable and productive (that it is American is a more problematic, if inevitable, characteristic considering the healthier climate for such publishing in the United States). If I was to write an equivalent book on place in avant-garde cinema it would also be more attentive to those regions and filmic traditions I have both lived within and are more familiar with, as well as the cultural traditions to which I somewhat problematically belong. From my own perspective the exclusion of the work of Melbourne-based filmmakers Arthur and Corinne Cantrill (especially such films as Waterfall and At Uluru) and such British nationalist-regionalists as Andrew Kotting, Patrick Keiller and Derek Jarman (particularly those films shot in his garden) seems egregious, especially considering the emphasis MacDonald places on films that explore both regional landscapes and the technical-aesthetic qualities/characteristics of certain forms of cinema (and the often elided materiality and physicality of the medium). Throughout, MacDonald makes connections between the precarious physical state of this cinema and the landscape.

This limited perspective is masked by the discussion of several, often large-scale non-American “independent” films which break from this pattern: Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness (UK/France/Germany 1992) Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (France 1985), Kenneth Anger’s European-shot Eaux d’artifice (USA, 1953), Rose Lowder’s “ecological cinema.” It is also confused by the extended discussion of such marginally independent works as Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (USA 1989), Carl Franklin’s One False Move (USA 1992) and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (USA 1994). (MacDonald does seem to go out of his way to discuss the work of several African-American filmmakers including William Greaves – which is laudable – while rarely discussing the Native American occupation and representation of the landscape.) MacDonald’s arguments in relation to these films are uneven and sometimes difficult to take (especially in relation to the ‘radical’ claims he makes for Stone’s film and the director’s roots in ’60s counter-culture) but their inclusion does help recognise the connections between marginalised forms of filmic practice and their more mainstream counterparts: his discussion of Twister (USA 1996) covering more conventional ground as it provides a somewhat negative contrast to George Kuchar’s climate-based odysseys Wild Night in El Reno (USA 1977) and the Weather DiariesOne False Move is used to foreground questions of race in relation to an ongoing rumination on rural/urban oppositions, while Do the Right Thing is reframed as a “city symphony” that draws on the tradition and aesthetic practice of such New York filmmakers as Weegee, Francis Thompson and Marie Menken, as well as the European progenitors of the form: Dziga Vertov, Walther Ruttmann, et al. Although not always convincing in terms of arguing an actual connection between these films, MacDonald’s analysis is valuable – even novel – for the ways in which it wants to inscribe avant-garde practice and its influence within more conventional forms of cinema; his linking of the work of Bruce Conner to subsequent advertising (and music video) is another, more commonly cited, instance of this.

Nevertheless, despite getting caught between an inevitable set of distinctions between avant-garde, independent, documentary, fiction and mainstream commercial filmmaking – and all the shades and variations in-between – MacDonald’s book does provide an excellent account of particular tendencies in American avant-garde cinema. It is immensely valuable, in particular, for its extended description and analysis of individual films and filmmakers. As the book proceeds it becomes considerably more focused, moving away from the somewhat digressive and dispersive approach that marks the early chapter devoted to specific “garden-based” works by filmmakers such as Anger, Menken, Carolee Schneemann, and Stan Brakhage, called “Avant-gardens.” This chapter continues a somewhat necessary but also frustrating aspect of general writing and thinking about avant-garde cinema which relies upon recounting the biography of individual filmmakers and their work. (MacDonald’s choice of the topic of “place” is an attempt to short-circuit, or move to the side, of this practice.) MacDonald’s book is also extremely valuable for the lucid way in which it tells the story of these filmmaker’s lives, recognising the significance of this situated existence to the kinds of often personal, fragile and explicitly phenomenological films that they made, and the often limited circulation they received. It also eloquently discusses the various filmmakers’ often precarious economic conditions, as well as the material instability of many of the filmic artefacts of avant-garde cinema. This connects to what is perhaps the most profound and personal aspect of the book, exploring the correspondence between these films (and filmmakers) and MacDonald’s lived experience as an academic and teacher of avant-garde cinema – and a more general American culture – at Bard College in New York State.

Structurally, The Garden in the Machine is both elegant and somewhat episodic. It can be said to appropriate an organic mode of organisation typical of many of the films and filmmaking practices the author analyses. Although each of the chapters do relate to the core themes of the book, they also stand alone, providing a sustained analysis of a particular topic. Nevertheless, the book can become a little frustrating in its endless return to the same approach: mark out a particular terrain – for example “The city as motion picture” or “Satan’s national park” – and then analyse and describe a discreet number of films that can be read in relation to it. Thus, MacDonald’s approach is often grand in theme or vista while also intimate and detailed in its specific examples – very much like many of the films he analyses. This characteristic is indicative of MacDonald’s writing generally, which mixes together broad cultural and historical (and even geographical) movements with personal, everyday, localised practice. In describing the personal practice of specific filmmakers he also lets slip much about his own practice as a teacher and promoter of avant-garde cinema. Place, which is so central to each of the films and filmmakers he discusses, is also the key – both negatively and positively – to the book that MacDonald has produced.

Ultimately, The Garden in the Machine will make you want to see – and even reacquaint yourself or teach – many of the films that it lovingly, evocatively and exhaustively analyses and describes. As a “field guide” its purpose is somewhat mixed, surveying a relatively eclectic, situated group of films while also providing a kind of record of their existence (it contains many stills, some beautifully reproduced in colour). It is both a socio-political missive (against commercial cinema and the marginalisation of avant-garde film practice within the academy) and an elegiac account of what MacDonald claims is “one of the remarkable cultural achievements of modern history” (376). Such a statement may, and probably has to, seem or be excessive. MacDonald analyses a constant battle between nature and culture, the garden and “our” expulsion from it, the memory of films and their decaying contemporary physical manifestations, things as they are and things as they are represented. MacDonald’s book, like the films and culture he analyses, is paradoxical. Nevertheless, we need more books as expansive, accessible, passionate and morally engaged as this about avant-garde cinema.

Adrian Danks,
RMIT University, Australia.


About the Author

Adrian Danks

About the Author

Adrian Danks

Adrian Danks is Director of Higher Degree Research in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. He is also co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and was an editor of Senses of Cinema from 2000 to 2014. He has published widely in a range of books and journals including: Senses of Cinema, Metro, Screening the Past, Studies in Documentary Film, Studies in Australasian Cinema, Australian Book Review, Screen Education, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, Traditions in World Cinema, Melbourne in the 60s, 24 Frames: Australia and New Zealand, Contemporary Westerns, B is for Bad Cinema, Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave, Being Cultural, World Film Locations: Melbourne and Sydney, and Twin Peeks: Australian and New Zealand Feature Films. He is the editor of A Companion to Robert Altman (Wiley, 2015), co-editor of American-Australian Cinema: Transnational Connections (Palgrave, 2018) and is currently writing several books including monographs devoted to 3-D Cinema (Rutgers) and "international" feature-film production in Australia during the postwar era (Australian International Pictures, with Con Verevis, to be published by Edinburgh University Press)."View all posts by Adrian Danks →