Green Screen: Environmentalism and Hollywood Cinema

David Ingram,
Green Screen: Environmentalism and Hollywood Cinema.
Exeter, Devon: University of Exeter. 2004
ISBN: 0 85989 608 0 £39.50 (hb)
ISBN: 0 85989 609 9 £14.99 (pb)
240 pp
(Review copy supplied by Exeter Press)

This book takes a position at the intersection of two polemics – one concerning attitudes to the environment, and one concerning the ideological operations of Hollywood films. The author defines as an environmentalist film one “in which an environmental issue is raised explicitly and is central to the narrative”(vii), and distinguishes among several attitudes to the environment: the “conservationist” approach attempts to reconcile the environment with human commercial exploitation, the “preservationist” approach prefers to set aside areas of the environment from human contamination, and the “ecological” approach (including eco-feminism) sees nature as a well-balanced machine which is tampered with at our peril. Ingram is less concerned to adjudicate amongst these approaches than to identify them and tease out their operations within Hollywood films.

The three broad areas of environmental concern addressed in the three major divisions within his book are wilderness, wild animals, and land use. In the chapters on wilderness, he considers alternative discourses of nature, how cinematography contributes to these, the intersection of environmental issues with issues of gender and race, and the construction of environmental myths and how these reflect and are reflected by political and economic considerations. In the chapters on wild animals he addresses different environments (the arctic, the plains, the sea), different geographic locations (north America and Africa), and different attitudes to relations between humans and wild animals (for instance, pro- and anti-hunting). In the chapters on land use, he is concerned primarily with attitudes to “development”, including conceptualisations of the city and the country, the influence of the automobile, and the risks of nuclear power.

He illustrates his argument with discussions of examples of Hollywood films. A few silent films are mentioned, but most of these examples are drawn from the 1940s to the 1990s, with the emphasis on more recent years. The review copy is from the first paperback edition of a book first published in 2000. This makes for a minor problem, in that the most recent films mentioned in the book are from 1996, which is now nearly ten years ago, so it is conceivable that things might have changed.

This comment (which in some circumstances would be irrelevant) is pertinent because of the position the book takes in relation to the second of its polemics – that surrounding the methodology of film analysis. Ingram claims to use two analytic strategies (“close textual analysis and the general survey” ix), selecting examples of films that are “either exemplary or typical” (ix), and applying a critical realist perspective in opposition to a post-structuralist approach. The book is easy to read, argues persuasively and follows its preferred methodology scrupulously, so those who agree with its methodological strategies will find it both entertaining and convincing.

I certainly enjoyed reading it, and consider that it achieves the aim set out in the preface:

Green screen seeks to identify the complex ways in which both non-human nature and the built environment have been conceptualised in American culture, and to analyse the interplay of environmental ideologies at work in Hollywood movies, while ultimately keeping the debate over environmental politics open and provisional.

There are, however, ways in which it leaves me unsatisfied. The first concerns the claim to providing a “general survey”. This claim is positioned against close textual analysis of single examples, so in practice it seems to mean making possible an exploration of “similarities and differences between a larger number of texts” (ix). It never manages, however, to place even this larger number of texts securely within any concept of the whole picture of Hollywood film. The reader is not given any information (statistical or descriptive) about that larger field: we do not know whether all films which satisfy the selection criteria as “environmentalist” have been discussed, nor how many films address such issues tangentially or secondarily rather than directly or primarily, nor what proportion of the total of films made in Hollywood fit the “environmental” label. This lack problematises the further claim that the chosen examples are “either exemplary or typical”.

The second concerns its explicit denial of the reader/spectator in the construction of meaning. This arises partly from Ingram’s dismissal of post-structuralist views of reality as mere discourse, and partly from his refusal to discuss the possible influence of the films on the attitudes of real audiences. As a result, his claims about the “meaning” of images, sounds, narrative elements and even whole films, seem uncomfortably absolute and deterministic to this reader.

It remains, however, a significant contribution to a field that will clearly grow as environmental issues take an ever more prominent place in our political life.

Ina Bertrand
Created on: Tuesday, 19 July 2005 | Last Updated: 19-Jul-05

About the Author

Ina Bertrand

About the Authors

Ina Bertrand

Ina Bertrand is Principal Fellow, Cinema Programme, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne, Australia. She was foundation editor of Screening the Past.View all posts by Ina Bertrand →