On the Anthropocene and film history

On the Anthropocene and film history

by Volker Pantenburg

In Alexander Payne’s Downsizing (2017), Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife (Kristen Wiig) decide to make a radical break. They move to Leisureland, New Mexico, a reservation designed for little people. Scientific progress has made it possible to reduce humans to the size of a few inches – a technological solution to the urgent problems of overpopulation, climate change, the irresponsible use of resources, and the excessive production of waste. While the official argument for this procedure is ecological, the motivation of the volunteers is more hedonistic (also, things turn out quite differently for Paul, since his wife backs out before the transition). For most of the small-size pioneers, Leisureland, part fun park, part secluded colony for a new breed of humans, is a gateway to wealth and carelessness. It is a party zone for the nouveau-rich, and it also replicates the class system with its migrant lumpen-proletarians responsible for cleaning up the mess. Rather than being a utopia, Leisureland epitomises the cleavage between our moral aspirations and our individual weaknesses. Sad but true: abstinence and renunciation are unattractive ideals; they easily get in the way of liberal (including neo-liberal) values.

In the last two decades, the consciousness for sustainability problems has grown. The surprising career of the concept of the Anthropocene since the turn of the millennium has made clear that ecological problems cannot be delegated to a circumscribed field. They permeate our lives from the macroscopic (the planetary, and even outer space with its increasing debris) to the microscopic (the pollution of the oceans and landscapes with microplastics). It would be naive to deny the existential interrelations between humans and their non-human counterparts (plants, animals, the planet, and its elements). Also, since the 19th century, the biosphere has transformed into a “technosphere,” a realm where natural and technical elements have merged to become indistinguishable.

This affects our perspective on films and film history in numerous ways. In her 2012 monograph, Nadia Bozak has spoken of a “cinematic footprint” to highlight that filming, distributing, and watching movies are fundamentally eco-unfriendly practices. The titles of her chapters are suggestive: “Energy,” “Resources,” “Extraction,” “Excess,” and “Waste”. Making movies (as well as distributing and watching them) is an incredibly energy-intensive process. Its dependency on natural resources (silver, when it comes to analog film, and rare earth elements when it comes to chips and semiconductors, to name but a few) has long gone understudied. An exhibition like Mining Photography (2022-23, curated by Esther Ruelfs and Boaz Levin) is an important reminder. It features an ad that the Kodak company published in 1945 to display the “treasure behind your snapshot.” The photo shows the enormous amount of silver that was necessary for the exposure of photo and film material. The history of photography (and later film), art historian Angus Siobhan tells us in the accompanying catalog, is also the history of mining. It dates all the way back in history to the silver mines of Potosí and the colonial project of exploitation.

Cinema has been dealing with these questions for a long time. In recent history, works like Louis Henderson’s desktop documentary All That Is Solid (2014) or Harun Farocki’s two-channel installation The Silver and the Cross (2010) have confronted the long history of extractivism with today’s present. Photography and its successor are examples of “the extractive image,” to quote the title of a video work by Daphné Nan Le Sergent. But how can the detrimental effects of film and cinema be countered? Is “carbon neutrality” even possible within a system so closely allied to capitalist ways of production?

In an essay for the November 2023 issue of Sight and Sound, Kevin B. Lee asked what it would mean to revisit film history from the perspective of sustainability. Taking the magazine’s closely-watched 2022 “Greatest Films of All Times” list, he wonders how to read it from the perspective of ecology and sustainability. It might mean championing minimalist films like Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc (1928) – small productions with low budgets and few resources. It could also provoke a shift to archival imagery and found footage instead of producing an increasing amount of new images. It is worth noting, as Ariella Aïsha Azoulay has suggested, that the category of the “new” itself needs to be questioned in light of its destructive consequences. “The principle of the new,” Azoulay writes, “has become the source of its own authority; the newness of the new has become its sole raison d’être, and – like colonial expansion and capitalist growth – it has become voracious and insatiable.”

Jennifer Fay, in her book Inhospitable World: Cinema and the Anthropocene (2018), adds another perspective. She focuses on the film studio, on nuclear test films, or on Antarctica as an inhospitable geographical location, to revisit topoi of film history and theory. Cinema, from this vantage point, is a laboratory where the effects of extreme weather (like in Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. [1928]) or the effects of radioactivity are played through. In Fay’s revision of film history as a testing ground for pressing questions of the Anthropocene, a predecessor of Payne’s Downsizing makes its appearance: Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), in which the shrinking process of the protagonist is an effect of radiation. In Arnold’s film, the shrinking does not stop. At the end, however, when Mr. C. is small enough to escape through the bars of the window, the protagonist has an epiphany. In Fay’s words: “He passes through a screened window into blades of grass the size of trees and gazes skyward, abandoning what was once his human house, as well as his earthbound scales of thought.”

Evoking the macroscopic and microscopic sublime which Charles and Ray Eames immortalised twenty years later with Powers of Ten (1977), the protagonist in Arnold’s film ponders whether the “infinitesimal small” and the “infinite” might not be two sides of the same coin. His question could also be ours: “What was I: still a human being? Or was I the man of the future?”


Volker Pantenburg is professor of film studies at the University of Zurich and co-founder of the Harun Farocki Institut Berlin.