Sight and Site I: Oblivion, apocalypse, film and media

This is the first in a series of reflections I’ll post that are related to the undergraduate capstone seminar “Sight and Site in Film and Media” that I am teaching this semester.

Transatlantic travel is always my chance to catch up on all of the films with talking animals, explosions and successful romantic pairings that I tend to miss out on during the school year.

This December in the air, I treated myself to a marathon viewing of interplanetary disaster:  Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro, 2013), World War Z (Marc Forster 2013) and Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012). The plane binge was in large part inspired by Ed Halter’s smart and troubling op-ed in December’s Artforum about the recent bumper crop of catastrophe movies. Ed writes,

…[T]he boom in apocalyptic entertainment suggests that we now have no viable concept of our collective future other than collapse, be it ecological, economic, or both. Two of the most pointed articulations of this sensibility were found in Roy Scranton’s philosophical editorial in the New York Times“Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene,” and science-fiction authorKim Stanley Robinson’s sobering keynote address for the future-conscious series Speculations at MoMA PS1’s summer exhibition Expo 1.

To these, I’ll add a couple more that Ed’s piece brought to mind:

Fredric Jameson’s Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System (Indiana Press, 1992).  If, as Jameson claims, late 20th century conspiracy films are “allegories of each other, and of the impossible representation of the social totality itself,” (5), we might conclude from Ed’s observations that 21st century disaster films represent the total impossibility of the social.

– Mark Fisher’s ultra-noir “Its Easier to Imagine the End of the World than the End of Capitalism,” The Visual Culture Reader, Nicholas Mirzoeff, ed. (New York: Routledge, 2013), 307-312. In it, Fisher also points to turn-of-the-21st century films that disseminate “‘capitalist realism,’ the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” (307)

– Elizabeth Kolbert’s excellent two-part series in the New Yorker, “Annals of Extinction: The Lost World.” Kolbert ends her reportage with the bittersweet, Proustian pleasure of scattering fossils from the Palaeozoic era or earlier amongst fast food debris of the Anthropocene.

Ed’s piece in Artforum concludes,

In so many of this year’s end-time spectaculars, the militarization of society is seen as the only probable outcome in the face of disaster, whether it’s Cruise’s maverick flyboy in Oblivion, the global police state of ElysiumAfter Earth’s father-son commander-cadet team, Pacific Rim’s mind-melded machine-warriors, the never-ending conflicts of World War Z, or the overachieving child soldiers of Ender’s Game and Hunger Games. This shared proposal should be as disturbing to us as any overwrought images of cataclysm.

I’m planning to make this proposal of militarization disturbing to my students with some of the films in the spring senior seminar I’m teaching: Sight and Site in Film and Media. (Disturbing…but rewarding!)

The class will watch a range of films–experimental and commercial, short and long, documentary and fiction–from 1926 to 2013. We’ll be thinking together about two different aspects of mapping and place: 1.) the different ways that diagrammatic or illustrative site is employed in film narrative and 2.) the different ways that digital media narrativizes our sight of actual places and maps. Over the next months I’ll probably write a number of posts inspired by the class.

I’ll teach Oblivion (Joseph Kosinski, 2013) together with La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1962), selections from Marc Augé’s Oblivion, the Mark Fisher excerpt mentioned above, and Mark Andrejevic’s “The Work of Being Watched: Interactive Media and the Exploitation of Self-Disclosure.” I want students to consider how Oblivion and La Jetée are both social panegyrics, but I also want them to use the screening and texts together as an unexpected springboard for considering their everyday experiences with surveillance, interactive screens, and memory.

In lieu of an ending: an “inspiration board” for Sight and Site in Film and Media that I sent to my class to whet their appetite (click to enlarge):

FMST 400

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