Sunday, September 10, 2006

Monument Valley

There is an excellent new reader on Landscape and Film edited by Martin Lefebvre. Lefebvre’s own essay in the collection, ‘Between Setting and Landscape in the Cinema’, draws on art history to illuminate the ways in which landscapes can be used in film. There are genuine ‘autonomous landscapes’, similar to the kind we associate with painters from Altdorfer to Turner to C├ęzanne, but such films tend to be experimental (e.g. David Rimmer) or semi-documentary (e.g. Walter Ruttmann). Most cinema is structured around narrative and to analyse landscape in these films, Lefebvre (like Gombrich and other art historians) argues that landscape is in the eyes of the beholder. Just as sixteenth century connoisseurs could see Flemish biblical scenes as ‘landscapes’ because the quality of the setting seemed to dominate the ostensible subject, so the spectator of a film can watch sections of a narrative film as if they were viewing landscape art.
Within narrative cinema, Lefebvre distinguishes between (1) those films where the film maker (often a modernist auteur) deliberately structures the film to shift the viewers gaze from subject to setting, and (2) those films in which landscape is used less overtly by the director. Among examples of the first type he discusses the work of Michelangelo Antonioni, e.g. L’avventura which begins on a rocky island which the camera lingers over in a way that is more than simply a function of the need to establish where a woman disappears. Examples of the second type are John Ford’s nine westerns filmed in Monument Valley, a location that is not integral to the plots but which nevertheless comes to dominate the films in many viewers’ imaginations.

In his discussion of Ford, Lefebvre notes that The Searchers was filmed in Monument Valley despite being set in Texas, and that this risks implausibility (the settlers have set up a farm but Monument Valley is a desert). Nevertheless, the strength of the narrative in this film (in contrast to L’avventura for example) means that the viewer is never forced to contemplate the landscape or notice the discrepancy between film location and fictional setting. This means that it is up to the viewer to see Ford’s films as landscapes, perhaps drawing on their own knowledge of the West as seen by painters (Frederic Remington) or photographers (E. S. Curtis). Ironically the viewer’s knowledge of autonomous landscapes in art can turn pure narrative films like The Searchers into a form of ‘impure’ landscape cinema.

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