As Tom O’ Regan states in his discussion of “Unities of Setting and Landscape” in Australian National Cinema, “It is a commonplace that landscape is central to Australian culture” (1). In order to explore the factors underpinning the seemingly commonplace intersection of land, culture and cinema, this article presents a regional study investigating ways of perceiving, mediating and interpreting the wilderness environment. It begins by identifying patterns of screen production and spatial representation in Tasmanian feature films (2), then examines two recurring modes of expression that dominate this landscape cinema and associated critical and industrial discourse: Gothic symbolism and environmentalism. Where the Gothic typically represents the landscape as a malevolent, awesome threat to humans, the environmentalist perspective perceives it to be threatened by us, yet these apparently disjunctive modes are frequently entangled.
I argue that from Louise Lovely’s enthusiasm for osmiridium (3) mining on the rugged West Coast of Tasmania in Jewelled Nights (co-directed by Wilton Welch, 1925), through convict history in For the Term of His Natural Life (Norman Dawn, 1927) and the haunted wilderness of Van Diemen’s Land (Jonathan auf der Heide, 2009), to an environmental sensitivity in films as diverse as Dying Breed (Jody Dwyer, 2008), Arctic Blast (Brian Trenchard-Smith, 2010), and The Hunter (Daniel Nettheim, 2011), the films in this study both document and produce the emergence of an ecological gaze. In order to understand the move away from the settler-colonial perception of landscape as a villainous adversary, a theme that has dominated much Australian film production and interpretation, I examine Gothic and ecocritical frameworks of analysis that have, to date, mainly been used to critique and discuss literary fiction and, to a lesser extent, wildlife documentary. The influence of literary studies is unsurprising since the majority of the films made and set in Tasmania are adaptations (4), yet cinema scholars must also look past what appears on screen to see what lies beyond. For instance, representations and perceptions of landscape are shaped by factors distinctive to film and its contexts of production and reception such as the logistics of location shoots in rough terrain and inclement weather, external pressures such as film financing, and the influence of publicity material and interviews with filmmakers. My objective is to analyse landscape and location, building on the premise that films intervene in the cultural field and alter the perceptual and ideological orientation of audiences in relation to the environment.
The Production Ecology of Tasmanian Cinema
|Date||Details of Feature Films Set and Shot Primarily in Tasmania||Landscape and Narrative|
|1925||Jewelled Nights (Louise Lovely and Wilton Welch). Adapted from Marie Bjelke-Petersen’s novel of the same name (1924).||Gothic wilderness in a West Coast mining narrative.|
|1927||For the Term of His Natural Life (Norman Dawn). Adapted from Marcus Clarke’s novel (1874).||Gothic melodrama frames a Port Arthur and Macquarie Harbour convict escape story.|
|1962||They Found a Cave (Andrew Steane). Adapted from Nan Chauncy’s novel of the same name (1948).||Children’s adventure story set in Hobart’s rural surrounds.|
|1980||Manganinnie (John Honey). Adapted from Beth Roberts’ novel of the same name (1979).||Indigenous knowledge imparted on a journey from the Lake District to the East Coast and back.|
|1981||Save the Lady (Leon Thau). Adapted from Yoram Gross’ novel of the same name (1981).||Children’s story set on the Derwent River.|
|1987||The Tale of Ruby Rose (Roger Scholes).||Central Highlands tale about isolation, fear, and the past.|
|1998||The Sound of One Hand Clapping (Richard Flanagan). The script was adapted into Richard Flanagan’s novel of the same name (1997).||Traumatised immigrant workers on the Butlers Gorge hydroelectric scheme revisit the past.|
|2008||Dying Breed (Jody Dwyer).||Gothic horror and extinct species in the Tarkine, featuring cannibal convict and thylacine legends.|
|2009||Van Diemen’s Land (Jonathan auf der Heide).||Cannibal convict survival narrative in the western wilderness.|
|2010||Arctic Blast (Brian Trenchard-Smith).||Climate change thriller set in Hobart and surrounds.|
|2011||The Hunter (Daniel Nettheim). Adapted from Julia Leigh’s novel of the same name (1999).||Loggers clash with environmentalists in a hunt for the thylacine on the Central Plateau.|
Summarising the impression of Tasmania conveyed in novels and films, Anna Krien writes, “It is a gothic place with a bloody undercurrent, where behind every magic faraway tree is a logger kicking in the head of an activist, where insular and genetically murky communities have been forcibly separated by authorities” (5). This description captures some prominent themes in Tasmanian cinema. Gothicism and the “bloody undercurrent” of violent death are central to eight of the 11 feature films outlined above, inbreeding is the explicit focus of Dying Breed, and while loggers and environmental activists certainly lock horns in The Hunter I will demonstrate that environmental concerns form a subtext in many films dating back to the first true Tasmanian feature, Jewelled Nights.
Interactive map of shooting locations in Tasmanian Cinema
In terms of spatial patterns of representation, the locations in which the narratives of these films are set and filmed are overwhelmingly wild spaces rather than agricultural or urban areas (6). Regarding temporal patterns, the production hiatus following World War II pervaded not just Tasmania but the whole of the Australian film industry, as did the upsurge of production resulting from the 10BA tax incentive in the 1980s. Peculiar to Tasmania, however, is the fact that most narratives take place in the past rather than in contemporary settings, with over half of the films set wholly or partly in a much earlier time than when they were made. Protagonists in the majority of the films are foreigners – convicts, immigrants, or tourists – and a preoccupation with exile, alienation, and Tasmania’s harsh colonial legacy dominates the cinematic landscape.
Threaded through these patterns of production are the extratextual and subtextual discourses of environmentalism and the critical and aesthetic focus on Gothic symbolism that I map out below. Research that might broadly be termed “green cultural studies” analyses the progressive or conservative environmental politics and ethical values implicit in narrative fiction, examining how cultural narratives and products do not just represent nature, but also have the capacity to affect it (7). To date such research has largely been undertaken in literary ecocriticism and, beyond Catherine Simpson’s eco-postcolonial approach to Australian cinema, little has been done to bring together ecological concerns with spatial theory (8). This absence of scholarship in the field is particularly notable in relation to Tasmanian cinema in light of the fact that, as Roslynn Haynes points out, the island state has been at the heart of the green revolution, not only in Australia, but as a leader globally: “Since the 1970s Tasmania has been at the cutting edge of the worldwide struggle for wilderness preservation and environmental awareness” (9).
My analysis of the Gothic and the ecological suggests a paradigm shift is occurring: the malevolent landscape favoured in Gothic texts and criticism has prevailed, but enduring ecological concerns are gathering momentum, indicating a turning point in perceptions of the Tasmanian landscape. In order to trace this shift I will introduce the Gothic before moving on to consider ecocriticism chiefly in relation to contemporary cinema.
Weatherworn architecture and awe-inspiring, sublime landscapes; an atmosphere of anxiety; images of the grotesque; and themes of isolation, repression, alienation from nature, and the fragmentation of identity – all of these characteristics distinguish Gothic storylines, as popularised in novels from the 1760s to the 1890s (10). As literary scholar Gerry Turcotte notes, the Gothic “emphasizes the horror, uncertainty and desperation of the human experience, often representing the solitariness of that experience through characters trapped in a hostile environment, or pursued by an unspecified or unidentifiable danger” (11).
In 1988 Jim Davidson developed the idea of the Tasmanian Gothic as a trope, theme, or style extending across narratives set in landscapes such as “a myriad of sudden lakes, or the wonderfully overwrought coastline of [the] Tasman Peninsula, with its clefts and pavements and blowholes located exactly where a gothic novelist would want them” (12). The Gothic has not only become a dominant mode of representation, it has provided the lens through which much critical discourse on Tasmanian landscape and culture has been focused (13). As Keryn Stewart and Helen Hopcroft summarise:
Place and spatial concerns resonate through the Tasmanian Gothic sensibility; the landscape is seen as an active element in the gothic narrative, even a quasi-sentient force animated with menace. Tasmania’s wild landscapes and grimly picturesque ruins, with their links to the violent and bloody convict past of the island, provide fertile ground for gothic imaginings; artists, writers and critics have long used the island as an imaginative site to play out these concerns. (14)
Cinema researchers David Thomas and Gary Gillard link the Gothic’s defining features to Sigmund Freud’s discussion of the hauntingly familiar yet disturbingly strange experience of the uncanny, and Tzvetan Todorov’s account of psychological ambiguity in fantastic narratives wherein narrative structures are distorted by transformations of space and time and by psychological and social decay (15). More recently, Stephen Carleton has traced the prevalence of the Gothic trope through Australian literary fiction, cinema, and theatre. Carleton identifies the “psychological return of the repressed” and the “preoccupation with history’s ‘haunting’ of the present” as core components of the Gothic sensibility, noting that “The Australian landscape and the nation’s ‘haunted’ history – of violent Aboriginal dispossession and early British convict transportation – have long combined to provide an equation where a Gothic reading of Australian culture and space is not only logical, but in certain ways unavoidable” (16). For instance, Tasmania is the site of a systematic and well-documented attempted genocide of the indigenous Aboriginal population yet, as Carleton observes, Tasmanian fiction often elides racial concerns in favour of convict narratives. In contrast, the Gothic stories that play out in Australia’s north are where issues of racial and gendered identity tend to be staged. With a shared emphasis on the politics of space, Jonathan Rayner has claimed that “the horrors associated with the natural landscape” and its inhospitability and “latent menace” are fundamental to Australian Gothic cinema (17). Yet, in an apparent contradiction, the landscape that so often provides images of the grotesque and the repressed is also represented in Gothic texts as a space of sublime grandeur.
The sublime is a dimension of the Gothic evident in many of the films in this study that use wide-angle extreme long shots and sweeping aerial cinematography to depict “scenery vast and overwhelming in proportion to the ant-like human enterprise within it” (18). Cynthia Freeland’s analysis of the sublime in cinema characterises it as an experience of emotional conflict relating to something overwhelming in its vastness or power, overloading the senses and the imagination in an oscillation between awe and dread (19). In the Critique of Judgment Immanuel Kant argues:
Nature is judged as sublime not insofar as it arouses fear, but rather because it calls forth our power… to regard those things about which we are concerned (goods, health and life) as trivial, and hence to regard its power… as not the sort of dominion over ourselves and our authority to which we would have to bow if it came down to our highest principles and their affirmation or abandonment. (20)
In other words, along with a profound respect and admiration for the power of nature, the sublime catalyses the capacity for a rational, ethical perspective that extends beyond self-interest as we realise that everyday concerns about material objects, our livelihood, and even our own lives, are inconsequential in the face of greater forces and higher principles. The experience of the sublime is grounded in imaginative elevation and extension beyond human limitations to grasp “ideas that contain a higher purposiveness” (21); hence, I contend that in landscape cinema the sublime can be understood as a dimension of the Gothic that evokes an ecological sensibility.
Frightful Grandeur in Jewelled Nights
Only six minutes of footage remain from the silent feature Jewelled Nights. The opening scene finds the heroine Elaine Fleetwood (Louise Lovely) at Melbourne’s Flemington Racecourse, where her father loses the family fortune. Elaine is then pressured to wed a wealthy man, but flees at the last moment and is next seen disguised as a miner in Tasmania. Although no landscape footage survives, the film was adapted from Marie Bjelke Petersen’s richly descriptive novel and newspaper accounts report that the filmmakers shot at the actual “localities which Miss Petersen describes” (22).
The story takes place amid the Savage River osmiridium fields where Elaine masquerades as a man, stakes a rich claim, and eventually finds both true love and precious metal. The representation of the landscape in the novel is unmistakably Gothic in its evocation of nature’s fearsome splendour, as exemplified in the description of Mount Bischoff: “The vaporous shapes fumbled about among the crags like sightless ghosts groping their way blindly along the spiky summits… And Mount Bischoff that rose pyramid-shaped and immense to the north of the town, merely looked like an enormous fang shooting out of an otherwise toothless underjaw” (23). Bjelke Petersen compares the Bald Hills to “giant skulls” and specifically mentions filming locations including Nineteen Mile Creek and Burnt Spur, invoking the sublime in descriptions of the “entombing” chasm of the deep Savage River valley whose “frightful grandeur” stirs our protagonist with “an uncanny, fearful excitement” due to its resemblance to a “monstrous reptile” (24).
Yet the Gothic is not the only discourse at work in Jewelled Nights. Regarding the location shoot in the Savage River district, Bjelke-Petersen proclaimed when interviewed at the film premiere that “wonderful scenery” is Tasmania’s greatest asset:
And speaking of scenery, let me say that we shall have to take greater care of it than we have done in the past. It has grieved me more than I can possibly express to see the way our scenery is being slaughtered. Every time I go to the West Coast it makes me sad for I always see many miles of fresh destruction. Let us make a start to stop it, for if we do not our greatest source of Wealth will have gone forever. (25)
Such interviews suggest that Bjelke-Petersen is oblivious to the tension between conservationist impulses (taking care of the “scenery”) and the apparent endorsement of mining that pervades Jewelled Nights (in which the protagonists exploit natural resources without a thought for environmental costs). These tangled sentiments regarding different measures of value that pertain to Tasmania’s landscape endure to the present day.
Melodramatic Landscapes in For the Term of His Natural Life
Soon after Jewelled Nights was released, For the Term of his Natural Life “set the precedent for Tasmanian gothic cinema by harnessing Tasmania’s dramatic natural features – its jagged capes, blowholes, and clefts – to melodramatic effect” (26). The story follows a wrongly accused man’s transportation to the penal colony then called Van Diemen’s Land. An important subplot features the escape of a convict gang led by Gabbett (Arthur McLaglen), the fictional counterpart of Alexander Pearce who absconded from the Sarah Island penitentiary in 1822 and devoured his fellow escapees when starving in the wilderness. Pearce’s ill-fated comrades are thus the first cinematic victims of what Haynes terms “forbidding landscapes that impeded progress [and] created a virtual prison rank with death and decay” (27).
Much of the film was shot on the Tasman Peninsula rather than in the densely forested, hazardous terrain of the isolated southwest where early scenes of the narrative are set. Decisions about what locations and storylines the film would or would not represent were based on production logistics and business acumen as well as being driven by political sensitivities and concerns about Australia’s reputation as a site of colonial atrocities (28). As Rayner argues, “Gothic texts articulate a pervasive unease about the past, about the history of the colonial family, and by extension about the manner and origins of white settlement” (29). Shame over Tasmania’s standing as a particularly cruel penal colony led to a countervailing emphasis on the island’s magnificent scenery, which was tinted green for forest scenes, red for the dangerous sea passage through Hell’s Gates, and icy blue for the ocean crashing against the walls of Remarkable Cave. Haynes suggests that the aesthetic and climactic similarities between the United Kingdom and Tasmania’s verdant landscape produced nostalgic, picturesque representations of the colony in landscape painting, whereas literary representations drew on a “darkly Gothic spirit of place, threatening and malign” (30). Dawn’s film unites these visual and narrative traditions to present the landscape in ways that express both reverence and malevolence.
At One With Nature in Manganinnie
Manganinnie is distinctive as the only Tasmanian feature film to represent the Indigenous presence in the landscape (31). The titular character is an Aboriginal elder who flees during the Black Line of 1830 in which the military “dispersed” Tasmanian Aborigines in an attempt to remove them from settled areas where they were believed to be a threat to agriculturalists. The elemental force of Indigenous cosmology is conveyed through the use of superimposed images and sound as Manganinnie (Mawuyul Yanthalawuy) perceives her dead tribespeople in pools of water and flickering flames and hears their voices in running brooks. This mapping of Indigenous identity directly onto the land is reinforced as Manganinnie folds herself into small, stony caverns and literally melds into the earth itself as members of the Black Line scour the area.
Manganinnie wanders in the Tasmanian highlands alone until the day she encounters Joanna (Anna Ralph), a young white girl playing by a stream with her father (32). The film addresses its audience like the small child Joanna who does not understand Aboriginal language or customs and must learn how to respect and adapt to the natural world. In this sense the film can be understood as exemplifying what O’Regan terms “an Aboriginal ethic of care for the environment in which ‘triumph’ is replaced by adaptive accommodation” (33). With Joanna, the film audience learns by watching as Manganinnie guides us from the Lake District in Tasmania’s central highlands, where the majority of the story is set and shot, to the East Coast where she is wounded, then back to the homestead of Joanna’s family.
In scenes that can be read as an invocation of the Gothic or of Indigenous spirituality, depending on the cultural perspective of the viewer, Joanna stumbles across an Aboriginal burial mound and a bird calls out in warning as a shadowy, threatening figure approaches the protective circle of firelight during a storm. At the story’s end, when Joanna finds Manganinnie’s corpse at the lake where her people once lived she sings for her spirit and builds a funeral pyre following Indigenous customs. Joanna alone can now see the dark figures in the fire and wind, as her eyes have been opened to the spiritual dimension of the landscape. The film is as much a call to preserve this sensitivity to the environment and the capacity to live in harmony with nature as it is a critique of colonialism.
Dark Highland Wilderness in The Tale of Ruby Rose
Set in the central highlands of Tasmania in 1933, The Tale of Ruby Rose follows the story of an isolated young woman searching for her family of origin in order to confront her past and overcome her phobia of the dark. Here again the atmospheric landscape, augmented by the musical score, registers “a paradoxical sense of beauty and menace” (34) and the protagonist confronts “the psychological pressures of remote environments” (35) – both of which are recurring textual traits in Tasmanian Gothic cinema.
The setting is a harsh, isolated, snowy frontier and the film was shot on location primarily around the ruggedly beautiful Dixon’s Kingdom Hut in the mountains where Ruby (Melita Jurisic) lives with her husband, a trapper, and their adopted son. In 1976 writer-director Roger Scholes began collecting photographic and oral histories of the people of the Tasmanian highlands, developing ideas for a script that, like nearly all the films in this study, blends fiction with the hard realities of surviving in the Tasmanian landscape and coming to terms with its violent past (36). The aerial cinematography is literally sublime, signifying human alienation in a film that Ross Gibson argues, “presumes the possibility of a knowledge of environment, personality, community and a spiritual world, all of which are inseparable one from the other” (37). While the film does not “indigenise” Ruby in the sense of conferring Aboriginal knowledge upon her, as is the case with Joanna in Manganinnie, its landscape shapes the characters almost completely. The mountains provide the architecture of the plot, moulding Ruby’s inner fears while also motivating her quest and providing her livelihood: “They – and the gothic weather – set the terms of the lives of the main characters. Life here is harsh, extreme, isolated… Predatory violence regulates this harsh ecology.” (38)
As Davidson points out,
A subtext of the film is the ecological threat to regions such as the Tasmanian highland wilderness. Director and writer Roger Scholes maintains that he “wanted to show how beautiful and threatened the area is” by activities such as woodchipping and the project to dam the Franklin River. (39)
This subtext rises to the surface in subsequent films and in film criticism from the 1990s on.
According to Tony Hughes D’Aeth, “environmental consciousness had its particular origins in the 1980s. This was the apogee of green politics in Australia, marked both by the emergence of successful Green parties at state and federal level, and a general professionalisation of environmental campaigning.” (40) Close on the heels of the green movement, ecocriticism emerged in the 1990s as a scholarly investigation of evocations of place and representations of human interaction with the environment in narrative fiction, with attention to the geographic referents or physical places to which spatial stories relate (41). At its simplest, ecocriticism is an approach that “adds place to the categories of race, class, and gender used to analyze literature” (42), but its application to film is not straightforward.
In his perceptive review essay, Adrian Ivakhiv coins the term “eco-cinecriticism” to encompass the many ways in which ecocriticism is extending from literary analysis to address natural history documentary and feature films that engage with environmental issues. He proposes that the project of “holistic eco-cinecriticism” is to
closely analyze not only the representations found in a film but the telling of the film itself – its discursive and narrative structures, its inter-textual relations with the larger world, its capacities for extending or transforming perception of the larger world – and the actual contexts and effects of the film and its technical and cultural (entertainment industry, art world) apparatus in the larger world. (43)
This concern with cinema as an aesthetic and narrative art form that is embedded within production and reception contexts, and that is capable of transforming perceptions of the places and issues represented on screen is crucial to the approach taken in this article as I seek to extend previous ecocritical work by moving beyond the analysis of individual films to locate the treatment of landscape in its historical and cultural contexts across an intertextual regional study.
Because they “show” environmental issues “the mass media plays a crucial role in the construction and communication of environmental problems and solutions”; however, as ecocritic Luis Vivanco points out, film is not ideologically neutral and it is important to keep sight of the commercial interests of the media industry (44). Vivanco focuses on documentary, yet much of his argument also applies to narrative film. Most documentaries make liberal use of dramatic techniques such as narration, simulation, spectacle, and selective framing and editing; similarly, many fiction films engage with ecological issues in ways that are frequently thought provoking and generative of strong emotional responses in audience members. Whether they reinforce or challenge prevailing environmental ideals, films’ mediated influences can be coloured by a wide range of motives and can have varied effects ranging from the educational to the entertaining.
In testing Vivanco’s insights about documentary against narrative fiction films, I do not mean to elide important differences between genres or suggest that Tasmanian landscape cinema has the same educational objectives as natural history documentary. Rather, I invoke Vivanco’s argument to point out that just as the worthiest environmental documentary also has entertainment value and economic objectives, fiction film presents the environment in ways that may support or conflict with the agendas of conservationists, tourism bodies, politicians, corporations and educators. Certainly this has been very much the case in Tasmanian cinema since Jewelled Nights dramatised the lives and loves of miners on the Savage River and Norman Dawn opened his set at Port Arthur to the public in support of the “Come to Tasmania” tourism campaign (45). As discussed below, the complex relationship between ecology and economy remains in the representation of hydroelectric labourers’ camps in The Sound of One Hand Clapping, in Dying Breed’s vilification of insular hillbilly miners who have a vendetta against conservationists and tourists, and in Van Diemen’s Land’s haunting travelling shots of the Gordon River filmed from the top deck of a tourist cruise boat.
Hydroelectric Damnation: The Sound of One Hand Clapping
The Sound of One Hand Clapping begins on a snowy night in 1954 when a Slovenian immigrant commits suicide at a hydroelectric construction camp in Butlers Gorge, Tasmania, leaving her grieving husband to drown his sorrows and raise their daughter Sonja Buloh (Kerry Fox). After fleeing her troubled childhood, Sonja returns to Tasmania as an adult to confront her father and discover what happened to her mother.
The film uses heavy-handed symbolism to communicate Sonja’s quest to unearth her past, revealing a plaque on the dam wall inscribed with the words, “To have a future, you must forget the past”, and showing Sonja literally digging up and piecing together a long-buried, shattered tea set that she and her mother once cherished. This mapping of past trauma onto the landscape is evoked with Gothic imagery depicting trees seeping blood red sap near the site of the suicide.
The Sound of One Hand Clapping “traces the effects of a traumatic past on the present amidst the central-west highlands” by examining “the effects of the atrocities of war and post-war migration on later generations” (46). Emily Bullock places this film at the intersection of Gothic and environmental discourses, observing that it features the return of the repressed and recurrence of a kind of indentured servitude as well as marking the beginning of Tasmanian cinema’s engagement with environmental concerns in the depiction of the hydroelectric scheme (47). Haynes views the trope of environmentalism as a direct successor of the convict Gothic:
During the wilderness crusades of the 1980s a new group of villains emerged. Usually a former ‘Hydro’ worker or official, a logger or a timber company executive, even a politician, they attack environmentalists for undermining the aspirations of honest West Coast battlers desirous only of employment, security and a hard-earned slice of the good life. During the Franklin campaign there was ample evidence of such a stance and the violence it enacted. It is not surprising that it entered into fiction as a plausible twentieth-century source of Gothic horror. (48)
However, as I have argued, environmental concerns have been present since the inception of Tasmanian cinema whether they figure overtly in the storyline or occur as subtextual and extratextual themes.
The Past Comes Back to Bite in Dying Breed
Dying Breed is a contemporary horror film imagining that the legacy of Alexander Pearce lives on in Tasmania’s gloomy forests, mist-enshrouded waterways, and isolated mining towns that harbour inbred descendants of the bloodthirsty convict line. The film suggests tourists are a dying breed in its explicit focus on annihilating foreigners who trespass on the sanctuary of the Tarkine wilderness where two endangered species hide: descendants of cannibal convicts and the thylacine – the extinct marsupial commonly known as the Tasmanian Tiger. As Simpson writes:
Evidently the thylacine and the Sarah Island community “need to stay hidden to survive” as one of the locals puts it, but both species also need fresh “stock” to reproduce, and naïve tourists who wander into their domain are there for the taking/eating/raping. While the narrative link is only hinted at, rather than explicitly portrayed, the thylacine has evidently managed to survive due to its symbiotic relationship with the residents who leave the remains of their victims for the carnivorous thylacine to devour. (49)
In Simpson’s interpretation, “outsiders, or foreigners all ‘deserve’ what they get for committing eco-cultural trespass” in Dying Breed: “Meanwhile, provided they have lived in the area long enough to be able to ‘read’ its signs, and understand its dangers and mythology, local white settler Australians can claim a greater sense of belonging” (50).
More so than The Sound of One Hand Clapping, Dying Breed marks the point at which the discourses of environmentalism and Gothicism overtly intersect as the heroine, an environmental scientist, enters the wilderness to search for the thylacine and confront Tasmania’s horrific convict history.
The Haunted Landscape of Van Diemen’s Land
The story of the cannibal convict takes centre stage in recent screen productions to become the subject of warts-and-all TV documentaries (Exile in Hell [Barrie Dowdall, 2007]; The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce [Michael James Rowland, 2008]), horror movies (the straight-to-video Back from the Dead [Craig Godfrey, 1996]), and historical drama (Van Diemen’s Land). In these films the cruel environment is central to the narrative and to the convicts’ desperate recourse to cannibalism to the extent that “the landscape became both symbol and catalyst of psychic and psychological debility” (51) in a manner typical of the Gothic mode. The landscape is also aestheticised and rendered awesome and sublime in ways that capture dual perceptions of Tasmania as a prison island, yet a space that is simultaneously wild, fenceless and free.
In Van Diemen’s Land the film shoot was divided between locations in Victoria and sites where the historical events occurred in Tasmania, opening in Macquarie Harbour with chilling wind and jangling undercurrents of unnerving sound. A slowly descending camera then glides toward the dark wilderness where trees tower like a fortress in a landscape leached of colour. Disembodied voiceover narration, an unsettling score, and the lurking presence of a camera that seems to stalk the fugitives convey a disturbing sense that the landscape is haunted by Pearce’s ghost and the restless spirits of his former companions, with the uncanny presence of the past lying “perilously close to the surface of the present, always threatening to rupture its seeming stability” (52). Davidson’s characterisation of Tasmania as a land marked by palpable presences and absences “not yet fully expiated – the slaughtered Aborigines, the downtrodden convicts, and hunted species like the diminutive Tasmanian Emu and the gothically named Tasmanian Tiger” (53), is particularly apt in relation to Van Diemen’s Land.
Wild Weather in Arctic Blast
Arctic Blast is a contemporary eco-disaster thriller in which maverick meteorologist Jack Tate (Michael Shanks) battles a lethal cold front caused by a hole in the Ozone layer. “I am proud to have made a movie with a climatologist as the hero”, says the film’s director Brian Trenchard-Smith, describing Arctic Blast as the “story of a family’s response to an environmental catastrophe, one that might become a reality if corporate polluters and global warming deniers continue to have politicians in their pockets” (54).
Arctic Blast opens with text stating that the coldest place in the world is the Mesosphere, 85 kilometres above the earth’s surface. This foreshadows the film’s central premise: the Mesosphere leaks through a rift in the Ozone layer and forms a killer fog that howls like a monster and snap freezes everything in its path. After an establishing shot tilting up from the sea to Mount Wellington and panning across the harbour to display the city of Hobart the audience is introduced to Jack, who works for the International Climate Research Organisation in an office cluttered with maps and computer screens. When Jack’s team freezes to death while on a research vessel near Antarctica, he predicts the cold front will decimate the population of Tasmania then spread swiftly to other regions. He then battles to save his family and the world as more rifts open over Russia, England, China, Japan, Rio de Janeiro and Sydney. Unlike his capitalistic employer who wants to use weather balloons to inject magnesium particles into the air to ionise it, Jack advocates “working with nature rather than against it” by using lightning to stimulate the Ozone layer to repair the rift organically. The science in movies like Arctic Blast is often flawed and the howling fog that descends from the Mesosphere to attack people is clearly an inaccurate representation of the threat of climate change; however, researchers in the United Kingdom are investigating the possibilities of climate change solutions that are not far removed from the strategies proposed in Arctic Blast. According to a recent article in Nature, particle injection is being trialed in the form of a project with the unlikely acronym SPICE: Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (55).
In an article examining public, media and industry responses to films that represent the relationship between science, technology and the environment, Matt Nisbet demonstrates that The Day After Tomorrow (Roland Emmerich, 2004) generated a measurable rise in media coverage of climate change and sparked debate about the potential affect on audiences (56). Nisbet’s assessment of The Day After Tomorrow also applies to its low-budget successor, Arctic Blast: both films drive home
an image of a fragile global environment, vulnerable to irrevocable change through human consumption and industrial development unless the urgent warnings of scientists are heeded by politicians. The threat, according to the movie, spans national boundaries, and inevitably requires international cooperation. (57)
Nisbet’s research rightly questions whether sensationalist films portraying controversial environmental issues might provoke misleading perceptions of science and politics, for “many scientists have correctly noted that there is little or no science to be learned” from such films (58). However, films like Arctic Blast can also “serve as a vehicle for informal learning” by influencing audience perceptions and opinions, raising awareness, setting the agenda for public debate, and using dramatic images to motivate people to pay attention to environmental messages, seek out further information, or amend behaviour and attitudes (59).
Environmentalism and The Hunter
Like its more brazen cousin Arctic Blast, The Hunter is what Green Screen author David Ingram terms an “environmentalist film”, that is, a film “in which an environmental issue is raised explicitly and is central to the narrative” (60). The Hunter is set high on the Central Plateau, following Martin David (Willem Dafoe), a hired gun in the service of a ruthless biotech company for whom he poses as a naturalist and braves the Tasmanian wilderness while hunting for the last of the thylacines.
Discussing the possibility of using genetic material to clone the thylacine, which is an idea that drives the narrative in The Hunter, Philip Bagust suggests stories that the thylacine is still alive are testament to cultural remorse over the global industrial practices, hunting and environmental degradation that led to its extinction (61). Although the tiger itself can be taken to represent anything from hope or guilt to the possibility of imagining a better future (62), The Hunter’s narrative also opens onto a range of more concrete environmental issues.
The novel takes place near “a dead town, once a logging town” (63), but the film shows conflict between environmentalists and loggers to be very much alive in a timber-mill town where graffiti states “Save our National Parks Jobs”. The film also shows a sign with the slogan “Save the Upper Florentine” at an actual protesters’ camp near Maydena that was established in 2006 by activists opposing deforestation, an initiative strenuously resisted by locals reliant on logging income (64). At one point in the film the windscreen of Martin’s Pajero is smeared with faeces and its headlights smashed by vandals – presumably loggers who believe Martin is aligned with members of the forest blockade because he is lodging with the bereaved family of a green activist.
Near the end of the film as Martin waits and watches for the thylacine atop the plateau, an eyeline match reveals a digitally resurrected Tasmanian Tiger, perfect in every detail except for an uncanny, spectral weightlessness when it moves. As Martin’s gaze locks with the tiger’s he fixes it in the crosshairs of his rifle and fires. The idea that if “surviving Thylacines were discovered in the wild tomorrow, these animals would immediately be subject to the most intense surveillance and quantitative analysis science could bring to bear” (65) is partly what justifies Martin’s decision to destroy the last thylacine in what he seemingly perceives as a mercy killing. Rather than selling the valuable genetic material as planned, Martin casts the tiger’s ashes from a majestic escarpment as the sun’s sublime rays break through sullen clouds like a revelation. This imagery, along with soaring aerial cinematography used throughout the film, harnesses a sense of the sublime to reinstate Martin’s place in the web of life and to establish the thylacine as “a symbol of freedom, a signifier of a lost world that people dream of visiting” (66).
The Hunter’s storyline and audio-visual style make a provocative intervention in environmental debates. Artful computer generated imagery anthropomorphises the thylacine, even as the film dehumanises most but not all ignorant loggers desperate to save their jobs, vilifies biotech corporations, and presents well-meaning green activists as helpless. This complex portrayal of the environment and its stakeholders leaves audiences to formulate their own judgments about environmental ethics and potential solutions to ecological problems.
Kant’s emphasis on respect for nature and the ethical implications of the experience of the sublime is often disregarded, but his crucial point is that the sublime can be transformative because it provokes a realisation of human responsibility in the moment of confronting one’s mortality and insignificance in the face of powerful forces of nature and art. Thus, whether audience members endorse the representation of characters and their actions in a film like The Hunter is less important than the capacity of cinema to invoke the sublime and in doing so to “engage ecological consciousness” (67).
Sublime Ecological Consciousness
The films in this study instantiate both Gothic and ecological perceptions of landscape. They demonstrate that these two apparently opposed viewpoints on the environment – one malign and the other threatened – often co-exist and can manifest in varied ways with a range of influences on audiences. Films can offer an affective experience of the sublime that potentially awakens ecological forms of perception, and by visualising and dramatising environmental issues such as deforestation, biodiversity and extinction, or pollution and climate change they can present knowledge of the natural world that viewers might not otherwise be in a position to access or appreciate. This study of Tasmanian cinema has demonstrated that film is capable of representing, validating and perpetuating conservation institutions and practices, yet it can also misrepresent such issues. Environmental messages can be muddied by considerations regarding what to shoot and where, and how to align representations of nature and its occupants with the interests of tourism, education, politics, or film finance.
Film characters and their narratives, cinema aesthetics, and even production contexts are thus far from irrelevant to environmental and geographic knowledge or to the development of a sense of place: screen culture both arises from and intervenes in formations of identity and codes of behaviour as well as experiences of and ideas about landscape and location. Cinema and film criticism can contribute to ecological and historical awareness by forming and informing perceptions of space and place and communicating spatial concepts and cultural and environmental issues in ways that contribute to practices and debates in ethics, politics, everyday life and environmental activism.
This regional study has registered an alteration in the agency and narrative function attributed to nature in Tasmanian cinema. While it is evident that wilderness areas once perceived to be threatening are now increasingly understood to be threatened, I have argued that the shift in representational practices is more complex than a movement from Gothic villain to ecological victim. The discourses of Gothicism and environmentalism are not as distant from one another as they may seem, for the sublime is an element of the Gothic that can function as a mechanism to engage environmental consciousness and respect for nature.
The article has been peer reviewed
- Tom O’Regan, Australian National Cinema, Routledge, London, 1996, p. 208.
- This study examines the relationship between narrative and landscape in Tasmanian feature films that achieved a cinema release, thereby attaining a minimum threshold of critical reception and popular circulation. It does not include short films such as Hell’s Gates (Jonathan auf der Heide, 2008); documentary films like the story of Lake Pedder activist Brenda Hean’s disappearance in Whatever Happened to Brenda Hean? (Scott Millwood, 2008); television docudramas such as The First Fagin (Helen Gaynor and Alan Rosenthal, 2012); televised productions such as the urban political drama Departure (Kavanagh, 1985); foreign productions shot partly in Tasmania but not released in Australian cinemas like Tasmania Monogatari (also known as Tasmania Story, directed by Yasuo Furuhata in 1990, in which a Japanese businessman opposes his employer’s lack of environmental ethics and moves to Tasmania in search of the thylacine); films shot in Tasmania but set elsewhere such as Exile (Paul Cox, 1994); or films like Young Einstein (Yahoo Serious, 1988), which is set partly on an apple farm in the Huon Valley, but not shot in Tasmania. For a detailed survey of representations of Tasmania, see Roslynn Haynes’ Tasmanian Visions: Landscapes in Writing, Art and Photography, Polymath, Sandy Bay, 2006 and Emily Bullock’s “Rumblings from Australia’s Deep South: Tasmanian Gothic On-screen”, Studies in Australasian Cinema vol. 5, no. 1, 2011, pp. 71–80, which includes short films and documentary productions. Further work on the historical and industrial context of Tasmanian screen production that addresses short films, documentaries, advertising, and the role of the Tasmanian Film Corporation and other funding bodies has been published by Stephen Thomas in his article “Jewelled Nights” Island no. 68, 1996, pp. 45–53.
- Osmiridium is a natural alloy that belongs to the platinum group of precious metals. It is found, among other places, on the West Coast of Tasmania, where Jewelled Nights is set.
- Six Tasmanian films are adaptations of novels. A seventh, The Sound of One Hand Clapping, is unusual in that Flanagan developed the novel from his own screenplay. Van Diemen’s Land and, to a lesser extent, Dying Breed and For the Term of His Natural Life are based on records of historical events and the documented confessions of cannibal convict Alexander Pearce.
- Anna Krien, Into the Woods: The Battle for Tasmania’s Forests, Black Inc, Collingwood, 2010, p. 10.
- They Found a Cave and Save the Lady are peripheral to this study of landscape cinema because they are children’s stories set in and around Hobart. In They Found a Cave, four orphaned children who move from England to live with their aunt seek refuge in a hidden cave while thwarting villains plotting to take over their aunt’s farm when she is hospitalised. Save the Lady follows four children who save a decrepit ferryboat called the Lady Hope from being scrapped by the Maritime Transport Commission.
- Jhan Hochman, Green Cultural Studies: Nature in Film, Novel, and Theory, University of Idaho Press, Moscow, ID, 1998.
- See Catherine Simpson, “Australian Eco-horror and Gaia’s Revenge: Animals, Eco-Nationalism and the ‘New Nature’”, Studies in Australasian Cinema vol. 4, no. 1, 2010, pp. 43–54. While Australian cinema has been analysed in terms of space and place, the ecological concerns central to green cultural studies have yet to be widely taken up in relation to Australian feature films. In the case of Tasmanian features, the recent spate of “eco-cinema” including Arctic Blast, Dying Breed, and The Hunter exists on a continuum with films like Manganinnie, The Tale of Ruby Rose, The Sound of One Hand Clapping and Jewelled Nights. These films are part of a long history of landscape cinema in Australia that has at its heart the relationship between humans and nature, including the representation of environmental concerns such as fire, flood, drought, culling, and land care.
- Haynes, p. xii. Tasmania is the focus of environmentalism partly because “evolution operates most obviously in the biological isolation afforded by islands”. See Greg Garrard, Ecocriticism, Routledge, London, 2004, p. 155.
- See John Scott and Dean Biron,“Wolf Creek, Rurality and the Australian Gothic”, Continuum vol. 24, no. 2, 2010, p. 317.
- Gerry Turcotte, “Australian Gothic”, The Handbook of Gothic Literature, ed. Marie Mulvey-Roberts, Macmillan, Basingstoke, 1998, p. 11.
- Jim Davidson, “Tasmanian Gothic”, Meanjin vol. 48, no. 2, 1988, p. 310.
- In addition to work cited above on the Tasmanian Gothic by Bullock, Davidson, and Haynes, see, for instance, influential art critic Edward Colless’ essay “Tasmanian Grotesque” in his The Error Of My Ways: Selected Writing 1981–1994, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 1995, p. 148. Colless argues the Gothic tradition has been widely used by artists as a way of rendering the Tasmanian landscape familiar by association with English picturesqueness and well-worn melodramatic literary and theatrical conventions; furthermore, he points out that in the process grotesque aspects of the Gothic have also pervaded Tasmanian cultural institutions such as tourist attractions and museums.
- Keryn Stewart and Helen Hopcroft, “A Band Without Walls at the End of the World: The Green Mist, Next Stop Antarctica and the Tasmanian Geographic Imaginary”, Transforming Cultures eJournal vol. 4, no. 1, 2009, p. 138: http://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/ojs/index.php/TfC/article/view/1063.
- David Thomas and Garry Gillard, “Threads of Resemblance in New Australian Gothic Cinema”, Metro no. 136, 2003, pp. 36–44.
- Stephen Carleton, “Australian Gothic and the Northern Turn”, Australian Literary Studies vol. 27, no. 2, 2012, forthcoming.
- Jonathan Rayner, “Gothic Definitions: The New Australian Cinema of Horrors”, Antipodes vol. 25, no. 1, 2011, p. 92.
- Cynthia Freeland, “The Sublime in Cinema”, Passionate Views: Film, Cognition, and Emotion ed. Carl Plantinga and Greg Smith, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1999, p. 71.
- Freeland, p. 66.
- Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, trans. Paul Guyer and Eric Mathews, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000, p. 145.
- Kant, p. 129.
- “Tasmanian Film Jewelled Nights to be Produced with Government Assistance”, The Mercury 20 February 1925, p. 5: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article23799009. Some of Jewelled Nights was shot in Victoria including grand Melbourne homes, Flemington Racecourse, and sets such as the Whyte River Hotel and church interiors, which were filmed at Wirth’s Olympia in Melbourne. See Wilton Welch, “Jewelled Nights Nearing Completion”, Advocate 25 July 1925, p. 12: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article66968640).
- Marie Bjelke Petersen, Jewelled Nights, Hutchinson, London, 1923, p.12.
- Bjelke Petersen, p. 28.
- “Jewelled Nights”, The Mercury 5 January 1926, p. 8: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article29125380.
- Bullock, p. 75.
- Haynes, p. 219.
- Michael Roe, “Vandiemenism Debated: The Filming of His Natural Life”, Journal of Australian Studies no. 24, 1989, p. 35; see also John Tulloch, Legends of the Screen: Australian Narrative Cinema 1919–1929, Currency Press, Sydney, 1981, pp. 306–14.
- Rayner, p. 96.
- Haynes, p. xii.
- For a critique of the representation of Tasmanian Aborigines see Tom O’Regan, “Documentary in Controversy: The Last Tasmanian”, An Australian Film Reader, ed. Albert Moran and Tom O’Regan, Currency Press, Sydney, 1985. It is also noteworthy that while source texts reference the Aboriginal presence on the land, this material is elided in screen adaptations. For instance, Pearce’s confession documents his encounters with Aborigines in eastern Tasmania; furthermore, in the novel The Hunter the protagonist’s “attention is caught by a ring of blackened stones and he imagines they might have been laid by the local Aboriginal people, in the years before they, the full-bloods, were almost driven to extinction”; Leigh then goes on to draw implicit parallels with the “death of the last thylacine in captivity”. See Julia Leigh, The Hunter, Penguin, Camberwell, 1999, p. 57.
- The novel describes this pivotal scene as follows: “Suddenly Manganinnie knew what she must do. She must take the little one with the red hair home to her cave! The feeling grew stronger and stronger. So she watched and planned, her big brown eyes alive with excitement and her old black body as still as the tree. Then she darted out and picked up the little girl and disappeared in the mist as fast as her old black legs would carry her” (Roberts, p. 43). Reviews and publicity material for the film represent the scene differently, noting only that Manganinnie “befriends” the child.
- O’Regan, Australian National Cinema, p. 210.
- Bullock, p. 73.
- Thomas and Gillard, p. 44.
- Paul Kalina, “The Trail of Ruby Rose”, Metro no. 76, 1988, pp. 40–41.
- Ross Gibson, “Formative Landscapes”, Back of Beyond: Discovering Australian Film and Television, ed. Scott Murray, Australian Film Commission, Sydney, 1988, p. 31.
- Davidson, p. 319.
- Davidson, p. 40.
- Tony Hughes D’Aeth, “Australian Writing, Deep Ecology and Julia Leigh’s The Hunter”, Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature no. 1, 2002, p. 20.
- Bertrand Westphal, “Foreword”, Geocritical Explorations, ed. Robert Tally, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2011, p. xi.
- Karen Winkler, “Inventing a New Field: The Study of Literature About the Environment”, The Chronicle of Higher Education vol. 42, no. 48, 1996, p. A8.
- Adrian Ivakhiv, “Green Film Criticism and its Futures”, ISLE vol. 15, no. 2, 2008, p. 18.
- Luis Vivanco, “Seeing Green: Knowing and Saving the Environment on Film”, American Anthropologist vol. 104, no. 4, 2002, pp. 1195–96.
- See “Tasmania Invites You To Share Her Charms!” The Mercury 9 September 1926, p. 14: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article29458084. Wilton Welch, producer and co-director of Jewelled Nights, also told news reporters that “the eyes of Australian picture ‘fans’ will be opened to the wonders of the West Coast scenery as a tourist attraction” (see “Louise Lovely to Leave Us”, Advocate 20 March 1925, p. 2: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article66946288). The connections between landscape cinema, education, politics, art and commerce continued through the 1930s when cameraman and documentary filmmaker Frank Hurley regularly “made sponsored documentaries for the Education Department and the Department of Tourism” (see Thomas, p. 46).
- Bullock, p. 78.
- Bullock, p. 78.
- Haynes, p. 223.
- Simpson, p. 50.
- Simpson, p. 52.
- Haynes, p. 219.
- Stewart and Hopcroft, p. 138.
- Davidson, p. 310.
- Brian Trenchard-Smith, “Arctic Blast”: http://www.possibleworlds.net.au/blog/?currentPage=9.
- Geoff Brumfiel, “Controversial Research: Good Science Bad Science”, Nature no. 484, 2012, p. 434.
- Matt Nisbet, “Evaluating the Impact of The Day After Tomorrow: Science and the Media”, The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry 16 June 2004: http://www.csicop.org/specialarticles/show/evaluating_the_impact_of_the_day_after_tomorrow/. 57. Nisbet.
- David Ingram, Green Screen: Environmentalism and Hollywood Cinema, University of Exeter Press, Exeter, 2000, p. vii.
- Philip Bagust, “The End of Extinction? Playing the Devil’s Advocate for Designer Thylacines and Theme Park Ecosystems in the Age of Pan-Entertainment”, Australian Journal of Communication vol. 28, no. 1, 2001, p. 5.
- Nettheim claims “The tiger certainly represents hope, but it’s a double edged sword because the tiger represents our failings as a colonising nation. It asks the question, can we redeem ourselves as a race?” See “Daniel Nettheim: The Hunter Interview”, Femail Magazine: http://www.femail.com.au/the-hunter.htm. In a review of the novel, Drusilla Modjeska questions whether the tiger represents “bio-genetic material? Part of ourselves? Hope for the future? Guilt for the past? Imagination? The capacity to live in harmony with nature?’” (Modjeska, “Endangered Craft”, The Australian’s Review of Books vol. 4, no. 5, 1999, pp. 9–11.
- Leigh, p. 4.
- Krien, p. 16.
- Bagust, p. 10–11.
- Bagust, p. 16.
- Scott Brewer, “‘A Peculiar Aesthetic’: Julia Leigh’s The Hunter and Sublime Loss”, Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature vol. 9, 2009, p. 7.