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Nature’s Nation on the Screen

Discursive Functions of the Natural Landscape in Early American Film

Dimitrios Latsis

Pages 121 - 137


Although several cultural historians have tried to grapple with the discursive relationship between nature and technology during the ascent of modernity in America at the turn of the nineteenth century, and the issue has even been addressed in terms of its impact on contemporaneous visual culture, this contradiction remains unanswered with respect to cinema, the artistic form par excellence of the period. In this paper I address the issue by examining the variety of functions that natural landscape and its celluloid incarnations served in early American cinema. By considering potent actuality and fiction films of the period between 1895-1910, as well as nineteenth-century aesthetic constructs like ‘transcendence,’ the sublime (both natural and technological), and nature’s role in the representation of the nation, I focus on the landscape’s iterations in political, cultural, and narrative contexts, as well as the part it played in expressing anxieties and ‘mastery’ narratives attendant to the emergent modernity. This account bears out a concrete and apt explanation of the reasons why cinema occupies a privileged position in modern technological culture that has “inherited the alchemical dreams of the past” (Bryant 105). It is in this ‘alchemy’ that I propose the transposition of the natural into the visually reproducible takes place.


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