Nature as Character, Nature as Force

Pinch of Dirt x The Daily Quarantine

Today’s newsletter is a collaboration/cross-post with the writer Chris Gray. Chris works in events and is a film critic, currently for Slant Magazine. You can subscribe to his newsletter, The Daily Quarantine, by emailing christopher.ellis.gray@gmail.com.

The Daily Quarantine is a bi-weekly newsletter of recommendations, primarily film and TV shows, but also podcasts and articles. For the latest issue, I wrote a blurb for the Movie of the Day, and Chris compiled an excellent list of films under the theme of “Nature as Character, Nature as Force.” As you can see, Chris also always includes information about the streaming services currently showing these films, which is extremely useful!


Movie of the Day

The African Queen (1951, d. John Huston) - Amazon Prime, Pluto TV

For the uninitiated, The African Queen is a rollicking adventure film, a travelogue, and a war movie, with a little romantic comedy thrown in for good measure. Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart (who won his only Oscar for this performance) star as Rose, the sister of a Christian missionary, and Charlie, a steamboat operator, stranded in German East Africa after the start of World War I. Determined to do something for the war effort, Rose badgers Charlie into navigating the treacherous Ulanga River to a lake where they will attempt to sink a German gunboat with the explosives Charlie had been transporting to a mine. It's an intimate set-piece for Hepburn and Bogart's performances, with nature—the river, the African flora and fauna, and the weather—filling the supporting roles of antagonist and matchmaker, savior and collaborator against the Germans. Oppressive heat, pouring rain, clouds of mosquitoes, and white water rapids all serve to erode the few social and cultural boundaries that can survive on a 30-foot boat, until our heroes have no choice but to fall in love. And the river's obstacles constantly test their resolve and ingenuity.

It must be noted that the film, which was adapted from a novel by C.S. Forester, is a colonialist artifact. This is evident not only in its depiction of Africans as exotic and simple Others, but in discussions about the landscape, which is both an existential threat ("There's death a dozen times over down the river") and undiscovered Eden. At one point, Rose says of some flowers, "I've never seen them before…Perhaps no one has. I don't suppose they even have a name." While in scene, her words can be interpreted as being about first love more than the flowers themselves, they are also a reflection of the colonial attitudes of European naturalists, for whom nothing was discovered unless it was by a white man.


Category of the Day

Nature as Character, Nature as Force
By Christopher Gray

For my segment of this collaboration with Jessica and Pinch of Dirt, I wanted to think about movies where, to pilfer a cliché, “nature is a character.” In order to conquer that facile phrase, I’ve assembled a list of movies that I hope reflect the many angles through which film mirrors and comments on our relationship with the natural world. Rather than ranking by preference, these are listed in a pseudo-narrative order connecting the themes of individual films.

1) Fitzcarraldo (1982, d. Werner Herzog) – Amazon Prime, Tubi, Kanopy / Burden of Dreams (1982, d. Les Blank) – Criterion Channel/Kanopy

I wanted to start here because it’s such a curious case. Herzog is known for his adventure films, which of late have been primarily documentaries. The tortured production of Fitzcarraldo is documented in Burden of Dreams, one of the great making-of documentaries, which is slightly less interested in the logistics of making a movie about carrying a steamship over a mountain than it is the relationship between Herzog and his muse and enemy, leading man Klaus Kinski. Being that Fitzcarraldo concerns a European man who dreams of building an opera house in Iquitos on the Peruvian Amazon at the turn of the 20th century, Fitzcarraldo innately raises questions about white settler colonialism; Blank’s documentary, fascinatingly, depicts a production that is indeed calamitous but is culturally respectful. At the same time, Herzog’s film is not what you’d expect from a narrative about a kind of mad dreamer. The film doesn’t see him achieving his goal at all; instead, Fitzcarraldo purchases an area of land in an even more remote area where he can produce rubber in hopes of perhaps, one day being able to build his opera house. The movie, which has a large and mostly native cast, fascinates as it juggles ideas about art, ambition, development, and colonialism without really establishing (for better and for worse? I'm not settled on this yet) a clear moral about any of it.

2) The Lost City of Z (2016, d. James Gray) – Amazon Prime, CBS All Access

Though set in a similar period to Fitzcarraldo, and concerned with British colonialists setting out to map and later control swaths of South America, Gray’s film is a revisionist fable, casting Charlie Hunnam’s Percy Fawcett as a woke hunk cartographer obsessed by the myth of an ancient civilization. Gray maneuvers the film’s politics seamlessly, opening up the film to be an unabashedly romantic and doomed spectacle.

3) Walkabout (1971, d. Nicolas Roeg) – Criterion Channel, Kanopy

Like these Amazonian visions, Roeg’s occasionally surreal drama about two children left in the Australian outback after their father abandons them is an alternately serene and delirious reckoning with exotic environs, and it’s got a whole nature documentary’s worth of creepy-crawlies.

4) The Loneliest Planet (2011, d. Julia Loktev)

One of the most underseen great films of the past decade, Loktev’s sophomore feature co-stars Gael Garcia Bernal as one half of an engaged couple backpacking in the Caucasus Mountains. The film’s staggering cinematography depicts a relationship warped and dwarfed by its environs, and its blink-and-you’ll-miss-it pivot point is one of the great moments in recent cinema, a subtle (*actually* subtle; almost nothing in movies is subtle no matter how many times that word is used in reviews) and breathtaking gesture that deserves to inspire as much debate as the action in Gone Girl.

5) Gerry (2002, d. Gus Van Sant) – Tubi, Peacock, Kanopy

Gus Van Sant’s minimalist masterpiece is like an earnest Beckett play, starring Matt Damon and Casey Affleck as two hikers who refer to each other as Gerry. One of the coups of the film is sort of a happy accident: halfway through filming, budgetary strictures forced the production to relocate to another country, and the sojourn of the Gerrys takes on a more mythic stature as the absolutely incredible landscapes surrounding them fundamentally changes. The film’s possible status as a gay parable heightens the intrigue.

6) Stranger by the Lake (2013, d. Alain Giraudie) – Criterion Channel, Kanopy, Shudder

Perhaps the most brilliant deployment of nature on this list, Giraudie’s low-key Hitchcockian thriller is set exclusively at a beach that serves as a gay cruising ground in France. Pierre Deladonchamps stars as Franck, one of the more interesting dumb protagonists I’ve seen in a movie, who becomes fixated on an apparently dangerous new entry into an otherwise fixed social system. Giraudie takes great care in delineating the beach and the water into different sections demarcating different mores and behaviors and levels of danger, establishing the brush offshore as a green zone for sexual encounters.

7) The Birds (1963, d. Alfred Hitchcock)

We pivot from the unfettered outdoors to the homey, nefarious hamlet of Bodega Bay, locus of an invasion of crows that cannot be logically explained, apart from the coincidental timing of the invasion with the arrival of Tippi Hedren’s Melanie Daniels. One of the great films about the inexplicable, The Birds is both an auto-critique of the cruelty with which sexualized women are treated and a fable about the mob mentality that ensues when a town’s security comes under threat from above.

8) The Descent (2005, d. Neil Marshall)

The only pure horror film on this list is one an extremely rare horror film populated almost exclusively by women, about a group of old friends who reunite for a caving expedition. Here, the natural world harbors supernatural secrets.

9) Meek’s Cutoff (2010, d. Kelly Reichardt) – Amazon Prime, Hulu, Tubi, Kanopy, Crackle

Just as many westerns could fit nicely on this list, any Kelly Reichardt film could for her attention to how we alter and interact with the outside world. Meek’s is her boldest work, starring Michelle Williams as one among a group of settlers traveling the Oregon Trail. Reichardt films in the boxy Academy ratio, a nod to the dismissed views of the women of the time, but the film is nonetheless the most tactile and forbiddingly beautiful Western about braving the elements.

10) Leave No Trace (2018, d. Debra Granik) – Amazon Prime, Starz

Similarly to other Reichardt films, Granik’s wonderful drama concerns a modern father and daughter living off the grid, the daughter happily unaware of a world she’s missing out on as her father reckons with PTSD. The film features a traumatic pivot away from a tranquil existence in the woods, and unsuccessfully fights to reclaim it.

11) Happy as Lazzaro (2018, d. Alice Rohrwacher) – Netflix

Another film defined by a rupture in space and time, this Italian gem follows a naif-like protagonist’s journey from life as a sharecropper in a rigged economic system in a mountainous area of Italy through an abrupt transition to what feels like the future: a similarly unforgiving, modern, urban world.

12) Pather Panchali (1955, d. Satyajit Ray) – HBO Max, Criterion Channel, Kanopy

Also a tale framed around a distant, modern world that promises an end to poverty, Ray’s masterpiece is the story of a family in rural Bengal, mostly seen through the eyes of its two children, who are awed by the sight of distant trains. One of the great films about childhood, scarred by a long and mesmerizing view of monsoon season.

13) The New World (2005, d. Terrence Malick) – Criterion Channel

Malick’s most ideologically complex film is his take on the story of John Smith and Pocahontas, inevitably a story about the birth of America in all of its bloodshed and heedless, ruinous development. Somehow, The New World situates potent ideas about the American myth in a both clear-eyed and swooningly romantic love triangle that culminates in acculturation that goes hand in hand with restrictive corsetry.

14) Nostalgia for the Light (2010, d. Patricio Guzman)

A documentary about buried trauma framed around a central irony, juxtaposing those seeking to unearth the victims of Chile’s Pinochet regime with the nation’s formidable astronomy program. Here, the materials that made us look down at our failings with indifference, but we continue to look back with awe and hope.

15) Dark Waters (2019, d. Todd Haynes) – Showtime

Quite possibly a near-future Movie of the Day (I’m hoping to give this a second look soon), Haynes’s film is already the most underrated movie of recent years, documenting the true-life efforts of attorney Robert Bilott to take DuPont to task for contaminating a West Virginia town with leaked unregulated chemicals. Shot in stunning, sickly hues of green and orange, Dark Waters is a legal thriller that feels like a horror movie because it alerts us to what may be right under our feet.

16) Princess Mononoke (1997, d. Hayao Miyazaki) – HBO Max

Sort of a bonus pick since I haven’t seen it in about twenty years, but the animation genius departs from his typical realms of gentle magic to stage an incredibly detailed action/fantasy epic that doubles as a parable for climate change.