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Hollywood Utopia: Ecology in Contemporary American Cinema

by Pat Brereton
Intellect, Bristol, 2005
270 pp. Paper, $40.00
ISBN: 1-84150-117-8.

Reviewed by Stefaan Van Ryssen
Hogeschool Gent


Mr Brereton tries to convince us that it is possible to ‘read’ a number of Hollywood movies from an ecological perspective. Blockbusters like Terminator, Jaws, Twister, and Jurassic Park, to name but a few of the list he analyses, should be re-interpreted in a framework of ecological concepts and with the "notions of visual excess specifically drawn from feminist studies of melodrama illustrating a breakdown in ‘conventional’ patriarchal reading of film […]" (p. 13). He illustrates his method with an analysis of Titanic, which in his view ". . . suggests humans have to be educated to consume less and to produce more self-sufficiently to satisfy their basic needs" because "[b]y representing and establishing holistic if enigmatic ecological tropes, Titanic begins to extend a nascent thematic and aesthetic lexicon which often unconsciously expresses, even legitimates, core ecological precepts, especially ecologism which promotes the principle of sustainability" (pp. 15-16). He continues with four groups of films: nature films, Western and road movies, thrillers and earlier science fiction, and postmodern science fiction and high-tech special effect bonanzas.

As far as he is trying to point out that film criticism has too often overlooked the importance of nature and ecology in Hollywood movies, it is easy to follow his argument. Some of the examples he analyses probably do reflect a rising ecological awareness and even a more or less explicit message about the need of finding a new equilibrium between Man and Nature. After all, it is difficult to overlook the raised finger in Waterworld or Endangered Species. However, I find it difficult to swallow the more general argument about ecological utopianism (and dystopianism, for that matter) in a wide range of less explicit films where nature is prominently present. I remain sceptical for several reasons. First, because Brereton’s way of drawing background elements up and over the narrative to the foreground is confusing. The notion of ‘visual excess’ is analytically too blunt and opens the door for foregrounding anything at the whim of the analyst. After all, by letting Zerlina sing a whole aria about the ‘naturalness’ of the cure she proposes to Mazetto in Don Giovanni, Mozart didn’t express his mistrust of pharmacists but rather his obsession with — to put it politely — intercourse, or the general sense of humour of the public, or the deviousness of women or, anything one might want to hear being expressed. Secondly, I find it very difficult to find any consistency in the way the author distinguishes between shallow ecology, deep ecology, simple romantic ideas about nature (which, by the way are absolutely not ecological in any sense) and green activism. The introductory chapter didn’t make me any wiser as to what he precisely means by any of these terms, nor did the quotations in the text itself.

Overall, I get the impression that by stressing his point too much and stretching his arguments too far, Mr Brereton misses an opportunity to draw my attention to those Hollywood movies where ecological utopias or dystopias are really an issue. A comparative analysis of more or less similar blockbusters where one does and the other doesn’t contain an ecological subtext might help me to see and feel the sharpness and selectivity of his analytical method. For all his erudition, he fails to be convincing, and that’s a waste.



Updated 1st November 2006

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