chapter  3
30 Pages

Toward a genealogy of the american landscape: notes on landscapes in d. w. griffith (1908–1912): Jean Mottet

Most scholars who, for some time now, have worked at renewing the study of early cinema, rightly stress how films are overdetermined by several large formations (ideologies, technologies, modes of representation, economics, etc.). As a result, we have begun to better understand the national character of some of the most important films to ever have been made, at least in the West. Yet, many of the determinants pertaining to the national character of films have not been thoroughly studied with regard to film content and film form. To be sure, narratology, for one, has devoted much attention to the various spectatorial positions specific to early cinema. However, scant attention has been paid to consideration of the formal innovations of early film images and to the sort of aesthetic experience they offer. In particular, we may ask what is the place of nature, of landscape in this aesthetic experience? To start, it is important to keep in mind that what falls under the heading of “the beautiful” for the European tradition is understood by turn of the century America to partly fall

under the idea of “the inhabitable,” that is, as a particular attitude toward the environment. What characterizes this attitude is the way it attends to the quotidian, the commonplace, the close at hand-especially around the homestead. To fully grasp the idea one might begin with Ralph Waldo Emerson. Here, for example, is what he wrote in 1837 in The American Scholar: “The literature of the poor, the feelings of the child, the philosophy of the street, the meaning of household life, are the topics of the time…. I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; what is doing in Italy or Arabia; what is Greek art, or Provencal minstrelsy; I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low.”1 And, in 1845, when Henry David Thoreau leaves the city for the wilderness, he finds refuge in a small cabin that he built on Emerson’s land, near Walden Pond, from where he begins to consider new ways of appreciating the environment: the vast open spaces of America must give way to smaller and inhabitable places.