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Performative Locations: Wilderness Space and Place in Early Film

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Ever since the Lumière brothers filmed a group of workers leaving the gate of their factory in Lyons on a warm July day in 1895, the practice of location filming has drawn the physical environment into the realm of performative setting. Over the following decade, entrepreneurial youths left their jobs as photographers' apprentices and dark-room assistants to beg, borrow or steal a movie camera and set out in search of images that would make their fortune. Starting with local events as the subject for the short documentary clips, or actualités, it soon became evident to these first-generation filmmakers that the real money would be found in capturing images of exotic places and events that opened windows on the wider world. Across the intervening century, film has developed a rich and varied iconography of rural and wilderness environments and drawn them irrevocably into the cinematic market place of the commodity-image.

This discussion starts from the position that natural landscapes may be seen as a performative construct, the site of enactment within specificities of space and place through which meaning and value materialise, with particular reference to ideas of Nature and ‘the natural’. In particular, I will look at an emergent iconography of wilderness landscape in the early years of cinema, in which exotic locations provided one of the key audience attractions, with reference to one of the first films to make extensive use of a wilderness landscape – the Appalachian setting evoked in Rescued from an Eagle's Nest (1908). In so far as the film exemplifies an early practitioner's developing sense of the potential of performative settings, it is useful to discuss key scenes in the context of contemporary production practices at the Edison studios. As a coda, I will look briefly at elements of performative landscape in more recent films. The following remarks are addressed to land and landscape conceived within Judaeo-Christian traditions that underpin modernity, and do not attempt to address other culturally distinguished ways of relating to the natural world. My focus in this essay is almost exclusively on American cinema.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: January 1, 2005

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