Here I was born … and there I died
Apropos of the Screening Nature Network’s forthcoming weekend symposium and screenings at Whitechapel Gallery (eleven hours of natural history experimental cinema!), I thought I would put up some film related images which I’ve been coming across in my research.
I’ve previously mentioned the redwood/ sequoia tree-ring reading scenes in Vertigo (1958) and in Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), used again as a datum point in Sans Soleil (1983), Twelve Monkeys (1995), and even (at a stretch) in the recurring tree-stump scene in recent time-travel Looper (2012). The “Here I was born … and there I died” gesture – Madeleine (aka Judy) pointing at the concentric rings on the trunk, and pinpointing her birth and death – is not just a trope for memory, but also, according to McKenzie Wark, presents a vector for memory, or memory’s ‘index’. Again, in La Jetée, human life mapped into the flesh of the tree uses the principle of “story trees”, and their invitation to history – but this time, with a post-apocalyptic time travelling protagonist:
‘They walk. They look at the trunk of a sequoia tree covered with historical dates. She pronounces an English name he doesn’t understand. As in a dream, he shows her a point beyond the tree and hears himself say, “this is where I come from,” and falls back exhausted.’
And Marker revisits the cross-sectioned redwood tree again in Sans Soleil – in this extract from the film (‘of melancholy … so carefully coded within the spiral’):
These moments of tree-time in film are a way to approach fundamental questions of chronotope, time presentation and cinema. But, outside of experimental cinema, a similar gesture is captured, over and over – and I have compiled some of these ‘pointing at tree rings’ images in this Flickr set. There are historical photographs of dendrochronologists Edward Schulman and A. E. Douglass, archival images from American natural history museums and tourist sites and from the Kew Museum of Economic Botany, and snaps of every American eco-blogger ever, from the Bronx to Mount Rainier…
The repetition of this gesture is partly due to histories of environmental pedagogy in North America, at the site of the real firs, conifers, and redwoods, with their props including tree ring labels marking famous dates from American history. This tourist’s snap of chronology-building – reproduced incessantly in self-posed photographic keepsakes by visitors (see full set) – becomes another kind of memorial when it appears again in film. What is the effect of these different media for recording history? – or the resulting relationship between technological/ cinematic time and natural / biological time devices?
Each of the film examples above has more than a hint of elegy. In Aronofsky’s The Fountain (2006), another lover’s death is marked in tree rings, with growing skin ring tattoos, like human dendrochronology (see below: “one ring for every year”), in a film about an ever-green Mayan tree, a wedding ring, and the attempt to ‘keep time’ for a dying/ dead wife.
Closer to my own research on trauma and witnessing, the tree stump in cinema (rather than the tree ring) taps into a perceived link between truncated time and truncated lives, and between cut trees and corpses (cf. Paul Nash’s post war tree-stump paintings, Gail Ritchie’s memorial tree rings, or Titus Andronicus: ‘Witness this wretched stump!’)
Perhaps an early, clear example of this “forest trauma” can be seen in the tree-stump and corpse scenes of Robert Reinert’s Nerves (1919), a film of trees and shell-shock…
Relatedly, while I don’t usually post the Passengerfilms events on this blog, I wanted to mention the evening of nature and history films we’ll be showing in collaboration with Brick Box arts organisation on the banks of the Wandle – as the opening night of the Wandsworth Arts Film Festival in the Wandle Triangle (Saturday 4th May, 8pm). The film programme is here; we’ll be looking at the creatures that live in the water, the history and industry on the banks, and the science of how and why urban waterways are so important for our drinking water (and other kinds of drinking too, with a film on the Wandle’s famous Ram Brewery). The fully licensed bar has just been built on an open air site, and amongst the film projections there will also be physical theatre, installations, performances and DJs curated by the Brick Box team. Tickets can be booked for £5 here.
Our next regular screening is on 13th May at the Roxy Bar and Screen, London Bridge, and the feature is Lomax the Songhunter (2004), retracing the American journeys of ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. Musicologist Jo Hicks (Oxford) will present the short film Entr’acte (1924) by René Clair and composer Erik Satie, discussing its relation to urban stasis and circulation in Paris, and also introduce the interdisciplinary Hearing Landscape Critically research network. Artist Justin Hopper will present his forthcoming sonic poetry piece on ley lines and landscape (with video by Ambulantic Videoworks), which draws from Anglo-American folk song, and also includes a collaboration with Shirley Collins.
The poster follows below, and full info of the evening is here.