Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Jennifer Peterson reviews Cinema of Exploration

James Leo Cahill and Luca Caminati, ed. Cinema of Exploration: Essays on an Adventurous Film Practice. New York: Routledge, 2021. 348 pp.

Review by Jennifer Lynn Peterson

28 July 2021

Embracing an open-ended spirit of discovery, this book of eighteen essays considers a broad range of cinema of and as exploration. Individual chapters cover what we might call traditional exploration cinema—felicitously dubbed “pith-hat cinema” by the editors—such as early safari films, undersea exploration films, and corporate oil prospecting films (p. 13). Cinema studies once overlooked such primary material, but this collection’s assembly of a roster of films formerly considered “minor” exemplifies a welcome opening up of the field to media in its fuller range of influence. Other chapters address different kinds of exploration in, for example, the psychedelic avant-garde films of Andy Warhol and Ben Van Meter, or erotic exploitation in the cycle of Italian mondo movies. Familiar auteurs such as Michelangelo Antonioni and Chris Marker make their appearance alongside less canonical figures such as Alfred Machin, John Williamson, Jacques Cousteau, and Miguel Gomes. Public health shorts, mid-century travelogues, and contemporary drone footage are analyzed in company with feature-length documentary and fiction films, signaling not only a disciplinary expansion but a shift to new motivating questions.

What are the stakes of investigating the cinema of exploration now, as the boundless horizons envisioned by much twentieth-century exploration cinema seem to have been replaced by foreclosed possibilities in the face of climate change, intractable capitalism, and dysfunctional politics? While earlier generations of cinema historians uncritically celebrated the white, male explorer archetype (as a strategy to justify attention for neglected films, as in the case of Kevin Brownlow’s pioneering 1979 book The War, the West, and the Wilderness), the role of exploration in film is now more complicated. The editors stake a claim in their introduction to examine exploration’s “double-edged legacies,” both its utopian drives and negative impact, from the open-ended desire to seek something new to the acquisitive urge to dominate and extract that which is captured by the camera (p. 2). Cinema of Exploration does not develop a single critical perspective, but this largely historical group of essays returns most often to two traditions of inquiry: postcolonial theory and classical film theory. The book thus joins together questions that cut across the often separate philosophical domains of ideology and ontology: Does exploration in cinema always embody a power dynamic, and is it a description of an attitude inscribed by the apparatus itself? If André Bazin, Walter Benjamin, and Edward Said are the most-mentioned critical figures here, readers will also find engagement with more recent insights from scholars such as Fatimah Tobing Rony, Donna Haraway, Kathryn Yusoff, and Jennifer Fay.

For many of the authors in this collection, the critique of exploration cinema’s patriarchal, colonialist perspectives serves as a starting point for other questions. For example, in an essay on the diving films of Hans Haas, Vinzenz Hediger shows how “an ethics of reverence for nature as a quasi-spiritual force” was modernized through cinema: “the transition from the pen of the auteur to the pencil of nature works seamlessly because it replaces one set of modern concepts with another,” from the aesthetic “genius” of the artist to the aesthetic experience of nature rendered by technology (pp. 93, 92). This is one of several essays that take up cinema and the environment, delving into exploration cinema’s extractive relationship with land and sea. Karine Bertrand’s piece considers how Indigenous filmmakers such as Zacharias Kunuk and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers have represented the land differently for its strength, vulnerability, and cultural meaning.

Other essays analyze exploration cinema’s grand, idealistic efforts, including those that failed. Ling Zhang tells the remarkable story of the recently rediscovered Chinese documentary Long Live the Nation, made by actor-director Zheng Junli over a four-year period during the 1937–45 war against Japan. This anti-fascist, anti-imperialist film sought to construct a multiethnic sense of national unity through travel and ethnographic footage shot in rural locations across China, but the film disappeared soon after its release in 1943. Zhang focuses on the film’s use of sound to call forth a “trans-ethnic solidarity . . . between Han and ethnic minority peoples” (p. 167). This effort to construct a diverse collectivity bears formal and ideological resemblance to the sound techniques used by Soviet filmmakers such as Dziga Vertov and Aleksandr Dovzhenko.

One further reason to consider the cinema of exploration now lies in the medium’s own incompletely realized potentiality. As several of these essays tease out, cinema’s ability to conjure up new places and perspectives can harbor transformational force. Catherine Russell’s piece on films of the Amazon, for example, moves beyond the trope of failure sometimes found in exploration films and instead embraces “vegetal storytelling” in which “the formal properties of vegetation intermingle with those of cinematic language” to produce nondiscursive, sensory forms of knowledge (p. 241).

Indeed, the question I am left with after reading this book is about cinema and media studies’ shift away from its established practice of representational critique, toward an investigation of the ontology of cinema centering on materialist questions of technology and infrastructure. Technology is of course ideological, and as many of these essays demonstrate, one methodology does not necessarily occlude the other. But as yet, it remains challenging to bridge textual analysis with a materialist/ontological approach. The book’s final essay by Bhaskar Sarkar takes up this question in depth. In this piece, which should be essential reading for anyone in the discipline, Sarkar theorizes exploration as a speculative practice that can move in either instrumental or affirmative, open-ended directions. Returning to questions of medium specificity theorized by Jean Epstein nearly one hundred years ago, Sarkar writes of film studies that “through all these debates and developments, the intricate interface of textuality and ontology that Epstein gestured towards remains more or less unexplored” (p. 312). Cinema of Exploration sifts through the utopian promises, challenges, and dead ends of the medium’s eventful first century and a quarter. In taking on this job, the book scouts out new paths for envisioning the role of the moving image as we pivot toward uncertain futures.