Climate Change Documentaries: Some Thoughts and a Request

I’m watching lots of movies this week – some for research and writing purposes, some for teaching, some just for fun. One film category that covers all three of these purposes to some degree is documentaries related to climate change. Most immediately, I am looking for something I could use in my composition course to get students thinking about climate change and climate change-related issues. I want them to end the fall semester by researching and writing about solutions to some element of climate change. What can they do – in their private lives, in their future jobs as scientists and engineers, or through political action – to create change? Ideally, the film I assign will help them see a) the reality and seriousness of the problem and b) some possible avenues for research. Ideally, I’d like to find a film that can help illustrate the interconnectedness of climate change and give students ideas about actions and policies that contribute to climate change that they could investigate. I want to help them break the problem down into more manageable pieces.


Yesterday I watched Chasing Ice (dir. Jeff Orlowski; 2012), Food, Inc. (dir. Robert Kenner; 2008), and Mission Blue (dir. Robert Nixon and Fisher Stevens; 2014). Of the three, Chasing Ice is the most promising – and I hear from multiple sources that it teaches well. It is a lovely film and illustrates the reality and seriousness of the problem clearly. I’m not sure it gets at the second set of goals I’ve described, however.

Food Inc poster

mission blue poster

I hoped that Food, Inc., might get at those interconnections a bit more (there are lots of possible proposals to be written about agricultural practices), but it spends less time on environmental issues related to food production than I hoped it would. Finally, I liked Mission Blue a lot, but I don’t think it’s my best choice. Through its focus on protecting the world’s oceans, the film illustrates the problem of human-caused environmental changes and it proposes a solution (hope spots), but I think it might be too focused on Sylvia Earle for my purposes in this class. She is seriously awesome, but this is at least as much biography of Earle as anything else, so maybe this isn’t the perfect film for the goals of the course.

Ultimately, it’s okay if the film I choose can’t achieve both of these goals at the same time. If I teach Chasing Ice, for instance, I can find other ways to illustrate the broad range of things that contribute to climate change and that they could then research and write about. One film doesn’t have to do everything. But the more it can do along those lines, the happier I’ll be with it.

So far, then, Chasing Ice is a distinct possibility, but I am still watching more films before the semester begins and I am open to suggestions. What documentaries about climate change might work in this context? What films teach well and are accessible to first-year college students, many of whom will likely be skeptical of environmentalism?

Moody Water: The Problem of Personification in Environmental Writing

Listening to public radio a couple of days ago, I heard Rupa Shenoy’s report on water for The World, which examines the drought in California and the snowstorms in New England and describes the impacts shifting weather patterns have on these regions. I was struck by the language Shenoy uses to describe these shifts and the relationships between water itself and the people affected by it. “Water might as well be a person,” she begins. “It has moods like a person: maybe a running brook when it’s happy; a gentle rain when it’s blue; a storm when it’s angry.” This personification runs throughout the piece: water actively comes and goes places; it “rejected California in favor of the northeast”; it needs to be “allowed to be itself.” Although Shenoy’s piece includes good information about both climate shifts and responses to it, her use of personification is troubling both in general and in the particular way this plays out in the piece.

Personification and anthropomorphism are powerful and potentially dangerous tools. They can be useful and can help create connections between us and the nonhuman entities or creatures we describe this way. Sometimes, personification and anthropomorphism help us see connections and similarities that already exist instead of continually separating ourselves from the nonhuman. But giving water emotions and ascribing intention to its movements is not one of these times. Doing so may not actually lead NPR listeners to think that water can feel and think for itself, but it may indirectly affect the way listeners think about our own role in these movements. Rationally, we may know that water doesn’t choose to abandon California for another region, but using the language of choice and agency may reinforce an emotional sense of the natural world’s agency that isn’t grounded in reality and weaken our sense of our own culpability in climate change. If water is doing this to us, after all, we’re only the victims.

Shenoy does acknowledge humanity’s role in this shift early in her piece:

Water was the powerful one in the relationship, and it hasn’t changed — we have. For the past few hundred years, we’ve asserted ourselves, interfering with the way water’s used to doing things by covering the ground with cement and pumping carbon into the atmosphere.

However, this commentary on humanity’s actions is overshadowed by the language she uses throughout. We have interfered, but it is water’s reaction to this – its movement, its betrayal and rejection – that is at the heart of the piece and that we must adapt to. And, actually, presented in summary, that still sounds not so bad. We do need to adapt to the world and to the logic of climate. But, again, the language presents an emotional narrative that complicates matters.

Shenoy’s use of personification goes even deeper than ascribing agency to water, however. She also presents humans and water as in a troubled relationship:

Field says water will continue to favor New England. And that might be fine for a while. But he says eventually the relationship will turn … unhealthy.

This bit of foreboding is then followed up with commentary on how “water isn’t going to change. So we have to.” In her conclusion, after describing some attempts in Boston to deal with their extra water, Shenoy says,

And when it rains, water’s allowed to be itself and follow its natural path. More alleys like this one might make the difference between a pleasant visit from water and a destructive one. After all, good relationships take work.

This narrative of the relationship between humanity and water sets up water as a problem partner, maybe even an abuser. Water won’t change, we are in an unhealthy relationship, but because we’re in a relationship (and “good relationships take work”), we must work and adapt to accommodate water. This is a confusing approach. Conjuring these images of bad relationships and power imbalances is misleading and prompts unhelpful responses.

If both partners were human and one partner betrayed the other, was moody and unpredictable, and refused to change, this relationship would be identifiable as abusive. That is not a sustainable situation, and allowing the betrayer to continue down this path, allowing that person “to be [him/her]self and follow [his/her] natural path,” would be dangerous. In that situation, the mantra that “good relationships take work” could become a defensive statement, one that hides the fact that abuse is occurring.

But this is a relationship between water and humanity, not between people, so the logic of human relationships doesn’t hold up – not only is it nonsensical to accuse water of abuse, there is no way to sever ties or leave this relationship. Again, therefore, the emotional language of the piece obscures the real issues and shifts responsibility – in perception, not in reality – to the water and away from us. The reality is that this relationship – as it currently stands – isn’t sustainable, but that is not the fault of water.

It’s so tempting to use emotional appeals and techniques like personification to describe environmental issues – they are important, so they should feel important – but this piece serves as a reminder of how crucial it is for us to be careful in the way we do so.

Beautiful Movies from Around the World: Japan, Australia, Czechoslovakia

I’ve spent my day watching beautifully made foreign films: Kuroneko (1968), dir. Kaneto Shindo; Picnic at Hanging Rock (1979), dir. Peter Weir; and Daisies (1966), dir. Vera Chytilová. I wanted to post something about them, but words don’t feel adequate. So instead of writing words, I’ll just post images from the films.

Kuroneko title card Kuroneko 1Kuroneko 2Kuroneko 3____________________________________________________________________________

PIcnic title cardPicnic group

PIcnic cake

PIcnic parasolsPicnic doublePicnic-at-Hanging-Rock-1975-movie-review-girls-climb-mountain-miranda-anne-louise-lambertPicnic - rock


Daisies opening

Daisies red 11699004_10101490101716264_4849687660728620295_oDaisies butterfliesDaisies creepy dude11240772_10101490138357834_8660226366855767904_oDaisies headDaisies cut upDaisies bathdaisies-happy____________________________________________________________________________

I enjoyed Kuroneko and Picnic at Hanging Rock, but I’m kind of obsessed with Daisies right now. I will definitely be watching it again.

The Feminine Mystique & Helicopter Parents: Why We Still Need Betty Friedan

I’m finally reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), and there are lots of fascinating details about white middle-class U.S. culture of the 1950s and early 1960s, but one thing in the first chapter particularly stood out to me. While describing the “new neuroses” women were suffering from during this period, Friedan comments on the effect the feminine mystique (and women’s behaviors as a result of it) had on children:

And strange new problems are being reported in the growing generations of children whose mothers were always there, driving them around, helping them with their homework–an inability to endure pain or discipline or pursue any self-sustained goal of any sort, a devastating boredom with life. Educators are increasingly uneasy about the dependence, the lack of self-reliance, of the boys and girls who are entering college today. “We fight a continual battle to make our students assume manhood,” said a Columbia dean.

This is strikingly similar to the ideas in an article by Julie Lythcott-Haims about the children of helicopter parents that’s been making the rounds on social media this week:

When parents have tended to do the stuff of life for kids—the waking up, the transporting, the reminding about deadlines and obligations, the bill-paying, the question-asking, the decision-making, the responsibility-taking, the talking to strangers, and the confronting of authorities, kids may be in for quite a shock when parents turn them loose in the world of college or work. They will experience setbacks, which will feel to them like failure.

This, then, Lythcott-Haims continues, leads to young people not knowing how to cope on their own and, it seems, to higher rates of depression and anxiety.

What does it say about our current attitudes toward parenting that we are still seeing the same problem Friedan describes in 1963? Is this a resurgence of the feminine mystique?

Well, sort of.

Women are not still expected to stay home and be just a wife and mother in the same way that Friedan describes. However, women do still deal with the pressure to be perfect mothers. Perhaps there is less pressure, given the shifts in our culture regarding marriage and divorce and women’s rights since the 1960s, to be the perfect wife – that might seem too retrograde – but women are still expected to be (or at least to want to be) mothers and, once they have children, they are still expected to sacrifice everything for their children and to commit to motherhood in ways that might not be totally sane or healthy. Perfect motherhood requires breastfeeding, having the best and most educational toys, providing a wide range of activities to fill the child’s days, as well as protecting the child from everything at all times. Failure to do any of these or the many other things that perfect motherhood demands means failure as a mother and a woman. Success, however, will prove that it’s possible to have it all. Erica Jong writes,

Some parenting gurus suggest that helicopter parenting became the rage as more mothers went to work outside the home. In other words, it was a kind of reaction formation, a way for mothers to compensate for their absence and guilt and also for the many dangerous and uncontrollable things in the modern family’s environment. This seems logical to me. As we give up on ideals of community, we focus more and more on our individual children, perhaps not realizing that the community and the child cannot be separated.

Women’s magazines and mom blogs package this approach to parenting as a positive thing, competition to get kids into good schools and colleges (so they can get good jobs and repeat this pattern for themselves) reinforces it, parents internalize it. Thus, helicopter parents are born. This process and its result recapitulates a part of the feminine mystique as described by Friedan.

It is worth noting that helicopter parents – as the term indicates – are not just mothers. This term isn’t gendered in the same way that the feminine mystique obviously is. It is gendered in practice even if not in terminology, though, because there is much more discussion in our culture of being a good mom, and ideas of parenting are still more thoroughly applied to women than to men. This element of the feminine mystique hasn’t entirely broken free of its gendered roots; nonetheless, it has expanded its range and is no longer limited to women. This isn’t a good thing – not because it should remain tied to women (it definitely should not), but because it is dangerous for all of us.

Obviously, having a child means sacrificing some things and working to be a good parent, but as this pattern of damage reveals, how we think about being the best parent possible (or even a good parent) clearly needs some revision. Maybe “best” means something a little freer and less restrictive for both parents and children. Betty Friedan includes a passage in The Feminine Mystique from English feminist Ida Alexa Ross Wylie that further supports this idea:

Most of my fellow-fighters were wives and mothers. And strange things happened to their domestic life. Husbands came home at night with a new eagerness. . . . As for children, their attitude changed rapidly from one of affectionate toleration for poor, darling mother to one of wide-eyed wonder. Released from the smother of mother love, for she was too busy to be more than casually concerned with them, they discovered that they liked her. She was a great sport. She had guts.

Friedan shows us that putting children alone at the center of adult lives is unfulfilling for (most) adults; the problems associated with helicopter parenting show us that doing this is harmful to children as well; and Wylie even further indicates that changing this practice is good for both parents and children.

Ultimately, then, recent studies linking helicopter parenting to depression and anxiety in children and young adults indirectly support a feminist argument. The results of these studies back feminism’s argument that it’s not evil and selfish to think of yourself and not just of your children or husband. In addition, they show that the backlash against feminism, which argued that the feminist movement and the working women it empowered were destructive and harmful to children, was wrong.

won't somebody please think of the childrenThese results and the ongoing discussions of helicopter parenting – as well as the backlash against free-range parenting – also reveal that although many things in our culture may have changed over the last 50-plus years, elements of the feminine mystique are still with us. And as long as that’s true, Betty Friedan’s work is still necessary.

Powers of Horror Film: Or, Why My Horror Literature & Film Course Has So Many Movies

Except for a couple of school-specific details that may have to be tweaked before the semester begins, my horror literature & film syllabus for this fall is complete.

Now that I’ve finished planning the course, I realize that instead of teaching horror literature & film, I would have preferred to just cover film. I find myself gravitating more toward film than written texts within this genre and I had a much harder time coming up with solid novels and short stories to assign than I did movies. We will be reading four novels (and some short fiction) and watching at least 11 movies during the semester. We’ll be moving quickly this semester; my goals are more oriented toward coverage of a range of issues and subgenres within horror and students’ ability to make connections between them than they are toward depth in any given subgenre or text. Even so, there were many movies that I had to leave out both in order to maintain some semblance of balance between literature and film throughout the semester and for lack of time in general.

This emphasis on film isn’t just about my personal preference, however. This genre, more than others I’ve taught, seems to be particularly well suited for film. This is not to say that there’s not great horror literature to be read. There is. Unfortunately, some of my favorites were too long to fit into a course where I’m trying to cover a lot of subgenres and approaches to the genre. Stephen King’s The Shining and Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves are two of the longer works that wouldn’t quite fit. It doesn’t help that King’s novel is more racist than I’d really prefer it to be, but the real concern is its length, not the casual racism of a white author in the 1970s.

Shining coverHoL cover

But even while acknowledging that great horror literature exists, I believe horror may be at its best in film. Film is more visceral and less malleable than literature. It’s harder to escape or avoid the unpleasant bits when watching a movie than while reading a book. The reader can skim a passage in a book and still get the gist, but short of actually skipping a scene in a movie it’s really hard to entirely shut out its upsetting effects. And as viewers, we have less freedom to imagine horrific scenes in ways we are comfortable with in a film than we might have in a book. In fact, in written descriptions of violent or scary scenes, there will always be less detail than there is in representations of those same scenes on the screen. The written text needs us as readers to fill in the gaps; film doesn’t need us for that. It fills the scene with more details than we can probably take in, actually, and then it demands that we watch.

Horror revels in the visual representation of fear and violence – a monster suddenly appearing in the darkness, a knife cutting into an eyeball or some other fleshy bit. You can close your eyes, of course, but then it’s hard to know what’s happening and so there’s not much point in watching the movie at all.

What’s more, even when you close your eyes, you can hear what’s happening. And that might be worse. Revisit the transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London or the fingernail scene in The Fly. If you watch them with the sound off, they’re not so bad, but even with your eyes closed, hearing those scenes is disturbing.

And then there’s the music. Horror film music plays on our bodily reactions to sound by mimicking heartbeats, by vibrating our bodies with bass lines, by shocking us with bursts of horn or string music. Goblin’s soundtrack for Dawn of the Dead is synth-y and very ’70s, but it’s extremely effective. For instance, it includes a heartbeat-like rhythm alongside washes of sound to physically draw the viewer into the film. Bernard Herrmann’s scores for Alfred Hitchcock’s films are dramatically different from Dawn of the Dead in style, but they are also emotionally powerful. The theme from the shower scene in Psycho is iconic for a reason.

Finally, horror is primarily about an emotional response, not an intellectual one. Horror plays into some fascinating cultural narratives and develops interesting ideas about these narratives (which we will definitely discuss in class), but it does so through our bodies and through our feelings, not through our rational selves. In other words, unlike some other genres, horror doesn’t need us to think. This is not the same thing as saying that horror is dumb. I don’t believe that to be true. It simply means that horror functions differently than science fiction or mysteries do, for example. Science fiction grows out of rational ideas and speculation and then includes emotions; mysteries require their viewers or readers to be thinking rationally at least enough to be interested in solving the mystery. Horror, however, wants to scare us – on one level or another. As Stephen King writes in Danse Macabre (1981), “I recognize terror as the finest emotion . . . and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find I cannot terrify him/her, I will try to horrify; and if I find I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.” He also notes that what horror is “looking for is the place where, the viewer or the reader, live at your most primitive level. The work of horror is not interested in the civilized furniture of our lives.” Through its visual and sonic effects, film taps into our senses and emotions more directly – for most people – than written texts do, and this direct line is just what horror is looking for.

This is both good and bad. It means that works of art and entertainment in this genre are powerful. We can easily immerse ourselves in them and enjoy them; we can also easily be influenced by them.

This also just means that I really wish I had a whole semester to devote to horror film alone.

Horror Course: Extra Film Assignment

This fall I’m teaching an upper level course on horror film and literature for the first time.* In addition to what we watch and read as a class, I also want each student to watch one movie outside of class on his/her own and write about it. Students will also have the option to watch a second movie outside of class and write about it for extra credit.** To help keep things focused and to make sure students have a range of films to choose from that are significant to the genre for one reason or another and that they may not know about or choose on their own, I will be providing a list that they will choose from.***

With this list, I’m aiming for chronological coverage, international range, and representations of many subgenres of horror. So the list starts at the very beginning of film and ends with new releases; it includes not only American and British films but also films from several other nations (although it still leans mostly Anglophone); and it includes vampires, werewolves, zombies, body horror, slasher films, psychological horror, religious horror, ghost stories, as well as other subgenres.

I won’t put anything on the list that I won’t watch (so no Saw, for instance) or that I haven’t watched, and I haven’t seen all of these films yet (hello, summer project!), so the list may well change, but this is the list I’m currently working from.

  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, dir. Robert Wiene (1920)
  • Nosferatu, dir. F. W. Murnau (1922)
  • Dracula, dir. Tod Browning (1931)
  • Frankenstein, dir. James Whale (1931)
  • Freaks, dir. Tod Browning (1932)
  • Cat People, dir. Jacques Tourneur (1942)
  • I Walked with a Zombie, dir. Jacques Tourneur (1943)
  • Gojira, dir. Ishirô Honda (1954)
  • Diabolique, dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot (1954)
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers, dir. Don Siegel (1956)
  • House on Haunted Hill, dir. William Castle (1959)
  • Psycho, dir. Alfred Hitchcock (1960)
  • Eyes Without a Face, dir. Georges Franju (1960)
  • The Innocents, dir. Jack Clayton (1961)
  • What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, dir. Robert Aldrich (1962)
  • The Birds, dir. Alfred Hitchcock (1963)
  • Onibaba, dir. Kaneto Shindô (1964)
  • Repulsion, dir. Roman Polanski (1965)
  • Kill, Baby, Kill, dir. Mario Bava (1966)
  • Kuroneko, dir. Kaneto Shindo (1968)
  • The Last House on the Left, dir. Wes Craven (1972)
  • Deliverance, dir. John Boorman (1972)
  • The Exorcist, dir. William Friedkin (1973)
  • The Wicker Man, dir. Robin Hardy (1973)
  • Deathdream, dir. Bob Clark (1974)
  • Hausu (House), dir. Nobuhiko Obayashi (1977)
  • Carrie, dir. Brian De Palma (1976)
  • The Omen, dir. Richard Donner (1976)
  • Suspiria, dir. Dario Argento (1977)
  • The Hills Have Eyes, dir. Wes Craven (1977)
  • Dawn of the Dead, dir. George Romero (1978)
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers, dir. Philip Kaufman (1978)
  • Alien, dir. Ridley Scott (1979)
  • Phantasm, dir. Don Coscarelli (1979)
  • Zombie, dir. Lucio Fulci (1979)
  • Nosferatu the Vampyre, dir. Werner Herzog (1979)
  • The Shining, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1980)
  • Friday the 13th, dir. Sean S. Cunningham (1980)
  • An American Werewolf in London, dir. John Landis (1981)
  • The Howling, dir. Joe Dante (1981)
  • The Evil Dead, dir. Sam Raimi (1981) or Evil Dead II (1987)
  • Poltergeist, dir. Tobe Hooper (1982)
  • The Thing, dir. John Carpenter (1982)
  • Videodrome, dir. David Cronenberg (1983)
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street, dir. Wes Craven (1984)
  • Re-Animator, dir. Stuart Gordon (1985)
  • Blue Velvet, dir. David Lynch (1986)
  • Hellraiser, dir. Clive Barker (1987)
  • Near Dark, dir. Kathryn Bigelow (1987)
  • They Live, dir. John Carpenter (1988)
  • Santa Sangre, dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky (1989)
  • The Silence of the Lambs, dir. Jonathan Demme (1991)
  • Man Bites Dog, dir. Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel, and Benoit Poelvoorde (1992)
  • Scream, dir. Wes Craven (1996)
  • Mimic, dir. Guillermo del Toro (1997)
  • The Blair Witch Project, dir. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez (1998)
  • Ringu, dir. Hideo Nakata (1998) or The Ring, dir. Gore Verbinski (2002)
  • Audition, dir. Takashi Miike (1999)
  • Ginger Snaps, dir. John Fawcett (2000)
  • The Devil’s Backbone, dir. Guillermo del Toro (2001)
  • Dagon, dir. Stuart Gordon (2001)
  • 28 Days Later, dir. Danny Boyle (2002)
  • A Tale of Two Sisters, dir. Kim Jee-woon (2003)
  • Willard, dir. Glen Morgan (2003)
  • Bubba Ho-Tep, dir. Don Coscarelli (2003)
  • Shaun of the Dead, dir. Edgar Wright (2004)
  • Dumplings, dir. Fruit Chan (2004)
  • The Call of Cthulhu, dir. Andrew Leman (2005)
  • The Descent, dir. Neil Marshall (2005)
  • Slither, dir. James Gunn (2006)
  • [REC], dir. Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza (2007)
  • Let the Right One In, dir. Tomas Alfredson (2008)
  • Jennifer’s Body, dir. Karyn Kusama (2009)
  • Splice, dir. Vincenzo Natali (2009)
  • Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil, dir. Eli Craig (2010)
  • Maniac, dir. Franck Khalfoun (2012)
  • Black Rock, dir. Katie Aselton (2012)
  • John Dies at the End, dir. Don Coscarelli (2012)
  • The Green Inferno, dir. Eli Roth (2013)
  • Creep, dir. Patrick Brice (2014)
  • A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, dir. Ana Lily Amirpour (2014)
  • It Follows, dir. David Robert Mitchell (2015)
  • Spring, dir. Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson (2015)

Students will write a brief review of the film they watch as well as an analysis connecting the film to our discussions and the texts/films assigned in class that they can post to D2L for the rest of the class to see. They will present an argument for reading the film as horror (or not) to show their understanding of both the film and the genre. They may also discuss the movie’s response to debates within the genre (e.g., the place of women in horror).

I’ve still got time to watch more horror films this summer, so if anyone has suggestions for significant horror films that aren’t already on the list or for subgenres that have been neglected, please let me know!

Horror Poster*The syllabus is still under construction, but I’ll post it under Current & Future Courses when it’s finished, and I may write another post about the plan before the semester begins, too.
**The second movie must be approved by me to ensure students cover a variety of movies and don’t just stay in their comfort zone.
***I’ll let them go off-list if they propose something to me and make a solid argument for it.