Sheer space is the ultimate psychological reward of America Deserta. – Banham 1982, 51
Documentaries focused on the life of Antarctic research stations are something of a very specific weakness of mine. This interest does not extend to documentaries about the wildlife of Antarctica, histories of Antarctic expeditions, nor modern day journeys to or over Antarctica. Unfortunately this specificity makes for quite a small list of films, so in order to continue to feed my thirst for this particular form of entertainment I have been forced to reflect on the thematic attraction the genre holds. Upon reflection, therefore, I have expanded my list and retitled it as follows:
Landscape: The Film; or, films about landscape, which are also films about nothing much
- Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World
- Welcome to Union Glacier, from Studiocanoe
- Salt by Murray Fredericks
- Gus Van Sant’s Gerry
- Antarctica: A Year on Ice by Anthony Powell
- Fata Morgana, again by Herzog
- Greenland, also from Murray Fredericks
- Paris, Texas by Wim Wenders
- The Way by Emilio Estevez
On my to-watch list, and ready to add to the above once approved, include Red Desert, Lawrence of Arabia and Zabriskie Point. I have also discovered a list of films that form some of the recommended readings of a Texas Tech course called Architecture at a Nameless Landscape, a course which in its description also presents one of my favoured terms for referring to such landscapes; isotropic. Truthfully, I am fascinated by isotropic landscapes, or landscapes that are identical in every direction, and do not make a major distinction between the range of conditions of such environments; I am equally appreciative of desertlike environments regardless of latitude, materiality or temperature variation.
Reyner Banham attempts to capture and understand this fascination with isotropic landscape as they occur in America in his 1982 essay The Vast and the Empty. He states,
that is the great pull of the desert for so many of its fanciers – the great calm vacuum of supposed respite from men and their works. “The desert is where…man is not,” (Banham 1982, 56)
Further on in the text he examines this idea and concludes that
I have derived a deep suspicion that what is really at stake is not solitude as such, but the avoidance of pollution or contagion from other people. (Banham 1982, 57)
As Banham points to isolation on a physical level rather than an emotional level, I am reminded of Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels and the connection they draw between the vast and emptiness of their desert location and the vaster and emptier space they connect with beyond the Earth through their alignment with the solstices. Perhaps the draw of the isotropic landscape is its inhumanness, not situated in its hostility but its otherworldliness, its suggestiveness of things far greater than the human scale. Its lack of markings and divisions serve to place us outside the constructed scale of the urban and even the rural, reminding us that the grids we live by are superimposed on an existing terrain which has no predisposition towards any scale other than the geologic. Like the shiver of insignificance that comes from considering the vastness of space, the empty landscape prompts awareness of not only the spatial but also the time scale.
Such an underlying interpretation of the isotropic landscape would certainly help to explain why such static and yet people-focused films are of interest. Why focus on McMurdo Station when the film could be endless shots of the landscape? Because in isolation it does not have the same effect; it requires the limited presence of humans to give a comparative scale and industriousness that contrasts with the ‘great calm vacuum’. Just as Nancy Holt uses the industrial pipe as a framing device to connect viewer with sky, creating connection and logic by isolating a single event within the billions of celestial movements, so McMurdo Station acts as a framing device for the enormity and apparent chaos of the Antarctic.
Nancy Holt’s 1976 Sun Tunnels, image courtesy Center for Land Use Interpretation