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Wildlife Films

Wildlife Films

Derek Bousé
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Wildlife Films
    Book Description:

    If, as many argue, movies and television have become Western culture's premier storytelling media, so too have they become, for most members of society, the primary source of encounters with the natural world-particularly wild animals. The television fare offered nightly by national and cable networks such as PBS and the Discovery Channel provides millions of viewers with their only experience of the wilderness and its inhabitants. The very films that so many viewers take as accurate portrayals of wildlife, however, have evolved primarily as a form of entertainment, following the established codes and conventions of narrative exposition. The result has been not the representation of nature, but its wholesale reconstruction and reconfiguration according to film and television conventions, audience expectations, and the demands of competition in the media marketplace. Wildlife Films traces the genealogy of the nature film, from its origins as the "animal locomotion" studies that mark the very beginnings of motion pictures themselves, to the founding of the Animal Planet cable channel that boasts "all animals, all the time." The narrative and thematic elements that unite wildlife films as a genre have their roots not in the documentary film tradition, but in the older traditions of oral and written animal fables as reflections of human society. Bousé contends that classic wildlife films often portray animal protagonists living in families modeled on an ideal of the human nuclear family and working in communities that resemble an ideal of bucolic human society. In these stories-presented as documentaries-animals are motivated by human emotions and conduct relationships according to human customs. This imposition of culturally satisfying narrative patterns upon the lives of animals has not only led to the misrepresentation of the natural world; it has promoted the notion that our values, our moral vision, our models of society and family structure derive from nature, rather than being cultural formations.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0584-8
    Subjects: Zoology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-3)

    It is remarkable, if one stops to consider, how ill-suited film and television are to some of their most important tasks. As vehicles of science popularization they are unequaled, but as means of conveying the experience of nature to those who crave it, or as delegates representing wild animals to those with the power to determine their fates, film and television are unlikely candidates.

    The lives of wild animals, like the stillness of open spaces, may simply be unsuited to film and television representation—but not because these media suffer from technological limitations, or because they deal in two-dimensional images....

  5. 1 The Problem of Images
    (pp. 4-36)

    Anyone who spends time outdoors has probably realized that most real experiences of the natural world, away from cities and development, tend to be experiences of serenity and quietude. This is what has accounted for most notions of nature’s regenerative and spiritually redemptive power.

    Yet stillness and silence have almost no place in wildlife film, or in film and television generally—not because they are incapable, as media technologies, of conveying these qualities, but because stillness and silence are incompatible with the social and economic functions of film and television, and with the expressive “vocabularies” they have developed in fulfilling...

  6. 2 A Brief History of a Neglected Tradition
    (pp. 37-83)

    Like the evolution of species, the history of wildlife film reveals no moment when its subject burst into view fully formed. Rather, it came slowly into focus, the result of various historical developments and accidents, some related, some not.

    The term “natural history film,” today widely used interchangeably with “wildlife film,” began to show up in trade journals around 1913. At first applied mainly to films shot under controlled conditions for “for educational purposes,”¹ it soon expanded to include outdoor scenes of animals in their natural habitats. “Wildlife film” didn’t come into use until after the middle of the twentieth...

  7. 3 Science and Storytelling
    (pp. 84-126)

    It was probably inevitable that as wildlife films began to carve out a larger slice of the television pie in the 1980s and 1990s they began to attract the attention of those eager to expose their contradictions. While academicians averted their gaze, critics and journalists began to look closely at wildlife films—so too did environmentalists, broadcast industry watchers, and investors. What they saw were films balanced precariously on a tightrope between two poles: science and storytelling. Wildlife films often included accurate scientific information, but were nevertheless highly cinematic in their treatment of it, in their use of techniques of...

  8. 4 The Classic Model
    (pp. 127-151)

    The inevitability of narrative had brought about the eclipse of the nature essay by the animal story, just as the animal actualité had given way to action-adventure, hunting, and safari films.¹ Yet personifying and individualizing nature led inexorably to reliance on animal characters with whom audiences could sympathize and even identify emotionally. Arguably, all character-centered stories (which may mean, ultimately, all stories) involve some kind of identification. “Unless we are able to relate our feelings and experiences to those of the characters in the fiction,” notes Cawelti, “much of the emotional effect will be lost.”² We have already seen how...

  9. 5 Family Values, Social Mores, Behavioral Norms
    (pp. 152-184)

    The forces of tradition that shaped wildlife films’ narrative models have been no less effective in shaping their portrayals of animal behavior. As should already be evident, imposing narrative on nature not only represents the lives of wild animals according to dramatic convention, but also individualizes and psychologizes behavior typical of entire species. Further, attempts to render such behavior intelligible to audiences have often entailed finding simple human analogies for it, which, in turn, have forced it into familiar, moral categories—good, bad, kind, cruel, generous, mean, and so forth. Whether or not it is appropriate to apply such notions...

  10. 6 Nature Designed and Composed
    (pp. 185-194)

    As wildlife films began their second century, they entered a time of bewildering transition unlike any other in their history. The market had undergone a period of unprecedented expansion, but would it go from boom to bust? Wildlife films made for large formats, such as IMAX, had proven successful, but how many such films about whales or wolves would audiences pay to see? Digital and high-definition television were on the horizon, so too was web-based content-on-demand, but to many in the audience their features were still unclear.¹ To many in the industry trying to negotiate the tangle of varying broadcast...

  11. Appendix: A Chronology of Highlights from the History of Wildlife and Natural History Films
    (pp. 195-222)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 223-248)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 249-266)
  14. Index
    (pp. 267-278)
  15. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 279-280)