About the series:
The Film of Trees aims to explore the complicated relationship between humanity and the natural world. Film has the power to reveal the complexities of this bond, and overall this series explores a cycle of changes in our struggle to come to terms with nature. Trees, whether maple, oak, pine or bamboo, have become a form of setting, atmosphere, and character in cementing storytelling for centuries. This series is timely, as this year the Paris Climate Accord is up for renewal with the participation of a re-engaged, more ecologically friendly United States. In rethinking conservation and preservation policies, the larger discussion on a green economy through technological innovations plays a significant role in cultural imaginations about the future of our natural world and how we will live in it.
Investigating our first encounters with nature in “Innocence and Nature,” this theme explores the universality of imaginative childhood encounters with the outdoors. Nature becomes a playground and a sensory experience in defining how young people feel and understand how the environment can be a transformative garden, as seen in Moonrise Kingdom (dir. W. Anderson) and My Neighbor Totoro (dir. Miyasaki). But what happens to our relationship with trees when the natural world is subject to the demands of urbanization and global capitalism? What happens in a society without trees? “Tree-less-ness” imagines such a world in which nature’s revenge is inevitable. Films such as The Birds (dir. A. Hitchcock) and The Virgin Suicides (dir. S. Coppola) explores the complexities and anxieties behind extreme interpretations of the Anthropocene. In distancing the separation between society and nature, the films explore what happens when nature is subservient to human demands. In an age where hope can be one of the only sentiments in finding harmony with the environment, “The Dream of Trees’ ‘ explores the complicated return back to the hope in which nature and society can create new opportunities and promises. Harkening back to the idea of innocence, “The Dream of Trees” explores how individuals’ imaginings of nature can grow organically in building a better future. Grizzly Man (dir. W. Herzog) and Minari (dir. Issac Chung) explores the complications behind the promises of sustainability and inequality within democratic societies. Overall The Film of Trees aims to understand the possibilities in which trees can inspire and shape human interactions with the environment, and at the same time the series aims to be a platform for understanding how nature’s inhabitants can take an ethical stake in the well-being of the environment by re-engaging with it.
About the films:
Grizzly Man (2005)
“Perfection belonged to the bears. But once in a while, Treadwell came face-to-face with the harsh reality of wild nature. This did not fit into his sentimentalized view that everything out there was good, and the universe in balance and harmony.” -Werner Herzog
Snow-capped mountains and crowded forests fill the backdrop of this offbeat and heartfelt documentary. Werner Herzog pieces together the life and death of the obsessive, amateur grizzly-bear expert, Timothy Tredwell. Tredwell, an excitable, tall man with a blonde bowl cut, ventures into the Alaskan wilderness every summer for thirteen years. Feeling cast out from society and carrying a responsibility to protect the grizzly bears, Tredwell escapes into their world. Although the grizzly bears are not endangered, Tredwell makes it his life’s purpose to “protect” the bears. He finds love and kinship amongst the bears, much more than he found in human society. Herzog uses footage Tredwell filmed in the last five years of his life, as well as interviews with environmentalists, grizzly experts, and people who knew Tredwell personally to tell his dynamic story. There is a visual mix of beautiful shots taken by Tredwell and calculated, emotional, and strange interviews conducted by Herzog. Through Tredwell’s story, this documentary explores ideas of truth, isolation, naivete, and the human condition. Grizzly Man premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and has been awarded the Gotham Award, the New York Film Critics Circle Award, and many more.
The Birds (1963)
The Birds is an eerie and unsettling look at what happens when birds begin to turn on the inhabitants of a small coastal town. Hitchcock is a master of suspense, and gradually builds up the tension in this film. At first, only a few species of birds attack at specific times, but by the end of the film, it is an all-out bloodbath as feathered flocks exact their revenge. In building up suspense slowly like this, Hitchcock destabilizes the audience’s ability to grasp any sense of comfort or normality. Routines of daily existence and standards of social interaction in the town quickly disintegrate under the constant threat of random bird attacks. Attempting to counter these attacks quickly takes over the characters’ lives. With this film, Hitchcock takes aim at the human impulse to control and subjugate nature. He asserts that choosing to live out one’s life in a perfectly manicured urban or suburban bubble, with little to no regard for surrounding ecosystems, is fundamentally unnatural and can even be dangerous.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
A sense of summer enchantment and New England charm is created and saturated through Wes Anderson’s image-centric world-building. Moonrise Kingdom presents a world that combines highly animated visual graphic forms of filmmaking with real-life stories so that images guide the narrative. On the island of New Penzance, Sam and Suzy are a young couple on the run from their families and friends, seeking solace in a forest as they journey into adolescence. A search party is organized to track the two twelve-year-olds down before an approaching storm hits the island. In this coming-of-age tale that takes place in the embrace of nature, the forest is a surreal place brimming with possibilities.
The Virgin Suicides (2000)
The Virgin Suicides is a hauntingly beautiful portrayal of the dynamics of modern suburban life and of the psyches of teenage girls. The film follows the five beautiful Lisbon sisters, who are kept isolated from the rest of the world by their strictly religious parents. This isolation drives the youngest girl, Cecilia, to commit suicide. After her death, her sisters and the neighborhood boys pour over her journals, in which the elm tree in the front yard of their house figures prominently. In the wake of the suicide, the Lisbon parents confine their daughters in their house and weather the scorn of their neighbors. But the Lisbon girls emerge from their lockdown in a desperate attempt to save Cecilia’s precious tree, which has been marked for removal due to a fungal infection. In attempting to save the tree they perhaps also attempt to save themselves from their ennui, making a final desperate attempt to find something to live for. Coppola’s film serves as a clear commentary on the toxicity of suburbia, but also as a timely meditation on the suffocating nature of interior spaces during a pandemic in which people live in daily fear of contamination from the outside world.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
In the Sayama hills of Japan lies a beautifully drawn countryside where the imaginary plays with the real, and the forest is filled with spirits. Sisters Satsuke and Mei spend their time exploring the area around the house in the countryside that their family has just moved into, where they discover a large, fluffy, adorable cat named Totoro. They meet a cast of other creatures and navigate life through the lens of playful imagination. Light-hearted stylistic choices to mimic the view of children contrast with non-fantasy elements that cause tension for Satsuke and Mei—their mother in the hospital, Satsuke going to school with new friends while Mei stays home, and societal norms and expectations they must navigate together despite being different ages. To see the world through the eyes of Satsuke and Mei in My Neighbor Totoro is to see the innocence of nature, and to gain a newfound respect and appreciation for trees by seeing them as children do.
Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari is a semi-autobiographical narrative about growing up on a family farm in rural Arkansas as the child of two Korean immigrants. Beautiful cinematography layered with ethereal scores are the foundation for this heartfelt story of love, resilience, and the immigrant experience. Set in the 1980s, this gentle film follows a family’s struggle to maintain harmony with the natural world as they attempt to start a fifty-acre farm. Empty horizons and quiet spaces express isolation and lay the groundwork that this family builds their life upon. This story of what it means to be an American unfolds from the perspective of the youngest son, David (Alan S. Kim). As this young family adjusts to this new environment they get to know the land as they attempt to grow traditional Korean food. Minari uses the mundanity of its characters to tell a universal tale of family struggle and estrangement in reaching for the American Dream. Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, earning six Oscar nominations, and winning a Golden Globe for best foreign-language film, Minari has gained well-deserved recognition for its tender and honest story.
Image: Laura McPhee (American, b. 1958) Understory Flareups, Fourth of July Creek, Valley Road Wildfire, Cluster County, Idaho, 2005. Chromogenic print. 72 x 92 inches (framed). Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Graham Gund ’63, 2015.2.30.
The Film of Trees is curated by the Gund Associates in collaboration with the Brown Family Environmental Center.
The Gund Gallery exhibitions and programs are made possible, in part, by the Gund Gallery Board of Directors and the Ohio Arts Council.