Reconstruction 7.2 (2007)


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Bird Watching: Global-Natural Worlds and the Popular Reception of Winged Migration / Lisa Uddin

 

Abstract: This paper examines the contemporary visual cultures of economic globalization and natural history by considering the popular French wildlife film, Winged Migration (dir. Perrin 2001). Through the small-scale of a single film's reception, the paper offers a critique of the Euro-American tendency to conceptualize the global world and the natural world in totalizing and mutually constitutive terms. How have images of a timeless and universal global world become a way of imagining the natural world, and vice versa? How has Winged Migration's circulation amongst an American popular audience reproduced, but also undermined, these joint constructions? Analyzing the film's central theme of transcontinental bird migration, I argue that Winged Migration presents viewers with an image of both a naturalized global world and a "globalized" nature. I demonstrate how multiple bird species participate in a visual narrative of touristic and commodity flows, dissolving borders and figuring the planet as, in the words of Director Jacque Perrin, "a one and only space." Following, I turn to reviews of the film's DVD version, posted on Amazon.com between May 2003 and April 2004, as examples that complicate the totality. Focusing on how the film is integrated into, and transformed by, the specific bodies, vocabularies and circumstances of its audience, I conclude that the symbolic universality of Winged Migration is seriously compromised. Its everyday viewing and popular criticism thus invite a two-fold reconsideration of globalization as a natural process and of nature as necessarily borderless.

 

In addition to the birds themselves and their amazing feats, the cinematography captures, with blinding crystal clarity, the awesome beauty of the various landscapes through which these extraordinary creatures travel (there's even a shot of the birds flying past the Twin Towers). Watching this film is truly like being transported to another world.

Amazon.com reviewer

 

<1> This essay examines the world that this Amazon.com reviewer is referring to as it comes to us through the wildlife film Winged Migration and its popular reception in the United States. Directed by French filmmaker Jacques Perrin and released in 2001, Winged Migration depicts the seasonal flight of multiple bird species. With minimal narration, images of these transnational migrations include actual flights, pit stops and the dramas of life and death along the way. At root, I want to untangle the interwoven visual cultures of globalization and natural history that have produced this "crystal" clear and "awesome" world as a representation of the global and of the natural. To my mind, it is precisely the construction of global and natural worlds as grand, transparent - and interchangeable - spaces that invites suspicion. I take seriously Donna Haraway's feminist call to find modes of vision that refuse the "god trick of seeing everything from nowhere" (1991: 189). For Haraway (1991), these tricks are irresponsible to their viewing subjects and visible objects. They transform the always already partial view into a flawless, disembodied and transcendent whole, concealing asymmetrical relations of production and consumption along the way. What is worse, the tricks have become standard to popular knowledge and experience. An explosion of visualizing technologies, from satellite surveillance systems to microscopic photography, has distanced and de-materialized the eyes of the beholder with disquieting regularity. Through the notably small scale of a single film and its reception, I am offering here a critique of such tricks; specifically, a Euro-American tendency to behold the global world and the natural world in totalizing and mutually constitutive terms. How have images of a timeless and ever-present global world become a way of representing the natural world, and vice versa? How can we trouble these two worlds' claims to universality; the sense that the global is the realm of just about everything, while the natural is the realm of things above and beyond social life? Whose universals are these? And how has the screening of Winged Migration amongst American audiences reproduced, but also undermined, these joint constructions?

 

Two Totalities: Globalization and Nature

<2> Let me begin by unpacking terms; first "globalization," then "nature." While there is ample evidence to support the theory that globalization is primarily an intensification of capital circulation with social and cultural effects, we can also point to a rich archive of images that have helped define the very concept. These images have played a major role in our collective understanding of, to use Arjun Appadurai's words, a "complex, overlapping, disjunctive order that can not any longer be understood in terms of existing center-periphery models" (1996: 32). Appadurai's imagistic framework of "scapes" - media, ethno, finance and so forth - is one attempt to represent this new and multi-faceted order, by sketching out its indeterminacies and site specificities; scapes being "deeply perspectival constructs, inflected by the historical, linguistic, and political situatedness of different sorts of actors. . . " (1996: 33). Other scholars have pushed the framework further, characterizing globalization as something approaching pure discourse. Sarah Franklin, Celia Lury and Jackie Stacey (2000), for example, have suggested that the phenomena of interconnected goods, people, ideas and money is less an economic reality than it is the result of multiple, and contradictory, representational practices. For these authors, "the global is as much an effect as a condition: it is a project which has yet to be secured and cannot be assumed to pre-exist in a form that is simply reproduced worldwide" (2000: 5; original emphasis).

<3> Though different, one of the shared advantages of these notions of globalization is that they focus attention on the means through which the idea itself becomes visible. More specifically, they make possible - and urgent - a critique of the proliferation of totalizing representations of a global world. For every image of disjuncture and difference, there are multiple images of synthesis and sameness. In the last decades of the twentieth century, these latter representations have come to popularly signify "the global" itself and have fed appetites (middle-class American, at least) to see the big picture, however far-fetched that they appear to be. Indeed, the wondrous quality of these representations is their main attraction. A case in point is the early social life of photographs taken from the Apollo space missions. Denis Cosgrove (1994) has argued that the postwar American impulse to imagine the world as a cohesive global space was closely linked to the repeated event of seeing the planet as a discrete unit vis-à-vis the Apollo pictures. Two photographs in particular were instrumental in this process: Earthrise, depicting the earth rising over the lunar landscape in 1968, and the still more popular 22727, depicting the whole earth from space in 1972.

 

 

 

Each widely circulated in the public domain, these photographs became visual short hands for a contemporary geographical imagination that embraced "the totalizing socio-environmental discourses of One-world and Whole earth. . . " (1994: 271). Cosgrove situates these images within a Western imperial history of visualizing a complete and conquerable globality, which includes Renaissance cartography, early aerial photography in the nineteenth century, and the image of the globe as an emblem of Empire in the early twentieth century. For Cosgrove, the Apollo photographs extended, but also challenged, this history insofar as they showed Americans parts of the planet that had previously been rendered small and dark, both literally and metaphorically. In 22727 especially, Africa is given unprecedented visibility in the image of the global world, appearing more fully and vibrantly than any other continent. At the same time, however, the image's overall effect was to downplay continental particularities and make the world seem cohesive and borderless, "an earth liberated from cultural constrictions and apparently at liberty to clothe itself anew in the natural hues of water, earth, and the softest veils of atmosphere" (Cosgrove 1994: 278).

<4> Another example of globalization's universal face is what the authors of the Landscapes of Capital web project (1998-2003) identify as the serial montage. [1] Analyzing it's use in television advertisements for communications corporations like Cisco, Worldcom and Microsoft, they write: "The serial montage links snippets of statements made my multiracial (signified by skin color), multicultural (signified by clothing styles), multi-accentual (signified by accented English), and multiregional (signified both by rural and urban background scenes) speakers. [2]" While the Apollo photographs erased borders by staying far above its object, serial montage has eschewed verticality altogether. Images of different people in different places are strung together in a rapid horizontal motion that creates the feeling of a world landscape that is limitless in breadth and inclusiveness. "This impression reinforces the metanarrative of the communications industry - that free and open and fast communications eliminates discrimination [3]" - and, I might add, democratizes globalization. Amidst its dizzying variance, the serial montage pictures an intrinsic and elegant wholeness. It constructs disjunctive order as something predetermined, ubiquitous and monolithic, even in its continuous and hyper heterogeneity. That the montage now appears to be a prevailing device in representing globalization only compounds the problem. [4]

<5> Like globalization, what goes by the name of "nature" has also been subject to the workings of visual representation, reflecting a central assumption within cultural studies that nature is not a predetermined thing in and of itself. [5] Although it may appear as a relatively stable object available for human activity, nature's objectivity is at least partly traceable to the representations through which it becomes visible. More precisely, its self-evidence is rooted in collaborations between images, cultural values and forms of biological life. Neil Smith (1998) refers to these collaborations as the "social production of nature." Doubtful of nature as always already "the given, pristine, edenic nature of physical biotic processes, laws and forms" (1998: 49), the production of nature thesis understands nature as a function of the social world, a world of which the materiality of biological life is always a part but never the whole.

<6> In his important essay "Ideas of Nature," Raymond Williams (1980) reminds us that these productions have a history of rendering nature as a comprehensive totality. This history, specific to Western Europe and North America, has variously and repeatedly constructed the natural world in singular and sovereign terms, making clear divisions between Nature and Man, and frequent comparisons between Nature and God. Such a nature - without gaps, overlaps or other natures side-by-side - was one that could be studied and controlled as a scientific object, and one that could be alternately exploited or rescued. It was also something that could speak with great authority, as in the case of phrases like "Nature shows. . ." or "Nature teaches us. . ." (1980: 70). While Williams' account of this authority's permutations are too intricate to be adequately explored here - from a Hobbesian notion of a brutish pre-social man to the sanctity of an industrial era wilderness ideal - its consequences are more straightforward. Nature in this abstracted state became Man's mirror, reflecting human society back to itself in the image of organic life. The mirror, moreover, obscured the multiplicity of actual living things and processes, and the social relations that are bound to them. Wary of these outcomes, Williams writes:

We have mixed our labour with the earth, our forces with its forces too deeply to be able to draw back and separate either out. Except that if we mentally draw back, if we go on with the singular abstractions, we are spared the effort at looking, in any active away, at the whole complex of social and natural relationships which is at once our product and our activity (1980: 83).

Thus, the image of nature-as-totality speaks less to any real comprehensiveness of the physical world than it does to the convention of denying its untidy and historical complexity.

 

Winged Migration as Totality

<7> What is striking about Winged Migration is how the totalities of globalization and nature are symbolically conflated, constructing an image of both a "globalized" nature and a naturalized global world. Native to several different parts of the world - Canada geese, Eurasian cranes, African White Pelicans, and so forth - the featured birds appear global by shedding their "national differences" and flying across the planet. A shared biological struggle to travel South (or North or East or West) stitches them together in a grand filmic narrative of avian multiculturalism. In this narrative, borders are meant to dissolve with each migration, rendering the world instead as, in the words of Perrin, "a one and only space [6]." To this end, the film's cameras move continuously through seven continents and forty countries, some of which are recognizable by postcard-friendly icons, such as France's Eiffel Tower or rural Asia's ox-driven carts, others which appear as bioclimatic zones of weather and topography. Cameras also move continuously between visual scales, from the intimate close-ups of White Stork's embracing, to the panoramas of Sandhill Cranes flying at sunset, to the aerial-cum-satellite cinematography of an Arctic tern's movement across the earth's curvature. Here, the diversity of migrating flocks span every inch of the planet and signify all of its possibilities. In addition to spatially unifying a global world, Winged Migration uses the spectacle of bird migration to empty that world of any temporal specificity. As Perrin's introductory narration states: "For eighty million years, birds have ruled the skies, seas and earth. Each spring, they fly vast distances. Each fall, they fly the same route back" (Perrin 2001). These flights are subject only to evolutionary time and the cycles of seasons. Brief glimpses of human beings in the film do little to temper this epic story. The people look rather timeless themselves, like the old peasant woman who feeds her feathered trespassers or the duck hunters filmed in silhouette against a dawn sky; archetypes with as little history as their feathered co-stars.

<8> Winged Migration's principle motif does the most work in constructing a universal global-natural world. Like a chorus of sorts, the film's narrative returns time and again to the scene of birds flying in single, group and mass formations. Though subject to changes in species, location and time of year, the scene is constant in its formal arrangement and affective power. A bird formation flies across a given landscape, body of water, or skyline, with the viewer's perspective kept right alongside. Set to a monumentalizing New Age score and the sounds of flapping wings and bird cries, these steady flight patterns - come rain, snow or shine - make a proposition of sorts: that other types of transnational movement can unfold with equal straightforwardness. Perrin's zoomorphic reflections on the film are suggestive here, when he muses:

What if, for the space of a year, we no longer waited for the seasons, what if we embarked on the most fabulous journeys, what if, abandoning our towns and our countryside, we went on a tour of the planet?. . . What if we learned to be as free as birds?" [7]

Bird migration unfolds as a spectacular metaphor of international travel. It takes shape as a naturalized expression of liberal humanistic freedom, the opportunity to see the world, and the privilege of not having to wait. In Winged Migration's world, mobility is boundless and fabulous, and dislocation lasts for one year only. The film resonates nicely with Dean MacCannell's (1976) analysis of middle-class tourism. In his well-known structural study, MacCannell maintains that tourism is a bourgeois effort to construct totalities from the disparate, fragmentary experiences that define modernity (1976: 13-15). Tourism consumes radical differences and condenses them into a singular, ordered and universalized package, transforming the world into a series of attractions for those that can afford it. As Winged Migration's fantasy follows this bourgeois logic of commercial tourism, it sidesteps the lived event of human migration, a process that generally lasts longer than a single year and is unrelated to the ontologies of the leisure class. Indeed, scenarios that find people relocating to unfamiliar places are more often circumscribed by a complex interaction of economic necessity, family obligation and political coercion. [8] In Perrin's film, such complexity does not make it onto the world map. Instead, the film mobilizes signs of transcendence that only nature can presently provide: open skies, vast oceans, untouched lands and uninhabited cityscapes, all of which are accessible to its bird-like viewers at multiple ranges. This emancipatory treatment of migration carves out global space as a sightseer's playground and its occupants as carefree wildlife. What gets overlooked in this literal fly by are the social pressures and inequalities that influence many migrant subjects and their experience of a global world.

<9> A second proposition made through the image of free-flying birds is that capitalism itself - its commodities, its investments, its profits - can likewise move with elegant simplicity. Here, a timeless and impartial natural world comes to stand in for global circulations that are, in practice, neither timeless nor impartial. This metaphor would seem tenuous were it not for several scenes that are soaked with allusions to free markets and free marketers: the Amazonian parrot that frees itself from a cage on board a commercial river boat; the lone American eagle whose majestic landing conveys a noble self-sufficiency and competence; the vaguely Eastern European bird that gets mired in the oily sludge of a post-communist industrial factory. These vignettes of variously adapted birds perfect the social Darwinist iconography of transnational capital. Their ethic of "fly or die" efface the multiple conditions through which global economies are influenced, and in so doing, they defer to a naturalized concept of market success and failure.

<10> Winged Migration is not the first bird movie to produce and collapse a totalizing global world with a totalizing natural world. As Gregg Mitman (1999) has shown, American naturalists in the early and mid twentieth century believed that wildlife films of birds on the move could instill in audiences utopic images of transnationalism. Mitman's account of New York Zoological Society President, Fairfield Osborn, elaborates:

'The migration flyways of birds,' Osborn urged, 'may well be used to strikingly express the mutualities which nature has provided between the two continents [North and South America].' Osborn believed nature to be a universal category, the bonds that unite 'people of any blood or race.' In the midst of Roosevelt's push for economic internationalism, birds became useful for diffusing nationalist sentiments and promoting the common ownership of natural resources (1999: 182).

High Over the Borders (dir. Spottiswoode, 1942) was one film that emerged from Osborn's vision. A twenty-minute production, it preached the moral value of nature's shared ownership, a hallmark of early conservation discourse. Much like Perrin's film, several scenes showed audiences various species of birds in flight and offered the visual perspective of aerial photography. But High Over the Borders went further with the human migration analogy in its concluding scene. An Argentinean boy, who, after spending time with swallows that have journeyed from North America, tells his human friend that the birds have returned, adding "They all go there, and some day I'll go there to make a nest" (Mitman 1999:183-184).

 

Watching Winged Migration

<11> How then to critique the twinned totality of a global-natural world that Winged Migration brings into view? And how to build a critique that, rather than abstaining from the visual pleasures of this world, actively engages with them? As Cosgrove (1994) suggests in his study of the Apollo photographs, these pleasures are part of the politics of engaging with global-natural worlds, and as such we benefit from positioning them at the center of a critique. One possibility is to analyze the experience of watching the film itself. I am specifically interested in the experiences of an audience that posted reviews of the film's DVD version on Amazon.com between May 2003 and April 2004. Mostly American (though with some Canadian and Australian contributors) these seventy popular critics have something in common with the consumers of postwar space imagery and its attendant pleasures. One reviewer from Richmond, British Columbia makes the connection explicit when he equates the joy of watching Winged Migration to the thrill of watching "video from one of the first satellites launched, shot way back in 1984." [9]

<12> The persistent mention of personal pleasure in these reviews is specifically valuable for its ability to complicate totality via, what Haraway calls, "situated knowledges" (1991: 188-196). As Haraway makes clear, even the most totalizing visions come from somewhere. Her advice is to attend to practices that reveal a totality's situatedness in terms of location, of partiality, and especially of embodiment. For Haraway, bodies are the trouble spot in global-natural totalities because they produce "the view from a body, always complex, contradictory, structuring and structured body, versus the view from above, from nowhere, from simplicity" (1991: 195). Analyzing reviews of viewers who were moved by Winged Migration gets close to this argument. It adds necessary layers and fissures to the universal on-screen image of migrating birds by focusing on how the big picture is always integrated into, and transformed by, physical bodies, the fantasies they digest, and the social circumstances in which they find themselves. Put differently, reception study tempers the symbolic monumentality of many global-natural worlds with the everyday viewing practices of film consumers, the accounts of which often both reinforce and undermine that very monumentality. The same reviewer who compares Winged Migration to a space shuttle launch, for example, also recommends that the film "be in every daycare romper room, playing on a big plasma screen on the wall. It should be screened at every high school graduation and bar mitzvah, at every wedding, and at the presidential inauguration." [10] While this list of possible uses for Perrin's film speaks to its transcendent quality - a quasi-spiritual film appropriate for special occasions - it also evokes the distinctly ordinary and varied ways in which totality is personally experienced, made intelligible, and contested.

 

Home Viewing

<13> One of the ordinary ways that Winged Migration has been received involves the physical space of the film's screening. When reviewers draw attention to where they watch, they make clear that the sacred spectacle of migrating birds is enjoyed from the comforts of the family home. Grounding the viewing experience within a personal history of watching nature on television, a New York State reviewer frames it so: "My ex-wife could never understand why I (the original couch potato) could never get enough of nature shows on TV. It was rather difficult to explain how fascinating I found the natural world, especially from the comfort of my own living room." [11] For this viewer, the natural world is a welcome complement to his domestic universe, a world to be appreciated on the couch, loafing. Another viewer located in Eagle, Idaho describes his experience of the film in similar terms, with an emphasis on its versatility and therapeutic value:

This DVD played in our house as ambient background and center stage viewing for one lost weekend. It was peaceful. It made an unusual connection to nature for humans sometimes relegated to the safety behind four walls. Beware it may have a Pink Floyd 'Wall-esque' effect so don't watch while inebriated or under other influences too terribly much at risk of addiction. It is that mesmerizing. [12]

Its potential counter-cultural appeal aside, Winged Migration more obviously works for this critic as a calming backdrop or centerpiece - like a drug, only healthier. Healthy home viewing is further expressed in another viewer's comments from Oklahoma, who "likes nature and finds it relaxing." She adds: "When I feel stressed, I put this movie on and forget my worries." [13]

<14> For some, the comfort that screening this film provides is less about relaxation and more about family bonding. Several reviews characterize the home viewing experience as an occasion for families to come together: "I watched this movie tonight with my two daughters," writes one Indiana viewer, "I give it 5 stars" [14]. A Bostonian reports: ". . . inspirational beauty for the whole family. After we watched, we talked about birds, read stories about birds, drew some pictures of birds and then went back and watched our favorite scenes again." [15] Still others have a broader idea of family togetherness, albeit well within the boundaries of American home life: "Winged Migration is the only dvd [sic] I've purchased for myself. Well, it's really for me and my cat. He was as thrilled as I was to be flying with the birds. . . Great movie for everyone in the family." [16]

<15> What rings familiar in these accounts is a synchronicity between nature and domesticity that is common to wildlife films and particular, though not exclusive, to the United States. By the 1950's, films such as Disney's True-Life Adventure series and television programs like Zoo Parade and Wild Kingdom were crafting a family-friendly nature suitable for postwar suburban living. Nature became a thinly veiled reflection of domestic ideals as animals were imbued with middle-class family values and identities, making them seem organic, normal and good (Mitman 1999: 137-57). These were films and shows that featured devoted mothers, protective fathers, innocent children, and predatory strangers, each in the guise of animal bodies. Mitman elaborates: "Animal behavior stories, especially those that focused on themes such as courtship, nest-building, parenting, and development of the young, universalized the family as a nature unit" (Ibid.: 141). The domestication of nature on film was also a byproduct of encounters with suburban architecture: "Just as True-Life Adventure established the audience as spectator of nature, so the windows and sliding glass doors of the ranch-style homes. . . facilitated intimacy with nature through observation rather than participation" (Ibid.: 126). The comfort level of Winged Migration is intimately related to this historical role of wildlife film to fortify the physical, and ideological, spaces of the American middle-class family - or as one reviewer puts it, "the safety behind four walls." [17] Couches and televisions, and their associations with well-being and family togetherness, have been central to this viewing experience. These everyday conditions and values add a mundane spin to the film's more prodigious spatial imaginary, turning majestic migrating birds into household pets. Confined to the symbolic systems of domestic living and obedient to the commands of the remote control, their wings get clipped.

 

The Masterpiece

<16> Lest we misunderstand the film as an entirely domesticated object, popular critics frequently express the pleasure of watching Winged Migration within a discourse of "the masterpiece." The film is widely received as a work of high art, exemplified by one reviewer, of unknown location, and his earnest assessment that "This film is a masterpiece of visual beauty. It will be seen and appreciated a hundred years from now... The mind-numbingly beautiful footage of birds in flight is too beautiful for words…" [18]. Complimenting the timeless beauty of the film, a beauty that exceeds description, is a Tacoma, Washington resident's sense that "each image could be framed as art" [19], and another's blunt verdict that "The film itself is French Art." [20]

<17> When reviewers expand on exactly what is so artful about this masterpiece, the accounts rely on a modernist language of connoisseurship, abstracting the film into pure forms and defining spectatorship as an act of aesthetic contemplation. The piece is "full of life and energy and colour" [21], with landscapes that are "well put together." [22] It is a "visual tone poem. . . best enjoyed as a purely sensual almost meditative experience (no - I'm not a New Age looney, just a fan of pure CINEMA)." [23] Other connoisseurs, like a man from Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, throw emphasis on the artistic skill of the filmmaker; the "depth and breadth of his vision and brilliance of his execution." [24] Tellingly, these descriptions often position the filmmaker as a painter, elevating Winged Migration to high art status by virtue of painting's historical privilege among artistic mediums. Recounting one shot of the Great Wall of China, a viewer, of unknown location, writes, "It looks so incredible that you may actually think that a master Chinese painter had painted what you see onscreen." [25] The viewer from Idaho writes: "This film is a wholly natural poetic master brushstroke of a work. It is hypnotic. It is enthralling. It is subsuming. It is, well. . . just a darn good watch." [26]

<18> The reception of Perrin's film as a "master brushstroke of a work" raises a number of questions about representing nature, and its global face, as a high art object. Does the celebration of nature-as-masterpiece become the kind of nature that Williams (1980) finds troubling, a nature whose aestheticization conceals its necessary integration with the social world, and particularly, the world of labor? Does consuming Winged Migration as a form of high art signal a retreat into abstraction and separation? Would a nature film that looked more working class do a better job of reuniting the natural and social world? Perhaps, though precisely what the aesthetics of a working class nature film would be is an open question, as is the extent to which Perrin's film satisfies low brow tastes.

<19> I would argue, however, that the film maintains a lively engagement with, as Williams puts it, "the complex of social and natural relationships" (1980: 83) that constitute every natural world. By characterizing the film as a masterpiece, reviewers implicitly acknowledge the constructedness of this world, foregrounding the film's representational quality and the human effort involved in its production. As a "masterpiece," Winged Migration cannot pass as a singular abstraction, an organic totality, because it is embedded in a discourse that values the cultural over the natural, expressionism over realism, and the visible signs of creative labor-cum-genius; the "master brushstroke." This is why, for example, some reviewers avoid criticizing the film for its failures as a nature documentary while praising its artistry in the same breath. From Oakland, California one writes: "It's not a 'fly on the wall documentary.' It's a movie whose primary purpose is to look absolutely stunning and beautiful on screen. It is in that capacity that I judge it. And I judge it to be a masterpiece." [27] Another located in North Carolina writes: "My advise [sic] is to accept it for what it is - wonderful cinematography; a Herculean effort; honest and respectable 'orchestration'. . . This film is in so many ways - awesome art" (emphasis added). [28] Several reviewers embrace the film's effort and orchestration by applauding a supplementary DVD feature, which divulges the various technical, bureaucratic and animal behavior challenges that the crew faced during production. This bonus feature is a story of triumph over adversity that helps construct Perrin's profile as a master of his medium, but also of flying machines, of national governments, and of birds. Significantly, the story is largely (though not uniformly) received as a valuable addendum to the film itself; it is read as a "real" documentary that positively informs the main feature's artistry. For example:

This film is a stunningly beautiful masterpiece filled with breathtaking cinematography. The four years of work that went into making it shows during every second of the film. Jacques Perrin and the people he worked with have created a piece of work that is in essence a spectacular gift to the world (emphasis added). [29]

That labor is judged to be visible at all points in the film indicates precisely how the discourse of the masterpiece challenges, at least in part, ideas of a nature that is abstracted, erased of its labors, and made to seem wholly natural. This nature, by contrast, is too stunning to be real, too worked-over to be untouched. The same reviewer continues: "Some of the aerial shots of birds flying are so beautiful that they appear unreal. It is as if a skilled artist had painted the landscapes." [30] Thus, it may be somewhat ironic that the high brow discourse of the modernist masterpiece should throw such a sizeable wrench into the image of a singular natural world; paradoxically, the two discourses appear to be highly compatible. [31] But in its attention to the film's formal qualities and its fascination with production - albeit disproportionately centered on a laboring director - the American reception of Winged Migration as a piece of high art amounts, surprisingly, to some worthwhile situated knowledge.

 

The Bird's Eye View

<20> For many reviewers, the pleasure of watching a cinematic masterpiece is matched by the pleasure of adopting the (imagined) visual perspective of its main characters. "How would you like to fly among, indeed next to migratory birds of various species," asks one amateur critic from Dallas, Texas, "and do so as if you were one of them?" [32] The recurring comment that Winged Migration gives audiences a "bird's eye view" of the world deserves more consideration because it walks a fine line between corroborating the aesthetic and ideological totality of a global-natural world and pointing us towards more critical possibilities, much like its reception as a masterpiece.

<21> As I have already suggested, the birds in this film are powerful archetypes of the bourgeois tourist, a globe trotter whose access to all places at all times is more or less unregulated. But what of the fact that this perspective is experienced as bird-like? How does the remarkable feeling of being, as one Australian reviewer put it, "carried aloft on the wings of birds" [33], affect the construction of a totalizing discourse? It would seem that for many reviewers, the bird's-eye view renegotiates the terms of that discourse, by making its embodiment excessive and available to them. In Winged Migration, a gaze from nowhere is very difficult to imagine. Its sights are repeatedly attributed to the sensory system of flying birds, and absorbed by viewers as the feeling of being like a bird. In so doing, the film positively reclaims acts of looking and subverts the myth of invincible, intangible vision. Here, the birds' gaze, and so ours, is highly vulnerable, generated from the strenuous flapping of wings, the horizontal extension of necks, torsos and legs, and the narrow escape from multiple dangers. Some birds survive the hardship, others do not. Vulnerability of this sort reminds audiences that the totality of a global-natural world is necessarily anchored to a fallible viewing subject. In other words, the film gives viewers a view from somewhere, thrusting its spectators into the simulated experience of locatable, partial and embodied animal vision. As one viewer from Marina, California states, the thrill of the planetary tour is generated precisely from this simulation, a different feeling than that generated by aerial photography alone: ". . . the overall effect produced while watching birds soar through the atmosphere is not that of a camera photographing something, but of you yourself being transformed into a bird and going along for the ride." [34] The transformation is particularly visceral for the British Columbian fan, who describes it in very physical terms:

The movie grabs you at hello. That tiny red bird hopping after you, transition to the goose trapped in the net, kid setting it free, then suddenly you're 'flying'!!! Wow!! My kids jumped up on the couch and started yelling, the effect was so intense. For the next hour and a half, you will be in image after image, flying as you are above the earth, wing on wing with birds in flight, every honk, peep and chirp, even the rush of the air! [35]

Harsh criticisms of the film's totalizing worldview are difficult to maintain when it is experienced as a powerful inhabitation of other creatures' corporeality.

<22> Haraway (1991) for one, is sensitive to the potential of seeing/feeling through the eyes of nonhuman beings. She contextualizes her theory of situated knowledges within the mysteries of animal perception: "These are the lessons that I learned in part walking with my dogs and wondering how the world looks without fovea and very few retinal cells for color vision but with a huge neural processing and sensory area for smells" (1991: 190). For her, wondering amounts to a recognition that there are many different ways of seeing the world, and that the god trick of universal vision is only one of them. Animal vision, then, is an allegory for the perceptual and political possibilities of new worlds, worlds that are bound to an Other's point of view.

<23> Certainly, there are risks involved in Haraway's speculations, foremost among them the potential to fetishize the vision of the Other as a site of mysterious knowledge, fuelling the ongoing treatment of the natural world as an object exterior to the social world. This returns us to the problematic totalities we wish to revise. On the other hand, the allegorical dimension of animal vision may be useful for qualifying these totalities, injecting as it does some massive doubt into the unaccountable gaze from nowhere. Doubt, moreover, is laced with ample amounts of pleasure. This is not a punitive denial of the joys of looking, a joy which strikes me as a valuable part of coming to understand global and natural worlds. Winged Migration seduces its audience with vantage points that are exhilarating to say the least. But as it turns out, the perceptual pleasures offered in the film are not sufficiently invested in the symbolic totalities that its own narrative proposes. Rather, viewers latch onto the wonder of being sited within these totalities, as flying birds. The viewing experience is characterized less as one of mastery of global and natural worlds than as a feeling of humility in their presence, and perhaps even an impetus to reconsider their conflated and universalized representation. A critic from Blacksburg, Virginia gives some concluding shape to this reconsideration. After applauding the film for its breathtaking imagery he admits to being annoyed by a narration that "tries to tie it all together with insightful commentary." [36] Ultimately, his misgivings lie with the film's unifying concept of migration: ". . . can you honestly compare penguins and parrots with geese and finches? They may all be birds, but their stories and journeys are remarkably different." [37]

 

References

Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Cosgrove, Denis. "Contested Global Visions: One-World, Whole-Earth, and the Apollo Space Photographs." Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 84(2), 1994: pp. 270-294.

Cronon, William (ed.) Uncommon Ground: Toward the Reinvention of Nature. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995.

Davis, Susan. Spectacular Nature: Corporate Culture and the Sea World Experience. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Franklin, Sarah, Celia Lury and Jackie Stacey, (eds.) Global Nature, Global Culture. London: Sage Publications, 2000.

"Global Culture: Millennium Supplement: Culture." Special issue of National Geographic. 196(2), August 1999.

Goldman, Robert, Stephen Papson and Noah Kersey. Landscapes of Capital. <http://it.stlawu.edu/~global/> [Accessed 9 January 2007].

Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991.

High Over the Borders. dir. Raymond Spottiswoode, 1942.

Inda, Jonathan Xavier and Rosaldo Renato (eds.) The Anthropology of Globalization. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 2002.

MacCannell, Dean. The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

Mitman, Gregg. Reel Nature: America's Romance with Wildlife on Film. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Perrin, Jacques, "Director Statement." <http://www.sonyclassics.com/wingedmigration/home.html> [Accessed 9 January 2007].

Reviews of Winged Migration, Amazon.com. <http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/customer-reviews/B0000CGNEH/ref=cm_cr_dp_pt/105-6045647-9666023?ie=UTF8&n=130&s=dvd> [Accessed 15 April 2004].

Small, Cathy. Voyages: From Tongan Villages to American Suburbs. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977.

Smith, Neil. "The Production of Nature." Future Natural: Nature, Science, Culture. George Robertson et al. (eds.) London: Routledge, 1998.

Williams, Raymond. Problems in Materialism and Culture. London: Verson, 1980.

Wilson, Alexander. The Culture of Nature: North American Landscape from Disney to the Exxon Valdez. Toronto: Between the Lines, 1991.

Winged Migration. dir. Jacques Perrin, 2001.

 

Notes

[1] Authored by sociologists Robert Goldman and Stephen Papson, and graphic designer Noah Kersey, the Landscapes of Capital project is a "multimedia Web-based book" that investigates images of globalization in corporate television commercials. Landscapes of Capital. <http://it.stlawu.edu/~global/> [Accessed 9 January 2007]. [^]

[2] "The Montage," Landscapes of Capital. <http://it.stlawu.edu/~global/pagessemiotics/serialmontage.html> [Accessed 9 January 2007]. [^]

[3] Ibid. [^]

[4] The serial montage and its variants have been used in globalization studies across the political spectrum. The introduction to Jonathan Xavier Inda and Renato Rosaldo's reader, Anthropology of Globalization (2002), is one example. It figures globalization as a sequence of five written "snapshots," each a bundle of extreme cultural juxtapositions and hybridities, which are meant to illustrate, and critique, the condition of global interconnectedness. Significantly, the introduction bears a striking resemblance to National Geographic's (1999) issue on global culture, which uses actual snapshots to celebrate the spectacular possibilities of a globalized world. In both publications, elements from one country/class/worldview collide and intertwine with elements from another, representing globalization as an inescapable mishmash: In Inda and Rosaldo's reader, a data-entry worker in Barbados files U.S. medical claims; in NG, a Shanghai teen plays basketball alongside a cardboard cutout of Michael Jordon; in the reader, a pentecostalist preacher in Ghana condemns the everyday use of western commodities; in NG, an Indian mother and adult daughter pose for the camera in sari and latex bodysuit, respectively (Inda and Rosaldo 2002: 1-2; National Geographic). What is striking here is that a progressive academic anthology and a magazine that repeats abuses of historical colonial power each deploy the serial montage. This versatility suggests an emergent norm in the aesthetics of globalization. [^]

[5] See for example Cronon 1995; Davis 1997; Haraway 1991; Smith; 1998; Williams 1980; Wilson 1991. [^]

[6] Perrin, Jacques, "Director Statement." <http://www.sonyclassics.com/wingedmigration/home.html> [Accessed 9 January 2007]. [^]

[7] Ibid. [^]

[8] For an illustration of one community's experience of transnational migration see Small 1977. [^]

[9] "Be the Thrill," rev. of Winged Migration, Amazon.com. 9 March 2004. <http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/customer-reviews/B0000CGNEH/ref=cm_cr_dp_pt/105-6045647-9666023?ie=UTF8&n=130&s=dvd> [Accessed 15 April 2004]. [^]

[10] Ibid. [^]

[11] "Winged Victory," rev. of Winged Migration, Amazon.com. 2. August 2003. <http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/customer-reviews/B0000CGNEH/ref=cm_cr_dp_pt/105-6045647-9666023?ie=UTF8&n=130&s=dvd> [Accessed 15 April 2004]. [^]

[12] "Birded Brilliance," rev. of Winged Migration, Amazon.com. 14 February 2004. <http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/customer-reviews/B0000CGNEH/ref=cm_cr_dp_pt/105-6045647-9666023?ie=UTF8&n=130&s=dvd> [Accessed 15 April 2004]. [^]

[13] "Absolutely Wonderful," rev. of Winged Migration, Amazon.com. 5 February 2004. <http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/customer-reviews/B0000CGNEH/ref=cm_cr_dp_pt/105-6045647-9666023?ie=UTF8&n=130&s=dvd> [Accessed 15 April 2004]. [^]

[14] "Very nice," rev. of Winged Migration, Amazon.com. 25 February 2004. <http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/customer-reviews/B0000CGNEH/ref=cm_cr_dp_pt/105-6045647-9666023?ie=UTF8&n=130&s=dvd> [Accessed 15 April 2004]. [^]

[15] "transcendent viewing for nature lovers," rev. of Winged Migration, Amazon.com. 8 January 2004. <http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/customer-reviews/B0000CGNEH/ref=cm_cr_dp_pt/105-6045647-9666023?ie=UTF8&n=130&s=dvd> [Accessed 15 April 2004]. [^]

[16] "Had to own it," rev. of Winged Migration, Amazon.com. 26 January 2004. <http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/customer-reviews/B0000CGNEH/ref=cm_cr_dp_pt/105-6045647-9666023?ie=UTF8&n=130&s=dvd> [Accessed 15 April 2004]. [^]

[17] "Birded Brilliance." [^]

[18] "A Timeless Masterpiece of Visual Beauty," rev. of Winged Migration, Amazon.com. 17 February 2004. <http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/customer-reviews/B0000CGNEH/ref=cm_cr_dp_pt/105-6045647-9666023?ie=UTF8&n=130&s=dvd> [Accessed 15 April 2004]. [^]

[19] "Remarkable!" rev. of Winged Migration, Amazon.com. 2 February 2004. <http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/customer-reviews/B0000CGNEH/ref=cm_cr_dp_pt/105-6045647-9666023?ie=UTF8&n=130&s=dvd> [Accessed 15 April 2004]. [^]

[20] "French Art," rev. of Winged Migration, Amazon.com. 8 January 2004. <http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/customer-reviews/B0000CGNEH/ref=cm_cr_dp_pt/105-6045647-9666023?ie=UTF8&n=130&s=dvd> [Accessed 15 April 2004]. [^]

[21] Tremendous," rev. of Winged Migration, Amazon.com. 20 January 2004. <http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/customer-reviews/B0000CGNEH/ref=cm_cr_dp_pt/105-6045647-9666023?ie=UTF8&n=130&s=dvd> [Accessed 15 April 2004]. [^]

[22] "Remarkable!" rev. of Winged Migration, Amazon.com. 2 February 2004. <http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/customer-reviews/B0000CGNEH/ref=cm_cr_dp_pt/105-6045647-9666023?ie=UTF8&n=130&s=dvd> [Accessed 15 April 2004]. [^]

[23] "Birdland," rev. of Winged Migration, Amazon.com. 21 January 2004. <http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/customer-reviews/B0000CGNEH/ref=cm_cr_dp_pt/105-6045647-9666023?ie=UTF8&n=130&s=dvd> [Accessed 15 April 2004]. [^]

[24] "Simply a Masterpiece," rev. of Winged Migration, Amazon.com. 20 January 2004. <http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/customer-reviews/B0000CGNEH/ref=cm_cr_dp_pt/105-6045647-9666023?ie=UTF8&n=130&s=dvd> [Accessed 15 April 2004]. [^]

[25] "A film truly deserving of its laurels," rev. of Winged Migration, Amazon.com. 11 February 2004. <http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/customer-reviews/B0000CGNEH/ref=cm_cr_dp_pt/105-6045647-9666023?ie=UTF8&n=130&s=dvd> [Accessed 15 April 2004]. [^]

[26] It is worth noting here how the discourse of the masterpiece becomes a medium through which commentators not only grapple with the character of Winged Migration's artistry, but also the social location of those who judge it. Performing the role of the connoisseur at the onset of his review, the Idaho viewer maintains it for a while, adding on superlatives until the more commonplace judgment that the film is "just a darn good watch." Meanwhile, a more rigid elitism appears when a San Diegan who, again, dubs Winged Migration a "stunning masterpiece," follows with criticism for those who give it only one and two stars: "Obviously, their paper-thin intellects cannot handle 85 minutes without gratuitous sex, titillating human nudity, mind-numbing violence or cheap computer-generated FX's." Creating distance from the proverbial masses, the pretentiousness of this viewer's opinion reveals some anxiety over his own location in the high/low binary. "Birded Brilliance"; "A stunning masterpiece!!!" rev. of Winged Migration, Amazon.com. 21 January 2004. <http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/customer-reviews/B0000CGNEH/ref=cm_cr_dp_pt/105-6045647-9666023?ie=UTF8&n=130&s=dvd> [Accessed 15 April 2004]. [^]

[27] "This is a movie," rev. of Winged Migration, Amazon.com. 7 January 2004. <http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/customer-reviews/B0000CGNEH/ref=cm_cr_dp_pt/105-6045647-9666023?ie=UTF8&n=130&s=dvd> [Accessed 15 April 2004]. [^]

[28] "Awesome art," rev. of Winged Migration, Amazon.com. 3 January 2004. <http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/customer-reviews/B0000CGNEH/ref=cm_cr_dp_pt/105-6045647-9666023?ie=UTF8&n=130&s=dvd> [Accessed 15 April 2004]. [^]

[29] "A film truly deserving of its laurels." [^]

[30] Ibid. [^]

[31] As Mitman argues, for example, the history of nature film is part of a larger history of moral and educational uplift that was spearheaded by bourgeois organizations like the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club. Depicting the natural world as purified and externalized space has also been a project of purifying an American public and taking them "somewhere else," (Mitman, 1999). [^]

[32] "Incomparable. . . Indescribable," rev. of Winged Migration, Amazon.com. 17 February 2004. <http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/customer-reviews/B0000CGNEH/ref=cm_cr_dp_pt/105-6045647-9666023?ie=UTF8&n=130&s=dvd> [Accessed 15 April 2004]. [^]

[33] "Tremendous." [^]

[34] "Let your heart take flight," rev. of Winged Migration, Amazon.com. 12 February 2004. <http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/customer-reviews/B0000CGNEH/ref=cm_cr_dp_pt/105-6045647-9666023?ie=UTF8&n=130&s=dvd> [Accessed 15 April 2004]. [^]

[35] "Be the Thrill." [^]

[36] "Visually Stunning, Conceptually Problematic," rev. of Winged Migration, Amazon.com. 6 February 2004. <http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/customer-reviews/B0000CGNEH/ref=cm_cr_dp_pt/105-6045647-9666023?ie=UTF8&n=130&s=dvd> [Accessed 15 April 2004]. [^]

[37] Ibid. [^]

 

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