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Another Nature Speaks to the Camera: Natural History and Film Theory

© 2019 Johns Hopkins University Press

The London Film Society was founded in 1925 with a mission of bringing avant-garde and foreign films to British audiences. Its programming included a number of films that have gone down in history as landmarks of experimental cinema: Ballet mécanique and Entr’acte from France, the German expressionist classics The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, and Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and October from the Soviet Union. These selections gave the Film Society a certain modernist cachet, and its screenings attracted the likes of Roger Fry and Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Alongside these ambitious international films, however, the Film Society also had a curious liking for a humbler, more homegrown kind of programming: the natural history short.

Film Society records show that they exhibited many short science and nature films. Laura Marcus attributes their “strong emphasis on scientific and nature films” to the predilections of Film Society co-founder Ivor Montagu, a former zoology student at Cambridge.[1] These “bionomic” films included selections from the Secrets of Nature series. Produced by British Instructional Films between 1922 and 1933, Secrets of Nature aimed to entertain and educate the public with footage of plants, animals, and microorganisms, along with explanations of their life cycles. The series applied the latest cinematic techniques to an old-fashioned brand of natural history. Most of its stars were common, local British species, such as the barn owl, the raven, the ant, the scarlet runner bean, and even the myxomycetes, a slime mold the filmmakers rebrand under the much cuter term “myxies.” The Film Society screened several of the Secrets, among them The Comma Butterfly, Plants of the Pantry, The Frog, The Aphis, The Strangler, Down Under (a film on the growth of plant roots), Water Folk (on water fleas), Magic Myxies, and Gathering Moss.[2]

Plants of the Pantry (1927), a Secrets short shown at a 1929 Film Society meeting alongside Man Ray’s L’étoile de mer (The Starfish), typifies the series, which unites modernist visual abstraction with a grotesque aesthetic and a revelation of the beauty hidden in the ordinary. The film, like many of the Secrets, presents a life history of its subject—in this case, the mold that grows on food—including its growth, dissemination, and reproduction. And, like many other films in the series, Plants puts on display the technical virtuosity of natural history filmmaking, emphasizing that the technological apparatus reveals things normally invisible to the human eye. Plants begins with an intertitle signaling its use of time-lapse: “Rapid-motion photography has been employed in this subject, most of the pictures being taken at 200 to 20,000 times the normal speed.” This speeding-up allows viewers to witness the growth and movement of the featured organism. Plants of the Pantry also uses magnification and microscopy to usher viewers from a macroscopic view of a piece of meat, the mold’s substrate, to a dramatically smaller scale, and with these techniques the filmmakers take an otherwise unappealing, even disgusting, subject and transform it into something altogether different. “[C]heese that has become wild and woolly is in reality a garden of exquisite plants,” reads one intertitle. The images reinforce this point: the time-lapse and magnification abstracts the mold enough to make it into an art object, rather like a Jackson Pollock painting in motion (fig. 1). The film showcases the power of cinema to defamiliarize the ordinary and to uncover the secret beauty in grotesque or abject things. It’s not difficult to see why Ivor Montagu and the other Film Society programmers would find its weird vision compatible with Man Ray’s mysterious surrealist film, which itself includes many close-ups of a starfish in a jar, its spiny legs evocative of the natural history genre.

Two mold colonies meet and merge. Plants of the Pantry, British Instructional Films, 1927.
Fig. 1. Two mold colonies meet and merge. Plants of the Pantry, British Instructional Films, 1927. Courtesy of the British Film Institute National Archive.

The London Film Society was not alone in its taste for science and nature films; other European avant-gardes liked them too. In Paris, the surrealists embraced the work of science filmmaker Jean Painlevé, who brought them films on the octopus, sea urchin, seahorse, hermit crab, and other, mostly aquatic creatures.[3] At the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier in Paris, Jean Tedesco not only screened scientific films, but also ran a “laboratory” that produced animal and plant films with titles like Starfish and Sea Flowers, The Secret Life of Field Crickets, and The Sensitive Life of Plants.[4] Meanwhile, Dutch filmmaker J. C. Mol’s microcinematographic views of crystals were shown at avant-garde theaters in Paris and Amsterdam, where they were hailed as examples of cinéma pur.[5] (The Film Society itself would screen films by Painlevé and Mol in 1936–37.)

That Film Society members gravitated toward science and nature films, and that this sort of programming was part of a larger pattern, suggests that the natural history film warrants reappraisal as a modernist genre. Where might films like the Secrets of Nature fit on the modernist map? This essay aims to orient them with respect to 1920s and 1930s film culture, aesthetic modernism more generally, and the rise of biocentrism in the post-Darwinian era. First, classical (pre-1960s) film theory considered nature films to embody the promise of cinema as a medium. Its proponents believed that cinema opens up a nonhuman world before our eyes, bypassing human intent and intervention to reveal, in Virginia Woolf’s words, “life as it is when we have no part in it.”[6] Within this logic, nature films, which showcased the living forms of plants and animals in motion, were seen as the purest expression of a cinematic aesthetic. These films came closest to realizing what classical theorists considered the essential purpose of film: to let nature speak.

Second, natural history films like the Secrets were also attuned to modernist trends across the arts. This is partly because of their visual resemblance to abstract painting, but more importantly it is because the films, and the exhibitors and critics who loved them, implicitly redefined the role of the artist in ways that were in keeping with other strands of modernism.[7] Shying away from the imperious figure who produces art by controlling and reshaping matter, hammering away at marble, many modernists sought instead to be more like a camera or pointing finger. That is, they wanted to shape aesthetic experience while leaving a lighter imprint on the material world. The artist as critic, collector, or editor is a familiar formulation within modernist studies; to these types this essay adds the naturalist-cinematographer and the film programmer as forms of modernist authorship.

Finally, the Secrets of Nature and other natural history films do not just reveal the natural world via an expansion of vision; they also work to change viewers’ affective responses to nature. They foster a love for strange, pesky, and mundane species, transmuting them into animated forms of living art. The Secrets aim to create in viewers a secular enchantment with not only animals and plants that have long been part of the aesthetic canon—butterflies, nightingales, flowering plants—but also those that have been overlooked or even hated. They challenge anthropocentrism, partly by taking on the inhuman vision of the camera and associated visual technologies, and partly by rewriting the ideological codes that would name a mold, weed, or bug as a pest. They belong to a lineage of biocentric thought that runs from Darwin to deep ecology to contemporary ecocritical theory. Modernism, as Joshua Schuster has recently argued, has rarely struck critics as a particularly “green” or nature-loving species of art, especially in comparison with romanticism or post-1950s nature writing and ecopoetry.[8] But early natural history films, and the film culture that elevated them, made a space where even those who preferred the new, the artificial, and the abstract could find a way to appreciate plants, animals, crystals, and other natural objects. Natural history films, in short, make perceptible the ecological unconscious of modernism.

Science, Nature, and Film Theory

The influential art critic Clement Greenberg characterized modernism as a movement that aimed to reduce each art form to its own unique characteristics as a medium—flatness and pigment in the case of painting—and thereby to “purify” it.[9] Classical film theory, to extend Greenberg’s definition, might be labeled a meta-modernist genre. It obsessed over the question of what cinema is—what its peculiar attributes are, and how it might best pare away the illegitimate influence of other art forms to realize its own aesthetic. Science and nature films came to occupy a central role in 1920s and 1930s film theory, where they were considered exemplars of the medium. At the risk of oversimplifying a diverse body of work, I will suggest that this body of film criticism constellated around the following ideas, which help account for its attraction to natural history films: (1) cinema is a scientific as well as an artistic medium, and its contributions to science and art stem from its technical ability to expand humans’ field of vision; (2) some things are more photogenic than others, and the objects of natural history—animals, plants, microorganisms, minerals, etc.—are specially imbued with photogénie; (3) the uniqueness of cinema lies in its openness to contingency or chance, an affordance that lets nature itself speak.

One of the italicized maxims in Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” (1939) reads, “Demonstrating that the artistic uses of photography are identical to its scientific uses—these two dimensions having usually been separated until now—will be one of the revolutionary functions of film.”[10] Film’s artistic and scientific capacities might have seemed separate at the end of the 1930s, after two and a half decades of classical Hollywood cinema had shaped the filmic landscape. But they would not have seemed separate during the medium’s early years, 1895–1905. Indeed, cinema was a science before it was an art, as Virgilio Tosi has argued. Before it became a medium for storytelling or a form of aesthetic expression, it was a tool for recording and analyzing movement. Its roots lie in the chronophotography that Étienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge invented in the late nineteenth century to document the locomotion of horses, birds, cats, and other creatures.[11] The technology of motion pictures was thus born out of the scientific study of animals.

In the era of the “cinema of attractions”—Tom Gunning’s term for pre-1906 film culture, which emphasized spectacle over storytelling—some of the most popular films were one- or two-shot natural history films.[12] Charles Urban’s 1903 show The Unseen World, for example, which featured microorganisms magnified to look like “great uncanny crabs,” ran for nine months at the Alhambra theater in London.[13] And while mainstream audiences were marveling over Urban’s microcinematographic Cheese Mites or Percy Smith’s 1910 time-lapse film Birth of a Flower, scientists like the French physiologists Jean Comandon and Alexis Carrel were using film to investigate scientific questions about subjects like cellular motion and tissue development.[14]

The close correspondence between science films and early film theory has not gone unnoticed by contemporary film studies scholars. Hannah Landecker, for example, has uncovered frequent references to microscopy and cellular phenomena in the film theory of Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer, André Bazin, Germaine Dulac, Jean Epstein and others. She argues that these references are more than just metaphors for the camera, the shot, or the edited film. They are also allusions to early scientific films like the time-lapse tissue culture films of Comandon. Scientific filmmakers and film theorists, she suggests, found in the microcinematographic representations of living cells a key exhibit for their understanding of life itself.[15] James Leo Cahill, likewise, claims that science film “had considerable influence upon film theory, its impact spreading well beyond its rather specialized origins.”[16] Citing Epstein, Dulac, Colette, and others, he explains that science films came to signify for these 1920s French film theorists a kind of “pure film” untainted by the demands of profit or narrative (Cahill, “Hors d’oeuvre,” 68).

The influence of scientific films also helps to explain the realist orientation—some would even say the naïve realism—of so much classical film theory. It was not just showmen like Charles Urban promising that their films would reveal “nature’s closest secrets,” or journalists like Henri de Parville claiming that film showed “nature caught in the act.”[17] It was also the critics and theorists that followed them—including Benjamin, Epstein, Kracauer, and Bazin—who believed that cinema had a special capacity to peel back the surface of the perceptible world and reveal another, hitherto unnoticed reality. The camera was, in their view, a cousin of the microscope, the telescope, and the X-ray—a way to see parts of nature normally imperceptible to human eyes. Filmic techniques like the close-up, slow-motion, and time-lapse, Benjamin argued, bring “to light entirely new structures of matter” and new “aspects of movements”; these revelations are both scientifically valuable and aesthetically arresting (“Work of Art,” 266). The camera, “with all its resources for swooping and rising, disrupting and isolating, stretching or compressing a sequence, enlarging or reproducing an object,” allows us to “discover the optical unconscious”—the things that always occur before our eyes but that we do not consciously register. “Clearly,” Benjamin sums up, “it is another nature which speaks to the camera as compared to the eye” (266).

Benjamin’s account of the optical unconscious is still famous today, and justly so, but it is important to note that he was not the only one of his contemporaries to stress cinema’s capacity to augment everyday vision. The “eccentric, decentering vision” of the camera, Cahill explains, was a recurrent motif in 1920s and 1930s film and photography criticism. For example, Epstein argued in a 1926 essay that film should not simply “replicate the functions of our retina,” but should be “an eye outside of the eye,” presenting “a spectacle through relation to a centre other than our own line of sight” (quoted in “Animal Photogénie,” 27). Kracauer’s 1927 essay “Photography” similarly emphasized the camera’s inhuman perspective, which may take in familiar objects produced by humans, but renders them from strange, oblique angles: “Photography shows cities in aerial shots, brings crockets and figures down from the Gothic cathedrals; all spatial configurations are incorporated into the central archive in unusual combinations that distance them from human proximity.”[18] In England, meanwhile, the biologist Julian Huxley, a member of the London Film Society, wrote an article for Sight and Sound that extolled time-lapse and slow-motion cinematography for making normally invisible processes perceptible and available for study. “The film, by means of its independence of time, is capable of giving a direct realization of processes that are too fast or too slow for the eye,” he wrote; “a humming-bird’s flight, which we perceived as a mere blur, can be analyzed by slowing-down; and by speeding-up, a long and complex sequence of events can be grasped as a single process.”[19] It should be noted that Kracauer and Benjamin believed the camera’s eccentric vision might spark a revolutionary political consciousness, a link that does not seem to be present in the work of Epstein or Huxley. But all saw in photographic technologies a way to expand our visual field beyond the limitations of the human eye.

Early film theorists not only stressed a close alliance between scientific and aesthetic uses of the camera, they also saw the subject matter of science, especially natural history, as uniquely befitting film. In his 1926 essay “On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie,” Epstein turned to the stuff of nature films to illustrate the concept of photogénie, the suitability of certain things to be filmed. “If we wish to understand how an animal, a plant, or a stone can inspire respect, fear, or horror, those three most sacred sentiments, I think we must watch them on the screen, living their mysterious, silent lives, alien to the human sensibility,” he declared.[20] For Epstein, just as the camera is an inhuman eye that should avoid duplicating human vision, so are the ideal profilmic objects inhuman and “alien.” As Cahill shows, Epstein was by no means alone in identifying a special connection between animals, plants, stones, and the camera; 1920s and 30s French film theory was peppered with “frequent assertions that footage of nonhuman beings and things tended to produce the most striking and attractive moments in cinema, revealing something about the filmic medium’s special or specific capacities” (“Animal Photogénie,” 24). This discourse on nonhuman photogénie, Cahill continues, represents classical film theory’s challenge to “the pervasive anthropocentrism in Western thought and culture” (“Animal Photogénie,” 24).

They did not all use the term “photogénie,” but the idea that some things, like leaves, cells, and animals, are naturally suited to the camera united a surprisingly wide array of early film theorists. Benjamin, for example, suggested that the material of science photography and film—“details of structure, cellular tissue”—is “more native to the camera than the atmospheric landscape or the soulful portrait.”[21] (The latter are presumably carryovers from painting, which follow outdated bourgeois conventions of art, the artist, and the picturesque; as such, they fail to realize the potential Benjamin saw in the camera to expose and upend ideology.) For Kracauer, it was “[s]treet crowds, involuntary gestures,” and rustling leaves that seemed most “native” to film (Theory of Film, xlix). “[S]ince any medium is partial to the things it is uniquely equipped to render,” he wrote, “the cinema is conceivably animated by a desire to picture transient material life at its most ephemeral” (xlix). The phrasing here is ambiguous enough for readers to attribute this “desire” not to human filmmakers, but to the cinema itself, which seems to have its own mysterious proclivities for certain objects and processes. And for the British film critic Huntly Carter, who directly references the Secrets of Nature as an example, animals and other “natural objects” are the ideal examples of photogénie: “the only form of art expression . . . that rightly belongs to the Cinema is that of the natural aesthetic of an object as when a spider weaves a web out of itself, or, as The Secret of Nature [sic] picture natural objects unfold and clothe themselves in their own aesthetic, through the exercise of the power of art expression inhering in themselves.”[22]

Bazin, too, singled out natural history films for praise in his critical writings of the 1940s and 1950s. Bazin is often thought of as an antagonist to the earlier generation of French film critics, one who rejected their ideas about cinéma pur and defended filmic adaptations of novels and plays.[23] But when it came to nature on screen, Bazin’s prose sounds surprisingly similar to Epstein’s. In “Science Films: Accidental Beauty,” a review of an International Association of Science Films conference, Bazin argued that science films represent cinema’s “purest aesthetic”: “The camera alone possesses the secret key to this universe where supreme beauty is identified at once with nature and with chance.”[24] It is almost as if nature had been lying dormant for millions of years, awaiting the invention of the camera that would awaken it. And, as Jennifer Fay explains, Bazin specifically favored animals as cinematic objects. His film theory pivots on cinema’s ability to, in Fay’s words, “reveal a world in which humans exist equally with animals and things; it may even show us a world in which animals and things exist independent of humans altogether.”[25] It is a view of cinema that pushes humans to the periphery. Animals, Fay suggests, are the center of Bazinesque cinema, the essence of nature, beauty, and chance.

Bazin’s emphasis on “nature and chance” as the special province of cinema also leads us to the third unifying idea of classical film theory: that its ability to capture contingency is what sets film apart from other media. If one had to choose a single image to represent film’s aesthetics of chance, one could do worse than to select the leaves on a tree, perhaps the ones moving in the wind in the background of the 1895 Lumière film Le Repas de Bébé. Leaves captivated the earliest film reviewers, who saw them as, in Tom Gunning’s words, “unique spectacles of an eddying, free-formed and unpredictable motion.”[26] As Nico Baumbach observes, the fixation on leaves in film can be seen as a continuation of romanticism, where wind rustling the trees signified “interiority, melancholic longing, and temporal dislocation,” but it can also be seen as an emptying-out of that trope, signifying no meaning other than the bare existence of wind and leaves before a camera.[27] For Kracauer, leaves in motion embodied the very nature and purpose of cinema—the camera, he declared, “fulfills itself in rendering the ‘ripple of the leaves’” (Theory of Film, l).

The rustling leaves are emblems of an aspect of film that was especially appealing for early-twentieth-century critics: its indexical recording of the physical world, which created a space outside of human intent, where chance could flourish and nonhuman beings were free to move according to their own lights.[28] If the Lumières were savvy enough, perhaps they guessed that the fluttering leaves would charm viewers who had never seen a film before. But they could not have designed the precise pattern of movement in the film; that was something that happened between the camera, the wind, and the tree.

Thirty years after Le Repas de Bébé was screened for the first time, Virginia Woolf’s “The Cinema” suggested that the best and most cinematic moments in cinema are those that happen by accident. Like many classical film theorists (apart from Bazin), Woolf believed that film should follow its own, medium-specific aesthetic; she expressed disapproval of movies based on novels because they fail either to replicate the feeling of the source material or to create a new art unique to the cinema. Criticizing the film version of Anna Karenina, Woolf writes, “None of these things has the least connexion with the novel that Tolstoy wrote, and it is only when we give up trying to connect the pictures with the book that we guess from some accidental scene—like the gardener mowing the lawn—what the cinema might do if left to its own devices” (“The Cinema,” 350). Accident is the key word here. A scene seemingly inconsequential to the plot has inadvertently captured something Epstein would call photogenic—something made possible when the filmmakers’ intentions recede and the cinema is “left to its own devices.”

“The Cinema” offers another, more famous example of the accidental invading the frame and exposing the artistic potential of cinema: the tadpole-shaped shadow that appeared during a screening of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. “It swelled to an immense size,” Woolf says, “quivered, bulged, and sank back again into nonentity . . . . For a moment it seemed as if thought could be conveyed by shape more effectively than by words. The monstrous quivering tadpole seemed to be fear itself, and not the statement ‘I am afraid’” (350). On screen, the tadpole shape seems to inspire the same “respect, fear, or horror” that Epstein associated with seeing animals, plants, and stones on film. Though “in fact, the shadow was accidental and the effect unintentional,” it nevertheless represented for Woolf the most noteworthy part of the program (350).

It is likely, as Laura Marcus and David Trotter show, that Woolf saw Caligari at the Film Society screening of 1926, in which case she would have seen it accompanied by a number of other films (Marcus, Tenth Muse, 118).[29] Marcus and Trotter both contend that Woolf’s preoccupation with the accidental shadow can be better understood in the context of other elements in that night’s program. For Marcus, the tadpole image reveals Woolf’s interest in abstract cinema, an interest likely sparked by Ballet mécanique, an experimental film she would have seen the same evening as Caligari (Tenth Muse, 118). For Trotter, meanwhile, the key influence is old newsreels played at the beginning of the program, which forced Woolf to confront the fact that life and beauty will continue “whether we behold it or not” (a recognition that would also structure the famous “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse) (Cinema and Modernism, 169).

One might also emphasize, however, the possibility that natural history films were a source for Woolf’s essay. Comandon’s Circulation of the Blood also preceded the Film Society screening of Caligari; and if Woolf attended other Film Society screenings that year, she might have seen Comandon’s Dytiscus film, showing water beetles attacking tadpoles and newts, or his Ameboid Movement (Council of the London Film Society, Programmes, 22, 14, 31). These sorts of films might have been crucial in priming Woolf to see the shadow shape as a tadpole rather than some other object. Animals, blood cells, amoebas, fluttering leaves—these things became motifs of early film theory largely because they move by chance or by their own agency, without humans pulling their strings. Perhaps Woolf made a tadpole the avatar of cinema’s powers of accident because she, like Bazin and Epstein, watched natural history films and glimpsed in them a utopian world where animals and things could live free from human intent.

Observing, Pointing, Curating

Fluttering leaves and tadpole-shaped shadows came to exemplify, for early film theorists, the space outside of human intent that film holds open. But why would critics like Kracauer and Woolf want an escape from human intent in the first place? Partly as a backlash against the systematizing, totalizing bent of capitalist modernity—the modernity of railroad timetables, punch cards, and Taylorized factory labor. As Mary Ann Doane argues, film’s affordance of accidents (or contingency) represents the flip side of cinema’s rationalization of time, and it works both to resist and to “make tolerable” such rationalization.[30] And partly (and relatedly) as an expression of anxiety about artistic production itself. As Trotter has contended, modernist writers were fascinated with the neutrality of film as a medium. An automatic, objective recording device, cinema offered another angle on modernist impersonality. “We might say,” writes Trotter, “that modernism’s axiom or formula was literature as (recording) medium before literature as (representational) art,” an axiom whose emergence paralleled the rise of film as a medium before it was an art form (Cinema and Modernism, 5; emphasis in original). Cinema thus offered a model for modernists who wanted their writing to achieve immediacy and mimetic fidelity (which, paradoxically, would draw attention to the medium of writing itself, as early film’s mimesis drew attention to the marvelous technology behind it). By imitating cinema, literature could be less than, and therefore more than, art.

Modernism, as Douglas Mao points out, is riven with ambivalence about the artist’s work, which writers like Woolf and Wallace Stevens saw as at once a necessary form of labor and a disturbing imposition on the object world. Artistic production, for many modernists, required “the exercise of a will to power over that which is radically other to the subject,” and thus became uncomfortably close in structure, if not in outcome, to other expressions of that will to power—imperialism, ecological domination, capitalist production.[31] Mao writes that as an alternative to this controlling mode of production, Woolf experimented with an “art of ostension,” a “gesture in which the pointing subject [i.e. the artist] withdraws even as it brings the object into view” (Solid Objects, 81). The goal was a form of art that quiets the subject’s will to power and respects the difference and integrity of the object in itself.

Classical film theory is part of the modernist discourse that embraced the arts of ostension over those of production. It saw cinema, especially the natural history genre, as one such art, pointing to objects and creatures in the natural world and saying, “There!” without fixing or mastering them. The gifted filmmaker, in this view, is an artist not by virtue of his own creative productivity, but because he knows how to coax nature to speak to the camera. As Bazin exclaims in his review of science films, “What brilliant choreographer, what delirious painter, what poet could have imagined these arrangements, these forms and images!” (“Science Films,” 146). The science filmmaker is less like an inventive painter than an insightful reader or voyager, a comparison Kracauer makes in Theory of Film. “Along with photography,” he asserts, “film is the only art which leaves its raw material more or less intact. In consequence, such art as goes into films results from their creators’ capacity to read the book of nature. The film artist has traits of an imaginative reader, or an explorer prompted by insatiable curiosity” (l). To put it another way: in film, nature is the real artist, and the filmmaker is the critic or translator who brings her work to the audience.

In “News about Flowers,” a glowing review of Karl Blossfeldt’s book of plant photographs, Benjamin offers one of the clearest descriptions of this vision of authorship. For Benjamin, Blossfeldt’s photographs embody the artistic spirit of observation and objectivity, the very spirit to which photography (and, by extension, cinematography) is best suited. Photographic magnification, Blossfeldt’s favored technique, defamiliarizes the plants, allowing them to “shed the veil that our stolidity throws over them.” Benjamin then asks, “What is to be said of an observer to whom these forms already send out signals from their veiled state?”[32] The implication is that Blossfeldt is that observer. He is gifted because he can receive the “signals” that the plants themselves radiate and transmit them to us, the less gifted viewers. Benjamin goes on to praise Blossfeldt’s “truly new objectivity,” contrasting him with Jean Grandville, who drew caricatures of plants, and with Klee and Kandinsky, who “have long been at work establishing friendly relations between us and the realms into which the microscope would like to seduce us—crudely and by force” (“Flowers,” 156). Unlike these other artists, Blossfeldt is a seer, one who captures the art that inheres in the plants themselves. His “form of genius” is, to Benjamin, the “fruitful, dialectical opposite of invention” (157). And the camera, rather than the paintbrush or pen, is the ideal tool for this watchful, receptive, and nonforceful kind of creativity.

If nature is the artist, and the photographer or cinematographer the genius observer, another layer of authorship lies in the programmer or critic who has the good taste to select and appreciate these films. The figures of the editor, collector, and critic have drawn a good deal of attention in modernist scholarship. For example, Jeremy Braddock has recently argued that private art collections and anthologies are important modernist forms—each is “itself an aesthetic object, even, more pointedly, an authored work,” as well as a social and institutional form.[33] These kinds of authorship may look like arts of ostension in that they point to existing objects—a poem, a book, a painting—giving space for them and respecting their integrity. However, there is also a subtler will to power in these arts of collecting. They often elevate the collector, an arbiter of good taste, over the creator, purportedly a naïf who does not fully understand the piece she has created. As Elizabeth Barnett argues, modernist editing redefines authorship: “the frame is now the most important element of a work of art.”[34] Think of Alfred Stieglitz curating an exhibit of African artifacts titled Statuary in Wood by African Savages: The Root of Modern Art in 1914; or Harriet Monroe editing an “aboriginal” issue of Poetry without identifying the indigenous poets by name; or even Ezra Pound aggressively editing T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”[35] The politics of these situations are obviously not identical, but what they do have in common is a mixed message of ostension and self-aggrandizement: admire this unusual work of art, and simultaneously, admire the insightful collector who rescued it from the enormous pile of cultural ephemera.

The avant-garde film programmers who screened natural history films alongside experimental cinema, and the critics who celebrated these films, might be seen in a similar light. Comandon thought he was making scientific research films; the Secrets of Nature filmmakers thought they were creating educational forms of entertainment for the masses. The Film Society programmers had to create a new context in which these films could be seen as modernist works. Their program notes encouraged viewers to focus more on the aesthetic dimensions of the nature films than on their informative value. In one of its earliest shows, the Film Society even edited down those films, as their program describes:

Cut-outs from the Secrets of Nature illustrating forms of animal progression. The Secrets of Nature series are . . . soundly edited for educational purposes by specialists. The Film Society has selected certain scenes for the sake of their pictorial rather than their instructional merit, and has reduced the titling to a descriptive minimum. (Council of the London Film Society, Programmes, 10)

The focus on “pictorial” at the expense of educational value illustrates the resolutely aesthetic priorities of the Film Society founders. Though the Society seems to have abandoned the practice of reediting natural history films, it continued to show them, and the art film context presumably continued to influence their reception.

The tension between the filmmakers’ intentions and the critics’ and programmers’ reception points to a larger issue with early film theory’s uptake of natural history films. That is, the idea of a film which shunts humans to the side and lets nature and chance reign may sound appealing, but no actual natural history film can live up to it. Once we start thinking about the production of these films—the animals held captive in zoos and aquariums, the plants’ carefully circumscribed growth, the laborious editing and titling—they seem, arguably, more representative of a project to master and domesticate nature than an effort to let it be.[36] As Oliver Gaycken argues, the defining image of the early popular science film is the human hand, which “consistently invades the image, poking, prodding, manipulating, breaking, dissecting,” and thereby reminding viewers that this representation of “nature” is in fact meticulously crafted.[37] The Secrets of Nature filmmakers Mary Field and Percy Smith certainly saw their films as products of human labor rather than mere camera-pointing, and their 1934 book Secrets of Nature reports on the extraordinary technical, behavioral, and horticultural challenges they had to overcome to make films about nonhuman species. (About the fungus featured in Plants of the Pantry they write, “In conformity with the best traditions of film stardom it exhibited an amazingly temperamental disposition, and for an object so insignificant made exorbitant demands upon our resources to satisfy its susceptibilities and eccentricities.”)[38] In their book, the artifice is exposed and the Secrets are reframed as testaments to the care and ingenuity of the filmmakers.

The idea of a nature film that records natural objects as they “live their mysterious, silent lives,” and of an artist whose gift is not to invent but merely to see and point, is hard to sustain once we start looking at actual, particular films and their conditions of production. But the natural history tradition had its own conservationist leanings, which drew it closer to classical film theory. Many early-twentieth-century naturalists perceived nature photography and cinematography as a nonviolent, noninterventional alternative to hunting and killing wildlife. In the camera they found hope for a way to shoot, capture, and display without hurting anything (see Burt, Animals in Film, 69–71). And a close reading of a few of the Secrets suggests that, while their editing and staging reflect a high degree of human intervention, they nevertheless foster, in their own way, an ethos of nonviolence, biocentrism, and respect for the nonhuman world.

Learning to Love the Aphid and Dodder

Percy Smith, one of the filmmakers behind the Secrets of Nature, reportedly once told his colleague Mary Field, when she asked for advice on getting rid of pests in her hay loft, “If I think anything is a pest . . . I make a film about it; then it becomes beautiful.”[39] Critics including Gaycken and Jonathan Burt have pointed to this comment as a characteristic example of Smith’s attitude toward nature and filmmaking (Gaycken, Devices of Curiosity, 87–88; Burt, Animals in Film, 85). It warrants quoting again not just as an apropos tagline for Smith’s films, but as a more serious evocation of the Secrets of Nature project: creating nature films as an alternative to more forceful kinds of biological control. At their best, the Secrets evacuate the old, familiar meanings of natural objects—gnat as nuisance, mold as object of revulsion, aphid as enemy of gardeners—and allow viewers to see them in a different light. Temporarily liberated from their cultural meanings, these creatures appear on screen as new and alien beings, showing viewers that we never really knew them at all. It would be an overstatement to say that the films truly embody an art of ostension, that they leave their “raw material more or less intact,” as Kracauer claimed film does. But it would be fair to say that they approach classical film theory’s nonanthropocentric ideal, if not through an ethos of nonintervention, then through one of care for their living subjects.

Two films shown at the Film Society in 1930 illustrate how the Secrets navigated and unraveled the notion of “pest,” opening up other modes of relating to the organisms on screen. The Aphis, a Mary Field and Charles Head film on the aphid or greenfly, and The Strangler, a Percy Smith film about the parasitic plant dodder, pay lip service to the notion of aphid and dodder as pests in their voice-over narrations. But their image and music tracks create a different impression, inviting viewers to leave their assumptions behind and marvel at, even feel something like affection for, these organisms.

The Aphis is bookended by references to the aphid’s role as garden nuisance. The narrator’s first words—“Not too pleasant a sight for anyone”—play on the audience’s recognition of aphids as pests. Yet there is irony to this opening comment. On film, the aphid is a pleasant sight. Indeed, one of the main points of the film is to aestheticize it. In the corresponding opening shot of the film, a close-up of a plant framed against a dark background echoes the visual conventions of artistic plant illustrations (like Blossfeldt’s photographs), drawing on audiences’ prior experience with botanical images to put them in a role of aesthetic contemplation. The insect moving on the still stem, meanwhile, prompts the kind of pleasure in motion that drew viewers to the earliest attractions films.[40] And background music (by Jack Beaver) suggests a parallel between the aphid’s rapidly moving legs and a dance. This visual and musical framing recasts the narrator’s comment as tongue-in-cheek: the film creates a new context in which the sight of the aphid can incite scopic pleasure.

By the film’s midway point, even the narrator has begun to acknowledge the aphid’s aesthetic potential. One scene illustrates the aphid as it sheds its old skin and grows wings. “The wings dry and expand, and in about an hour, into a very handsome pair,” the narrator reports, as the image track shows (presumably in time-lapse) the expansion of those wings (fig. 2). It is the sort of scene one would expect in a film about a butterfly, and indeed, the Secrets catalogue includes butterfly films, such as Skilled Insect Artisans, which show very similar images of butterflies and moths as they emerge from their cocoons and expand their wings. In giving the aphid the butterfly treatment, the film alters the creature’s meaning. It is not inherently vermin; film can reconfigure it into an object of wonder and perhaps even beauty.

The aphid’s wings expand. The Aphis, directed by Mary Field, British Instructional Films, 1930.
Fig. 2. The aphid’s wings expand. The Aphis, directed by Mary Field, British Instructional Films, 1930. Reproduced with permission of British Pathé.

The Aphis’s closing sequence returns to the framework of garden nuisance, but the previous eight minutes have cued viewers to think differently about that framework. Over a shot of a gardener spraying plants with a pesticide, the narrator announces that in “the next spring, the regretful gardener has his usual occupation for Saturday afternoons among the young broad beans.” What follows is a close-up of a broad bean plant buffeted by the spray. A similar sequence follows with rose bushes: the gardener is shown spraying them, followed by a close-up shot of a rose plant blown about in the spray, the last image in the film. (It’s likely that the close-up shots were taken not in the actual garden, but in a studio; only the editing implies spatial continuity between the gardener shots and plant close-ups.) “The actual human farmer,” writes Adam Dodd, “shown spraying insecticide on his roses and beans, appears somewhat comical when we see him towards the end of the film (rather like a clumsy, frustrated giant), an effect of our prior absorption in the miniature world of the aphid.”[41] In Dodd’s reading, the gardener is not a figure for viewers to identify with, but one to giggle at, an emblem of bumbling authority. The once-hated insect, on the other hand, has been transformed by these final shots into an odd but oddly likable protagonist.

The close-up shots of the bean and rose plants sprayed with insecticide, meanwhile, re-work the fluttering leaves trope of early film. They show leaves moving in a wind, but the narration and establishing shots contextualize that movement not as an instance of natural flux, but as an act of human aggression, a context reinforced by the background music’s shift to a minor key during the final shot. The sequence thus does not live up to the early film theorists’ dream of film as a haven for the contingency of nature, free of human meddling. But it does imply that there is something regrettable about the human intent behind the leaves’ trembling. The film is not itself a product of nonintervention, but it casts doubts on the desirability of some forms of intervention like pesticide use.

Smith’s film The Strangler likewise appropriates the pest narrative only to reshape it. The central conceit of the film’s voice-over narration is that the dodder is a “born criminal,” a clever archvillain that expertly subdues its victims. “Master criminals are very frequently portrayed on the screen, and the more wicked they are, the more popular they seem,” the narrator declares at the film’s end. “But probably the film world has never seen such an out-and-out evildoer, such a super-strangler, as the dodder.” Throughout the film, the narrator continuously alludes to the conventions of crime films, describing the dodder’s antics as a “desperate chase” and remarking that dodders don’t strangle each other because there is “honor among thieves.”[42] This kind of anthropomorphism seriously annoyed some reviewers, including Julian Huxley, who complained in an otherwise positive review of Field and Smith’s book Secrets of Nature that “[t]he cruelties of nature, instead of being viewed philosophically, are invested with the mentality of the spectator and call forth reprobation or disgust (this fallacy, by the way, is not always eschewed by our authors, who imply severe condemnation of the parasitic habits of the dodder and the cuckoo!)”[43] Huxley, as a biologist, would have preferred a more impartial, objective sort of narration. But it’s hard to find any serious moral “condemnation” in The Strangler. On the contrary, its story of ingenious criminality seems obviously tongue-in-cheek, painting the dodder not as a true object of “reprobation or disgust” but as a lovable scalawag.

As with The Aphis, the production of The Strangler required a reversal of the pest meaning—rather than attempt to eradicate these organisms, Head and Smith instead carefully cultivated them in the studio. The Film Society Programme from October 19, 1930, the day The Strangler was shown, reports that it took eighteen months to film, a testament to the time and effort Smith lavished on these plants. It is tempting to say that traces of this care are visible in the image track, where time-lapse shots of the dodder’s curious, dance-like wending seem not sinister but delicate and beautiful (fig. 3). Turn the sound off and The Strangler becomes a completely different work, one that would fit better with Ballet mécanique or a Loie Fuller dance than with a lineup of gangster films. The time-lapse technique that showed the natural motions of plants accelerated to a visible speed was about thirty years old in 1930, but The Strangler demonstrates that it had not lost its magic.[44]

The dodder attempts to wind around the convolvulus plant, which moves to evade it. The Strangler, directed by F. Percy Smith, British Instructional Films, 1930.
 Fig. 3. The dodder attempts to wind around the convolvulus plant, which moves to evade it. The Strangler, directed by F. Percy Smith, British Instructional Films, 1930. Reproduced with permission of British Pathé.

Both The Strangler and The Aphis reveal the plasticity of myths about nature. The dodder and aphid no longer quite fit the category of pests once they are made beautiful through the camera’s eye. The films’ production necessitated a space where these organisms could be nurtured rather than exterminated, and the films’ exhibition created a cultural space where the parasites could be seen differently, appreciated, even loved. Neither aphid nor dodder seems a likely candidate for sentimentality or mystical nature worship—they are too pesky for the former and too quotidian for the latter. But through film, a new way of seeing them is created—or, if you prefer the terminology of early film theory, a hitherto unseen dimension of their being is unveiled.

Secrets of Nature and the Darwinian Grotesque

Water Folk (1931), exhibited at the Film Society in December 1932, offers a microcinematographic look at the water flea (Daphnia). With their translucent bodies, diverse forms, and ubiquity in fresh water, water fleas make a perfect subject for the Secrets catalogue. They are related to crabs and lobsters and some look like miniaturized, jellified versions of their cousins; others have a more insectoid form. Over a shot of the common water flea, the narrator says, “The flea is rather proud of its profile and much prefers to be photographed like this, sideways.” He continues, “But if you can coax it round to face the camera, it reveals itself as a one-eyed monster, quite as horrible as any that Sinbad the Sailor ever encountered” (fig. 4).

The water flea in profile (top) and frontal view (bottom). Water Folk, British Instructional Films, 1931.
Fig. 4. The water flea in profile (top) and frontal view (bottom). Water Folk, British Instructional Films, 1931. Reproduced with permission of British Pathé.

What might viewers make of such an image? The narrator suggests that we read it as a horrifying, but thankfully tiny, lake monster. Its eye looks like an open mouth, a visual echo of Edvard Munch’s The Scream (the Film Society was probably right to intuit that viewers who like German expressionism might like this film). Yet, with its appendages raised in the air, the water flea looks almost cute as well, like a supplicating child who wants to be picked up. Perhaps the best way to describe the water flea’s appearance is the Japanese term kimo-kawaii, meaning gross-cute or creepy-cute.[45] The water flea, like so many other nature film subjects, cannot be assimilated to a single aesthetic classification, instead bridging these categories in strange ways.[46]

More broadly, the appeal of water flea, aphid, dodder, myxie, and tadpole on celluloid is not easily categorized. It is (as Gaycken has argued) similar to Lorraine Daston’s concept of “creature love,” the affection that Enlightenment naturalists felt for their “bees and aphids and even insects extracted from horses’ dung,” which those naturalists lavished with attentive observation (Gaycken, Devices of Curiosity, 87).[47] Yet it is not identical. The “creature love” of eighteenth-century naturalists was based on a concept of nature as an expression of God’s careful handiwork. After Darwin, nature no longer wore that aspect. And in photography, if we follow Kracauer and Benjamin, nature sheds all myths about itself like a veil. We might, then, go to the opposite extreme and borrow Fay’s notion of “cold love” to understand the Secrets’ appeal. Drawing on Kracauer’s Theory of Film and Timothy Morton’s notion of “dark ecology,” Fay defines cold love as love for an inhospitable, “inert, physical reality” that resists either commodification or sentimental identification. Cold love is a love for the nonhuman world in its utter difference, a love that could incorporate even the vast blank expanses of Antarctica.[48] Certainly one function of the Secrets of Nature series is to cultivate a love for the strange beings with whom we share an environment, and to reveal the strangeness within the familiar. Yet cold love doesn’t quite fit the Secrets because they don’t truly reject sentimental attachment to nature. Instead, their game is to apply that sentimental attachment to unlikely objects. Even the water flea in its monstrous frontal aspect still has a face.

The best way to understand the aesthetic and ethical appeal of the Secrets, I think, is to see them as inheritors of the Darwinian grotesque. Jonathan Smith argues that Charles Darwin’s love for nature’s peculiarities—barnacles, insectivorous plants, bizarrely ornamented birds—belongs to the tradition of grotesque realism, which “is not only relentlessly material but also relentlessly positive about that materiality.”[49] The Darwinian grotesque reaches its pinnacle, Smith argues, in Darwin’s final book on earthworms, in which “worm shit [is] lovingly rendered as an object of wonder” (Darwin, 247). Darwin’s grotesque realism is, according to Smith, subversive in its treatment of the lowliest of creatures and most abject of substances as if they were elite cultural objects; it amounts to a comical and “carnivalesque inversion of the social hierarchy” (252). Nicola Bown further claims that the Darwinian grotesque removes transcendent meaning from the natural world; at the same time, it elicits pleasure in the energetic, material liveliness of its creatures, which emerge not from divine design but by chance.[50] For many of Darwin’s contemporaries, evolutionary theory’s emphasis on chance as the engine of nature’s diversity seemed heretical or depressing, but by the age of classical film theory, “nature and chance” could figure instead as admirable fugitives worth protecting. The simultaneous disenchantment and redemption of nature that Smith and Bown identify with Darwinism is not so different from what the classical film theorists saw in cinema. For them the camera, too, estranges nature from ideology, opening up space for different kinds of pleasure in the fortuitous, ephemeral, newly strange material world.

The Secrets of Nature carry on the tradition of the Darwinian grotesque in their subject matter, which elevates water fleas, slime molds, vegetable molds, weeds, and garden pests to the status of aesthetic objects. They put viewers in a position to at once squirm at these creepy-crawly creatures and marvel at their hitherto unseen beauty. They showcase nature neither as meaningful in the old theological sense nor as meaningless in the modern sense, but rather as open to a playful process of un-meaning and re-meaning wherein pests can become protagonists, tiny creatures can become mythical monsters, and repellent molds can become objects of beauty through the transformative camera eye. They celebrate a material, nonhuman world that many early film theorists considered the special purview of the film medium, and that one thread of modernism sought to appreciate and preserve without dominating.

Perhaps the most speculative way to interpret the grotesque frontal image of the water flea is as an avatar of cinema itself. Its single eye seems to reflect the single eye of the camera pointed at it, an eye that sees things we don’t. Like the camera, the water flea must be totally indifferent to the humans who will one day watch Water Folk. That indifference makes it monstrous, but also curiously alluring, like an alien whose transmission we have accidentally intercepted. From our vantage point today, it is tempting to criticize the idealism and essentialism of those early film theorists who believed the cinema could show us a world liberated from human intent and human intervention, but looking at the water flea, you might see more clearly where they were coming from. To their eyes, natural history films like the Secrets pointed to, even if they could not realize, a utopian dimension beyond the reach of ecological violence or anthropocentric control—a world where water fleas and fluttering leaves could exist simply for their own sake. The genre deserves attention from scholars of modernism and early film culture because it reveals within these formations a biocentric, biophilic streak that is otherwise hard to see. Natural history films “bring to light entirely new structures of matter” in modernism and classical film theory, if critics look closely.


[1] Laura Marcus, The Tenth Muse (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 254.

[2] See Council of the London Film Society, The Film Society Programmes, 1925–1939 (New York: Arno Press, 1972).

[3] See Brigitte Berg, “Contradictory Forces: Jean Painlevé, 1902–1989,” in Science is Fiction: The Films of Jean Painlevé, ed. Andy Masaki Bellows and Marina McDougall (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000), 2–47.

[4] James Leo Cahill, “Animal Photogénie,” in Animal Life and the Moving Image, ed. Michael Lawrence and Laura McMahon (London: Palgrave, 2015): 23–41, 25.

[5] See Malin Wahlberg, “Wonders of Cinematic Abstraction: J. C. Mol and the Aesthetic Experience of Science Film,” Screen 47, no. 3 (2006): 273–89. Wahlberg explores how Mol’s films share with avant-garde film an aesthetic of abstraction and visual rhythm that brings them close to music.

[6] Virginia Woolf, “The Cinema,” in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, vol. 4, 1925–1928, ed. Andrew McNeillie (London: Hogarth Press, 1994): 348–53, 349.

[7] Many viewers and critics noted the visual parallels between early science films, especially microcinematographic films, and the paintings of Paul Klee, Vasily Kandinsky, and the cubists. Aldous Huxley, for example, identified a likeness between the “micro-photographic universe, in which there are no solids and no distances,” and “the universe of the Abstract Expressionist”; see his “Science, Technology, and Beauty,” in Aldous Huxley: Complete Essays, vol. 6, 1956–1963, ed. Robert S. Baker and James Sexton (Chicago, IL: Ivan R. Dee, 2002): 83–89, 89. More recently, Emily Godbey has observed that “the new unfamiliar bacterial universe depicted” in early science films “might have become the moving shapes reminiscent of innovative paintings without the explanations of subtitles or lecture” (“The Cinema of (Un)Attractions: Microscopic Objects on Screen,” in Allegories of Communication: Intermedial Concerns from Cinema to the Digital, ed. John Fullerton and Jan Olsson [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004]: 277–98, 281). And Lisa Cartwright, in Screening the Body: Tracing Medicine’s Visual Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), has suggested that cubist paintings and microcinematographic films belonged to a common “‘cubist’ visual culture” marked by an obsession with flatness (91).

[8] Joshua Schuster, The Ecology of Modernism: American Environments and Avant-Garde Poetics (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2015), 3.

[9] Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” in The Collected Essays and Criticism: Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957–1969 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 85–93, 86.

[10] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, Third Version,” in Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, vol. 4, 1938–1940, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, trans. Edmund Jephcott and others (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2003), 251–83, 265; italics in original.

[11] See Virgilio Tosi, Cinema Before Cinema: The Origins of Scientific Cinema, trans. Sergio Angelini (London: British Universities Film and Video Council, 2005), 40–81 for a detailed historical account of Muybridge’s contributions to cinema and 81–132 for Marey’s contributions.

[12] Tom Gunning, “The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde,” in Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, ed. Thomas Elsaesser and Adam Barker (London: British Film Institute, 2008), 56–62.

[13] Timothy Boon, Films of Fact: A History of Science in Documentary Films and Television (London: Wallflower Press, 2008), 7–8. The quotation is from Charles Urban.

[14] See Hannah Landecker, “Cellular Features: Microcinematography and Film Theory,” Critical Inquiry 31, no. 4 (2005): 903–37. For more on early scientific uses of film, see Cartwright’s Screening the Body. Oliver Gaycken’s Devices of Curiosity: Early Cinema and Popular Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) offers a definitive history and analysis of early popular science films, primarily from 1903 to 1918.

[15] See again Landecker, “Cellular Features.”

[16] James Leo Cahill, “Hors d’oeuvre: Science, the Short Film, and The Perception of Life,” Framework 52, no. 1 (2011): 66–82, 68.

[17] Quoted in Gaycken, Devices of Curiosity, 23, fig. 1.2; quoted in Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 32. The latter quote is used frequently in film criticism, but the reference is usually to either Kracauer’s Theory of Film or his source, Georges Sadoul’s Histoire générale du cinema. The original article by Parville seems to be lost.

[18] Siegfried Kracauer, “Photography,” trans. Thomas Y. Levin, Critical Inquiry 19, no. 3 (1993): 421–36, 435.

[19] Julian Huxley, “Films and Science: Biology,” Sight and Sound 5, no. 20 (1936): 150–52, 151.

[20] Jean Epstein, “On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie,” trans. Tom Milne, in French Film Theory and Criticism, vol. 1, 1907–1929, ed. Richard Abel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988): 314–18, 317.

[21] Walter Benjamin, “Little History of Photography,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, vol. 2, 1927–1934, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1999), 507–30, 512.

[22] Huntly Carter, The New Spirit in the Cinema (London: Harold Shaylor, 1930), 277–78.

[23] Hugh Gray, for example, explains that Bazin welcomed the advent of sound in cinema and that this position “leads him to reject, at least by implication, those who in the middle twenties were in search of pure cinema” (Introduction to André Bazin, What is Cinema?, vol. 1, trans. Hugh Gray [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967]: 1–8, 5). See also André Bazin, “In Defense of Mixed Cinema,” in the same volume, 53–75, for his case in favor of adaptations.

[24] André Bazin, “Science Film: Accidental Beauty,” in Science is Fiction: The Films of Jean Painlevé, ed. Andy Masaki Bellows and Marina McDougall (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000), 144–47, 146.

[25] Jennifer Fay, “Seeing/Loving Animals: André Bazin’s Posthumanism,” Journal of Visual Culture 7, no. 1 (2008): 41–64, 42.

[26] Tom Gunning, “The Attraction of Motion: Modern Representation and the Image of Movement,” in Film 1900: Technology, Perception, Culture, ed. Annemone Ligensa and Klaus Kreimeier (New Barnet, UK: John Libbey, 2009), 165–73, 165.

[27] Nico Baumbach, “Nature Caught in the Act: On the Transformation of an Idea of Art in Early Cinema,” Comparative Critical Studies 6, no. 3 (2009): 373–83, 379.

[28] The role of contingency or accident in film theory did not go away after the modernist period, though it did go underground for a while. In a special issue of Discourse entitled “Cinema and Accident,” editors René Thoreau Bruckner, James Leo Cahill, and Greg Siegel suggest that media studies began to pay renewed attention to the accident both as a cultural and a film-theoretical concept in the twenty-first century, sparked in part by the work of Paul Virilio and Mary Ann Doane. See René Thoreau Bruckner, James Leo Cahill, and Greg Siegel, “Introduction: Cinema and Accident,” Discourse 30, no. 3 (2008): 279–88. Other articles in that special issue offer case studies of how films negotiate accident and contingency.

[29] See also David Trotter, Cinema and Modernism (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007), 166–67.

[30] Mary Ann Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 11.

[31] Douglas Mao, Solid Objects: Modernism and the Test of Production (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 76.

[32] Walter Benjamin, “News About Flowers,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, 2:155–57, 156.

[33] Jeremy Braddock, Collecting as Modernist Practice (Baltimore, MA: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), 6; emphasis in original.

[34] Elizabeth Barnett, “Destroyed by Poetry: Alice Corbin and the Little Magazine Effect,” Modernism/modernity 24, no. 4 (2017): 667–93, 670.

[35] “Works Exhibited by Alfred Stieglitz,” The Met,; Michael P. Taylor, “Not Primitive Enough to Be Considered Modern: Ethnographers, Editors, and the Indigenous Poets of the American Indian Magazine,” Studies in American Indian Literatures 28, no. 1 (2016): 45–72, 45.

[36] Oliver Gaycken’s reading of the 1912 Éclair film Le Scorpion Languedocien offers a particularly disturbing example of the violence that characterized some science film productions. Borrowing from the genre of the animal fight film, the filmmakers put a rat in the titular scorpion’s terrarium and filmed the scorpion stinging the rat and the latter dying slowly. There was nothing “natural” about this fight—normally a rat would be able to avoid a scorpion, and it was only the artificial closed quarters that caused the supposed “fight” (Devices of Curiosity, 123–25). However, it is also worth noting, as Jonathan Burt points out, that British audiences were very sensitive to animal cruelty in films, and the British Board of Film Censors made animal cruelty grounds for rejecting a film in 1913. See Jonathan Burt, Animals in Film (London: Reaktion Books, 2002), 133.

[37] Oliver Gaycken, “‘A Drama Unites Them in a Fight to the Death’: Some Remarks on the Flourishing of a Cinema of Scientific Vernacularization in France, 1909–1914,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television 22, no. 3 (2002): 353–74, 370.

[38] Mary Field and Percy Smith, Secrets of Nature (London: Faber and Faber, 1934), 132.

[39] Oswell Blakeston, “Personally About Percy Smith,” Close Up 8, no. 2 (1931): 143–46, 144.

[40] For an exploration of how movement itself functioned as an attraction in early films, see Gunning, “The Attraction of Motion.”

[41] Adam Dodd, “The Aphis (1930),” BFI Screenonline,

[42] The narrator even calls the dodder a “vampire” when describing its parasitical activities, a word which prompts comparison between The Strangler and Painlevé’s The Vampire (1945), on vampire bats. Painlevé’s Freshwater Assassins (1947), a look at microscopic pond organisms, also uses a rhetoric drawn from crime film. Intriguingly, the traffic between nature films and crime films was two-way from an even earlier period; Oliver Gaycken shows in Devices of Curiosity that popular science films influenced French crime melodramas of the 1910s, including a Louis Feuillade serial entitled Les Vampires (180–88). These echoes among nature films, crime films, and vampire films surely warrant further analysis.

[43] Julian Huxley, “Secrets of Nature,” review of Secrets of Nature, by Mary Field and Percy Smith, Sight and Sound 3 (1934): 120–21, 120.

[44] For more on the development and early uses of time-lapse techniques to show plant growth and movement, see Oliver Gaycken, “The Secret Life of Plants: Visualizing Vegetative Movement, 1880–1903,” Early Popular Visual Culture 10, no. 1 (2012): 51–69. For an exploration of time-lapse techniques in the microcinematography of the early twentieth century, see Hannah Landecker, “Microcinematography and the History of Science and Film,” Isis 97, no. 1 (2006): 121–32.

[45] Patrick St. Michel, “The Rise of Japan’s Creepy-Cute Craze,” The Atlantic, April 13, 2014.

[46] Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012) crucially points out the need to expand our aesthetic vocabulary beyond the old categories (beautiful, sublime, picturesque, and so on) in order to understand our contemporary aesthetic environment. As Ngai argues, cuteness is not necessarily anathema to avant-gardism or modernism—instead, modernist poetry embraces cuteness as a way of negotiating its own increasingly minor status.

[47] Lorraine Daston, “Attention and the Values of Nature in the Enlightenment,” in The Moral Authority of Nature, ed. Lorraine Daston and Fernando Vidal (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 100–26, 118.

[48] Jennifer Fay, “Antarctica and Siegfried Kracauer’s Cold Love,” Discourse 33, no. 3 (2011): 291–321, 315–16. For Timothy Morton’s discussion of “dark ecology,” see Ecology Without Nature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).

[49] Jonathan Smith, Charles Darwin and Victorian Visual Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 251.

[50] See Nicola Bown, “‘Entangled Banks’: Robert Browning, Richard Dadd and the Darwinian Grotesque,” in Victorian Culture and the Idea of the Grotesque, ed. Colin Trodd, Paul Barlow, and David Amigoni (Aldershot, VT: Ashgate, 1999), 119–42.