in Profiles | 09 SEP 98
Featured in
Issue 42

Untamed Nature

IMAX might be bigger, but it's definitely not better

in Profiles | 09 SEP 98

'I guess the fundamental frustration with IMAX is that on the one hand you've got the best tool ever built in the history of imagination of any kind - and that's not an exaggeration. But against that is the extraordinary difficulty of using it properly.'

- Stephen Low, IMAX director

On May 23, 1996 an expedition team, equipped with over 100 pounds of film stock and a 25 pound IMAX 70mm MkII cold weather camera, filmed two and a half minutes of Jamling Tenzing Norgay and Araceli Segarra reaching the summit of Mt. Everest. This was the climactic moment of the recently released Everest - according to its modest press release, one of the most 'vertiginously, sickeningly intense and extraordinary films ever made'. But watching (or to use the preferred IMAX word, 'experiencing') Everest on a curved screen that's seven stories high, and surrounded by six channel digital sound is as confusing as it is impressive. As my mind tried to reconcile its multiple discrepancies - immense, dizzying space; schmaltzy narration filled with words like 'conquer', 'penetrate' and 'shoot'; and a quasi-religious Celtic/Buddhist soundtrack - it dawned on me that Everest is strangely old fashioned, the documentary equivalent of Titanic. It begs the question: exactly who and what is such a big image of a mountain for?

Despite Everest's claims of originality and innovation, its approach isn't really so new. In 1787 the Irish painter Robert Barker exhibited a continuous painting of 'Views of Nature at Large' and called it a 'Panorama'. In 1822, IMAX's spiritual great-granddaddy Daguerre pre-empted cinema by going a step further than Barker: he opened the world's first theatre to be devoted entirely to illusionistic scenes - a Diorama. His first double bill, An Interior view of Trinity Chapel in Canterbury Cathedral and A view of the Sarnen Valley, Switzerland apparently astonished the public with its life-like evocation of dramatic scenes and was visited regularly by royalty. ('Papa, is the goat real?' asked the Prince. 'I don't know, son', replied the King, 'You'll have to ask M. Daguerre'). In 1839, when the Diorama burnt down, Daguerre decided to pursue his interest in the Camera Obscura and with Bouton invented the Daguerreotype. It's a loaded moment in the history of 19th, and by association 20th, century aesthetics - the precursor of cinema's illusionistic space burns down and thus makes way for the photograph, which, despite its claims to optical verisimilitude, interested Daguerre precisely because it was so open to illusionistic possibilities. 'My only aim', he remarked, 'was to effect illusion at its greatest height; I wanted to rob nature, and therefore had to become a thief'.

Although the Diorama was supplanted in France by the Daguerrotype, Panorama painting flourished in America. Hungry for both new ideas and reassurance, what could be both more inspiring, more comforting to new arrivals in a recently colonised nation than to see proof of the fact that however wild the landscape, it could still be, if not 'robbed', then ordered, framed and tamed? Two of the most popular American 19th century panoramic painters were Frederic Church, whose painting Niagara (1857), described as 'a literal transcript of the scene' toured America, and Albert Bierstadt, a well-known moose-hunter who occasionally stuck the antlers of the beasts he had slaughtered onto his paintings. Perhaps influenced by Ruskin's identification of high art with scientific realism, their paintings epitomised the period's need to equate truth with vision - a quality more obviously associated with photography. But both Church and Bierstadt, also not unlike photographers, enjoyed manipulating the 'truth' to their own ends. Although they made countless expeditions to wilderness areas as official artists with survey parties, on their return to the city they invariably introduced another element into their supposedly scientific observations - theatre. Church displayed his painting Heart of the Andes (1859) in a dark room lit by gas light and surrounded by tropical vegetation. Bierstadt's The Rocky Mountains (1863), also exhibited alone in a darkened room as a showpiece of illusionism, attracted, according to a contemporary critic both the 'student of nature and the lover of art.'

If Panorama painters upheld the wilderness as a mixed metaphor for both the triumph of reason (rationalising an unfamiliar landscape by representing it) and the ubiquity of illusion, they were also, however inadvertently, encouraging travel to and ownership of often sacred and fragile sites. Eager to distance themselves from their often ecologically and culturally insensitive precursors, some so-called eco-IMAX film-makers have found themselves in a quandary - they want to film 'untamed nature', but don't want to open it up to tourism in the process. As a result they take drastic, and often absurd measures to ensure the continued inaccessibility of the places they are filming. To shield, for example, the location of the newly discovered 60 million year old Wollemi pines in Australia, the crew for John Weiley's film The Edge (1998) were choppered in with their eyes covered.

By the 1880s photographers began to accompany survey expeditions, and Panoramic painting, stripped of its scientific justification, was relegated to museum storage basements. How strange that its legacy should, however unwittingly, be resurrected by the very medium that brought about its demise. For if Everest, and countless other IMAX releases, ('The Greatest Places. Now available.') are anything to go by, a 19th-century approach to the wilderness is back in vogue, but filtered through a late 20th-century confusion about representation. Generally speaking, IMAX films are technologically innovative, have a complicated relationship with the real, take you to scary, sublime landscapes without any discomfort, have lousy soundtracks and narrations, and often rope in science to lend weight to their heroics - the Everest team, for example, installed a weather station and a Global Positioning Receiver on the lower slopes of the mountain to advance the understanding of earthquakes in the region.

Seduced by the medium's breath-taking scale, IMAX film-makers often sacrifice content in their scramble for dramatic effect. As a result, the question of function (why are these films made?) tends to be either ignored or sheltered beneath a vague, environmental umbrella - the if-we-know-how-amazing-it-is-we-won't-destroy-it argument. Generally marketed as high-tech side-shows, starring nature as the beautiful, uncivilised freak, any subtlety in IMAX would have to struggle hard against the hype. Reality is pitched, without any irony, as being more 'real' than any other form of representation, quite simply because it's bigger and occasionally three-dimensional.

The buzz surrounding IMAX apes early Hollywood, when the big screen industry thrilled with the excitement of expanding the technical possibilities of film-making, but forgot about content - Cinerama, Todd-AO, Ultra-Panavision, Panascope, Smell-O-Vision etc. Indeed, there's a sense of almost palpable nostalgia in Everest for a mythical past of straightforward narratives and one-dimensional heroics. It's a filmic experience Daguerre would have appreciated: reality is actually rather hard to identify - watching IMAX is as dreamlike an experience as a ride on a Ferris wheel. Mount Everest as an idea, as opposed to something people should conquer, is side-stepped. This could be seen as a product of millennial anxiety - a need for old-fashioned reassurance that nature is simply a thing to be conquered or admired and not a dialectic. Once again, film has been employed not to engage with the rhetoric of the real, but to help sweep it under that metaphorical rug we call family entertainment. As Robert Smithson observed, 'The simple rectangle of the movie screen contains the flux, no matter how many different orders one presents ... the sites in films are not to be located or trusted.'