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Freitag, 22.11.2019


Highroads and Sykroads: Cinematic Mountains and the U.S. National Park Service

15:00 - 16:30 Uhr
Universität Innsbruck, Aula, Innrain 52, 6020 Innsbruck

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Jennifer Peterson

Jennifer Peterson’s research and teaching interests center on cinema and media history, experimental and educational films, aesthetics, and ecocriticism. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. She previously taught in the Film Studies Program at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she earned tenure in 2013.

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What does the historical nature film have to tell us that might be useful today, as public awareness grows about current and accelerating forms of ecological catastrophe? In order to understand where we might be going in our relationship to the planet, it has become imperative to think about what led us to this pass in the first place. Based on archival research in U.S. government archives (NARA in College Park, Maryland and the Yosemite Archive in California), this talk brings together methodologies from film history and the environmental humanities to examine the filmmaking practices of the National Park Service (NPS) in the 1920s and 30s. As produced by the federal government, these educational films consolidate a specific concept of the national park as a “nature space” in which the so-called wilderness is evacuated of indigenous presence and repopulated with modern tourists. Through this process, natural landscapes – and specifically, mountain landscapes – were converted into commodities of scenic wonders. Produced in the interwar years before the popular concept of nature shifted into an environmentalist rhetoric of endangerment, the earliest federally-produced national park films celebrated the role of the state in taming the wilderness.
Automobiles play an important role in the history of the American National Parks. Cars were a popular trope in the earliest national park photos and postcards, evoking a contrast between technological modernity and primeval nature. The 1920s and 30s were the era of roadbuilding in the parks, and numerous films from this period depict road-building, maintenance, and driving, particularly on mountain roads. Films made by the Bureau of Roads such as Highroads and Skyroads (1922) depict the laying-in of automobile infrastructure in the parks, while more tourist-oriented NPS films such as Land of the Lofty Mountains (1936) present famous national park landscapes like stage sets, with footage shot from roads that guide the viewer through the scenery. These films capture not only the landscapes of their day but modern attitudes and practices related to land use and fossil fuels. Watching these films almost a century later, we witness an important stage in the expansion of the system that produced global warming, before that concept yet existed.


Zentrum für Interamerikanische Studien der Universität Innsbruck
Institut für Amerikastudien
American Corner Innsbruck