Panel 9: Energy Politics



Panel 9: Energy Politics

“Green Hearts, Gray Hands: Rethinking Hydrocarbons in Contemporary Film and Ecocriticism”

Bart Welling (Associate Professor of English, University of North Florida)

Dynasty and #NoDAPL: The Messy Environmental Politics of 2010s Oil Soaps”

Michaela Rife (Ph.D. candidate in Art History, University of Toronto)

“Petromodernity and Petro-temporality in Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness

Kyle Sittig (Ph.D. candidate in English and Film, Michigan State University)

Q & A

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19 replies
  1. Sofia says:

    Thanks, Bart, for a fascinating talk. I’m just wanting to clarify something that I think I’m getting from your presentation. I’m thinking like this: Air is the medium for sound to be transmitted. Similarly, the ocean transmits waves/energy. They are media in a ubiquitous sense. I wonder if there is room to say the following: is the web very much like air and water as a medium activated/agitated by energy rather than thinking specific films or websites. In other words, the medium cannot be thought independently of the energy required to light it up so in a sense energy IS that medium. Am I on the right track here?

    • Bart Welling, University of North Florida says:

      Hi Sofia. Thanks for your comment. Yes, you’re right. I have a piece coming out on hydrocarbons AS and IN media in the online journal Media Tropes; in addition to the things I say in this essay, it talks about pollution and global warming as media through which we perceive basically everything (e.g., the range of visibility in U.S. national parks has dropped dramatically over the last few decades), and I also play with the idea of petroculture as a growth medium rather like what is provided in a Petri dish for bacteria in a laboratory, since we’re just as dependent on hydrocarbons for our survival as the bacteria are on their growth culture. Essentially everything we do in a petroculture is mediated by hydrocarbons, which not only keep us alive but shape our vision and values in ways that we’re often unwilling to acknowledge.

  2. Joseph Heumann, Eastern Illinois University says:

    Thanks for all three presentations. Robin and I have been looking at oil films for fifteen years and find your presentations really informative and productive. We really liked getting up to speed on tv depictions of oil and oil love. Thanks, Michaela.

    • Michaela Rife, University of Toronto says:

      Thanks for watching Joseph! Your and Robin’s book has been very influential in my thinking on how oil has been visualized and portrayed over a long time span.

  3. Michaela Rife, University of Toronto says:

    Hi everyone, I’m excited to be on this panel! My dissertation focuses on public art engagements with extractive land use in the American West from the late-nineteenth century through the New Deal, so in some ways this paper is a bit of a departure for me! However I worked on it alongside my oil chapter and it proved very useful in thinking about the ways oil wealth’s meaning has changed, and the ways that oil’s linkages to places like Texas has not.

    Bart, your wonderful paper got me thinking about the obfuscation of oil wealth when you mentioned how Peabody has shifted from “Coal” to “Energy.” Dynasty’s company is titled “Carrington Atlantic” which is part of why I suspected that the show might elide its oil foundation. But I was also thinking about the place and depiction of oil workers in all three of our papers, and what that can mean for any (to put it simply) environmental or political message? Oil field workers are visible in the three tv shows I discuss, but only just and as pawns in the machinations of the oil wealthy. I haven’t seen Deepwater Horizon but I seem to remember from press at the time that it was considered of a piece with Berg’s other films valorizing the American worker. Is that your impression and how does that fit in a developing petromedia? Particularly as companies like Peabody try to tie extraction to jobs and local economic health.

    Looking forward to discussion and any questions!

    • Bart Welling, University of North Florida says:

      Hi Michaela. Thanks for your great paper and for the question. Yes, Berg’s movie really foregrounds the workers. He said in an interview–I’m pretty sure it was in the *L.A. Times*–that he wanted to remind viewers that the Deepwater Horizon tragedy wasn’t just a tragedy because of the oil spill. (The movie proper doesn’t even show the oil spill, although it’s mentioned in the epilogue.) The extra features on the DVD strongly promote a campaign called “Work Like an American,” dedicated to workplace safety and green energy, and the rig workers are represented as everyday American blue-collar heroes in predictable ways, although I think the film may change how future filmmakers depict oil workers. However, the fact that the film flopped is surely important. I wonder if U.S. audiences weren’t ready to confront the dark side of oil extraction, just as they weren’t interested (for a long time) in film and TV representations of the war in Iraq. At least people at my public library keep checking all the copies out. I think it will help break through a lot of the jobs rhetoric on the right by giving people a little taste of what these jobs are actually like.

    • Bart Welling, University of North Florida says:

      Also, I’m really interested in the potential for promoting alternative energy transitions by reinhabiting the discourses used by hydrocarbon workers. Here’s a great example of what I mean from a nonprofit that installs solar panels and trains solar technicians in West Virginia. (For those who aren’t familiar with Appalachian English, “holler,” usually spelled “hollow” on maps, is a regionalism that means “small valley.”)

      • Michaela Rife, University of Toronto says:

        Thanks for your replies Bart! Wow that image is fascinating. The culture of work around hydrocarbons is so complex. I’m from Wyoming where we have related, but distinct, dependence on extractive industries and the work they provide. So I’m intrigued by your idea of “the potential for promoting alternative energy transitions by reinhabiting the discourses used by hydrocarbon workers.”

        Out of curiosity have you read Alexandra Fuller’s novel/biography ‘The Legend of Colton H. Bryant’? It might be interesting to think about alongside Deepwater Horizon (which I’ll have to watch!)

        Thanks again.

  4. rlmurray50 says:

    Hi Bart, Thank you for your interesting presentation, “Green Hearts, Gray Hands….” Interesting for us, the coal industry (and its advocates) succeed despite the diminishing economic returns for its workers. For example, the move toward mining techniques such as Mountaintop Removal Mining (MTR) diminished job numbers by 90% in West Virginia. See this recent Rolling Stone article for more information:

    BTW, we appreciated your reading of *Being Caribou* (2004). You might also enjoy similar films with more indigenous perspectives like *Vanishing Point* (2012) and *The Sacred Place Where Life Begins: Gwich’in Women Speak* (2013).

    The relationship between environmental media and hydrocarbons is complex. You’ve begun to explore how we might contend with both content and production externalities when defining what makes media “environmental.”Thank you!

  5. rlmurray50 says:

    Hi Michaela, Thank you for your engaging presentation. Joe has noted our own work with petroleum cinema–in Westerns, eco-horror, documentary and mainstream Hollywood cinema. We definitely appreciated your exploration of 2010s oil soaps–especially re-boots of shows I watched with my host family in England, strangely enough. I was wondering if you had watched any of *Tin Star* on Amazon, and if so, what you thought about its representation of oil culture. Thank you again for your informative presentation!

    • Michaela Rife, University of Toronto says:

      Hi Robin, thanks for your comment! I haven’t seen Tin Star so I’ll have to watch. It looks like it could be interestingly contrasted with “Blood and Oil.” I’m also curious about the new show “Yellowstone,” which seems poised to position a Western rancher against encroaching oil companies.

      Incidentally, a small but interesting depiction of oil economies occurs in the first season of Friday Night Lights (another Peter Berg connection!) when a character tells a visiting oil company rep that she hates oil. (Because the boom-bust cycle has destroyed the hopes and dreams of her father and the town.)

  6. rlmurray50 says:

    Hi Kyle, Thank you for your interesting presentation. Joe and I love Herzog’s *Lessons of Darkness* and appreciated your citing our work from *Film Quarterly* and *Ecology and Popular Film: Cinema on the Edge*. Your addition of petromodernity and petrotemporality deepens readings of the documentary. Thank you especially for your reading of *Black November*, a film we plan to watch soon. Do you also see the same issues in the contemporaneous documentary *Fires of Kuwait* (1992) as you do in *Lessons of Darkness*?

    • KyleSittig says:

      Hi Robin,
      Sorry for the late reply. I have not yet seen Fires in Kuwait yet, although my argument does seem to apply to it. In beginning to look at oil, I went for the obvious representations of the “oil well” and the “oil fire” that have been well documented. However, as I move on – and this becomes slightly more apparent in Black November – I am trying to think about how a theory of petromodernity can reframe modernity. That’s where I think LeMenager’s framing of Walter Benjamin can be extended through other film theorists that engage with a sort of “modernity thesis”. So the move from “Lessons” (a classic aesthetic oil film) to Black November which is more engaged with incorporating petromodernity into a social context attempts to begin that transition.

      And your book was immensely helpful, thank you.


  7. deryaagis says:

    Question for all: do some environmental neglect and the misuse and abuse of natural resources lead to dystopia within societies from a political perspective? Can oil and hydrocarbons lead to dystopia through broadcasts in the media? How can a utopia be created, defending the use of oil and hydrocarbons? Is this possible?

  8. Joseph Heumann, Eastern Illinois University says:

    hi Bart:
    Thanks for forcing the issue of petroculture for us. We have tried to deal with this issue since 2006 when we first published on the Lumiere’s Oil Wells of Baku. Going back to1896 and seeing how that world was viewed by travel writers and other witnesses made it clear that petroleum then, as it is now, for many people, is viewed in a positive manner, so much so that as one travel writer put it about being in Baku, be sure to take a second set of clothing with you, so you can dine at night in something clean as the oil infused air will make your daytime clothes filthy with oil.
    Your film choices are apt, we have seen them all, and are not surprised that they have not functioned as calls to action. The epilogue of Being Caribou plainly states that the film makers have failed in their goal to convince American political leaders, and worse, just in the last few months, Trump has succeeded in further opening the ANWAR to increased development.
    Many Inuit produced films deal with the problem you ask us to consider. In Vanishing Point our Inuit narrator sees the world melting beneath her and talks about having to try to “Stay Inuit” or immerse herself into the world of “gas and sugar.”
    We have seen every mountain top removal film possible for Film and Everyday Eco-Disasters and one thing we learned, especially since Robin is from W Virginia, is that the coal companies attempt to eliminate all human beings from the area they are destroying. The smaller the number of people being directly effected, the less noise. Thus one man who holds on to his land and his family cemetery is less of a problem than thousands of people demonstrating for clean water closer to that state’s capital.
    Contrast this with the hundreds of small to large earthquakes caused in Oklahoma by fracking and the complaints of numerous citizens there. The fracking continues, but the poisonous liquids have to be dealt with in other negative ways. But the pro-oil government had to respond immediately to the complaints because too many people and too much property was being put at risk.
    thanks for the presentation.

    • jefffilipiak says:

      Joseph, thanks for sharing those insights on mountain top removal films. That let me know I need to check out your book! (You and Bart both make clear the importance of people trying to hold on to their homes.) I have done some work on Harry Caudill, and a lot of work on Wendell Berry, so I want to look at how others have represented the issues they discuss.

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