Karl Schoonover: ‘Sinkholes, GIFS, and cinematic ecologies’

Abstract: A problem of scale haunts popular eco-documentries made after Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006). The causes of the earth’s seemingly imminent ecological apocalypse occur in spaces and temporalities too vast for traditional methods of cinematic rhetoric. The visibility, reach, and effects of the dioxins resulting from trash incineration aren’t easily rendered by the filmic image. In this context, a response to this problem has emerged in the spectacular abyss of the sinkhole. I will argue that the sinkhole is a primary feature of contemporary “anthroposcenery.” When the earth suddenly gives way under our parks, our streets, our homes, and in front of our cameras, the sinkhole opens a challenge to conventional ecological educational discourses and the capacity of those discourses to manage the scale of human impact on the planet’s ecosystems.

How the sinkhole elicits limitlessness is key to understanding the infectious nature of its visual spectacle: the parameters of time and space as we know it dissolve before our eyes in its sudden ingestion of pedestrians and automobiles, in the constant turbulence of its deep waters, in the undertow of its void. It is then no wonder that the GIF has become sinkhole footage’s ideal venue. Even television reports on the problem of sinkholes repeat found and amateur footage that echoes the impulse of the GIF. Sinkholes are popular for GIF aggregating sites, such as GIPHY and Tumblr. If, as Anna McCarthy has argued, GIFs “allow us to explore the contradictions inherent” in the political economy of the web’s infrastructure, then what does the popularity of the sinkhole as a GIF tell us? McCarthy writes: “The GIF’s infinitely reproducible loop at once promises .. continuous ubiquity while grounding it in the reality of infrastructure, where matters of playability and resolution always intervene.” This paper will outline the sinkhole as a phenomenon suited precisely to these infrastructural needs: “playability”, “resolution”, and “continuous ubiquity.” As such, the sinkhole demands that ecopolitics rethink how it represents endgames.

Works cited:

Gustafsson, Tommy, and Pietari Kääpä, eds. Transnational Ecocinema : Film Culture in an Era of Ecological Transformation. Bristol: Intellect, 2013.

Ivakhiv, Adrian J. Ecologies of the Moving Image: Cinema, Affect, Nature. Environmental Humanities. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013.

Kracauer, Siegfried. Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. New York: Oxford University Press, 1960.

McCarthy, Anna. “Visual Pleasure and GIFS” [lecture], Institut für Medienkultur und Theater, Universität zu Köln, January 5, 2016.

Rust, Stephen, Salma Monani, and Sean Cubitt, eds. Ecocinema Theory and Practice. London: Routledge, 2013.

Bio: Karl Schoonover is Associate Professor and Reader in Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick. He is the author of Brutal Vision: The Neorealist Body in Postwar Italian Cinema (U of Minnesota Press2012) and co-editor of Global Art Cinema (Oxford UP 2010). His new monograph, co-authored with Rosalind Galt, is Queer Cinema in the World (Duke University Press, 2016).