Film-Philosophy Conference, Film-Philosophy Conference 2012

Cinematic Gardens as an Epistemological and Ethical Argument – „Certain Gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks.“

Nina Gerlach


My talk exemplifies the function of the cinematic garden motif in terms of visual ethics and visual epistemology. Given the shifting existence of gardens, between natural and cultural existence, gardens operate in movies as visualized metaphors. In the history of film, historical garden styles are consistently altered by the production design and the mise en scène to match visually either of these poles of the cultural-historically grown dichotomy. In reducing the heterogeneity of the object to a bipolar stereotype, the cinematic garden motif serves as a visual code of argument.

In postmodern cinema (The Draughtsman’s Contract 1982/L’ année dernière à Marienbad 1961), architectural garden styles and their cinematographically-surfaced artificiality serve as arguments against the notion of a mimetic/natural reproduction of the world by media, whereas in genre film the bipolar code is used as an ethical judge. By placing antagonists of heroes, like Bond’s villains (Moonraker 1979) or General Mireau in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957), constantly in obviously culturally altered gardens and romantic lovers and innocent children in naturally grown appearing spaces, genre films convert garden history to a bipolar iconography of good and evil. Taking into account that gardens share the hybrid state of res mixta, understood as the interplay of cultural and natural conditions, with the condi­cio humana, this analyze shows, that European and American films are standing in the tradition of an ethical naturalism that viewed na­ture and the alienation from it as points of reference for ethical judgment. Here, culturally altered garden space serves in genre films no longer as a symbol of paradise or the ideal state of the human being, but rather as a marker of the unnatural alienation from it.

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About the Presenter

Nina Gerlach
University of Basel/Switzerland NCCR Iconic Criticism/Eikones

Senior Research Fellow, Art History