O   r   g   a   n   i   c       M   e   c   h   a   n   i   c   s:
The Aesthetics of American Documentary Film in the 1930s
"Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be any thing but a machine." (Thoreau 1770).

In the opening section of Walden, "Economy," Henry David Thoreau thus indicates that machines were transforming not only the mid-nineteenth century American workplace, but the manner in which people thought about themselves. In Thoreau's mind, the machine is antithetical to man: "The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling" (1770). In order to provide himself with such nurturing, Thoreau famously retreated to Walden Pond, where, despite his best efforts to seclude himself, he was frequently subjected to the sounds of the nearby railroad. Even at this early, practically pre-industrial moment (Alan Trachtenberg points out that in the 1850s, the United States had only experienced "incorporation...on a modest scale," predominantly in the form of the railroad), Thoreau cannot escape the machine (Trachtenberg 4). Yet, as Leo Marx indicates, he responds to this discovery with more than "simple-minded Luddite hostility" (247). Marx interprets Thoreau's description of the train:

"First it is like a partridge, then a hawk; first it blends into the landscape like the industrial images in the Inness painting, but then, a moment later, it becomes the discordant machine of the Sleepy Hollow notes. What does the railroad signify here? On inspection the passage proves to be a sustained evocation of the ambiguous meaning of the machine and its relation to nature. Every significant image is yoked to an alternative...." (251)

...and this yoking likewise produces an alternative to the strict opposition between machine and nature which Thoreau sets up at the beginning of Walden. Marx points to the book's final section, "Spring," in which Thoreau posits that "'there is nothing inorganic'"; he indicates that the change in Thoreau's perspective has arisen from his realization that an absolute escape from technology just isn't possible in any place but in literature (Marx 261-262, 265). Nature, envisioned as the romantic antidote to modern stressors, is, simply put, a fiction.

This fiction is widely known as "pastoralism." In its most basic traditional formulation, it is "the dream of a retreat to an oasis of harmony and joy" (Marx 3). Pastoralism can be traced back to Theocritus; it provided the spirit of the Romantic movement (described by Whitehead, as cited by Marx, as "'a protest on behalf of the organic view of nature'") (Marx 19). Marx argues that in America, pastoralism has always had particular significance; the myth of the pastoral was used, for instance, to attract settlers to the colonies (4, 38). During the Elizabethan era, two popular conceptions of America circulated: one which described the New World as a "hideous wilderness," and one which exalted it as a "garden" (Marx 42). During the years of America's westward expansion, these images, formerly applied to America by Europe, were transferred onto America's unpopulated territory, alternately known as "wild west," or (as Henry Nash Smith terms it) "the Garden of the World" (123-124).

Yet as the country grew and the industrial revolution took hold, the image of beneficent nature met a new, external foe: the machine, "counterforce in the American archetype of the pastoral design" (Marx 18, 26). If the land was nurturing and feminine, the machine enacted a masculine assault (Marx 29). This metaphorical struggle between nature and the machine provides the central topic of this website. Just as Europeans discovered that "America was both Eden and a howling desert" (Marx 43), just as Thoreau found that it was impossible to separate the organic and the mechanical, the makers of these films discovered, however unintentionally, that boundaries between man, nature, and machine were mutable. Oddly, as the lines between organic and mechanical dissolved, an older binary emerged: filmmakers turned to images of nature as both threatening and nurturing in order to advance their arguments. In the case of each film, then, I will ask and attempt to answer the following questions: what is the relationship between man and nature? What is the relationship between nature and the machine? What is the relationship between man and the machine? Finally, how do these relationships relate to the stated or implied message of the film?