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With ‘Devour the Land,’ the Harvard Film Archive examines impact of the US military on environment

Mexico City, from "The Airstrip."Filmgalerie 451/Heinz Emigholz

Landscapes bear witness to human history.

So argues the Harvard Art Museums’ “Devour the Land: War and American Landscape Photography Since 1970.″ The exhibition, which runs through Jan. 16), examines the impact of the US military on the environment. So does the Harvard Film Archive’s companion program “Devour the Land: Cinema, Landscape, History” (through Dec. 13). Drawing on a variety of inventive and avant-garde styles, the films eschew outright polemic for poetry, irony, absurdity, allusion, and illusion.

As Jan Ijäs’s “Waste No. 4 New York, New York” (2019; it can be streamed Dec. 3-6) argues that future archeologists could uncover artifacts outlining the whole latter half of 20th-century American history at the Fresh Kills Landfill, on Staten Island. It’s the biggest dump in the world. Seen from a distance it looks like an unassuming mound but, as the voiceover narrator explains, it contains multitudes: a billion cubic meters of garbage, including “television sets, toilet bowls, typewriters, cigarette butts, love letters, toothpaste tubes. . . .”

From "Waste No. 4 New York, New York"Harvard Film Archive

Near the end of the list the narrator slips in “Twin Towers,” later explaining that 1.8 million tons of debris from the World Trade Center, destroyed on 9/11, are interred there.


The Fresh Kills segment of the film is a coda; it comes after a chronicle of New York City’s potter’s fields, the places where the corpses of the indigent, unclaimed, unknown, and contagious have been disposed of from the 18th century to the present day. At the most recent location for the resting site, Hart Island, over a million people lie buried in mass graves. Only one person there has been granted an individual plot — an unknown baby who died of AIDS in 1985 and was buried 14 feet deep because it was believed at the time that the tiny body could spread the disease.


Brasilia, from "The Airstrip."Filmgalerie 451/Heinz Emigholz

Heinz Emigholz’s meditatively paced essay film “The Airstrip” (2014; it can be streamed Nov. 19-22) roams the world in search of concrete examples (literally — they are made of cement) of a militaristic, proto-fascist tradition in architecture. They range from the Pantheon in Rome, built in the 2nd century, to a modern-day bus shelter in Binz, Germany. Each location is examined in detail, inside and outside, in montages consisting of lingering long takes (gorgeous with the Pantheon, less so with the bus shelter).

Emigholz travels from Normandy, where the remains of the colossal artificial harbor constructed for D-Day, crumble in the surf, to Tinian Island, in the Pacific, location of the airstrip of the title. That’s where the B-29s bearing the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki took off, and the concrete loading pits for the bombs are preserved there as a memorial.

Though mostly grim, the film slips midway briefly into a bizarre interlude. “I do not like music in documentary films,” says the narrator. “Its use should be banned by law.” Goofy techno then plays on the soundtrack as images of giant pieces of meat, articles of clothing, a slice of bread, and other objects sail through an airport waiting area, unheeded by anyone.

From “The Annotated Field Guide of Ulysses S. Grant."Harvard Film Archive

Such whimsy underlies much of Jim Finn’s “The Annotated Field Guide of Ulysses S. Grant” (2020; no longer available via the HFA but can be streamed on OVID.tv beginning Oct. 22). Here Civil War monuments serve a genuinely historical purpose, though maybe not one that those who defend the Confederacy had in mind.


Finn visits the battle sites in the title general’s campaigns to defeat the Confederacy and “re-enacts” them with stop-motion animation of pieces from board games that simulate the clashes. The film’s seeming levity of the tone and style underscores the seriousness of the subject. Topics covered include the Confederate policy of executing captured Black soldiers — put to a stop when Grant threatened to respond in kind.

Grant comes off looking pretty good, with the exception of a few blunders here and there. He certainly looks better than the vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander H. Stephens. In his memoirs about the five months he spent as a prisoner in Fort Warren in Boston Harbor he whines about the food and the inhumanity of his relatively cushy conditions. It’s the beginning of a long tradition of white supremacists depicting themselves as victims.

For “Devour the Land: Cinema, Landscape, Historygo to harvardfilmarchive.org/programs/devour-the-land-cinema-landscape-history. For “The Annotated Field Guide of Ulysses S. Grant” go to www.ovid.tv/browse.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.