Silver Screen: The Audubon Trilogy: Fugitive Narratives and the Drama of the Natural World

Silver Screen: The Audubon Trilogy: Fugitive Narratives and the Drama of the Natural World
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Who: Jacob Cartwright and Nick Jordan
What: The Audubon Trilogy: Delineations of American Scenery and Manners (documentary film screening)
When: 2010-06-24
The Audubon Trilogy: Fugitive Narratives and the Drama of the Natural World
T.J. Jones

A showing of the documentary film The Audubon Trilogy: Delineations of American Scenery and Manners will take place Thursday, June 24 at the Morris Library Auditorium. British filmmakers Jacob Cartwright and Nick Jordan set out to create a stirring document of American cultural and natural history while using the writings of famed ornithologist John James Audubon.

Filmmakers Cartwright and Jordan began with the idea of using Audubon's writing while the two were a part of an artist fellowship at Manchester Museum in England. Coming across a stuffed passenger pigeon on display, Jordan says he was struck by Audubon's text, which foreshadowed the eventual extinction of the species.

"Compelled by this absurdly inconsequential specimen, we researched the history of the species with all its prevailing mythology," Jordan says. "We decided to make a film for the museum fellowship-- to document on film the places where Audubon once lived, explored and observed the passenger pigeons."

The filmmakers travelled to Kentucky and followed the Ohio River from Louisville, all the while filming the places about which Audubon wrote. They found West Point, where Audubon first observed vast flocks of passenger pigeons. The product was West Point: The Hunting of the Passenger Pigeon, the twenty-four-minute short that makes for the first part of the Trilogy.

Jordan says there was no intention of making an actual trilogy, but while filming in the backwoods and along the Ohio River's banks, Jordan says he and Cartwright found themselves in locations that triggered further narratives and connections with Audubon.

"We were excited by such rich material," Jordan says. "Just driving around, away from the big towns and cities, you sense how close history is to the surface, and the enormity of the task that faced the pioneers. Some of the small country villages [and] townships seem to exist very much on the edge."

New Madrid, the second film in the Trilogy, was filmed at Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee, which was the product of the 1811 earthquake in New Madrid. Audubon himself wrote his account of the earthquake while on horseback in Kentucky.

Cairo: The Breaking up of the Ice, the final film in the Trilogy, came to Cartwright and Jordan purely by chance.

"[Cairo] surprised us with both its beauty and its dilapidation," Jordan says. "This is a special place, intriguing and mysterious. It presented another unexpected filming opportunity and allowed us to expand the project from its original premise into a series of three short films, allied to Audubon and the wider region's natural, cultural, and social histories."

Audubon's The Breaking up of the Ice details the six weeks Audubon and his crew spent trapped in the confluence in Cairo in 1809. Two centuries later, Cartwright and Jordan returned to Cairo during the winter and followed the frozen upper Mississippi River through the borders of Wisconsin and Iowa while filming at locations along Missouri and Illinois.

"Our intention was to combine Audubon's tale of winter adversity with images of a frozen landscape and the abandoned streets of downtown Cairo; to reconnect a two-hundred-year-old narrative with its present-day, troubled location," Jordan says. "The films took on wider-ranging themes than had been originally anticipated-- from species extinction to economic failure-- yet each film has been framed and influenced by the words of Audubon."

Thus is The Audubon Trilogy. Using the unorthodox marriage of modern-day natural filming of the Southern Midwest and the nearly two-hundred-year-old narrations of Audubon, filmmakers Cartwright and Jordan haven't so much created a documentary, but instead have created a living visual and natural experiment, turning time and history into a constant illustrative narration. "Using a voiceover in juxtaposition with the footage tends to create a slightly fugitive narrative whereby some words become fixed and others drift away," Jordan says. "I think all three films have moments of both correspondence and contrast with Audubon's narrative. We didn't set out to illustrate Audubon's words, in a literal way, and neither did we aim to create jarring juxtapositions, or any kind of parody. I think we tried to remain true to the text, seeing as we value its inherent power and impact. Working in a relatively unplanned manner, we were happy to follow our noses, so to speak, to be fairly instinctive about subject and location. At the same time, we were always on the lookout for connections to Audubon and his words, environmental parallels, and visual or conceptual motifs."

Jordan refers to Audubon's writings as having a performative nature, and how he was clearly trying to identify himself as an American woodsman. Jordan says Audubon was without a doubt vain, self-aggrandising, and at times a fabulist, all of which, he says, is evident in Audubon's writing. "The stylized aspect of his writing is important to us, as it creates an imaginative space to draw upon," Jordan says. "At the same time, Audubon's accounts are based on real events and locations, which we wanted to keep to the fore. We probably expected more opposition or striking contrasts between Audubon's accounts of frontier America and the present day, but we were struck by the dramatic scale and abundant ecology to be found in and around Southern Illinois and Kentucky."

Cartwright and Jordan remain proud to have explored in the shadow of Audubon. "We do have an affinity with his keen interest in the drama of the natural world, and in his enthusiasm for exploring and recording unfamiliar places," Jordan says. "People have remarked on the elegiac aspect of the Trilogy, with an undercurrent of loss and violence. There is a sense of pathos in Audubon's writings, particularly in the vivid descriptions of both animal and human brutality, which I think the films draw out and can't help but connect with the present day."

The filmmakers are now working on a new film about Cairo, Illinois. More of a straightforward documentary than the experimental Audubon Trilogy, Jordan says he and Cartwright hope to leave form and narrative lines open to avoid what Jordan calls a simplistic view of the town and its people. With hopes to allow different voices, viewpoints, and pictures to coexist, Jordan promises the forthcoming Cairo film will not be for disaster tourists but, like The Audubon Trilogy, a document of American history.

who: Jacob Cartwright and Nick Jordan
what: The Audubon Trilogy: Delineations of American Scenery and Manners (documentary film screening)
where: Morris Library Auditorium
when: Thursday, June 24 at 5 p.m.