Hollywood in Flames

By Brian R. JacobsonJune 21, 2019

Hollywood in Flames

Hollywood’s Dirtiest Secret by Hunter Vaughan
Inhospitable World by Jennifer Fay

ON SEPTEMBER 25, 1970, two fires, one started by downed power lines, the other by burning rubbish at a public dump outside Malibu, both stoked by 80 mile-per-hour Santa Ana winds, sparked the most devastating wildfire — to that point — in California history. Over the next 10 days, more than 500,000 acres burned, leaving 350 injured and 13 dead. Among the fire’s lesser casualties was the old Spahn movie ranch, just northwest of Los Angeles in the Santa Susana Mountains. Formerly owned by silent film star William S. Hart, the ranch had once been a hotspot of Hollywood world-making as the set for films including David O. Selznick and King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946) and episodes of The Lone Ranger. By 1970, production had slowed, and the ranch was better known as the recent home of the Manson family. Meanwhile, the biggest shoot in town was happening 25 miles south at the MGM studio, where French director Roger Vadim was filming Pretty Maids All in a Row, a murder mystery comedy starring Rock Hudson as a lecherous, lethal gym teacher.

In his 1976 memoir, Vadim recalled the fire in vivid, allegorical detail. At the time, he had been living with wife Jane Fonda at an oceanside property in Malibu. Fonda and their daughter were away, but a niece, Nathalie, was visiting, and so, with shooting on the MGM lot finished for the day, Vadim, fearing equally for his niece and a cache of 16mm home movies of his daughter, set off for home. Following the plume of black smoke and the fire’s red glow, sneaking past police barricades and braving the flames that licked his tires, Vadim wound his way through Malibu Canyon. On arrival, he found Nathalie “coughing and choking in the living room” and houses destroyed at either end of the beach. Unable to drive back through the fire, which had twisted into a 20-mile wall of flames, nor to escape by boat due to “gigantic waves” battering the coast, the two settled in to wait it out.

Vadim could only describe what came next in cinematic terms. “Nightfall made us cry out with amazement.” It was, he writes, “a magnificent spectacle […] [t]he whole mountain range, as far as the eye could see, seemed to be going through a series of convulsions filmed in slow motion. Red and black shapes were locked together in a silent, voluptuous embrace.” The resulting devastation, Vadim argued, was a good metaphor for old Hollywood, an industry in flames, its studio lots as empty as the burned-out Spahn movie ranch.

Vadim’s allegory flashed to mind last November during the Woolsey Fire that consumed more than 96,000 acres in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, ultimately leaving three people dead, more than 1,600 buildings destroyed, and an estimated $6 billion worth of damages. Once again, the destruction encompassed vast swaths of Hollywood infrastructure, notably including the M*A*S*H television set in Malibu Creek State Park and the Paramount Ranch in the Agoura Hills. For nearly a century, the latter had offered a ready backdrop for everything from silent-era comedies featuring Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton to historical dramas such as the 1937 Claudette Colbert vehicle Maid of Salem (with its own fire myth) and, more recently, the western landscapes seen in Westworld.

As the American film industry shifts under the pressures of technological change and new leisure habits, one might be tempted to see the Woolsey Fire as another allegory — this time for the smoldering end of the systems Vadim saw emerge from a previous Hollywood’s metaphorical ashes. Change is once again afoot in Hollywood, and some old models are surely fading away. But we need not be so imaginative as Vadim to link the changing “environment” of the motion picture industry with the warming of our world and its promise of stronger fires and greater destruction. Nor is the link simply metaphorical. The film industry has long had its own part to play in the climate-changing work of global warming and the terraforming transformations to a Southern California landscape that burns and burns and burns again. This is Hollywood self-immolation, and it’s been a long time coming.


Two recent books by film scholars offer useful insights into this self-destructive history, while also illustrating significant changes in how one academic field has come to position itself in debates about climate change. As Hunter Vaughan reminds us in Hollywood’s Dirtiest Secret: The Hidden Environmental Costs of the Movies, creating a catastrophic fire has long been a marker of Hollywood success. One of the American film industry’s greatest triumphs involves just that: an awe-inspiring blaze set purposely to destroy a studio backlot. The lot in question belonged to Selznick International Pictures, where, on the evening of December 10, 1938, shooting for Gone with the Wind got underway with the staged burning of Atlanta. With 25 LAPD officers, 50 firemen, and 200 studio personnel looking on, a gas-fueled inferno laid waste to the still-standing sets of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 silent epic King of Kings, parts of which had been reused as Skull Island for the 1933 version of King Kong.

Vaughan uses Selznick’s burning of Atlanta to highlight the longstanding tension between Hollywood’s competing needs for, on the one hand, spectacular excess, and, on the other, to be “sustainable,” at least in a financial, if not an environmental sense. The film’s primary spectacle was supposed to have been its historical setting: the elegant costumes and plantation house, Tara, whose fabrication helped make the film one of Hollywood’s most expensive to date. But Selznick balked at the premise, fearing that audiences — not to mention the studio PR team — needed something more exciting than a character-driven drama. At this point, a practical problem became a solution. To make space for the film’s simulated historical world, Selznick and famed art director William Cameron Menzies needed to clear away a real one. The fire, which hadn’t been a significant part of the original script, might thus serve two purposes. If the old sets had to be destroyed anyway, why not profit from it? And so, in a historical mash-up only Hollywood could imagine, Jerusalem, Skull Island, and Atlanta burned together. Their creative destruction was Hollywood’s idea of recycling.

Gone with the Wind’s controlled conflagrations exemplify one of cinema’s defining conceits: that our world, even its most out-of-control features, can be created and commanded. The problem, as Vaughan’s book insists, is that this control can only be achieved at immense cost. The nature of that cost has increasingly attracted the scrutiny of film and media historians who are more alert than ever to the material realities that underpin film fantasies. Film Studies long ago escaped the doldrums of “film appreciation” and an allegiance to the text learned from literary studies. What New Historicism did for the latter, the New Film History did for a field whose changing names — Film Studies, Film and Television Studies, Film and Media Studies, Cinema and Media Studies, Screen Studies, and so on — are just one sign of the methodological expansion that has allowed “film” history to reach far beyond the films. The resulting work has had enormous value for an academic field that has, like most others, long ignored the environmental externalities that are beginning to look like the nightmares Hollywood’s “dream factory” tried to forget.

Even the most detailed, field-defining histories, including The Classical Hollywood Cinema (1985), to cite just one canonical example, offered only a hint of what studio resource consumption meant. Take, for instance, the enticing story of Paramount’s Lasky studio, which once sat on the ranchland that burned during the Woolsey Fire last fall. To serve the studio’s growing need for lumber, in 1918 Paramount acquired a tract of forest in Oregon. In The Classical Hollywood Cinema, this story passes briefly as a rich anecdote. Today’s film historian, in contrast, would build a whole narrative around the trade paper article from which it is sourced. Titled “From Forest to Film,” this brief illustrated report details the commodity chains that, when seen through the lens of the environmental humanities, neatly encapsulate the nature-culture boundary blurring that has also come to define a key subfield of film and media studies. Paramount’s Oregon timber, as the article illustrates, made its way south via “a private sawmill and steamers […] to San Pedro harbor,” then over to the Lasky ranch, where it is was fabricated into “lordly palaces and modest huts,” passed on to the scrapheaps, reformed into scaffolding, and finally sent to the furnace, where it “serve[d] its purpose even in death.” Add to this account a preface about deforestation and an epilogue about pollution, and you have an academic article about cinema and the Anthropocene.

Similar stories appear in Vaughan’s book. We learn, for instance, that Kodak built its laboratory in Rochester, New York, in no small part for its proximity to Lake Ontario, where, during the 1920s, the company required 12,000,000 gallons of water daily to feed Hollywood’s demand for raw film stock. Twelve million gallons per day. Vaughan tracks this history back to Hollywood and the MGM lot, where in July 1951, Culver City residents found themselves unwittingly competing for water with one of Hollywood’s best-known scenes of climate simulation: Gene Kelly’s love song to bad weather, Singin’ in the Rain. More recent examples include the truckloads of ice driven from Wisconsin to Oklahoma to create hail storms in Twister (1996), the pools of water built on the Mexican coast into which Leonardo DiCaprio (lately one of Hollywood’s most outspoken environmentalists) slips away from Kate Winslet in Titanic (1997), and especially the combination of set-building excess and energy-hungry data processing needed to create the world of Pandora in James Cameron’s climate-changing environmental allegory, Avatar (2009).

Consciousness of the industry’s environmental impact has been slow to take hold in Hollywood. In 2006, the UCLA Institute of the Environment published a report, “Sustainability in the Motion Picture Industry,” which includes the early caveat that, while many Hollywood filmmakers “are very proactive, well-educated, entrepreneurial environmentalists […] the structure of the industry mitigates against environmental improvement.” The problem, in part, has to do with perception:

The public at large does not think of the motion picture industry as polluting or otherwise environmentally harmful, so any publicity related to environmental initiatives within the industry would, in that view, draw attention to the existence of environmental problems that apparently need solving.

In short, Hollywood would be better off if it ignored environmental issues altogether.

In many ways, it has. While groups such as the Environmental Media Association have been around since 1989, Hollywood has mostly taken a rearguard approach to environmental sustainability. Only in 2017 did the Producers Guild of America launch its “Green Production Guide,” which includes a database of green vendors and fruit-friendly toolkits for stereotypical Hollywood juicers invited to make their film “healthy” by combining the PEACH Best Practices Checklist, PEAR Carbon Calculator, and PLUM Production Lumber Worksheet.

The silver lining, if there is one in Vaughan’s book, lies in a tenuous combination of these fledgling initiatives and the silver screen’s potential to make us see our world otherwise. It’s easy to forget the power of Al Gore’s star turn in An Inconvenient Truth (2006), or the consciousness-raising work of Erin Brockovich (2000). The EMA and Green Production Guide place their bets on more subtle forms of persuasion. Looking for a story about adultery, the latter asks? Why not try a scenario in which “[a] character finds a solar installer, home energy performance contractor, [or] clean energy businessperson […] more attractive than the character’s partner/spouse.” Or how about a “rags to riches” tale in which “[a] character or group of characters climb the socioeconomic ladder […] because of a clean energy business endeavor.” This is hardly the Green New Deal, nor, I suspect, what the editors of n+1 had in mind in a widely circulated article from earlier this year that denounced “the apocalyptic effusions of pop culture that do not reference climate change at all.”

But what sort of film references do we need? As Vaughan makes clear, films like Avatar, or the countless disaster epics that have sought in recent years to profit from the global warming zeitgeist, pose a familiar ideological problem long ago diagnosed by the Frankfurt School. While Hollywood’s version of climate change might bring a modicum of attention to the dangers of our altered world, we still must ask: is this revelation anything more than entertaining catharsis that ultimately reinforces individualism above all else? Making matters worse, Vaughan insists, Hollywood, in its big-budget, techno-spectacular form, has helped instill the idea, widely disputed by climate scientists, that technology will advance quickly enough to save us from global warming’s worst effects. Such are the pipe dreams of what remains of Hollywood’s dream factory today.


In her new book, Inhospitable World: Cinema in the Time of the Anthropocene, Jennifer Fay suggests that this may be the very opposite of the lesson film could actually teach us about our environmental future. Like Vaughan, Fay sources this lesson in part in the medium’s materiality: the controlled world of film studios and no-less-controlled environments created “on location.” But where Vaughan’s strident condemnation of film’s “dirtiest secret” tends toward moralism, Fay seeks heuristic value in the waste. If we want to understand our changing world and our role in it, Fay argues, we might well look to modern culture’s most powerful form of world alteration. Through film, she writes, “we may appreciate both the artificiality of human world-making and the ambitions to design an artificial, unhomely planet.”

Fay pursues this argument across a stirringly varied path through American film history. In Buster Keaton’s silent comedies, she locates early film visions of anthropogenic weather control and its hilarious, but also frightful, limits. From there, she moves to US atomic test films and Andy Warhol’s screen tests, each of which illustrate human precarity in a world ever more dominated by technology. And in perhaps the book’s most productively creative turn back to textual analysis, she rereads midcentury Hollywood noir as an “ecology of misery,” its “pedagogy of death” serving as a nihilistic user’s guide to accepting the end of one destructive way of life — or borrowing from Roy Scranton, “learning to die in the Anthropocene.”

But there’s also something hopeful in Fay’s work, and it transcends the aims of “healthy” production checklists or guides for peppering popular films with green content. Film theorists have often sourced the medium’s power in its capacity to reveal our world anew. Whether through the vision of what Dziga Vertov termed the “kino-eye,” the strange cognition of what Jean Epstein described as the camera’s “mechanical brain,” or the mental adaptation of Walter Benjamin’s “optical unconscious,” film has long been understood to have the potential to transform our ways of seeing. Fay focuses on two versions of this general idea in philosopher Stanley Cavell’s concept of cinematic worlding and Siegfried Kracauer’s theory of cinema’s power of estrangement.

From Cavell, Fay takes the notion that film teaches a form of anti-anthropocentrism: a pleasure in experiencing a world beyond our control. Gazing through the screen into cinema’s illusionary reality, we experience a world in which our power is no longer possible nor necessary. In this way, Fay argues via Cavell, “film enables us to overcome our subjectivity and reconnect with a world we may share with others.” Fay finds models for the form this reconnection might take in the work of Kracauer, whose 1960 Theory of Film includes the puzzling but increasingly appropriate subtitle “The Redemption of Physical Reality.”

Though often derided as a naïve apostle of cinema’s supposed realism, Kracauer has more recently been reconsidered as a powerful critic of midcentury American culture. For Fay, Kracauer’s significance lies in his recognition that film “is the medium par excellence that estranges nature and our contemporary moment.” Writing in the wake of the Holocaust and atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Kracauer sought post-apocalyptic sources for redemption in a world destroyed by man. But rather than turning to fervent religiosity or faith in science, Kracauer pointed to the redemptive power of culture. Fay cites a key early passage, in which Kracauer insists that film “meets our innermost needs precisely by exposing — for the first time, as it were — outer reality and thus deepening, in Gabriel Marcel’s words, our relation to ‘this Earth which is our habitat.’”

Fay’s argument is not that Kracauer was thinking about climate change, of course, but rather that his sense of film’s power to “redeem the physical world from our ideas and feelings about it” suggests that the medium might still help us think the planet anew. Films thus need not be about the environment or climate change — they need not have “clean energy” stories or visions of global warming catastrophe — to renew humanity’s relationship to Earth. Rather, it is precisely by showing us a world that has already been transformed, perhaps irrecoverably, that film offers opportunities to reconsider what it means to live in a world — like every film world — that is always already altered.

Here lies the provisional optimism of Fay’s book, one that encourages us to push beyond the easy moralism of so much work in the environmental humanities. “Film and film theory,” she writes, “may intervene in and temper our emotional and even sentimental relationship to nature, the earth, and even the human world, and help us to form more meaningful ecological attachments.” We need, in other words, to rethink film’s power, not simply as entertainment, but as education — as an ongoing series of object lessons in how we make, see, and inhabit a changing world.

If we can agree that moving images have this unique power, we might still disagree about the trade-offs they require. As so many of us spend more and more time living in and through screens, all while paradoxically lamenting the real threats to the environment from which those screens estrange us, we need work that can help us better understand what mediation means for our tenuous attachment to reality. Books like Vaughan’s remind us that our media obsession has real costs — media makers must do better, and so can we. While fuel-hungry air travel has become a ready target of environmental criticism, making and watching media does damage too. Recent research shows that the streaming-heavy information technology sector that delivers most of our content is just as harmful as flying. No doubt we might still usefully learn, for instance from David Attenborough’s ever-expanding “planet” series, to find renewed wonder — which need not be simply sentimental — in what Bill McKibben termed our already-altered “Eaarth.” Perhaps there’s even a ghastly pedagogy to be found in programs like Game of Thrones, with its flaming climate of misery recreating noir’s didactic nihilism for a new millennial world of extinction, crisis, and catastrophe — the world burning all around us. Fay’s vision of film as an education in environmental estrangement offers reason to hope these lessons might be worth it. But our most responsible relationship to screen culture may also be a regular course in abstinence. Might we all binge watch a little less and go outside a little more?


Brian R. Jacobson, assistant professor of cinema studies and history at the University of Toronto, is author of Studios Before the System (Columbia University Press, 2015) and is currently writing a book about energy’s visual culture.

LARB Contributor

Brian R. Jacobson is author of Studios Before the System (Columbia University Press, 2015) and professor of visual culture at Caltech.


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