Sarah Cooper is Professor of Film Studies at King's College London. Her books include Film and the Imagined Image (Edinburgh University Press, 2019), The Soul of Film Theory (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), Chris Marker (Manchester University Press, 2008), and Selfless Cinema? Ethics and French Documentary (Legenda, 2006). Her current research focuses on flowers in film.
Nuance and 'The Botany of Desire'
The Botany of Desire, a best-selling book authored by Michael Pollan in 2001, was made into a PBS documentary in 2009, directed by Michael Schwarz. It tells the tale of four plants – the apple tree, tulip, marijuana, and potato – and narrates the development of their symbiotic relationship with humans, which has served to sustain survival and coevolution. This is a tale told from a US perspective that nevertheless broaches macrocosms of intertwined historical, ecological, agricultural, cultural, aesthetic, and political concerns on a global scale, yet it attends subtly to the microcosm too especially through its filmic form. The book’s subtitle suggests a plant’s-eye view of the world, and while the film features a voice-over (from Frances McDormand) and talking heads interviews with Pollan among others, some of the shots seek deliberately to intimate that botanical perspective. Furthermore, the section on the tulip features time-lapse cinematography attentive to singular minute details of individual flowers unfurling. These formal features will be the starting point for my own exploration of nuance in this paper. Attending to the micro rather than the macro, I draw in particular on the work of Roland Barthes as I ask how this documentary explores what it means to live according to nuance – an ethical project – with plants.