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Reflections on Imogen in the Wild, Part 2: “Finding the Ways Home”

By Cymbeline Anthropocene on Dec 02, 2021 at 11:54 PM in Project News

At the midpoint of Imogen in the Wild, Leo receives a call from Ranger Lucía telling him that Mayor Cymbeline, Queenie, and Cloten have just blown off her efforts to persuade them to cancel the Excavo Deal to develop The Wild. Leo rallies her: 

I do believe that this will prove a fight. The legions [against The Deal] will gather in protest. Some may smile at their skill, but we’ll find courage, Lucía. The youth will make known we are people such that mend the world.   

Imogen in the Wild “makes known” and “mends” the self-destructive arrogance of Anthropocene attitudes on interwoven levels of storytelling in the film and direct calls to action to those watching. In this second blog I want to think about some of the ways the film represents its political commitments through cinematic adaptation, and to explore how its audience-focused ethos motivates public rebuilding of a more environmentally inclusive and equitable world, particularly through music. 


During the six days Imogen in the Wild was shot in Yosemite, its makers partnered with National Park Service Rangers as co-creators. The Rangers’ participation is a striking expansion of Cymbeline’s premiss that the biocentrism of rural Wales, represented by Belarius, Arviragus, and Guiderius, drives the reformation of Cymbeline’s ecocidal court. The film gives the Rangers’ collaboration special recognition in an invented scene in which five of them, including Lucía, gather in the forest to consider how to defend the Wild against the Deal-makers. 

Ranger Emily Dayhoff, a South Sierra Miwuk woman, inspires the group by recalling the Wild’s deep-time natural history. She also reminds her colleagues that for the past 8000 years, ancestors of her First Nation and others have prospered from kinship with The Wild. This relationship is the foundation of their children’s futures, and is visualized by frequent shots of Yosemite’s iconic mountain Tessayak (South Sierra Miwuk), also called “Half Dome.” 

Reflections on Imogen in the Wild, Part 2: “Finding the Ways Home”

Dayhoff’s colleagues contribute insights from their own professional experiences, and together they conceive a path forward: physical reacquaintance with wild nature will recall Town dwellers to their essential dependence on the planet’s well-being. Iachimo validates their reasoning when he ventures into the forest under pressure from Queenie to “seal the deal” but is converted against his own cynicism by the sight, sounds, and scents of the phenomenal Wild. Transformed by this in-the-body regeneration, Iachimo urges Cymbeline to see the long-term value of the Wild and the virtue of pardoning the protesters. 


Traditionally, people have either loved or dissed Cymbeline’s mashup of earlier Shakespearian plotlines, character types, and dialogue. The self-conscious mixing is a challenge for twenty-first-century audiences, most of whom will be encountering the play for the first time and may not immediately realize Shakespeare is recycling himself on purpose. Imogen in the Wild helps viewers recognize this playful spirit. It splices classic sound-bites from better-known Shakespeare plays into its screenplay. Cymbeline, for instance, twice rages at Imogen, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is / To have a thankless child,” echoing King Lear (1.4.279-80). Queenie is a (conventionally) power-hungry Lady Macbeth figure. And Iachimo reprises famous lines by Richard III, Claudius, and Macbeth to become a Shakespearian supervillain. The film’s screenplay makes it clear we are in meta-Shakespeare territory.  

From the beginning it also eases viewers into a genre-blending and -bending frame of mind. Following Debra Ann Byrd’s “Motherless Child,” a fairy-tale-sounding Prologue introduces the backstories of the main play (“Once there was a town and a young mayor named Cymbeline…”). Imogen in the Wild also self-reflexively marks its intervention in Shakespearian cinematic history through its creation of the first feature film adaptation of Cymbeline by prefacing certain scenes with silent-era titles or captions on a black background, accompanied by saloon-piano music. Other scenes about the protest appear with tv-news headlines (e.g. “The Jupiter Network: Live. Activist Belarius Pleads for the Wild”).    

But Imogen in the Wild’s most stirring amplification of genre-diversity, corresponding to goals of social and more-than-human inclusivity, is its original soundtrack. Most of the film’s music was composed and performed by its UC Merced and community actors. Artistically, its songs range from folk lyrics to elegies, music videos, lullabies, hymns, and many cross-over styles. Within the limited space here, I’ll sample a few genres. 

Following “Motherless Child,” Tonatiuh Dwayne Newbold’s blues lament, “Manacle of Love,” establishes the intimacy-in-exile of Leo and Imogen. Later, after being duped by Iachimo, Leo’s bittersweetness turns harsh in his moaning-man rendition of Posthumus’s misogynstic rant (2.4). The pop-genre cliché makes it obvious to today’s listeners that Leo’s sentiments are equally suspect, despite the sincerity of Newbold’s performance (the counterpart of Sofia Andom’s effectively unaffected acting style). Leo’s and Imogen’s innocence and devotion are captured by “In the Pines,” sung with lovely tenderness by Rena Johnson and based on an American folk song. These and other musical juxtapositions convey the tragi-comic swings of Cymbeline in a way that is both intelligible and moving.

Johnson’s a capella riffs on other folk lyrics provide narrative and character-focused transitions in the film’s action. But her signature contribution is a haunting solo of Shakespeare’s most famous funeral lyric, “Fear No More the Heat of the Sun” (4.2). Arviragus and Guiderius originally recite its verses over the bodies of Cloten and the supposedly dead Innogen. It still serves that purpose in the film for Cloten, but it also intensifies a montage of Imogen arduously searching through the forest for Leo’s missing head. As she wanders, occasionally directed by helpful (masked) Rangers, golden images of sharing The Wild with Leo pierce her grief. This musical-visual animation cinematically translates Innogen’s long speech of dream-trauma in Cymbeline as she wakes up beside the decapitated body she believes is her husband’s. 

Johnson and the filmmakers also cleverly link Imogen’s grief with the Anthropocene devastation of the forest. They update Shakespeare’s verbal image of lads and girls as chimney-sweepers coming to dust in “Fear No More” to present-day references to skies filled with smoke from climate-change aggravated wildfires. (Visually and emotionally, these scenes also take viewers back to Imogen’s distress when she first journeyed into The Wild to rendezvous with the banished Leo, in which we see her passing through clear-cut stumps and forest debris.). The articulated sequence brilliantly distills the film’s theme of solastalgia, or homesickness caused by local environmental ruptures and degradation, remedied by reconnecting with the nurturing Wild (“land that will warm and cloak you”).    

Several other musical highlights deserve mention. Cloten’s misfiring attempt to “penetrate” Imogen’s resistance through music becomes the entertainingly chaotic “Come hither.”  It begins as a hilarious parody of a country-music video. The banjo-playing, self-adoring Cloten, played by Chase Brantley, croons from the back of a pickup truck to the star-struck glances and gyrations of a rural babe in short cut-offs. Recognizing Cloten’s ditty won’t impress a modern city girl (cut to unimpressed looks of Imogen and Helen [Brianna Lopez] watching on their computer), the video’s producer for Cloten, The Sonnet Man (aka Devon Glover), shifts gears to a hip-hop performance of his own urban-Elizabethanesque rap, “Good morrow, sunshine, it’s your lover Cloten.” 

If Cloten epitomizes all that is ignorantly wrong in the Anthropocene, Cat Flores’s “Earth’s Cry” proposes an empathy-stirring solution. A youth-protest video and anthem for the whole film, it is framed by Bella Camfield’s spoken lines from Hippolyta’s “climate-change” speech in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Accompanied by music-video shots of damaged landscapes, Flores passionately calls out today’s “progeny of evils”: messed-up seasons, killing smog, and forest holocausts that are devastating California and other frontline climate-crisis regions. Her refrain, “Gotta make it number one,” urges viewers to act to reverse its human causes now (cut to approving looks from Imogen and Celia watching). 


Reflections on Imogen in the Wild, Part 2: “Finding the Ways Home”

Imogen in the Wild’s target audience is not exclusively young. The John Muir figure of Belarius represents a Romantic, back-to-the-land conservationism which is still an important environmentalist heritage. But as my opening quotation suggests, overall the film insists that hope for an environmentally just and liveable future is something that must be mobilized by younger generations and their intersectional experience of climate change. As Imogen in the Wild also insists with inviting seriousness, their demands for changed behaviours are ethically undeniable because accelerating Anthropocene calamities will disproportionately harm their lives and those of their non-human kindred. To that end, the film’s inclusive, largely non-professional student, community, and Park Ranger performers not only flag the project’s creative activism but also authenticate its cultural practice.    

Imogen has been reading Citizen Potawami Nation bryologist Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass to heal her solastalgia (Imogen is often seen lying on mosses for rest and comfort in The Wild). So when Imogen/Sofia Andom partners with Black park Ranger Shelton Johnson to present the film’s concluding acknowledgement of Indigenous land title, the moment circles back to Debra Ann Byrd’s “Motherless Child.” The cinematic arc reminds viewers that, despite Imogen in the Wild’s belief in environmental hope over eco-anxiety and trauma, this hope must include recognition that colonized and marginalized peoples continue to suffer from oppressions of the privileged and powerful. That hope is necessary, but is still “a long ways from home.”