The Cinematic Animal

Films, animals and unordered speculation

Lives Beyond Us: in bookshops now

livesbeyondus

Some time ago, inspired by my research and writing for this blog, I suggested to the poetry press Sidekick Books that they might like to publish a book of poems and essays on animals in film, edited by me and Kirsten Irving (the press’s co-editor). That book is now a reality, and it’s available in many good book shops. Among the contributions are poems about Jonesy (the cat from Alien), Melanie Griffith’s childhood relationship with her family’s adopted lion, and The Night of the Hunter and essays on The Straight StoryMon Oncle, and cinematic representations of animal advocacy (full contents below). It’s an exciting book, I think, not only because of its diverse content, but because of its design (by Jon Stone), which beautifully combines the forms of academic and arts publications and illustrates what can be gained by breaking down artificial boundaries. I’m really proud to have been a part of it.

The book is available on the Sidekick Books website, which also has details about the launch (happening in London this Tuesday, the 21st of July).

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LIVES BEYOND US: POEMS AND ESSAYS ON THE FILM REALITY OF ANIMALS
Edited by Sebastian Manley and Kirsten Irving

Introduction
SEBASTIAN MANLEY

‘I quite deliberately dressed wild animals in tame costumes of my imagination’: Animals as Special Effects
PAUL WELLS

Post-production
JOHN CLEGG

Representations of Animal Advocacy in Film
LOREDANA LOY

The Human–Animal Dialectic in Animated Movies
TÂNIA REGINA VIZACHRI

Extras | Commentaries | Owls
MIKE WEST

Significant Others: Of Horses and Men in The Wild Horse Redemption
AMANDA GILROY

Gender Trouble and The Horse Whisperer
ANGELA HOFSTETTER

Blurring the Boundaries: Big Cat Diary
CAROL FREEMAN

Bear #141
SAMUEL PRINCE

Bear Intervention!
JON STONE

The Avant-Garde among the Animals
WALTER C. METZ

grrrrrrrrrrrrrr
SOPHIE MAYER

Asta: The Screwball Dog and the Hollywood Crime Film
NICOLAS PILLAI

Ambrosius
CHRISSY WILLIAMS

A Pirates of the Caribbean Bestiary
ANTHONY ADLER

Les Chiens de Mon Oncle
SIMON BARRACLOUGH

ALIEN vs JONESY
ANGELA CLELAND

The lion handler’s advice to a young Melanie Griffith
REBECCA WIGMORE

Analytic Animals: Agency at Some Interfaces within Chronophotography
CLIFF HAMMETT

A cat called Orangey was in a number of movies,
MARK WALDRON

Machine-Age Comedy Gone Rural: Hustlin’ Hank (1923) and the Problem of Animals on Film
KEVIN M. FLANAGAN

The Wolf Man
ABIGAIL PARRY

‘Does zoology include people?’ Human and Animal Identity in Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964) and The Birds (1963)
SEBASTIAN MANLEY

Empire of the Ants
JUDE C. MONTAGUE

Tallow
JAMES COGHILL

Death of a White-Tailed Deer in David Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999)
JULIE ANN SMITH

A Very Special Case
NICK MURRAY

The Pitch
RICHARD EVANS

Easy Rovers, Raging Fur Balls: How Animals Did a Wee-Wee on Hollywood and Humped Louis Mayer’s Favourite Armchair
OLLY GRUNER

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Call for papers: Lives Beyond Us

I haven’t posted here recently for a number of reasons, and one of those reasons is that I have been planning a book on animals in film, which I will be co-editing with Kirsten Irving. The book is provisionally titled Lives Beyond Us: Poems and Essays on the Film Reality of Animals and will be published by the small poetry press Sidekick Books. If you would like to contribute an essay, please send me a proposal of around 300 words and a writing sample. Submissions are welcome from academics, filmmakers, writers and any other sort of people. Here are some possible subjects:

Animals and genre (westerns, horror, comedy, etc.)

Symbolic animals

Animation and animals

Animal genres (the dog film, the shark film, etc.)

Activism and animal films

The history of animals in film

Animals and emotions

Speciesism and other isms (sexism, racism, etc.)

Animal stereotypes

Animal documentaries

The natural world on film

Animal characterisations

Animal representation

Ethics and animals

Auteurs and animals (Lynch, Miyazaki, Malick, etc.)

Anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism

Animals in human society

Animals in the wild

Animals and national cinemas

Zoos on film

Send proposals to me at sebcmanley@gmail.com by 12 April (and questions to the same address at any point). I’ll get in touch with everyone who submits a proposal by 30 April.

Swimming with Sharks

Swimming with Sharks poster

It doesn’t seem too hard to me to imagine that if they thought about such things, sharks would be quite displeased by their representations in films, which tend to characterise them as prolific and demonic murderers (I wrote about this stereotype in the first post of this blog, which is here). Swimming with Sharks, the well-received 1994 satire starring an effectively hammy Kevin Spacey, does not contain any representations of sharks; it is about the brutal business of Hollywood movie production and its players, executives who embody a range of vices popularly associated with the upper echelons of big business, in particular sadism, extreme aggression and a cold obsession with getting to (or staying at) the top of the food chain. These executives are the ‘sharks’ referred to in the film’s title, the outlandishly ferocious figures who populate the offices where the main character, Guy (Frank Whaley), a nice guy with ambitions of being a screenwriter, takes a job as a personal assistant to big-time producer Buddy Ackerman (Spacey).

Kevin Spacey as BuddySadism in a suit: Kevin Spacey’s movie-exec ‘shark’

The title seems, then, to belong fairly clearly to a set of usages in English in which the word ‘shark’ is a kind of shorthand for ‘immoral’ or ‘ruthless’, examples including ‘card shark’, ‘pool shark’ and just ‘shark’ (a lawyer) (1). So, would it be reasonable for sharks to also criticise humans, or human culture, for immorally drawing on a stereotype of a distinct group of living beings simply to make a particular point about the terrible behaviour of other humans? More importantly, since no shark is going to accuse us of this or of anything else, would it be reasonable for us humans to worry about such usages, assuming we were humans who cared about animals and humans’ behaviour towards them and things like that?

Perhaps we can start to get to an answer by thinking of an equivalent example from the human world. I’m pretty sure that close to no one objected to the title of Swimming with Sharks on its release, but I think most people reading this would agree that a Hollywood film about the duplicities of the banking sector called something like The Big Gyp would be in some way bad, morally. So why would we think that? I can see two main reasons. First, we might think that using the term ‘gyp’ to mean ‘cheat’ or ‘swindle’ might associate cheating or swindling with Gypsies in people’s minds and so cause them to think badly of Gypsies and be less likely to treat them justly, support their just treatment, and so on. This would seem to be a valid reason to object to the use of the term, if indeed its use did affect people in this way (you might assume that it would if you were committed to a model of language that says language determines thoughts, but perhaps the brain doesn’t work like this; perhaps it simply doesn’t take uses of the term ‘gyp’ as evidence that Gypsies are dishonest, even if it ‘knows’ that the term is a back-formation from ‘Gypsy’ (2)). Second, we might think that such a title is bad because it is offensive. This seems like a very good ground for objection. If people are offended by the term ‘gyp’ because it embodies an ethnic prejudice, then we should not use it.

Does it make sense to apply these two objections to the title of Swimming with Sharks? Well, to an extent, maybe. If the words-affect-people’s-minds objection is valid in the case of humans, then it’s hard to see why it wouldn’t be valid in the case of animals, although we should look to cite evidence that words of this kind do have effects on behaviour (I can’t see that shark idioms have much of an effect on what people think about sharks being eaten, say, or having their fins cut off and being left to bleed to death, but I’m willing to be proved wrong (3)). The second objection, that words embodying prejudice are offensive, seems a bit different when applied to sharks, because sharks cannot themselves be offended by words (or even by direct prejudice). Whether this objection carries any significant weight would seem to depend on the extent to which we take seriously offence felt by people on behalf of a particular wronged group, specifically animals, and more specifically wild animals – which is another way of saying that I don’t really know, though someone might.

So: maybe we need to think about the issue of animal idioms of the ‘swimming with sharks’ variety (4) some more before we can say how much it’s worth thinking about.

Notes

1. Dean Crawford talks about the association of sharks with the ‘villainous and despicable traits’ of humans in his book Shark (London: Reaktion Books, 2008); see chapter 4.

2. Pinker rejects ‘linguistic determinism’, the idea that language determines thought. In The Language Instinct (London: Penguin, 1994) he argues, for example, that government euphemism is ‘contemptible not because it is a form of mind control but because it is a form of lying. … Once a euphemism is pointed out, people are not so brainwashed that they have trouble understanding the deception’ (p. 58).

3. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that such words do affect behaviour to an extent, of course, and some studies on the harms of ‘politically incorrect’ language do cite evidence for its ‘real-world’ effects at the level of people’s attitudes; see for example Brian D. Earp, ‘The Extinction of Masculine Generics’, Journal for Communication and Culture, 2:1 (2012), 4–19. Available here.

4. Arran Stibbe, in his article ‘Language, Power and the Social Construction of Animals’ (Society & Animals, 9:2, 2001), offers an interesting overview of the way language (including idioms) seems to reflect some of our attitudes towards animals, but he does not offer any evidence in answer to the question of to what extent particular elements of language affect our attitudes.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

I wrote a short piece on humans and non-human animals in Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä (1984) for the online film journal Kubrick on the Guillotine. You can read it here.

Ratatouille

Ratatouille Poster

Life, as we all know, is hard, and the life of a rat is especially so, at least in the world of Brad Bird’s thrilling, classical-feeling animation Ratatouille (2007). At various points in the film, rats are evicted from their homes, shot at with shotguns, imprisoned in jars, insulted (‘disgusting little creature,’ spits a restaurant patron) and attacked with ladles, mops and bottles. The perpetrators of these assaults are all humans, of course, the same humans who the rats must stay close to in order to find enough food to survive. As the rat colony’s anti-human leader says to his son Remy, the film’s main rat character, ‘The world we live in belongs to the enemy’.

Shotgun attackRemy’s brother faces ‘the enemy’

And this does seem right, for rats and other non-human animals who make homes in human-built environments: not only do these animals face human ‘enemies’, as many animals do, but they also live in places where they are seen as trespassers, encroaching on areas that rightfully belong to humans. The writer Sue Donaldson and the philosopher Will Kymlicka (in the book Zoopolis) call animals of this kind ‘liminal’ animals and suggest that such creatures are to a large extent ‘invisible’ to humans, who tend to divide the world into ‘the wild’, where animals live, and urban areas, where humans live (along with Fido and Mr Tibbs and whoever else). Donaldson and Kymlicka think that we should put a lot more thought into accommodating liminal animals, many of whom could not survive away from human settlements or cannot make their way ‘back’ to the wild habitats of their ancestors. In fact, they think that liminal animals such as rats should be seen as citizens of a kind, and given rights that take into account their status as co-inhabitants of human settlements. Rats, in the new, more animal-tolerant world Donaldson and Kymlicka imagine, would be seen as ‘denizens’: animals who, like human migrants, share in only some of the responsibilities and practices of citizenship and are therefore granted certain basic, ‘universal’ rights but not other, more ‘relational’ rights, which would however be granted to domesticated animals. (Maybe this all seems a bit barmy to you, but I think the authors have things at least partly right; certainly we owe animals more consideration than we currently give them, and it seems quite possible that our consideration should take into account the different ways animals relate to humans.)

Ratatouille does not make the argument that Donaldson and Kymlicka make, obviously, but it does contain several scenes in which rats seem strikingly similar to oppressed and stigmatised human ‘outsiders’ trying to make their way in an intolerant society. Remy’s fellow colonists are constantly on the search for food, but are viewed with disgust by most humans who encounter them (even some of the nice ones). In the later stages of the film, groups of hungry rats kick about in the rubbish-filled back streets near the restaurant where Remy secretly works, hoping to gain access to the kitchen food stores.

Remy's friendsHard times: Remy’s friends hang out behind the restaurant

The harsh reality of rat life in a human-controlled world is, I would suggest, an ‘issue’ in the film, even if it is one that is secondary to the more emotional issues that characterise the relationships between the main characters. At the end of the film, the issue is resolved to an extent, the rats occupying their own restaurant above one run by humans, who willingly provide Remy (now working as a chef on both floors) and the other rats with all the food they need (granted, this might not be a solution that would work in real life, but D&K do advocate creating spaces for liminal animals where they can live comfortably without posing risks to human health).

Of course, a plea of some kind for greater compassion or respect on the part of humans towards other animals is a feature of a great number of modern animated films (1), but society seems to do a pretty good job of taking no notice. Perhaps, as the critic Jonathan Burt suggests (2), these and similar films are never really as ‘pro-animal’ as they seem, given that they support and are supported by an industrial system that is invested in the consumption – and, by extension, the trivialisation – of animals (film production companies often have marketing tie-ins with companies selling animal products). Or perhaps the ‘messages’ of such films just have less of an effect on people’s attitudes than we sometimes imagine. I don’t really know, but I think it’s possible to have a much better living arrangement with our animal co-dwellers, and it’s nice to see one realised, even if it is in a film.

Notes

1. Examples include Madagascar (2005), Chicken Run (2000) and Over the Hedge (2006).

2. See Jonathan Burt, ‘Madagascar’, Society and Animals, 14 (2006), pp. 308–312: http://www.animalsandsociety.org/assets/library/620_reviewsection.pdf.

Works referenced

Donaldson, Sue and Will Kymlicka, Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

The Fly

The Fly poster

The famous speech in The Fly (1986), David Cronenberg’s gruesome, almost unbearably melancholic version, goes like this:

You have to leave now, and never come back here. Have you ever heard of insect politics? Neither have I. Insects … don’t have politics. They’re very … brutal. No compassion, no compromise. We can’t trust the insect. I’d like to become the first … insect politician. Y’see, I’d like to, but, oh, I’m afraid, uh …

Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) is by this point at an advanced stage of his metamorphosis from man to ‘Brundlefly’ and is talking to the object of his affections, Ronnie (Geena Davis), in a wistful tone about his prospects, which by all accounts are fairly unappealing. He is facing life as a hybrid man-fly creature consumed by violence (‘I’m saying … I’ll hurt you if you stay,’ he says to Ronnie). His identity, the ‘Seth’ who Ronnie fell in love with and who viewers will probably have identified with, is to be destroyed and replaced by an insect Other. He wants to become an ‘insect politician’ – that is, ­he wants to perform a kind of ‘mediating function’, as William Beard puts it (1), between humanity and insectness – but he knows really that that isn’t going to happen: there just is no bridging the gap between the human world of science, love and press parties and the insect world of bodily horror and brutality, and that he fantasises there could be just underlines the tragedy of his situation.

The Fly is a remarkable study of the horror of the loss of the self (Cronenberg saw Seth’s transformation as a metaphor for ageing) that makes frighteningly effective use of the fly as a figure of horrific Otherness. Several of the film’s scenes focus in unnerving detail on Seth’s new fly characteristics, including his taste for sugary foods, his uneven, hardened skin and, most memorably, his method of eating, which involves vomiting a milky enzyme substance onto his food – an act that occurs first in front of our and Ronnie’s eyes and later off screen in a video (which we can hear but not see) and is almost as disgusting the second time. The horror of the film is partly, of course, the horror of losing control of the body to alien forces. But partly it is the horror of seeing the human body starting to develop the characteristics of the fly, a creature unpopular enough with humans for Beard to describe its existence as ‘intractably and horrifyingly evil in human terms’ (2). I think this is maybe a bit strong, but certainly it has a history of unpleasant associations in many cultures, including, as Steven Connor outlines in his book Fly, death, disease, decomposition and categorical disturbance (the fly being a creature disposed to moving freely between food and excrement) – all significant elements of Cronenberg’s film, particularly in its later stages.

SethSeth in the early stages of his metamorphosis …

Brundlefly… and in the late stages

Might someone agree with the above about The Fly’s representation of ‘flyness’ but claim that the film also prompts us to question our instinctive reactions to the fly and to consider the possibility that ‘what it is like to be a fly’ is a state of being with some value, despite its more (for us) unpleasant aspects? Perhaps. Certainly there is a thrill to the sequences where Seth shows off his astonishing new strength and agility that could be seen as contributing towards a representation of flyness grounded partly in respect (respect for animals being an important consideration in some animal ethics; see Jean Kazez’s excellent book Animalkind for more on this). Even in the later stages of Seth’s transformation, when he is starting to look not so hot, we might be impressed by Seth’s ability to walk on walls. Connor goes so far as to suggest that Seth can be characterised along with several other Cronenberg characters as a human subject who begins to ‘experience horrifying transformation as a positive experience, or at least one to be explored’ (3). But I don’t really see this: by the time Seth has reached the horrifying stages of his transformation, he is a man gripped by fear and a kind of melancholy desperation, and even in the early parts of the narrative, when Seth is feeling like ‘a million bucks’, it still seems unreasonable (as a viewer) to imagine that the changes he is experiencing are good news – he is in love and has too much too lose, and this is a horror film sold with the tagline ‘Be afraid. Be very afraid’, after all. I think Cronenberg’s masterful film can be fairly characterised, then, as a film that is interested primarily in exploring human being through familiar animal imagery and associations, rather than exploring animal being, but it’s easy to imagine a human-to-insect metamorphosis movie that did take a more innovative, animal-focused approach. And Cronenberg has a Fly ‘remake’ script that may yet see the light of day, so maybe he’ll be the one who makes it.

Notes

1. William Beard, The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg, revised and expanded edition (Toronto; London: University of Toronto Press, 2006), p. 220.

2. Beard, p. 220.

3. Steven Connor, Fly (London: Reaktion, 2006), p. 163.

Works referenced

Jean Kazez, Animalkind: What We Owe to Animals (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).

Congo

Congo Poster

I can’t speak for others who were teenagers at the time, but for me in the mid-1990s Congo was an impressive film, and one that I’m pretty sure I would have given a good review, had I been a reviewer (Roger Ebert would have agreed with me, but he’d have been in the minority). I’m older now, and the film has ‘aged’ in the way many action-adventure films age, but at least two of its features seem worth remarking on in 2012. One is Tim Curry’s remarkable performance as a purportedly Romanian philanthropist, which is probably best appreciated first-hand (you can see some clips here). The other is the film’s main non-human animal character, Amy, a gorilla who has been taught to use American Sign Language and who, through the use of a motion-tracking glove and voice synthesiser, can talk directly to the human characters.

I think even the film’s detractors would acknowledge that Amy is a highly unusual character. Obviously, few animal characters in film (at least outside the fantasy genres) are able to use language, because few animals in real life are able to use language – and even those that are (mostly great apes such as chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas) need to spend a lot of time with human teachers to learn to do so (1). Amy’s ability to talk seems key to her characterisation as an emotional, active and sympathetic being: a main character, in other words, of a type very familiar from mainstream cinema. Like many characters in the action genres, Amy is troubled by feelings of incompleteness and embarks on a journey that sees her overcome various setbacks, save the day and finally find a kind of emotional peace. At several points, she uses speech to communicate emotions and desires that would be hard to convey succinctly in any other way. For example, when she meets a wild gorilla for the first time, Amy looks him in the eye and says, ‘Hello. I Amy. I Amy. Good, good, good Amy’ – an introduction that gets across her openness to forming some sort of relationship and that (along with the sad music) strongly cues the viewer to see her subsequent rejection by the gorilla as a moment of personal heartbreak.

AmyAmy (above) attempts to communicate via sign language with an unimpressed wild gorilla (below)Wild gorilla

Later Amy saves Peter, the primatologist who taught her how to talk and who saw that she wanted to return ‘home’ to the Congo jungles, when he is being attacked by a group of grey ‘killer’ apes. Having chased off Peter’s assailants – ‘Bad gorillas. Go away,’ she says to the baffled animals – she puts her arms around him and expresses her maternal love for the man who had until recently been acting as her father: ‘Mother. Mother … Peter hug Amy.’

By the standards of a good deal of critical writing on animals in film and other arts, which frequently sees narratives or images that encourage us to ‘take the position’ of the animal as good news (2), Congo would I think come out quite well (granted, the film features a legion of brutal apes with little in their minds but murder; these are ‘unnatural’ animals, however, bred for aggression by their human masters). Amy, clearly, is an animal whom the film invites us to identify with and to see as in various ways a ‘person’, with dreams, memory, emotions, self-awareness and, implicitly, a right to, for instance, life and liberty (3).

Of course, someone might well say that as achievements in animal characterisation go, Congo’s is not really so hot, given that Amy has lots of characteristics, such as speech and particular facial features, that viewers are likely to perceive as ‘human’ and that seem almost to guarantee a high degree of identification. I expect many critics (I speak for myself too, here) would be glad to see a wider range of less familiar animal characters in main roles in cinema, particularly in genres where animals have traditionally appeared as monsters or as humans’ property. But it does also seem reasonable to expect humans to have difficulty seeing animals as proper characters when they are not obviously ‘persony’ in cognitive or emotional capacity, and it may be that some genre films that attempt to construct other varieties of main animal characters need to make an imaginative leap of the kind that doesn’t always play well in Hollywood. Congo – a hit, despite the reviews – probably can’t be placed at the more radical end of the spectrum in this regard, but in Amy it has a character that entertainingly pushes at the boundaries of conventional characterisation.

Notes

1. This is not to say that great apes and other animals do not have sophisticated forms of communication, of course, just that they do not have what Steven Pinker calls the ‘language instinct’: an innate capacity for forming sequences of words organised according to particular rules of grammar; see Pinker, The Language Instinct (New York: W. Morrow and Co, 1994). Individual great apes have been taught to communicate with humans using sign language in the same sort of way Amy does, although whether this quite demonstrates an ability to use ‘language’ (that is, a collection of words that obey a grammar) remains disputed.

2. See for example Pete Porter, ‘Engaging the Animal in the Moving Image’, Society and Animals, 14:4 (2006), p. 400. Available here.

3. Great apes in general have been seen by some philosophers, primatologists and anthropologists to meet various criteria for ‘personhood’, including agency, self-consciousness and a sense of the future. If great apes, like humans, possess such qualities, then a reasonable course of action would seem to be to extend to great apes basic human rights like the right to life and the right to liberty – something the Great Ape Project has been advocating since 1994 (see here).