Thursday, November 28, 2013

Cine-Menagerie: Notes on Animals in Film (Part 1)

This article was written in conjunction with a film program I co-organized in Spring 2012 for Flaherty NYC entitled “The Lives of Animals”, a series that explored a few of the ways in which animals and film have served to illuminate (and sometimes obfuscate) one another; I dedicate it to my friend and co-curator Kathy High.
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The onscreen animal has shown us again and again how seeing can be mistaken for knowing.  Their fundamental otherness forces we as viewers to confront knotty problems of the epistemological, ethical, and practical sort.  And animals, for their part, are left to stand silent before spurious explanations of their behavior and gooey narrative contrivance.  Given the absence of a shared language between animals and humans, what happens in the process of filming to the usual concerns of discretion, privacy, and consent?  Similar challenges in communication amongst humans has often been the stuff of cinematic conflict (think Paisan, Poto and Cabengo, Gerald McBoing Boing).  As those challenges are a given for films with animal subjects (1), how does one then move beyond the state of mutual incomprehension?

Jonathan Burt gives us a good place to start when he writes that, “The very fact of screening the mutual gaze between human and animal to an audience means that film is always going to play on a number of different registers that relate to both psychological and social aspects of visual contact.  This effectively means that this exchange of looks is not just a form of psychic connection but also determines the practical interaction that is taking place.  In that sense the exchange of the look is, in the absence of the possibility of language, the basis of a social contract.” (2)

How tricky the question is as to what motivates a particular moment when an animal directs its gaze at another living thing, on-screen or off.  Take wildlife films: aside from the bad old days of staged confrontations by the trigger-happy team of Martin and Osa Johnson (3) and their ilk, filmmakers set out—for the most part—to present animal behavior unaffected by humans; this of course requires an animal subject unaware of (or at least unthreatened by) human presence.

But how unobtrusive can one really be?  As I write this, my dog stirs with agitation at the higher overtones in the string quartet I’m listening to (just as she has on earlier occasions with the same piece of music)- a physiological response, and a welcome reminder of the heightened sensitivity for some animals (as described by Temple Grandin and others) to our bodily and technological presence.  To be truly unnoticed means lowering oneself along the Great Chain of Being, becoming that proverbial fly-on-the-wall; the documentarian’s negotiated parameters with human subjects are replaced by the necessity of the crew’s distancing and concealment as their only hope of capturing the animal “acting natural”- with extremely long lenses, and often with a blind or some other technique such as those used in hunting. (4)

With an approach such as this, the chance for an exchange of looks likely disappears, though on rare occasion, the fourth wall is indeed breached.  Derek Bousé has pointed out that in most narrative film and with many documentaries, “shots of subjects “accidentally” looking at the camera would be considered unusable.  In wildlife films, however, face-on shots are some of the most usable and most desirable.” (5)  One example he cites is from a journalist’s account of an incident with a polar bear during a shoot for The Living Planet:  “Suddenly, the beast turned toward the camera and bares its teeth ferociously: this happened when cameraman Hugh Miles happened to unscrew the cap on a flask of soup; at 30 yards, the bear could smell it.  The cap was replaced, and the bear shambled away.” (6)

Pavlovian in its effect on both bear and viewer, the same open thermos that delivered the punctum for producers (and audiences) of The Living Planet would be cited in Hollywood under SAG-administered work rules regarding animal actors.  As Susan Orlean has written, “When a bear is working on a film, anything that produces smells that might bother the bear—cheap perfume, strong liquor, jelly doughnuts—must be removed from the location.” (7)  Here the disparity between these genre codes is laid bare, and it calls to mind one of Jean-Luc Godard’s best-known aphorisms: “every film is a documentary of its actors.”  Yet how does this core truth stand up with fictional films that feature animals?  What would it mean for those exchanges of looks invoked by Jonathan Burt?  And what does it even mean for an animal to act?  Let’s look at the justly famous circus scene in Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar:

This sequence is commonly seen as a momentary respite within an otherwise emotionally wrenching film- interspecies communion away from the cruelty of humans.  Joseph Cunneen typified this view when he wrote that, “Their countenances remain opaque, but one has the sense that genuine communication is taking place.” (8)  And, as Jean Collet described it, “The boldness and honesty of Bresson’s approach is that he never used montage to violate the mystery of the animal.  On the contrary, he wanted us to experience it to the point of agony.” (9)

As is clear from the scene above, however, montage was used.  I don’t love Bresson any less for this, but might amend Collet’s statement to say that although the mystery of the animal was never violated, montage was indeed a key element in its maintenance.  Truth, truthfulness, or truthiness?  In the end this sequence—exquisite as it is—tells us more about montage than it does about animals, a point wisely summarized by film historian Dana Polan: “The scene is like a curious parody or replay of the famous experiment by Soviet director Lev Kuleshov, in which cross-cutting between an expressionless actor and a series of objects supposedly was read by spectators in ways that imputed envy, desire and sympathy to the gaze of the actor as he looked on each item anew.” (10)

Perhaps Balthazar is (by default) the penultimate Bressonian model; there are, however, clear gestures of reaction to something by both Balthazar and his circus mates—a twitch of his ear, vocalizations by polar bear and chimp—causally severed by the patterns of shot/countershot (just as The Living Planet’s polar bear is separated from the soup).  In a scene shortly after, Balthazar has been trained to perform a kind of Clever Hans routine, juxtaposing the depiction of overtly false behavior (and later in the same scene, an appearance of uncontrollable distress with the sudden presence of his feared former master) against the exchange of looks in the shot/countershot construction preceding it; Godard’s aphorism has here been, if not upended, then certainly riddled with exceptions.

Given these examples, any hope for insight into animals through the medium of film seems to beg for a fundamental rethinking of its very grammar, against the fallacy of what Derek Bousé, speaking of wildlife films, called “the presumption of compatibility between cinematic convention and images of natural events and behavior.” Recognition and humility toward what we don’t know, and at the same time some practical strategies to move beyond resignation to the animal’s inscrutability: can the gaze of animal and human (and, by extension, the camera-eye) ever align focus to see the key ways they differ?



1) An essay on talking animals is planned for the hopefully not-too-distant future.
2) Jonathan Burt, Animals in Film (Reaktion, 2002), pp. 38-39.
3) Cynthia Chris, Watching Wildlife (University of Minnesota Press, 2006), pp. 16-17; Derek Bousé, Wildlife Films (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), pp. 51-52.
4) Hanna Rose Shell, Hide and Seek: Camouflage, Photography, and the Media of Reconnaissance, (Zone Books, 2002), pp. 37-39.
5) Bousé, p. 31.
6) Ibid.
7) Susan Orlean, "Animal Action", The New Yorker, November 17, 2003,
8) Joseph Cunneen, Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film, (Continuum, 2003), p.102.
9) Jean Collet, quoted in Cuneen, p. 107.
10) Dana Polan, "Au Hasard Balthazar", Senses of Cinema, February 2007,

Cine-Menagerie: Notes on Animals in Film (Part 2)

Etienne-Jules Marey, chronophotograph of a heron, c.1883

In his 1967 book The Peregrine, J.A. Baker laid out a pledge to the vigilance necessary for the tracking, observation, and perhaps partial understanding of the raptors seen in the skies of his native Essex:

“Wherever he goes, this winter, I will follow him. I will share the fear, and the exaltation, and the boredom, of the hunting life. I will follow him till my predatory shape no longer darkens in terror the shaken kaleidoscope of colour that stains the deep fovea of his brilliant eye. My pagan head shall sink into the winter land, and there be purified.” (12)

With observational powers that at times border on the supernatural, Baker seemed to be seeking his own disappearance.  How then does this relate to the ‘fly-on-the-wall’ approach noted earlier in Part 1?  Mainly, the difference lies in the service that each act of observation performs. With wildlife films, the filmmaker goes on location, gathering footage to illustrate the film treatment written to obtain funding- I mention this less to emphasize the commercial nature of such films (which of course is ultimately the case), but instead to point out their primary function of telling already familiar stories and verifying known behaviors. This is a drastic departure from the earliest moving images of animals made by Marey and Muybridge, whose proto-cinematic efforts augmented human vision for the purpose of discovery and motion analysis, with visual lyricism as its happy by-product. In another striking passage Baker reconnects this spirit of scientific inquiry with the poetic imagination, envisioning avian cognition:

 “The peregrine’s view of the land is like the yachtsman’s view of the shore as he sails into the long estuaries... Like the seafarer, the peregrine lives in a pouring-away world of no attachment, a world of wakes and tilting, of sinking planes of land and water... But what does he understand? Does he really ‘know’ that an object that increases in size is moving towards him? Or is it that he believes in the size he sees, so that a distant man is too small to be frightening but a man near is a man huge and therefore terrifying? He may live in a world of endless pulsations, of objects forever contracting or dilating in size.” (13)

This “world of endless pulsations”—more skittering than soaring—finds unexpected kinship in Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight. Realized at a moment of extreme financial and emotional hardship, Brakhage, as is well known, made this film without a camera, affixing plant and insect matter directly to clear film leader and creating what is in essence a long, thin assemblage of organic material. Such a work was possible only with profound understanding of the cinematic apparatus and the extent to which its mechanisms could be transgressed; in a certain sense, too, the film is a successful reverse-engineering of the cinematic process originally conceived by Muybridge and Marey.

Described by the filmmaker as “what a moth might see from birth to death if black were white and white were black” (14), Brakhage’s counterintuitive strategy was not only a groundbreaking formal achievement, but also a vivid evocation of spastic lepidopteric movement. Alternately readable as the viewer’s own struggle in following a moth’s unpredictable flight path, human and animal gaze are not so much aligned as rendered indistinguishable. Through its virtual reanimation of the dead, conflation of projector bulb with the porch light by which his subjects perished, and (in his own brutally honest assessment) a parallel to his own life in the inherent self-destructiveness of trying to support a family through making small-gauge experimental film, Mothlight’s marriage of craft and concept is exquisitely wrought, something close to perfection.

Despite their extreme differences in craft and process, the work of Sam Easterson shares with Mothlight a dream of identification with animals much like that imagined by Baker. Carefully fitting his subjects with head-mounted cameras, Easterson’s stunning videos offer an uncompromisingly first-person point of view- if that “person” just so happened to be an animal. Imagine Lady in the Lake remade with a cast of waterfowl: what had once been a novel experiment in narrative cinema (later adopted as a common framing strategy in video games) is here transposed into an extended—if at times approximate—consideration of the animal ocular.

Seen alone, Easterson’s work eschews narrative, though the experience of it varies greatly depending on which of several contexts and formats it's been presented: in a gallery as video installation, large-scale projection within a theatrical setting, or as a novel interlude within the wildlife documentary of another filmmaker. The species themselves range from alligator to mole to sheep to squirrel to partridge; each is unique both visually and in the way they move, and with a strong sense of the tactile as the animals bash through brush and collide with solid objects. For certain species there is a slight but noticeable remove from the purely first-person point of view- less like true embodiment, and more like a piggy-back ride. In an early effort with an armadillo, its sharp foreground focus and camera mounted behind the ears make it look like strange, skittering 3D animation:

In another Easterson video, the big hyperactively-sniffing nose of a wolf alerts us to the importance of sound all throughout his work, as it interacts with—and at times, counteracts—the destabilizing effects of the image. Such destabilization has its own consequences, pushing us up against the medium’s limits, against the film frame itself: the widest of aspect ratios is still considerably narrower than the field of vision for most binocular creatures, so the frame—through its absolute boundaries and relative size within our broader field of vision—heightens the feeling of movement. A tension thus arises between an energy that resists capture, and a medium unable to contain it.

Without rehashing the various critiques of visuality that have played out over the last 30-odd years in the fields of philosophy, feminism, art history, and film studies, Easterson’s wolf suggests we sniff out whole other ways of being in the world, track stimuli along different perceptual trails, and open ourselves up to just how radically different the routing of our own sensory channels are from that of other species. (15)  Delving deeper into such questions is to scuttle the very notion of perception itself, both beyond standard categorical containers and far outside the spectrums our own senses inhabit. It’s possible to approximate certain instances of an animal’s expanded sensorium with moving image technology augmented for that purpose, like the rattlesnake’s infrared tracking of heat trails left by potential prey; others, such as the believed ability of some bats to hear an insect’s footsteps, prove more elusive, beyond the threshold of current technology (though perhaps not for long). Yet as clearly as we may encounter the medium’s limitations as a research tool, its value as a means of expression is nowhere near exhaustion.



12) J.A. Baker, The Peregrine, (New York Review Books, 1967), p. 41.
13) Ibid., p. 35.
14) Brakhage's own description, from the Film-Makers Coop catalog,
15) Mark Denny and Alan McFadzean, Engineering Animals: How Life Works, (Harvard University Press, 2011), and Howard C. Hughes, Sensory Exotica: A World Beyond Human Experience, (MIT Press, 1999), were two useful sources here.

Cine-Menagerie: Notes on Animals in Film (Part 3)

The films of Nancy Andrews are shot through with a sense of wonder, originating as much from the uncharted perceptual realms of animals as by the means and methods of research conducted by the scientists who study them.  A vivid instance of the latter appears in a scene from The Dreamless Sleep, celebrating the artist Else Bostelmann and her drawings of the sea creatures described via telephone by underwater explorer William Beebe during his pioneering descents in a bathysphere. The filmmaker’s fascination with Bostelmann stemmed as much from this newly discovered deep-sea life as from the fact that these creatures never seen by the artist were interpreted from verbal description by way of drawing.  Surely this story resonated deeply with Andrews, whose films deploy a full range of drawn and rotoscoped animation techniques alongside her great versatility with the camera.

Knowing full well that the scientific method makes for lousy drama, her Behind the Eyes Are the Ears plays out as an affectionate genre homage.  In the thematic tradition of scientists confronted with their own hubristic excesses (as seen in such horror classics as The Fly and Man With the X-Ray Eyes), Andrews portrays one driven by a desire to achieve the extended perceptual abilities of animals by way of the laboratory.  Like the 19th century scientist Gustav Theodor Fechner (temporarily blinded from long periods gazing at the sun), the protagonist of Behind the Eyes uses herself as subject for experiment; in one scene, she describes her mission to a radio interviewer as he struggles to comprehend:


As narrative, Andrews has made something playful (though not without a note of melancholy). Implicitly her methods suggest that answers to questions such as those posed by Easterson’s wolf require another filmic tack; reliance on pure documentary simply turns a blind eye to the limits of the medium itself, essentially doubling the sensory channels we as humans favor.  Seeing and hearing that wolf sniffing, we are nowhere close to experiencing its true sensations; how then might these other animal senses, eluding both lens and microphone, still somehow register in a cinematic way?

Animation itself provides one alternative.  As an echo to Claude Levi-Strauss’s oft-cited assertion that “animals are good to think with”, Andrews’s films suggest that when it comes to the nature of cinema itself, animation is a good medium to think through; though it can depict truth, it refuses to be truth's guarantor.  Film historian Paul Wells has argued (as have others) that our trust in lens-based evidence is too often misplaced; regarding Norman McLaren’s Neighbors (whose pixilation technique confounds the camera origins of its material), Wells wrote that McLaren “uses animation to heighten how ‘actuality’ footage has been taken for granted as an unquestioned ‘mediator’ of reality... ‘Actuality’ within the context of animation may be viewed, therefore, not as the unmediated recording of reality, but as an interrogation of the ways in which ‘the real’ is constructed.” (16)  For Andrews, the fluid shuttling between cinematography and animation serves not only to highlight the ontological status of each but, used together, proves to be ideally suited for depicting the unfathomable and the unaccounted-for.

Another oblique but useful approach to the challenges of representing animals through film can be found in the writings of Helen Keller, whom Andrews has acknowledged as a key inspiration.  Through her account of the compensatory mechanisms developed for those absent channels, we’re given the unique insights of a young woman stripped of the primary faculties that humans most depend on, experiencing the world through the underutilized routes of smell, touch, and (to a limited degree) taste.  “I throw upon the doubters the burden of proving my non-existence”, she wrote defiantly; “Likewise, O confident critic, there are a myriad of sensations perceived by me of which you do not dream." (17)  And what were those sensations?  “[A]ll impressions, vibrations, heat, cold, taste, smell, and the sensations which these convey to the mind, infinitely combined, interwoven with associated ideas and acquired knowledge.” (18)   Keller continues: “The result of such a blending is sometimes a discordant trying of strings far removed from a melody, very far from a symphony... But with training and experience the faculties gather up the stray notes and combine them into a full, harmonious whole.” species. (19)

Keller recognized perception as a system of relays amidst a field of language, memory, and imagination.  The "confident critic" she addresses, though, was anything but imaginary; referring to her autobiography, a reviewer from The Nation groused that: "All of her knowledge is hearsay knowledge... her very sensations are for the most part vicarious and she writes of things beyond her power of perception and with the assurance of one who had verified every word." (20)  Today we can only shrug at such an attack, grateful for his description of the cognitive processing we all already do.

Following Keller, the animated films of Jim Trainor synthesize such “hearsay knowledge” with projective speculation.  Crude in their delineation but eloquent in their effect, his animals don’t talk, exactly, but are given voice by way of flat, matter-of-fact narration.  Beneath his seemingly simple surfaces lie a sophisticated set of strategies, particularly within his writing and choice of subjects.  In Moschops, one ingenious sequence addresses that prehistoric creature’s inability to hear: one male, sent reeling from a violent head-butt, projects the stunned response: I thought you were my friend.  The narrator goes on to explain, based on evidence embedded in the fossil record, how the tiny and delicate bones of the inner ear were at that point still fused with the jaw; these feelings have thus fallen on the deaf ears of the aggressor, some 250 million years too soon.

With both Moschops and in an earlier film, The Bats, Trainor uses a pair of alternating narrators; regarding The Bats, Steve Reinke has observed that, “The male narrator speaks (first person, in the past tense, from beyond the grave) on behalf of the mute protagonist, a particular lower-than-mid-pitch bat. In one sense, the protagonist exists completely within the register of the image, while the male narrator exists completely, and retrospectively, within the textual/aural.  This clean split allows the bat to be simultaneously mute and speaking/spoken, simultaneously not-anthropomorphised and anthropomor-phised (the female narrator speaking in the present tense as the voice of God is, of course, another kind of anthropomorphism, wherein supernatural beings—gods—are given human characteristics).” (21)

Reinke is right to identify the anthropomorphism written into—really, inherent within—these voices; rather than using the term in the usual disparaging sense, he echoes those, like the philosopher John Andrew Fisher (22), who recognize that the price of such skepticism is an imaginative myopia preventing greater insights into animal consciousness.  With Trainor, anthropomorphism is essential to his speculations on the nature of our sensory and emotional development.  Moschops deploys prehistoric evidence—albeit in a bolder manner—to put forth the notion that an inability to transform inner life into sound was sublimated into violent interaction between these Late Permian-era creatures.  Surely a certain denial is necessary to ignore how this anticipates animal behavior living on to this day- in rugby scrums, on highway access roads, and at all-you-can-eat buffets.

The Bats explores another pathway in the evolution of sound and vocal function divergent from that of our own; with finely calibrated hearing, Trainor’s subject navigates and hunts within the utter darkness of a cave interior, living a hedonist’s dream life of sex, defecation, devouring big juicy worms, and quenching one’s thirst.   The calls of these creatures don’t communicate, at least as we typically understand that term; instead they create an elaborate biosonar loop for detecting food sources and avoiding obstacles while in flight.

The darkness of the cave sheds its own kind of light on Trainor’s approach to filmmaking, as well as on the films he doesn’t make- his creatures are not the cuddly charismatics so common in natural history museum blockbusters and television sweeps-week specials; his chosen species for such darkly speculative works are in fact extinct.  Here again, animation seems the destined option.  Trainor's drawing style is uningratiating, distilling subjects to an essence: rendered as a blunt, mask-like visage, the moschops’ facial features are expressive of a pre-expressive state; with the bats, a simple beauty of line inflects their appearance as the living caricature of homely utility.

Trainor conveys the invisible through a visual poetics derived from the motion graphic techniques common to post-war educational films and to the montage sequences of Slavko Vorkapich- in The Bats, radiant lines suggest sound waves moving in a simulated slow motion; in Moschops, we see hallucinations through the eyes of a dying male.  Together with the narration’s divided consciousness, such techniques are a forceful rebuttal to criticism like the kind leveled at Keller, as the filmmaker incorporates the secondhand knowledge derived from pioneer researchers such as Donald Griffin (23)  in discovering phenomena beyond the reach of our unaided senses.

Whether placing absolute faith in the machine-eye of the camera (or in the case of Brakhage, its handmade approximation), or in the gathering and assembly of mongrel materials from disparate sources, both approaches—worlds apart as they are—depend upon the enlistment of unwitting collaborators.  For Easterson and Brakhage, a total sensory identification with the animal subject can only come about with a forfeiture of the filmmaker’s agency as a significant piece of the production process.  With Andrews and Trainor, animation is revealed as a form of writing whose structuring principles are to incorporate the texts of others, genre conventions culled from the history of film, and the sensory research (both real and imagined) from scientists of the recent past.   Between these two poles lie important efforts in extending the ways in which moving image media can help us know animals a little bit better.  This account merely touches their most prominent features, and neglects mention of countless other noteworthy examples.  Whatever is missed by individual works in terms of a self-sufficient world-view gains a more useful perspective by returning one final time to Helen Keller:

“Physics tells me that I am well off in a world which, I am told, knows neither color nor sound, but is made in terms of size, shape, and inherent qualities; for at least every object appears to my fingers standing solidly right side up, and is not the inverted image on the retina which, I understand, your brain is at infinite though unconscious labor to set back on its feet... My fingers cannot, of course, get the impression of a large whole at a glance; but I feel the parts, and my mind puts them together... The silent worker is imagination which decrees reality out of chaos.” (24) 

As with the puzzle-pieces of Keller’s perceptual and cognitive experience, each work is perhaps best viewed as an evidentiary fragment connected by a series of relays, creating a partial, sometimes contradictory world-view.   Away from the formal constraints, support systems, and accompanying expectations of public broadcasting and cable television networks, liberating possibilities await.   Alongside such well-financed and predictable fare produced to satisfy the assumed desires of a home audience, these films might be viewed—to borrow Manny Farber’s zoological distinction—as the “termite art” to the “white elephant art” of television nature programming.  Each of the films above, to paraphrase Farber, “feels its way through walls of particularization... eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement.” (25)


16) Paul Wells, "The Beautiful Village and the True Village: A Consideration of Animation and the Documentary Aesthetic", Art and Design, Vol. 12, No. 3/4 (March/April 1997), pp. 40-45.  I am grateful to Nancy Andrews for bringing this article to my attention.
17) Helen Keller, The World I Live In (New York Review Books, 2003), p. 29.
18) Ibid., p. 62.
19) Ibid.
20) Alden Whitman, "Helen Keller, 87, Dies", The New York Times, June 2, 1968,
21) Steve Reinke, "Jim Trainor" (Aurora: The Norwich International Animation Festival, 2007),
22) John Andrew Fisher, "Disambiguating Anthropomorphism: An Interdisciplinary Review", in Perspectives in Ethology, Vol. 9, P.P.G. Bateson and Peter Klopfer, eds. (Plenum Publishing, 1991), pp. 49-85,
23) provides a nice introduction to Griffin's research.
24) Keller, pp. 12-14.
25) Manny Farber, "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art", in Negative Space (Praeger, 1971), pp. 135-136.