Thursday, November 28, 2013

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.

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