Thursday, November 28, 2013

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.

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