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.
* * * * * * *

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,


  1. Hey Jim, I loved this post. This is something I've spent a lot of time thinking about. Actually, a few months back I re-watched two films that you once introduced me to - "The Bats" and "The Moschops" by Jim Trainor - and wrote a short essay on them... many overlapping ideas:

    Hope you're doing well.

    - Tim Nicholas

    1. So nice to hear from you Tim, and thanks so much for your kind words… looking forward to digging into your writings on Trainor!

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