film and the history of the visual animal


MGM_Ident_1928In a project that began by looking at film coverage of London zoo, Jonathan Burt found it to be “clear that film did not so much document the animals in the Zoo as present them in a different light. Indeed, film’s emphasis on action and event was from a spectator’s point of view much closer to the ideal zoo exhibit and provided a contrast to those many hours when actual zoo animals do very little and zoo exhibits are minimally eventful. Thus in film the already edited life of the captive animal was edited even further. The fact that the Zoo incorporated different ways of seeing animals not just in its encouragement of film, but also through photography and painting, reflects a more general fact that the history of the visible animal is the product of a mosaic of institutions, technologies and cultural practices, all of which interconnect in various ways.” (pp.19-20)

Leo_the_MGM_lion_1928Burt notes that “Given the significance of animals in visual culture and their extensive appearance in film, the small number of scholarly studies on issues relating to animals in film seems to me the product of a willful blindness. Animals appear, with greater or lesser significance, in all genres of moving film throughout its history: from wildlife films to Hollywood blockbusters, from scientific films to animation, as well as occurring in surrealist, avant-garde and experimental films, all of which use a multitude of different formats and technologies.” (pp.47-49 (p.48 is just photos))

animals in filmJust as the global scale of human impact on the world makes it increasingly difficult to separate out biosystems, bodies and technologies, so too is it impossible to disentangle direct and mediated aspects of human-animal relations. In fact, the layers of mediation between animals, humans and nature in the modern world bear some parallels to those that come between film and the worlds that it depicts. Film, the medium of representation in modernity par excellence, encapsulates many of those things seen as responsible for alienating man (and animals) from nature: technologization, mass culture, an industry of image reproduction that substitutes for the ‘real’ world.” (pp.21-22)

Greta Garbo and the MGM lionHilda Kean is one of the few historians who has made the connection between imagery and changes in the social status of animals. In her book Animal Rights, she shows not only how the actual sight of animal cruelty in the city streets gave impetus to animal welfare reform but, more significantly, she links it to the general project of social improvement and, above all, modernization. Thus, the development in animal welfare was not simply a sentimental or nostalgic project to recover a lost harmonious relation with the natural world, broken by industrialism and increasing urbanization, but also something forward-looking, an integral component of an improved future. The passage to modernity was, in part, defined by the treatment of animals. She writes: ‘The changes that would take place in the treatment of animals relied not merely on philosophical, religious or political stances but the way in which animals were literally and metaphorically seen. The very act of seeing became crucial in the formation of the modern person.’ To which I would add: and in the formation of the modern animal. [-p.36] This important thesis has a number of important implications. The first is that humane behaviour is not simply a matter of deeds but is also a matter of being seen to behave humanely. By extension, the mark of a more civilized society – a common trope of animal welfare literature generally – is the way in which a society displays its humanity. The appearance and treatment of the animal body become a barometer for the moral health of the nation. Second, the importance of the visual is not limited simply to the relationship between the observer and the observed. That which is not seen is equally important and is also heavily codified.” (pp.35-36)

“In the nineteenth century a concern about what should and should not be seen led to changing alignments of what was acceptable and new constructions of visual taboos. This was formally expressed through legal codes that reflected the increasing power of animal welfare sentiments and which brought human-animal relations under greater control, particularly in urban environments.
The numerous bills and acts throughout the nineteenth century that sought to regulate the treatment of animals in public spaces also determined what was appropriate and inappropriate for the public to see.” (p.36)

Discussing Attenborough’s The Living Planet and The State of the Planet, Burt writes “…the shared glance with the gorilla suggests that we are looking from within nature and not at nature. Thus, rather than seeing nature films of this kind as a replacement for reality, they seem more like the point of entry for our engagement with the natural world; an active moral gaze made possible, even structured, by the technology of modernity. The question is, does such a gaze do anything more than simply look? In other words, is the audience that is configured by this view of the natural world any more than a consumer of this imagery or can the implicit moral message of such films create the conditions for a more positive engagement with the natural world?
The idea that film is a form of passive consumption has played an important part in debates concerning the tension between the aestheticization of nature and the political and practical aspects of animal welfare or environmental action. Answers to some of these issues are limited by the current lack of research into the reception and effects of animal film imagery in the public domain, though the natural history film industry is constantly redefining what it sees as public taste. …For instance, in the 1990s there was an increase in violence being used to sell natural history films….” (pp.47-48)

“In summarizing The Lion King (1994) [David] Ingram writes, ‘nature in The Lion King is similarly an economy in which those at the top of the food chain (lions humanized as middle-class Americans) are justified in their right to consume a nature which is guaranteed to remain endlessly renewing and abundant, as long as their power and authority is not usurped by their undeserving enemies, suitably marked as inferiors in terms of class and ethnicity.'” (p.49) “In the case of The Lion King the positive, or celebratory ecological messages in the film are countered by the kinds of ideological readings [that Ingram and others might provide].” (pp.49-50)

“In Bill Viola’s own comments on his video-film I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like (1986), […] he notes that in looking into the eye of the animal we see both the reflection of ourselves and the ‘irreconcilable otherness of an intelligence ordered around a world we can share in body but not in mind.'” (pp.50-51)

Questions that come out of this reading for me include:

– what kinds of roles do animals play? and what kind of agency do they have? (NB: “‘Animal agency’ is a phrase that always needs to be qualified by the lack of power animals have in relation to that which humans have over them.” (p.31))

– what impact do the animals have on the humans in the fiction? And vice versa?

– how is ‘the animal’ positioned in relation to ‘the human’? Are they interdependent…?

– what role does language play in positioning the animal alongside the human?

– how important is the animal’s body to the plot/emotional impact of the text? (Consider this statement: “The animal body is caught up… in a complicated system of reactions and effects which is registered as a play between the surfaces of bodies, but not necessarily as revealing anything about the interaction of minds. Film reflects this by not making the implied mutual alienation, consequent on the inability of animals to speak to humans, central to its configuration of human-animal relations and their histories. In fact, although there are plenty of rhetorical animals on screen – animals as metaphors, metonyms, textual creatures to be read like words, even animals that speak – much of the power of the film animal derives from the fact that in film human-animal relations are possible through the play of agency regardless of the nature of animal interiority, subjectivity or communication.” (p.31))

– what unifies animal and human? What makes sense of their mutual habitation of the text?

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine; italics in original) Jonathan Blunt (2002) Animals in Film. Reaktion Books: London.


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