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.


Violence and time in North America – some thoughts from Isabel Allende


Actually, as well as liking some of Isabel Allende’s ideas about Memoir and memory, I also found her comments on violence and time interesting. She wrote (and I hope I haven’t eliminated the context in which she writes this):

“I’ve been so thoroughly incorporated into the California culture that I practice mediation and go to a therapist…. I have adapted to the rhythm of this extraordinary place….”

“The North Americans’ sense of time is very special. They are short on patience. Everything must be quick, including food and sex, which the rest of the world treats ceremoniously. Gringos invented two terms that are untranslatable into most languages: ‘snack’ and ‘quickie,’ to refer to eating standing up and loving on the run … that, too, sometimes standing up. The most popular books are manuals: how to become a millionaire in ten easy lessons, how to lose fifteen pounds a week, how to recover from your divorce, and so on. People always go around looking for shortcuts and ways to [-p.189] escape anything they consider unpleasant: ugliness, old age, weight, illness, poverty, and failure in any of its aspects.
This country’s fascination with violence never ceases to shock me. It can be said that I have lived in interesting circumstances, I’ve seen revolutions, war, and urban crime, not to mention the brutalities of the military coup in Chile. Our home in Caracas was broken into seventeen times; almost everything we had was stolen, from a can opener to three cars, two from the street, and the third after the thieves completely ripped off our garage door. At least none of them had bad intentions; one even left a note of thanks stuck to the refrigerator door. Compared to other places on earth, where a child can step on a mine on his way to school and lose two legs, the United States is safe as a convent, but the culture is addicted to violence. Proof of that is to be found in its sports, its games, its art, and, certainly not least, its films, which are bloodcurdling. North Americans don’t want violence in their lives, but they need to experience it indirectly. They are enchanted by war, as long as it’s not on their turf.” (pp.188-189)

Ref: Isabel Allende (2003) My Invented Country: A Memoir. Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden. Flamingo: London

Psycho – a note


I’m off topic again, so just a quick note for later; Thomas Hemmeter writes:

“The American films of British director Alfred Hitchcock offer a distinct vision of US culture, providing an outsider’s insight into our society’s violent nature. Reading the films as sociological documents, we may recognize ways in which the social structures and conflicts represented therein express what Todd Gitlin calls the ”normalcies of a self-destructive culture” (xi). That is, the violence depicted in Hitchcock’s American films arises not from the abnormal, but from normal, accepted social values, practices, and structures of the United States. Few critical studies emphasize the sociology of violence in Hitchcock’s films, remarkably neglected even in a work like Psycho (1960), a picture whose violence exerted considerable fascination on the American public in the 1960s–and continues to do so today. I agree with J. David Slocum that ”the vast corpus of critical work on Alfred Hitchcock also consistently addresses film violence …” and that ”the critical literature on Psycho and the later films, especially, turn on the director’s imaginings of violence” (27); but these studies (other than feminist analyses) examine violence precisely as aesthetic ”imaginings of violence”–as an aspect of the film medium, of morality, of spectatorship, of ideology–not as a social problem mimetically relevant to the external world in which we live.” (p.7)

Ref: Thomas Hemmeter (2002) Horror Behind the Camera: Cultural Sources of Violence in Hitchcock’s Mid-Century America. Post Script – Essays in Film and the Humanities 22(2). pp.7-19

Serial killer films – the monstrosity of the body and the slipping of the mask


I think I’ve found another critic I like… Steffen Hantke addresses the ‘monstrous’ nature of serial killers, writing that:

Much of the recent discourse on monstrosity is more interested in the question what monsters mean than what they look like. […For example, Marie-Helene Huet declares that:] ”By presenting similarities to categories of beings to which they are not related, monsters blur the differences between genres and disrupt the strict order of Nature”” (p.34)

“In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), the sight of the creature fills its creator with ”breathless horror and disgust”; Victor finds himself literally ”unable to endure the aspect of the being [he] had created” (57). Bram Stoker’s eponymous Dracula (from the 1897 novel), capable of moving about the crowded London streets without attracting attention, has none of these physical markers of otherness, and yet there are moments when his true nature becomes visible, his body becoming spectacular, ”panther-like in … movement,” his ”eye-teeth long and pointed,” and his general appearance transformed into something obviously ”unhuman” (266). Stevenson’s Edward Hyde (1886) already announces a shift from the surface of the body to its depths. Though Hyde’s appearance still elicits a shock of physical revulsion [-p.35] reminiscent of Shelley–the ”very essence of the creature” is ”something seizing, surprising and revolting” (39)–the physical markers of his otherness are already less distinct. Witnesses point to ”something displeasing, something downright detestable” (7), something ”abnormal and misbegotten” (39), about him, though no one can ”specify the point” (7). This difficulty in locating the exact location or nature of Hyde’s ”deformity,” however, does not detract from the witnesses’ certainty that it is indeed Hyde’s body which bears ”Satan’s signature” (12). Seeing this body commit a monstrous act is not required to understand its true nature. His is the transitional body in the history of the Gothic, one which gives ”an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation” (11-12). These examples illustrate that monstrosity never really leaves the body as its preferred site of manifestation, though it may become detached from any particular bodily characteristic.” (pp.34-35)

Monstrosity can be forced to manifest itself against the will and efforts of the monster, or it can manifest itself as a kind of Freudian lapse during a moment of inattention.” (p.35)

“This slipping of the mask is only one of the many thematic connections between these nineteenth century monsters and their pre-eminent late twentieth century descendent, the serial killer. The modern serial killer, as we find him in popular film and fiction, has a hybrid ontology. He is, to quote Philip Simpson, ”a fantastic confabulation of Gothic/romantic villain, literary vampire and werewolf, … film noir outsider, frontier outlaw, folkloric threatening figure, and [he embodies] nineteenth-century pseudo-sociological conceptions of criminal types given contemporary plausibility” (15). Despite this bewildering multiplicity of generic sources, Simpson(like many others) comes to the conclusion that fictionalized serial killers are the product of [-p.36] two major influences: the Gothic romance on the one hand, and detective fiction on the other. In the former, they occupy the position of monstrous other, from the dark and charismatic Byronic heroes of Walpole, Radcliffe, and Bronte to the monsters of Shelley, Stevenson, and Stoker. In the latter, they appear as superhuman and fiendishly clever criminals plotted against such masterminds as Auguste Dupin or Sherlock Holmes.” (pp.35-36)

Public display of the abject body has become a hallmark of the intersection of Gothic and detective fiction ever since. At first glance, the recent serial killer narrative subscribes to this generic convention as well. Often the killer’s body makes an early appearance–in most cases, before the first half of the novel or film is over. Unlike the ”whodunnit,” the serial killer genre typically shows us the killer’s face early on, and identifies him as the killer. Since he is not part of a familiar circle of suspects, it makes no difference whether or when we see his face. Nevertheless, when we do see it, especially the first time, the effect is usually something of an anticlimax. He is less than what we expected, especially in comparison with what the film has shown us of his residence, his victims’ bodies, and/or the effects that his actions have had on other characters and the community at large. Finally witnessing the killer’s body, we cannot help feeling cheated. It is the moment when the film uncovers its central mystery, yet what is uncovered appears flat, and far from enigmatic. Our appetite for illicit thrills is not satisfied, even though the preparatory stages leading up to this primal scene promise just that. And so what at first glance appears to be well within the rules of the genre instead turns out to be an inversion of one of its basic tenets. The body of the serial killer is not a site of abjection, despite what one might expect from the way its appearance is so often staged. Indeed, the vast majority of serial killers lack that one crucial feature which, according to numerous scholars and critics, effectively defines the monstrous: their evil is not written on their bodies.” (p.36)

“Mark Seltzer calls the serial killer ”the statistical person,”” (p.36)

“As closely related as the fictional serial killer narrative may be to that of the Gothic, or to the horror film generally, this is in fact one of its distinctive features: monstrosity is never revealed in that scene, so typical of the horror genre, in which the monster is glimpsed for the first time, his appearance inspiring a terrified shriek from a (typically female) character. In the traditional horror film, language breaks down when confronted with the monstrous. The scream of abject terror marks a descent into the pre- or non-lingual, and thus signifies the collapse of culture. Not so when the monstrous appears in the guise of the serial killer. Like characters in the narrative, we respond with bafflement rather than horror, with incomprehension rather than disgust, and with a need to reiterate the question–Could that really be him?–rather than with a terrified scream that rings through the horror genre’s familiar Gothic hallways.” (p.37)

“Monsters, according to yet another scholar, speak of the ”fears of contamination, impurity, and loss of identity,” carrying the outward manifestations of these fears on their bodies (Cohen14-15).” (p.38)

“Though audiences of serial killer narratives still derive their thrills from what Carrollcalls ”felt agitation,” its source cannot be the killer’s abject body, which is all solidity and bland surface. Hence, all attempts made by such narratives (especially in the medium of film) to visualize the serial killer’s inherent evil meet with a significant challenge, as monstrosity must somehow manifest itself visually. Efforts made at visualizing evil are often conceptualized as a sudden, unexpected, occasionally unobserved (other than by the audience) slippage during the killer’s otherwise seamless performance of normality; the same slippage mentioned above with respect to the Gothic monsters Dracula and Mr. Hyde. Every once in a while, the mask of normality slips, revealing the face of evil underneath.” (p.38)

Moreover, murder ”like any event, is a transitory thing,” even when it is repeated obsessively by the serial killer (Knox8). This goes some way towards explaining why films of this genre place so little emphasis on the visual representation of the murders themselves, and why they seem to share the killer’s treatment of the victims as two-dimensional and interchangeable. More importantly, [‘]The essence of the act can only ever be captured in its author. If the murderer is found to be irresponsibly insane, that vital element of authoring intent is lost and the status of the event is thrown into doubt. The insane murderous act becomes merely a kind of automatic writing, its origins obscure and unintelligible. Then, it is madness itself that becomes the subject of scrutiny, not murder.[‘] (Knox 57)” (p.44) … “While the serial killer embodies ”the mystery, the enigma of origins” (9), our focus is channeled away from the murders as a textual site where monstrosity can manifest itself.” (p.44) … “In this context, it is important to stress that the serial killer narrative, despite its rotten reputation, typically practices a degree of reluctance when it comes to showing explicit scenes of excessive violence. Conventionally, it removes itself visually from the immediate depiction of the violent act.” (p.44)

“…serial killer cinema deliberately rejects the visualizing strategies routinely availed of by other genres, with the result that the [-p.45] killer’s actions appear as a rather attenuated site for the display of spectacular monstrosity.” (pp.44-45)

“The fact that this representational option seems largely closed off returns us to the body as a site of monstrosity, and to the scenes of slippage discussed above. When the killer’s mask of normality falls for a moment, thereby enabling to see the turmoil and homicidal chaos underneath, this slippage is predicated on the assumption that because something is concealed it must be authentic. The chaos is his true identity, the calm normality a mask. But this assumption is not necessarily true.” (p.45)

As audiences repeatedly exposed to images of spectacular violence, we are taught to experience pleasure when controlled by a narrative that elicits from us unwilling manifestations of intense emotion. Held in breathless suspense, or jolted out of our seats by expertly timed shocks, we habitually flinch or groan in synch with the events on the screen (again it is Williams whose discussion of ”body genres” ties together hardcore porn and the horror film). But by reminding ourselves of our genre expertise we also experience pleasure in exercising control over these shocks and visual attacks. Horror films in particular can be said to elicit this type of pleasure in their audiences by foregrounding or thematizing genre conventions….” (p.48)

“Denied visual and narrative pleasure in all the familiar places, audiences of the serial killer film must look elsewhere. The films themselves oblige, mobilizing various maneuvers to distract from the void at their center. In one such maneuver, monstrosity ”slides off” the body of the serial killer and attaches itself to the space he inhabits. The process of zeroing in on this intimate space determines the narrative, driving it towards a climactic moment of penetration when the Gothic darkness is dispelled and the secrets of the killer brought to light (through images, writings, collections of trophies, clues to developmental regression or childhood trauma, etc.). Monstrosity also attaches itself to the bodies of the killer’s victims, which are almost always construed as objects of abjection.” (p.49)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold, mine) Steffen Hantke (2002) ‘Monstrosity Without a Body: Representational Strategies in the Popular Serial Killer Film’ Post Script – Essays in Film and the Humanities. 22(2), pp.34-54

Abstract: “Hantke examines the portrayal of serial killers in various late 20th-century films and analyzes how the monstrosity of the serial killer character is represented. Unlike popular monstrous figures from literature and from early 20th-century horror cinema such as Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, and Mr. Hyde, the dangerous and horrific qualities of serial killers are not manifest in their physical appearance; in fact, a defining characteristic of the serial killer film is the absolute ordinariness of the villain’s looks. Hantke extensively details the ways in which a serial killer’s deeds, rather than his physical body, become the locus of his monstrosity. Characters analyzed include: Norman Bates in “Psycho,” Buffalo Bill and Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs,” and the schizophrenic serial killer in “The Cell.”” (p.34)

The meaning behind serial killers


The serial killer is the (post-)modern monster. Transgressing, subverting, finally rendering meaningless the socially constructed divide between Reality and Fiction, he (it is usually a ‘he’) is both inscrutable and overdetermined. Simultaneously fascinating and repulsive (in private life and in the public sphere), he taps into personal fears and violates cultural taboos, ultimately inviting each of us to discover our own meanings in his madness. Haunting our dreams as well as our waking lives in the news, on television, in novels, and especially (most powerfully) at the movies, the serial killer seduces us in the manner of the traditional Gothic villain while horrifying us with the threat of pure evil.

Uncanny by nature, the serial killer in film represents both rejected/projected Other and possible/potential double for each and every one of us.” (p.3)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold mine) Steven Jay Schneider (2002) ‘Introduction, Pt. II: Serial Killer Film and Television’ Post Script – Essays in Film and the Humanities 22(2), pp.3-6

Abstract: “In the introduction to ‘Post Script’s’ second special issue devoted to realist horror cinema, Schneider discusses the representation of the serial killer in motion pictures, viewing the figure as a vehicle for audiences to project their personal fears and their fascination with cultural taboos onto. He comments on films that portray the serial killer as a ‘supernatural being,’ such as ;Halloween,’ ‘Child’s Play,’ and ‘The Eyes of Laura Mars.’ Schneider also previews essays collected in the issue, which analyze particular movies, themes, conventions, and generic traits from a variety of theoretical perspectives.” (p.3)

The Myth of Evil


Just came across a book that looks interesting: The Myth of Evil, by Philip Cole…. Reviewing The Myth of Evil, Niall Scott writes:

The Myth of Evil does not just concern the words in the title, but is a sophisticated treatment of evil in general, focussing strongly upon both the coherence of the concept and the attribution of the description ‘evil’ to phenomena and human behaviour. Cole’s aim throughout the book is to show that evil is a myth, that as a concept it is neither philosophical nor psychological, nor religious, which is quite a challenge. Although he argues that we would be better off without the concept of evil altogether, flying his flag in this way from the outset does not diminish how serious he takes the discourse of evil to be. This is evident in his willingness to recognise how the term and associated adjectives are used. In his introductory chapters, he provides a truly illuminating history of the devil, and challenges what is meant in descriptions of human behaviours as diabolical or demonic.
Although predominantly a politico/philosophical enquiry, the book offers much more than this. It is an argument drawing upon literature, history, and popular visual culture, and as a result it speaks to a range of disciplines. Cole addresses contemporary questions that have arisen around the multi-faceted concept of evil, such as fear and horror. This is also a political work that does not just provide a treatment of evil as a myth. It engages directly and importantly with the now frequently encountered political discourses regarding the holocaust, terrorism, Iraq, and the Bush and Blair administrations’ participation in disseminating discourses of fear and (in)security. These use the terminology of evil, the demonic, and the monstrous in contemporary conflicts, and the frequent occurrence of ‘evil’ functions as an explanatory device in the justification of appalling human behaviour. Cole provides four possible ways of conceptualising theories of evil. They are: (1) a monstrous conception, (2) a pure conception, (3) an impure conception, and (4) a psychological conception.” (Scott, p.97)

Apparently, Cole’s “concluding chapter presents a challenge to the reader where it addresses the contemporary state of world politics in the context of discourses of evil, with a detailed analysis of terror, terrorism, and violence. Cole spends time laying out the Iraqi problem, drawing parallels between the language of terror and fear and the phenomenon of witch trials and the eastern European vampire myths dealt with earlier in the book. Cole’s strategy is again seductive. At times, he tempts the reader into agreeing with the description of, for example, the western regimes and the terrorist as monstrous and demonic. However, it is clear that if one has paid any attention to his preceding argument, such very understandable, but simplistic assessments of terrible and horrific human actions require a more responsible treatment. So he refers to the sheer monstrous arbitrariness of terrorist victims in recent terrorist activities, and rhetorically asks that ‘Surely this arbitrariness fits the model of Monstrous evil?’ (234). But it is this very description that he challenges. We can move beyond evil in our understanding of such events and come to a position that even the arbitrariness is not without significance, and this reminds us that literary monsters have a history of grievance and need not be characterised in terms of a model of monstrous evil.” (p.100)

Ref: Niall Scott (2009) Has Evil Run its Course? Phillip Cole, The Myth of Evil, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2006, 256 pp. [Review] Res Publica (2009) 15:97–101 DOI 10.1007/s11158-008-9062-2