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Culture Warrior: The Vegetarian Movie Lover’s Dilemma

By  · Published on October 18th, 2011

Warning: Some of the links included in this article depict disturbing real-life violence against animals.

When we talk about movies, we often talk about representation. And when we talk about representation, we’re most likely talking about people. How does this character’s personality fit in with my understanding of people in my daily life? What are the roles that men and women of different races, sexualities, and ethnic backgrounds play in a given narrative? What does an old film tell me about people during a different era? Who are the people that made a given film possible, and how did they contribute creatively? Simply put, cinema is a medium made by people, about people, and for people. But we often represent and depict other living beings through our narratives as well. We may be human, but we often identify with things that aren’t.

This weekend I co-hosted a repertory screening of F. W. Murnau’s silent American classic Sunrise (1927). One of the film’s most memorable scenes features George O’Brien chasing after a precocious circus pig. The pig stumbles into a quiet kitchen and, through a series of screwball antics, causes a cook to drop a glass of wine onto the ground. It shatters, and the pig drinks the wine. What follows is a brilliant close-up of the pig, its eyes slowly drooping and its snout out-of-focus, which rather effectively conveys the animal’s state of inebriation. Through an intuitive implementation of form, the human audience is permitted to identify with the subjectivity of another species. As this moment arrives during a rather whimsical sequence in this emotionally enrapturing film, the audience (myself included) were predictably smitten by this drunken pig. A lengthy shot follows in which the pig begins to stumble before its inevitable capture by O’Brien, which was met with similar, if slightly more reserved, laughter.

After the screening, I felt myself conflicted with my reaction to the drunken pig. After all, Sunrise was made long before the establishment of the American Humane Association’s film and television unit, an organization famous for their disclaimer, “No animals were harmed during the making of this movie” that finds itself attached to all Hollywood productions in which an animal is featured.

The pig in Sunrise is clearly seen drinking some sort of substance resembling red wine, and then stumbling. Given the lack of laws regarding the use of animals in film, the pig very well could have been made inebriated for the purposes of the film. To do such a thing is certainly not conducive to an action of morality regarding the way we treat our furry friends, especially when considering that the effect of the alcohol was probably disproportionately strong for a tiny piglet. To enjoy this sequence, of course, is not an endorsement of getting small animals unwittingly drunk – one can arguably appreciate the role of the drunken pig as part of the narrative alone without condoning the probable activities which made such a scene possible.

But this is the major problem one encounters when considering the relationship between the animal (character) represented and the real activities involving the animal used to make that representation manifest: while there exists voluminous information about the behind-the-scenes activities of humans in film, the essential histories of animal contributions to cinema is shrouded. Ultimately, one can never really know (though some means seem evidently likelier than others) in cases like this exactly how this pig was made to act the ways it does. The political economy of the living animal as part of the production process is an aspect of production history made mostly unavailable when it comes to older cinema.

That is, until 1940. The emergence of the AHA’s film division forced the treatment of animals in the name of filmmaking to be transparent and accountable following a consistent set of rules regarding what living beings should and should not be expected to do in the name of filmmaking. It makes sense after all, that no living thing should be intently or negligibly hurt in the name of entertainment.

That such a distinct historical break exists where, suddenly, this shrouded history of animals behind the scenes becomes documented and organized only further mystifies the pre-AHA history of animals in American cinema, where no rules were forced and actual practice remains uncertain. The AHA was obviously formed in reaction to a given industrial need – it was apparent, perhaps merely by the representation of animals in finished products, that neglect, abuse, or misuse was occurring unjustifiably to create intended filmic representations. So before 1940 there are many American films in which animals are represented in ways they haven’t since been able to. For instance, there’s the 1930s Dogville shorts, where canines are dressed in costumes, made to walk continuously on their hind legs and enact scene’s familiar to anybody who has seen a 1930s genre films. Controversy surrounds the means by which these animals were made to “talk,” but predictably, any direct abuses are difficult to surmise as there is little transparency surrounding these films’ means of production.

While some pre-AHA work is indisputably reprehensible, I react to films like the Dogville series and the drunken pig more ambivalently: enjoyment of its end result met with speculation about the potential abuses that made it possible (something wrong seems to doubtlessly be occurring with the Dogville films). But while Sunrise is a masterpiece of cinema, the Dogville shorts are curious historical anomalies (they certainly don’t follow the coding of cuteness that many of today’s cinematic canines do). The bizarre, uncanny (un-canine) nature of these films manifest a distance between them and the viewer, and entertainment value can additionally be found in simple act of being aghast at the film’s final product and questionable means of production. Like a racist grandmother, these films are both offensive and approachable entertainment by simply having existed before a moment of distinct social change. In other words, that drunken pig and these talking dogs were made to drink and talk regardless of whether or not I watch them, so I may as well enjoy what was ultimately produced and be happy that things have changed since.

But on the other hand, clearly even worse things have happened and continue to happen to pigs and dogs on a regular basis. The difference is, they aren’t filmed. (And even outside traditional categories of abuse, animals are killed as part of the process of many facets of industrial production, but not the production of films.) And that’s the strangest component of the AHA film division when one takes into account the vast scope of unchecked animal mistreatment that occurs on a regular basis: it’s not the larger patterns of animal abuse that are being policed, but the representation of animals themselves. These animals, of course, are only observed while on set, which makes up a fraction of the life of even the professional animal performer. The rather limited powers of AHA became shockingly apparent this last spring when video revealed that the elephants employed for Water for Elephants were abused by their trainers prior to filming (an instance of tragic irony, considering that a major aspect of the film’s narrative centers around elephant abuse at the hands of an evil circus owner).

Without CGI, specialized stunts, and/or shrewd camera trickery, it’s difficult to portray animals in a wide variety of compromising scenarios convincingly. This may explain why harm executed upon an animal (real or staged) is often more affecting for audiences than violence between people. Pre-AHA films notably provide a greater range of representation than animals depicted today, but this only means that since the AHA’s emergence as part of the production process, it’s become easier to spot when actual harm may have occurred. We’ve become keen to violations of animal representation simply by the lack of their overall range of representation. The ritual slaughtering of the bull during the climax of Apocalypse Now, the slicing of a cow’s eyeball in Un Chien anadalou, the beating of a rabbit in the documentary Roger & Me, and the depictions of slaughter in Strike and The Blood of the Beasts are all especially disturbing because they possess the mark of the indisputably real: what we’re seeing represented is exactly what occurred. These are not sights that are convincingly reproducible without having some direct relationship with harsh reality.

Because of the strange history of production practice with respect to animals, humans are strangely capable of identifying with nonhuman characters with a great deal of complexity and intuition.

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