The two films I’m going to talk about in this review give an insight into the different ways that people interact with animals. The first is a documentary called Grizzly Man (2005), a film which deals with a man who lives long periods of his life in Alaskan bear country living amongst grizzlies. He contravenes the National Park regulations by approaching the bears and interacting with them - he records a lot of these encounters on film. He does not take the neutral role of an observer of nature - like many nature documentaries, but rather he invests himself into the bears’ way of life, and feels that he is a member of their community. The director makes clear in his narration and in interviews conducted throughout the course of the film, however, that he idealizes the bear world, to cope with his failures in the human world: he’s a failed actor (he had almost gotten the role of Woody Harrelson in the sitcom Cheers) with drug problems. This becomes more and more clear as we discover his self-mythologizing in his own recordings, he lies about being alone at times, urging his girlfriend to remain out of sight of the camera, he also lies about his nationality and about certain other elements of his past and who he is. He applies a similar mythology to the world of the bears too, he imposes idealistic human values on them, and as the director points out, he sees only the positive aspects of their life and is unable to recognize certain aspects of their animal nature, exemplified in his extreme emotions and his disturbance when he comes across the body of a baby bear which has been skinned to the bone by another male bear. He is unable to comprehend why this has happened - in staunch contrast to the usual dispassionate narration of nature documentaries, he expresses his distress that something like this could happen in the animal world, although the director states that this is common behaviour within the bear world. His attempt to enter the bears’ world ends ultimately in failure - when he is attacked late in the season by an older, hungry bear from inland. The film is punctuated with local people who criticize Timothy’s way of interacting with the bears and the director sums up the failure of Timothy Treadwell to get to grips with the reality of bears at the finale of the film - with a photo of a bear and his commentary that the director sees nothing but bored savage indifference in the face of the animal where the protagonist had seen so many human traits. The film essentially asserts itself in the matter of difference between animals and humans - and maintains that distance should be kept. The footage that Treadwell shot with his camera is breathtaking and the film is well worth watching for this alone, but the real subject matter of the film as the title suggests is naivete of the protagonist in unwittingly humanizing the behaviour of bears and attempting to integrate himself into his idealized imaginary of their world, only to meet death in his encounter with this animal 'other'.
The second film that I wanted to discuss was Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (1997) which I heard of from a video of a Cary Wolfe lecture online. The movie approached the issue from four distinct angles, some more fully realized than others.
The first was about a garden in which the gardener has made animal shapes out of the hedges - this part I felt could have done with more development, as I didn’t really see how it related to the other parts in the film, or indeed its general thesis, the implication was that the gardener had attributed animal characteristics to the plant life - and thought of them like pets, but this failed to really come through in the film and it wasn't as convincing as the other parts of the film.
The second subject of the film was a lion tamer who had worked for the circus, he talks about his experience with lions and the close calls he has had due to the unpredictability of the lions' behaviour. It is notable in this part that although he develops affection for the lions, his attitude towards them is in marked difference to Timothy Treadwell's attitude to the bears in the first film: the lion tamer acknowledges the differences between animal and human and is less prone to humanizing them, he demonstrates the same intimidation techniques to assert his territory as Treadwell does in the first film, but he doesn't invest his emotions into these interactions and remains unsurprised when these semi-domesticated wild animals attempt to kill him, for he sees it in their nature.
The third part was about the discovery of a species of mammal that lives like a termite (one of only two eusocial mammals) - the naked mole rat. This part questioned the dichotomy that we often draw between certain animals - wherein we humanize or portray as familiar the way in which mammals live to some extent, yet we think of the way insects live as something completely foreign and alien (an interesting reference here is the insect-like aliens in many sci-fi films like Alien). This undermines the traditional ways in which we categorize different animal species and the divisions between them (including our own).
The final part is about artificial intelligence, in which MIT scientist Rupert Brookes designs robots that function similarly to insects, suggesting that animal life is not perhaps as unique or irreducibly complex as we would like to imagine. This part also calls into question the idea of human exceptionalism as the mechanical and reactive nature of the way animals and humans function is brought to light through the replication of some of those processes with machines.
The film is slightly slow moving at times and lots of footage from the circus, cartoons and films is incorporated. It is an aesthetically pleasing film to watch, in this sense, but at times this took away from its coherency and there was no attempt to tie the different aspects of the film together into one thread of narrative.
The two films worked to similar effect but by different routes. The sympathetic yet incisive voiceover of the director, Werner Herzog, in the first film, Grizzly Man, reveals for the viewer the flawed way in which Treadwell mythologized both the bears and himself - leading us to the conclusion that much as the impersonality and constructed landscape of the modern world might incite us to 'return to nature' or somehow turn back the clock to an era when man was supposedly in tune with the animal world, this in itself is an revisionist view of history, and what Treadwell fails to realize in the film, even in death, is the animal world is completely alien to that of the human world and human values, where killing children is looked on as a necessity, where hunger and survival are the only things that matter; although we might humanize animals to a certain degree, we must never lose sight of their fundamental difference, or we risk judging them by human values which they can never live up to. The lion tamer in Fast, Cheap and Out of Control reinforces this idea with the lion tamer's affection for the lions tempered by his knowledge that they would kill him in an instant. The other parts of the film challenge the other divisions and categories we make between plants, animals, humans and machines - suggesting that we tend to over-romanticize human nature as something that has been freed from the mechanical drives of animality or, indeed, machinery, without questioning a lot of the mechanical drives that still pertain to us and that this is based on the way the human animal conceives of the world and reacts to it.
Both films are well worth watching.
|< Prev||Next >|
|Written by : Conor Stuart
Send a message to Conor Stuart
Other articles by this author
- Conference: Embrace the Pacific June 5th (23 May 2013)
- (Dis)belief in Taiwan (02 April 2013)
- (I believe therefore) I'm moral (02 April 2013)
- The form of (In)divinity (02 April 2013)
- Divine In(ter)action (02 April 2013)
- Living (Dis)belief (02 April 2013)
- (Dis)ordered World (02 April 2013)
- I Believe(d) (02 April 2013)
- Historical Resonances: War, Colonial Experiences and Peace-Making (16 January 2013)
- Teaching a Common Pacific History: Morgan Tuimaleali'ifano (09 January 2013)
- Fiji Time... (31 October 2012)
- Learning to Live Together (22 August 2012)
- Passive Aggressive Much? (21 August 2012)
- The Line Between Humans and Animals in Literature (11 May 2012)
- Women and Nationalism (02 May 2012)
- Nationalism and Girls who Date Foreigners (24 April 2012)
- Creative Inspiration (16 March 2012)
- Standing Proudly Despite the Chair (19 May 2011)
- A Tale of the Moon's Eclipse (28 December 2010)
This month's Renlai
Help us keep the content of eRenlai free: take five minutes to make a donation
- Conference: Embrace the Pacific June 5th
- Amateurs in Tokyo - Reasonable Riots
- Obesity and Freedom
- Focus Response: Father Jacques Duraud, SJ on 'My God?'
- Dancing through the lens: Photographing the Pacific Festival of Arts
- Religious Colonialism: Cultural Loss in the Solomon Islands
- Shell Money, Dowries and the Skulls of Ancestors: The Living Traditions of the Solomon Islands
- The Langalanga People: "Natives" of the Man-made islands of the Solomons
- A Vibrant Culture with an Ugly Facade: Honiara and the Pacific Art Festival
- Swept away from Sinology by the Allure of Taiwan's Pacific coast
eRenlai provides a monthly newsletter that introduces you to the Focus and other articles.