Film Review: Fast Cheap and Out of Control and Grizzly Man

by on 週四, 31 五 2012 評論

Last year we found a cat on our doorstep with a broken paw that was whining and meowing like crazy. After a dramatic episode whereby the cat was caught and boxed with the help of a now permanently scarred Taiwanese friend, we brought the cat to the vet to get its leg fixed and its tubes tied and my flatmate decided to adopt it. We initially thought the cat was whining because of its broken foot, but we have since learned that whining is a way of life for it. It whines for a door to be opened, then when it is open it turns away in disgust. I don’t have much interaction with the cat, I just hear it whining from day to night, but I don’t understand how it works or what motivates it. I read its behaviour in human terms at times, in turns it can be stubborn, spiteful, manipulative, pig-headed, ungrateful and fussy. Despite attributing these human motives to it/she, I’ve never felt the urge to refer to it with the gendered pronoun ‘she’, despite the litany of names given to it by my flatmate, Felicity and Princess are the only two I can still remember, in my view this is because the cat is a street cat and still retains personality traits that distinguish it from a normal pet, and this was not the case with other people’s pets to which I was able to develop more of an attachment. When I saw these two films, the double standards I had used with ‘pet cats’ as opposed to ‘street cats’ came more clearly into focus.


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.


Conor Stuart (蕭辰宇)

Born in Belfast. Just finished his Master from the Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature at National Taiwan University (NTU). Currently lives and works in Taipei. 





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