Animal death toll soars at groovy film festival
I have never seen as many dead animals on screen as I have in the past two weeks. From grasshoppers roasted over an open flame in to kangaroos mercilessly slaughtered in the night, I have been witness to a macabre cinematic menagerie of dead and dying fauna.
The Sydney Film Festival ended on the weekend, over for another year. And while there may not have been a programming strand dedicated to films with dead animals in them, the sheer number of those that did will remain with me as one of the most striking and unexpected things about those twelve days.
Obviously, it is the sort of observation that can only be made when one has attended a lot of films at the festival, an observation supported, as it is, by sheer weight of numbers. When more than one third of over forty-five features contains either a dead or dying animal, one begins to take notice of the trend.
In my case, I kept a death toll. A festival for the vegetarians it wasn’t.
There was the kitten that presumably died off-screen after the maid threw it over the garden wall in The Maid, and the carcass of some unnamed beast hanging from a meathook in a room of the Lourve in Tsai Ming-liang’s Face. There was the roasted cow’s head in The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, a kind of bovine momento mori, and the duck that has its head chopped off onscreen in Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard.
In David Caesar’s Prime Mover, there was the sheep that was hit first by a braking semi-trailer, and then again by a wheeljack-wielding William McInnes. In Louise-Michel, there was the dead pigeon that the lead character wanted to eat, and then later the rabbit that she did, raw. In Treeless Mountain, the two sisters captured, skewered and roasted countless grasshoppers, selling the insects for ten cents a pop, and in a similar vein, in the Peruvian documentary Oblivion, the street vendor made his living by killing frogs, boiling them in water, and then putting their flesh into a blender to make a smoothie he said would aid one’s memory. (In the interest of freshness, he killed the frogs on site. In the interest of verisimilitude, he also did so onscreen.)
Then there were the horses killed in battle in John Woo’s Red Cliff and the one stabbed in the neck by Benicio Del Toro in Che. There was Noé‘s overfed cat in Claire Denis’s 35 Shots, found on the floor of his apartment and, with very little fanfare, dumped in a garbage bag with a handful of pet toys, and the butterfly Guy Pearce left to die under a glass in Rowan Woods’s Winged Creatures. In the short film We Who Stayed Behind, there was the dead robin, which the lead character, Adam, carried around with him for a bit, before realising the futility of doing so and throwing it away. And there were all the dead kangaroos: the one hit by a car in Beautiful Kate and, more strikingly, those run down and shot at point-blank range in the remastered version of Wake in Fright. Peter Whittle even wrestled one, getting it in a headlock and slitting its throat.
And all this from a festival with a puppy on its program.
Of course, filmmakers have had always had a bit of a fascination with dead and dying animals, a fascination that has been there since the very beginning of cinema. In 1903, Thomas Edison shot and released his famous Electrocuting an Elephant, a one-shot film in which an elephant named Topsy had 6600 volts run through her at Luna Park Zoo on Coney Island. (Topsy, it should be noted, had killed three people in as many years, and arguably had it coming to her.) Georges Franju’s 1949 documentary, Le sang des bêtes (Blood of the beasts), contrasts the bucolic outer suburbs of post-war Paris with the bloody operations of a nearby slaughterhouse, and the film remains difficult to watch even today.
(Warning: Some may find this Topsy the Elephant clip disturbing.)
Perhaps cinema’s most famous animal corpses are those of the rabbits and pheasants in Renoir’s La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game), blown away, as they are, with unthinking cold-bloodedness by a hunting party of bourgeois twits. These butchered bunnies and birdies have become increasingly famous over time as an enduring symbol of man’s capacity for systematic brutality. That the film was first released (and then banned) only two or three months before the Nazis marched into Poland in 1939 imbues the death of these animals – for they, too, actually died onscreen – with even greater resonance.
This fascination with shooting dead animals – no pun intended – is itself one of the central themes in Peter Greenaway’s A Zed & Two Noughts. Here, twin brothers, whose wives have both been killed in a car accident, become obsessed with making time-lapse films of various animals in various states of decay. The resultant footage of angelfish and swans and zebras decomposing, set to the music of Michael Nyman, takes on a strange, otherworldly beauty, as death sometimes does, especially on film.
But I’m collapsing a number of categories here. There is, after all, a difference between showing an animal being killed on screen and showing one that has already been killed. There is also a difference between representing death on screen and actually inflicting it, a difference between a slasher film and snuff. The ethical questions surrounding the treatment of animals on film – questions about what it means to actually kill an animal for a scene – are many and, perhaps surprisingly, not always clean-cut. The ox at the end of Apocalypse Now, hacked up with machetes to the sound of The Doors, was killed as part of a religious ritual, a ritual that would have taken place regardless of whether or not Francis Ford Coppola had been there to shoot it. The horse in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, on the other hand, was purchased from a slaughterhouse and returned there once its scene had was in the can, but not before it was shot, pushed down a staircase, and filmed bleeding to death. Both Coppola’s ox and Tarkovsky’‘s horse were going to die anyway. But it is arguable that only Coppola walked away without literal or figurative blood on his hands.
Not that all of the festival films mentioned above contained scenes of actual slaughter, of course. The duck in Bluebeard actually did have its head cut off and the kangaroos in Wake in Fright actually were slaughtered (as part of a routine cull, the credits inform us). And the frogs in Oblivion actually were, well, thrown into a blender and consumed as a thickshake. But most of the animal deaths in these films were either implied or merely represented. Which leads to a much more fundamental question. Forget whether or not an animal has actually been killed onscreen. Why are there so many representations of dead animals to begin with?
If the current bumper crop of corpses can be taken to mean anything at all, it is arguably that the metaphorical value of the dead animal in cinema remains essentially unchanged. When a little girl watches the life seep out of a headless duck, or when a lovesick young man finds his overweight cat dead on the floor, these deaths clearly mean more than they may at first appear to, carrying their fair share of narrative and thematic weight. Like Renoir’s rabbits or Franju’s bêtes, or the donkey dying in a field of sheep at the end of Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar, these dead animals, too, remain evocative metaphors. Whether or not this is an excuse for killing an animal on screen is another matter.
One can only hope that the pug on the program managed to get out alive.
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