Against Cult Cinema: Documentarian Didacticism and ‘The Animals Film’

Whatever the mystified cult film may be, whatever its eccentric predilections or elusive markers, it primarily presents itself as a vehicle of indelicate sensation and nonconformist, grotesque pleasure. Whatever it delightfully or insidiously claims to oppose, it seldom opposes the cult of sensation and decoration, thus revealing a surprising kitschiness or inadvertent conservatism.

True, the cult film’s obligatory irony occasionally makes a seeming lack of sensation seem itself sensational—this is the stark ordeal of Eraserhead (1977), though Lynch’s singular self-consciousness fascinates more than it numbs. The authentic lack of sensationalism—Warhol’s Empire (1964), for example—results in an artifact untouchable but dutifully unworshipped, and fulfills Mark Twain’s definition of a classic (cribbed from Caleb Thomas Winchester): something that everyone wants to have read, but no one wants to read. Thus, Empire State—for five decades—has been relegated to spottily attended museum or university showings, where the death of sensation finds an appropriately ascetic home.

Perhaps we can ascertain the common nature of cult films by seeing what they avoid, and they avoid nothing more vehemently than didacticism. Nobody has ever learned anything from any canonical cult film, just as no one actually learns from religion, which might beguile, brainwash, indoctinrate, or invigorate, but which never Socratically teaches. (I include here the ambitious bombast of the surrealist Panic Movement, whose promises of spiritual enlightenment were more a stylistic affectation than coherent theses.)

The cult film’s self-congratulatory irony is worlds apart from the irony of Brecht’s epic theater, whose didacticism became the domain of Godard, Fassbinder, and the Western European art film (to exhume an outmoded phrase) and not of style-conscious, transnational cult cinema. The frequent social satire of the cult film actually keeps didacticism at bay, for satire, a mere irritant to dictators and moralists, reaffirms rather than remakes our belief systems. For example, the first 15 minutes of John Waters’ Desperate Living (1977) surely comprise one of cinema’s greatest satires of bourgeois ideology, but Mink Stole’s exaggerated capitalist neuroses, much like the sped-up highways of Koyaanisqatsi (1983), only expose the acculturated angst we usually keep to ourselves.

In a culture that now worships style alone, we perceive didacticism as the death of cinema. This bias has legitimate origins, as we blurrily recall the lecturing of dental awareness filmstrips, the ossified camp of William Beaudine’s moral hygiene classic Mom and Dad (1945), or the staid propaganda of the “educational” short Boys Beware (1961), which warned schoolchildren that in their natural habitat middle-aged homosexuals exist in two distinct varieties, the fearful predator and the far wilier seducer, whose genital terrors are presaged by fishing excursions and avuncular counsel. While it seems obvious that cult films propose libidinous escapism, “escapism” has always been wrongly defined: we desire escape not from reality, but from pedantry.

The cult film’s sensationalism typically results in necessary (not gratuitous) sex and violence, cordoned off into a discrete and odorless two-dimensionality. In the past decade or so, we’ve witnessed an obvious transformation in the quality of film violence, its frissons now sanitized and de-fleshed by the frigidity of CGI. (Apparently all violence is allowable as long as it is shot on video.) At one time, the unflinching autopsies of Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971) daringly revealed the gelid bodily innards hidden beneath cinema’s two-dimensional corporeality. In the age of dully glamorized pixilation, when the human body becomes CGI’s cybernetic prisoner, Brakhage’s raw meat may startle anew.

The millennial generation might be less desensitized than their burned-out VHS forebears, benumbed and bemused by that era’s schlocky parade of Faces of Death clones. As much as we lament the proud vapidity of contemporary media, I doubt adolescent Internet and texting addictions are more harmful than the ’80s-era obsession with verité videotape gore. I was surprised recently to see the 1980 instructional video, Contemporary Embalming—which I recall watching as a teenager on a blurry bootleg—now improbably hailed by an underground film website as a “classic” newly “remastered on DVD.”

Perhaps only gruesome curiosity—or a giggling denial of death—can transform a cheaply made didacticism into inebriated entertainment. But in the virtual age, where the power to transgress multiplies every day, what value can underground morbidity hold?

But I digress—slightly. If there’s something that can trump the cult film’s ubiquitous ironies, it could be a didactic overture that only appears as a rarefied or underground cult film. Brian Springer’s Spin (1995), certainly, is one example, a Chomskian documentary cobbled from fugitive satellite video feeds that dryly reveal the petty Machiavellianism behind the 1992 presidential campaigns. Victor Schonfeld and Myriam Alaux’s excruciating The Animals Film (1981) is surely another, a British animal-rights documentary that is not merely a plea to cease animal cruelty, but a critique of speciesism and of the objectification cum commercialization of life itself. Occasionally appearing at documentary festivals, available only in a severely censored VHS throughout the ’80s, and in 2008 finally resurfacing in its uncut, 130-minute version, the film reframes, too, the heartless violence that typically informs the cult film’s sense of the outré.

As a lyric from The Talking Heads’ “Mind” didactically plays on the soundtrack (“I need something to change your mind…”), the film begins with a stock footage montage of callous animal slaughter. English children happily stack the corpses of rabbits freshly clubbed from the day’s hunt. A splayed rat immobilized in a plastic case is centrifugally spun and vaporized in a laboratory for esoteric purposes. Turning to the exploitations of sport, absurdity intrudes upon cruelty, as horses failing at the steeplechase snap their legs and domesticated ostriches collapse under the burden of farcical racing contests.

Juxtaposed clips of Edison’s self-explanatory Electrocution of an Elephant (1902) and his Dog Factory (1904)—a Méliès-like short in which a makeshift box labeled “Patent Dog Transformator” magically turns dogs into cute link sausages and magnanimously back again—reveal that our animal relationships are at once objectifying and sentimentalizing. This duality is mirrored in the following sequence, which contrasts car-flattened cats compressed into city streets with a nearby toy store offering children furry, lifeless companions of synthetic and cotton. Whether identified as pets, gifts, profit, food, entertainment, or flesh and hide, the animal is a vessel as soulless as Aquinas claimed, only eliciting facile sentimentalism or feeding humanity’s easy alienations from organic reality.

An intensely sober narration by Julie Christie sets a tone that mingles anger and incredulity. A sequence detailing the work of stray animal collectors who escort their charges to execution tables reveals the hypocrisies of humanitarianism. The city workers “humanely” care for the animals they scoop from the streets, yet they must rationalize their murders as either socially necessary or as a euthanasia in the animals’ own best interests. At best, the workers are like colonialists who believe they better their slaves, and at worst they are killers who genuinely love their victims—the very definition of sadism. In any event, unescorted quadrupeds and discovered roadkill swiftly become “corpses…rendered for animal fats and glue,” enlivening the purses of sundry industrialists.

Documenting the industrial production of meatstuffs, the film’s first half occasionally recalls Frederick Wiseman’s Meat (1976), which intercuts scenes of the killing floor and abattoir owners’ banal business dealings, only to end with an image of human ingenuity triumphant: perfectly circular beef discs pumped onto a conveyer belt. While Wiseman’s trademark objectivism only implies a critique of modernity, The Animals Film has a far more biased, horror-stricken argument. We know our beef discs are rooted in Hobbesian nastiness, but our industries turn out to be more sadistic than any neutral state of nature. We witness pens of doomed cows circling through lakes of their own fermenting shit, with nowhere else to go. Immobilized calves are force-fed iron-deficient diets to ensure the anemia and chronic diarrhea that tender tenderer scaloppini.

At every opportunity, the filmmakers emphasize how and which corporations profit from the torture and single out government-buttressed entrepreneurialism as a central culprit. We learn, for example, that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, ever resourceful, innovated a process that stretches cattle feed by admixing it with the cows’ own liquid manure. As the cows unknowingly ingest a medically acceptable percentage of their own hind discharge, we, in turn, mindlessly eat fecalized franks and burgers destined for the fast food heat lamps, ironically reflecting the original definition of consumer (“one who wastes”) and updating the Marquis de Sade’s inexorable Circle of Shit for an unthinking era of lookalike shopping malls and minimum wage captivity.

The pigpen promises different horrors. One pig farmer offhandedly jokes about his “rape rack”, the metal bars to which sows are fastened and which allow neighboring male pigs to anally or vaginally abuse the females at will. When the rape is complete, the pigs become gelatinous rectangles of conveyer-belt Spam, bereft of Edisonian whimsy.

The film’s graphic presentation doesn’t preclude a nuanced presentation of animal rights, however. Its midpoint highlights the schism between compromising “traditionalists”, who defer to sentimental arguments, and “progressive” activists, who argue that speciesism, a force as fundamentally irrational as racism, only pretends to be a logical extension of man’s self-interest. Unsurprisingly, the neo-Marxist arguments of progressives tends to fall on deaf ears, and the traditionalist’s pathos—which often defers to anthropomorphic sentimentality—holds greater cultural sway.

Nevertheless, we should remember that American hippies didn’t invent animal rights. In the modern era, the first animal rights organization was England’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, founded in 1824 as a reaction against bearbaiting and other contemporary entertainments of the profanum vulgus. Our good intentions were—and remain—so meager, however, that goodness and meagerness seem interchangeable terms.

The exploitativeness of mondo-horror cinema has not dulled the power of The Animals Film to unnerve or shame. The bull beheadings of Mondo Cane (1963) and tribal slaughters of Africa Addio (1966) have the convenient excuse of anthropology, albeit of the armchair variety. The gloating verité animal killings of Man from Deep River (1972), Cannibal Holocaust (1979), or Cannibal Ferox (1981), meanwhile, are undergirded by the Eurocentric perspective of neocolonial Italians exploiting animal butchery to “authenticate” the staged violence it bookends.

In each case, the “savage” killing of animals is rarefied into a Third World spectacle supposedly less shocking than the “banalized” murders of conveyer belts and sluicing systems that produce our bone meal slurries and the visceral miscellany industrialists call “mechanically reclaimed meat.” (The term “reclaimed” speaks volumes here—the meat industry nearly reiterates the ideology of Genesis, as man stakes a God-given “claim” over his dominion.) Between the Italian horror films’ racism and American industrialists’ speciesism, there seems little difference.

While the Occidentalism of the Italian cannibal genre exonerates the spectator and presents him with slaughter-as-entertainment, even the most jaded adolescent will probably not relish the First World atrocities director Schonfeld presents. The most troubling scenes, in fact, are not the gory ones we expect and which we’ve seen elsewhere, most famously in Franju’s The Blood of the Beasts (1949). In an interview accompanying the 2008 DVD release, Schonfeld remarks that during theatrical screenings, audiences most strongly reacted to scenes in which young chicks are compulsorily “de-beaked”, their heads pressed and twisted into a beak-removing hinge that might just as easily snap off bottle tops.

In my view, the most disturbing image involves the fistulation of an immobilized lamb, its abdomen drilled wide open to allow for the installation of hoses that will forcibly pump and mine bodily fluids for the animal’s “entire life of five to six years” (the reason for the industrial torture is left ambiguous). The film’s most remarkable single shot, however, closes the scene of a whale hunt that results in a literally blood-red tide rolling onto the sands. The maritime carnage conveys no Melvillian poetics: this is not an image of humanity looking longingly out into depths unknown, but a superficial bloodiness washing over us, haunting us with our natural desecrations.

The Battle Between Aesthetics and Morality

The second half of The Animals Film focuses on animal experimentations—not ones that aim to find cures for cancer or Alzheimer’s, but ones that test the toxicity of commercial products (as mandated by law) or scientific experiments that scientists themselves admit have no certain purpose, save to earn someone a Ph.D. One scientist in the Netherlands syringes monkey brains with surplus cerebral chemicals to simply observe the result, without any apparent medical research goal.

At The University of Michigan, we see vivisected rats whose twitching brains supposedly yield precious insight into the mechanics of consciousness—except that the scientist interviewed freely confesses that a rat brain is not a good model for the human brain. A particularly pointless experiment forcibly creates ulcers in rats through the injection of ethanol; once a few hours pass and the rats become sufficiently ulcerated, they are dutifully jarred and gassed. (Why scientists are studying the mass ingestion of ethanol—of all things—is unexplained.) Unaccountably, at the time of the filming, the overwhelming majority of these experiments were performed without anesthetic, as if the animals’ registering of unscripted pain raised their ordeals from spectacle to science.

Often redundant animal experiments are performed worldwide, we learn, because the results are never compiled or shared with fellow researchers, whether through sheer obliviousness or copyright and patent secrecy. Some animal researchers interviewed admit their experiments turn out to be worthless, yielding only unpublishable data (and a quarter million mutilated rat corpses per year).

Of course, animal experimentation became necessary when human subjects could no longer be used, especially after the moral mishaps of Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment. At the time of filming, monkeys were being injected with LSD (we see one deliriously try to negotiate a horizontal pole and then stagger, stunned, on all fours), surely a necessary move once the CIA stopped spiking American soldiers’ beverages in its drug experiments. Other monkeys are turned into morphine addicts and then denied the drug so scientists can study withdrawal (in truth, doctors themselves should experience withdrawal symptoms firsthand before prescribing mind-altering drugs).

Science’s cold objectivity becomes openly perverse in the film’s oddest scene, grainy black-and-white footage of a Chinese medical experiment that transplants a dog’s disembodied head onto a full live dog, resulting, senselessly, in a hydra-headed beast with two discrete nervous systems. Progress is reduced to a mere freakshow.

The film’s moral climax centers on an interview with a behaviorist who regrets the cruelty of his animal research but argues that necessarily corporatized lifestyles make us all—even vegetarians—unavoidably complicit in animal exploitation. Under the auspices of the Naval Research Laboratory, he produced an industrial film, “Understanding Aggression”, which uses monkey experiments to demonstrate that the use of force can redirect aggression but not eliminate it. When his government-backed film (clips of which Schonfeld uses) subversively concludes that this thesis could be demonstrated equally well by examining the misdirected anger of any race riot, the Office of Naval Research removed its name from the film.

Given the ubiquity of the animal-industrial complex, it’s understandable that Schonfeld ends his film by spotlighting radical, ski-masked members of the Animal Liberation Front, who train in the wilderness and plot industrial sabotage and animal kidnappings. Though Schonfeld admits he’d now end the film with conciliatory discourse rather than polarizing politics, I don’t think the animal rights movement has made as much progress as Schonfeld contends. Yes, the absurd fur fashion show on display in The Animals Film will thankfully never return, but our present culture of faux do-goodery—from organic farming and free range birds to hormone-free cattle and sustainable fisheries—only buries our guilt beneath a comforting liberal rhetoric. Mercifully killed animals are killed only for our pleasure, and the mercy they are afforded is no more painless than that shown to any human mechanically gassed.

Though The Animals Film apparently begs comparison to Franju’s postwar rumination, The Blood of the Beasts, the similarities are arguably superficial. A work of agitprop, Schonfeld’s film has none of Franju’s allegory or realist poetics, even if both documentaries unflinchingly frame humanity through its ritual slaughter of the animal other. Parodying the glamorous “city symphony” films popular in the late ’20s, Franju’s film opens with images of the outskirts of dully gray postwar Paris, where discarded umbrellas, gramophones, and mannequins incongruously dot the landscape. Franju then cuts to trains speeding horses to the abattoirs, conjuring associations as obvious today as they were in 1949. Soon we see a horse’s neck slashed, blood and steam pouring forth in equal measure.

Franju does not lecture, however, and instead provides a brief history of the slaughterhouse and its noble eviscerators. We’re told which slaughterers have been awarded prizes for their diligence and skillful carving and which were former boxing champions. We’re introduced to the executioner’s tools—the axe, the stunning hammer, the compression pistol. But Franju denies any easy or direct equation between the dripping slaughterhouse and the gas chambers: rather than the butcher evincing a speciesist banality of evil, he is a good-hearted laborer who “pitch[es] in with a will,” as Raymond Durgnat says. (Franju, University of California Press, 1967, 40). Franju’s handymen dignify their victims with willfulness, not fascist soullessness—yet, paradoxically, that is the problem, for real dignity is reserved for those holding the gun.

For Durgnat, Franju’s film, juxtaposing the perimeters of Paris with the hidden slaughterhouse, provides “a thesis (the sad city), a terrible antithesis (the slaughterhouse), and a synthesis (the coalescence, in our minds, of the two).” (ibid., 33) In The Animals Film, however, the revelatory synthesis becomes lost to postindustrial alienation. Postmodernity has pushed the slaughterhouse entirely from view; the once-prized butcher has been replaced by the supermarket’s Styrofoam sarcophagi and taut Saran Wrap.

Yet we need this sort of alienation to facilitate the precious aesthetic of cuisine, which, in the form of restaurant culture, increasingly negotiates our social, romantic, and sexual relationships. In a battle between aesthetics and morality, aesthetics wins handily and unthinkingly. Not only do we’ve no compunction about murdering ugly rats or mice, we believe we murder them for their own good, so tasteless and unpalatable is their brief existence. But we forget that in the 18th century overabundant crustaceans were considered vermin, eaten only by scavengers and the destitute—the difference between one man’s delicacy and another’s terror is merely a function of supply and demand.

Mondo Cane once meant to shock bourgeois Europeans with an Asian restaurant that serves roasted dog, but the arbitrary preference for one species over another cannot logically shock. Canine love is primarily an affectation of Anglos, Americans, or those who seek to domesticate and subdue nature. We love the dog for his (trained) acquiescence, that priceless quality we rarely find in humans. Even the most macho American falls to pieces before his dog, never thinking his masculinity will be questioned—his dog’s acquiescence paradoxically allows him to acquiesce to humanity.

The sentimentality we reserve for dogs becomes surreptitiously eroticized in our passion for muscular equines, even if horse-lovers haven’t the courage to enact their bestial desire. At a recent screening of Bresson’s Lancelot of the Lake (1974), I was surprised to hear audience members openly gasp when horses’ beautiful heads are arrow-pierced in the climax. Perhaps it’s perversely encouraging that Americans, not entirely anesthetized, are still aroused by fake violence; yet the pathos was reserved mainly for the horses, unknowing beneficiaries of the anthropomorphic fallacy and victims of French cinema’s animal trainers.

Our purely selfish aesthetic of carnivorous taste ultimately transcends aesthetics to become a marker of the political and social. In a wealthy, cattle-raising country, vegetarianism is a betrayal of class, nation, and manhood. Even Ginsberg’s Howl mocks believers in the “pure vegetable kingdom”, adding animal-huggers to the laundry list of radical kooks and the radically misguided. The Western world has gendered gathering as effeminate and hunting as masculine, even if the distinction would baffle Australopithecus.

Roland Barthes claims in “Steak and Chips” (from Mythologies) that the Frenchman derives his masculinity from bloody carnivorousness, a café’s rare beefsteak. Nevertheless, the French remain more refined than we in their culinary carnage; the bloated sins of foie gras and sweetbreads (that is, seared thymus glands) are unapologetically delicious, their cruelty indivisible from their civility. Alexander Dumas’ famous Dictionary of Cuisine revels in the Frenchman’s complex passion for mingled bird ova, calling for omelettes thickened with additional yolks and topped with sauces of yet more yolks and cream. The earthy American cowboy never dreams of such delicacies: he derives from his wet ribs and pulled pork not merely his gender but his heterosexual lifeblood.

Certainly, the equation between juicy meat and erotic desire is not universal. The Chinese consider it barbaric and decidedly unsexy to eat rare meat, using the technique of wok-frying to ably deliver beef from its savage roots into a civilized medium temperature. But as long as he keeps the slaughterhouse a secret, the Westerner is proud of his bloodlust and discredited social Darwinism, lest he oppose his own economic systems. Further, his enthusiastic embrace of sterile or dehumanizing technology mandates a perverse pride in savageries he believes might reconnect him with nature. For the suburbanized American, the pink of medium-rare farcically declaims a warrior’s manhood, serving the same psychosocial function of naming one’s son “Hunter” or driving a Hummer in a strip-mall parking lot. Gluttony is the Westerner’s divine right and heart disease his contribution to global nosology.

This ideology achieves its apotheosis in the European supermarket chain “Konsum”, whose name is more a religious command than an invitation. There could never be a supermarket named “Digest”, which implies a satiety unknown to capitalism. Instead, our gradual obesity stretches our economy slowly into the grave. However, we needn’t narrowly accuse the fast food industry in the classist manner of Supersize Me—an upper-class decadence of entrecote thrice per day induces vomiting just as efficiently.

Those carnivores who are not also hunters sooner or later confront their bourgeois hypocrisies, attended or not by bad rationalizations. Before I was six, I rather enjoyed the flavor of cured tongue sandwiches, which I knew from Tabatchnik’s, a filthy Jewish deli that reeked of whitefish and barreled pickles. I naively assumed that “tongue” was simply a nickname for some old-fashioned Euro-meat that happened to taste like a cross between an unusually good salami and a decent corned beef. Then, one day, the aproned butcher splattered on the counter above my head the complete and sodden bovine tongue, three or four times the length of my head. The revelation nauseated me.

To this day I cannot eat tongue, even if I enjoy veal, foie gras, and every other culinary immorality. I was particularly traumatized by a paradox: I could very clearly see on the masses of muscle all of the beast’s taste buds. But how could one eat taste buds? The trauma lingered through my adolescence; I was repelled by my mother’s lamb chops or anything on the bone, and for a brief time I was compelled by the morality of Jainism, which, centuries before Buddhism, prescribed a diet stricter than simple veganism (plants must be cultivated, not violently uprooted). But morality is fleeting—taste (and hunger) is inescapable.

The feelings of guilt returned on those few occasions I was obliged to attend a bris, where celebratory trays of deli meat typically follow the phallic dismemberment. In our revulsion at the slaughterhouse and the origins of our diet, we are perhaps afraid of our hidden desire for cannibalism, which can only be euphemized with sausage arrays or symbolized with a communion wafer.

In cinema, the “mystery meat” horror birthed by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) attempted to expose our fleshly hypocrisies—but the problem is not our awareness of hypocrisy, which strikes us as children, but that our awareness is also a powerlessness that fails to result in moral action. Once again, we are too enslaved by aesthetics to be moral. Jan Svankmajer offered a pithier and ultimately more horrific commentary than Chainsaw in his one-minute short Meat Love (1989), wherein two animated, anthropomorphic filets flirt, waltz, and fuck in a tray of flour only to be skewered and tossed into the frying pan. In the end, we all become indiscriminate meat, stripped of skin and fur, consumed either by the earth or each other.

Guilty feelings about our civilized predations emerged more inanely in Hollywood’s passé revenge-of-nature cycle, reaching a high point of irritation in the ecologically conscious ’70s, right after the slick hype of Jaws (1975). Watching ourselves gnashed, clawed, or gnawed to death in Grizzly (1976), Orca (1977), Day of the Animals (1977), or Prophecy (1979) presumably provided a few people with topical and phony catharses—such was the superficiality of the Carter years’ environmentalist guilt. (None of these, however, can match Franco Prosperi’s Wild Beasts 1984), a gruesome revenge-of-nature vehicle in which resentful tigers infest the Roman metro and fuming elephants, sick of the zoo, prowl the streets and stamp passersby).

Wild Beasts (1984)

We’ve always viewed revenge-of-nature potboilers as asinine not simply for their bad spectacle (bare-chested Leslie Nielsen wrestling a black bear in Day of the Animals, for example) but because, as Adorno had observed, we know the dichotomy between Man and Nature is false. Biological man is part of nature, not diametrically opposed to it, but we must be morally superior to voles and tadpoles. The ensuing cycle of denial becomes as perverse as it is preposterous: we deny our nature to declaim our superiority to it, only to become nostalgic for an animal inferiority that, when we come to our civilizing senses, should have been rejected all along. Such is the force of denial disguised as good taste.

Admittedly, The Animals Film ignores humanity’s complementary adoration and wholesale fetishization of animals. In aristocratic eras, the anthropomorphic elevation of trained beasts was a sign of decadence, as thoroughbreds, hunting hounds, and even house cats were afforded luxuries denied the peasants. But in denying the reality of animal life, animal idolatry also tends to deny death—the lunatics of Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven (1978), who encase their diseased pets in mausoleums for a Christian hereafter, are little different from the Egyptians who mummified their cats for posthumous reunion.

We must admit, however, that every era suffers from some form of denial and alienation—only the relative objects of our historical alienation shift. Humans never enjoyed perfect relationships with animals, just as no point in history ever offered an ideal human community. Between a mundane denial of the slaughterhouse and a spiritualistic denial of death, we ultimately opt for the former—our cultural advancements are too great to sacrifice to any divinity. Thus do we justify exchanging morality for aesthetics, remaining as enslaved to a culture of taste as animals are to us.