Against Cult Cinema: Documentarian Didacticism and 'The Animals Film'

The pacifism of The Animals Film renders it an anti-cult cult film, not merely a plea to cease animal cruelty, but a critique of the violent objectification cum commercialization of life itself.

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.

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