J. M. Tyree

Animals Were Harmed in This Production

What can a Fictional Donkey With its Tail on Fire and a Nonfictional Mound of Whale Butter from 1922 Tell us About Cinema’s Impossible Pursuit of Real Life?

Discussed: Artifice, Hardened Skepticism, Two Filmmakers Named Robert, Being and Seeming, Casting Animals in Key Roles, Comforting Mythologies, A Lure-and-Spear System, Bright Colored Candy, A Third Filmmaker Named Robert, A Donkey Named Balthazar, The Endless Circles of a Millstone, Unsettling Human-Animal Relations, Fresh Hay, A Deserted Igloo

The camera creates a context. As a culture of viewers we’ve become experts at identifying the artifice in even the most naturalistic documentary scene: how it’s been set up in dozens of ways, from the lighting and blocking down to the very situation unfolding on-screen. Yet when we watch fictional feature films, we seem more than eager to discard our most hardened skepticism and accept the impossible reality of make-believe as a seamless, uninterrupted dream. These issues of naturalism are further complicated whenever animals appear on camera. Human actors, even amateurs or “nonactors” (a largely extinct species today, as nearly everyone has absorbed enough reality TV to be aware of the camera), still bring a measure of self-consciousness to the screen, their performances reflecting collusion with the filmmakers. But what happens to the notion of performance when the terminally unself-conscious, the quintessentially natural—that is to say animals—appear on film? Robert Bresson’s 1966 classic, Au hasard Balthazar, and Robert J. Flaherty’s silent masterpiece Nanook of the North (1922)—one of the saddest and one of the happiest films ever made, respectively—might be viewed as bookends in film history: their view of animals, and the way they record interactions between humans and animals, illuminates cinema’s intricate and paradoxical attempts to capture “reality” on film.

Bresson (1901–1999) found a cinematic ancestor in Flaherty (1884–1951). Flaherty’s films offered Bresson a precedent for the kind of realistic cinematic innovations he was attempting in the late 1950s and into the 1960s, in a trio of gritty, groundbreaking, and often grim films of ordinary life: Pickpocket (1959), Au hasard Balthazar, and Mouchette (1967). In his remarkable filmmaking diary, Notes on the Cinematographer (1975), Bresson described “two types of film.” The first type, films he regarded as little more than theatrical confections that happened to be recorded on camera, strongly influenced French postwar productions, while the second was a new type of film Bresson wanted to make himself. In the first category of films, there were “those that employ the resources of the theater (actors, direction, etc.) and use the camera in order to reproduce.” In the second, there were “those that employ the resources of cinematography and use the camera to create.” Elsewhere in the same book, Bresson laid out his ideal strategy for filmmaking:

No actors.
(No directing of actors.) No parts.
(No learning of parts.) No staging.
But the use of working models,
taken from life.
BEING (models) instead of
SEEMING (actors).

Both Flaherty and Bresson, despite the separation of their key films by nearly a half century, address along somewhat similar lines the unattainable and crazy cinematic pursuit of reality. To fabricate a look of thoroughgoing realism—the effect of “being” rather than “seeming”—both directors recognized that they could do worse than to cast animals in key roles, even if, more often than not, the animals weren’t so much directed and staged as they were beaten, shot, and eaten.

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J. M. Tyree is an associate editor for nonfiction at New England Review and a contributor to the BFI Film Classics books series from the British Film Institute. His newest project is Our Secret Life in the Movies, with Michael McGriff.

March/April 2014
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