Journal Article

Excerpt from "Why Look at Dead Animals?"

by Sarah O'Brien

An excerpt from O'Brien's essay, which explores 'slaughter cinema' and the deaths of animals on screen. 

Nevertheless, animal slaughter in all its permutations coheres as an identifiable phenomenon in cinema—as what I call slaughter cinema, a term meant to signify the historical legacy and full generic range of films that document violent animal death. From a certain vantage point, this coherence is a matter of canon formation (a process in which this article plays a participative role). The publication in the early 2000s of Akira Mizuta Lippit’s Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife and “The Death of an Animal” did much to focus conversations at the then emergent disciplinary intersection of animal studies and film studies on questions surrounding cinema’s indexical relationship to animal death.1 In his book and, more exactingly, his article, Lippit delineates a corpus of onscreen animal deaths that includes Electrocuting an Elephant (Thomas Edison, US, 1903), Strike, La Règle du jeu, Le sang des bêtes, Unsere Afr ikareise, Sans soleil, and A Zed and Two Noughts, or ZOO (Peter Greenaway, UK/NL, 1985). Subsequent discussions (the present one included) have circled back to these films, to Lippit’s seminal readings of them, and to the larger theoretical issues they raise.2 At the same time, conversations about animals in fi lm that are more explicitly rooted in the political concerns of critical animal studies have tended to focus on film’s capacity to expose the most pressing issue regarding animals—their ongoing, systematic annihilation.3 In other words, the merger of animal studies and film studies has generated conversations that take up different registers of speculative thought and political engagement, and that meet in their interest in film’s attention to animal slaughter.

That images of animal slaughter constitute a recognizable trope in cinema is not merely an effect of scholarly discourse, but an argument about the associative logic that guides our experience of this material. I mean this first in a descriptive sense that I can only assert anecdotally: as I have researched this topic over the past five years, colleagues and acquaintances have readily recounted their experience of seeing an animal die onscreen for the first time; more often than not, their account leads to reaching for other examples of scenes indexing the killing of animals. This associative logic is not incidental. Individual experiences of watching animals die on film (be they cows being processed at a factory farm or a lone animal being shot) are overdetermined by previous experiences of witnessing animal death, on screen and off. These experiences are also informed by a number of frequently competing conditions: visual pleasures and even sadistic desires; scientific, philosophical, and political epistemologies; and technological constraints. In order to understand how these experiences and conditions inflect one another, this article reads two iconic hunting sequences in relation to the larger body of slaughter cinema.

Jane Giles posits a convincing reason for cinema’s reliance on “meat as metaphor” in her overview of fiction and documentary films that thematize animal slaughter: “In both documentary and drama fi lmmaking, the slaughterhouse has provided an enduring subject for its potential to deliver a clear political metaphor and [to] deal explicitly in images of unfaked visual horror.”4 Although she singles out the slaughterhouse as setting, her assertion can easily be extended to films that index humans torturing and killing animals, individually or en masse, in other spaces and by other techniques. Indeed, her claim speaks to twinned tensions that structure cinematic representations of animals at large: animal bodies are made to oscillate between metaphor and fact, and they are deployed as instruments of both didacticism and titillation.5 Yet Giles’s assertion amounts to a surface diagnosis that demands a more substantive explanation: why do we keep looking at dead animals? Why does cinema keep showing them to us?

To answer these questions, it is necessary to draw out how slaughter imagery’s principal appeal—its provision of bona fi de gore—is conditioned by visual limitations on the cinematic representation of human carnage and death. Vivian Sobchack demonstrates that these limitations are both cultural and material in her work on cinema’s documentation of (mostly) human death. She foregrounds the cultural restrictions (and I follow her lead) that account for the “rupture between death and daily social life” that marks post-Victorian culture.6She proposes that we have become both increasingly unfamiliar with and hence ill at ease when confronted with “natural” death (a gradual process that accedes to collective narrative), and increasingly familiar with and hence relatively unfazed by the public spectacle of violent and accidental death.7 This shift in cultural attitudes toward death manifests itself in a set of prescriptions regarding its depiction on screen. These rules obey generic divisions: in narrative fiction film, a genre in which ill-fated characters tend to meet violent, dramatic ends, “death is generally experienced [. . .] as representable and oft en excessively visible.”8 In contrast, documentary film’s specific indexicality and its contiguity to spectators’ “extracinematic personal and social lives” ensure that the genre almost always “observe[s] the social taboos surrounding real death and generally avoid[s] explicit (that is, visible) screen reference to it.”9 When indexical images of human death do appear onscreen in documentary film, they are framed by one of five “ethical gazes.” In these extreme instances, Sobchack contends, the camera asserts itself as possessing an “accidental,” “helpless,” “endangered,” “interventional,” or “professional” gaze in order to negotiate the ethical quagmire of fi lming and viewing death.10 In short, the unwritten ethical codes of documentary demand that films not only explain their recourse to images of violent human death, but also justify their access to such imagery.

Although Sobchack does not focus on animals in her explication of the dialectical un/representability of death in fiction and nonfiction film, she circles around an example that is remarkably germane to the questions at hand: Renoir’s Règle du jeu, a comedy of manners in which an actor playing a human character (Roland Toutain as André Jurieux) pretends to die, and a dozen-odd rabbits and pheasants really die—all in the service of the fictional narrative.11 This example would seem to belie the central thrust of Sobchack’s own argument: although the film’s overall status as realist fiction accommodates the human character’s pretend death onscreen, the re/presentation of the rabbits’ and pheasants’ real deaths constitutes interpolated documentary footage that does not conform to her typology of documentary depictions of death. The hunting sequence in which these animals die—the sequence in and for which they are killed—is not framed by any of her so-called “ethical gazes.” This sequence consists of three series of shots in which the camera inventories both the hunters and the quarry. The first series prepares the spectator for the onscreen deaths: several straight-on shots show a phalanx of beaters striking tree trunks and trumpeting hunting calls, and some dozen high and low angle tracking shots serve to itemize the rabbits and pheasants as they fl ee the woods. The second series enumerates various members of the hunting party: one aristocratic gentleman readies his rifle, while Christine (Nora Grégor), the film’s leading ingénue, expresses her boredom with the whole routinized enterprise. The third and final series of shots recapitulates the previous roll calls, but with a striking variation: here the film crosscuts between static straight-on shots of the hunters as they take aim and fire, and tracking shots of the animals as they run, fly, and die.

In contradiction to Sobchack’s account of how onscreen death unfolds in documentary, then, Renoir’s camera does not mark its gaze as happenstance, impotent, threatened, disruptive, or even clinical, and thus does not justify its violation of the taboos that surround filming/viewing death. Quite to the contrary, the camera relentlessly tracks the quarry, and could even be said to flout its violations of the strictures Sobchack outlines. Yet, if one recalls the basic fact that the dying and dead bodies in question are animals, one can hardly consider the film’s depiction of their death to be a transgression of cinematic norms. The film does not violate any visual taboos, for the simple reason that indexical images of dead or dying animals—of animals dying at human hands—do not constitute taboo subject material.12 In the absence of social strictures, La Règle du jeu openly concedes its complicity—indeed, its direct responsibility—in the animals’ deaths, and thus discloses the existence of a gaze distinct from any of Sobchack’s “ethical gazes.” Avowedly cooperative and even instrumental in the production of indexical images of violent death, this gaze otherwise finds direct expression only in spurious cinematic legend—in what Sobchack describes as the “apocryphal” genre of snuff films.13

Renoir’s reliance on a certain cinematographic staple, however, attests to the pervasive, if indirect, influence that this gaze exerts on all cinematic genres—and particularly those that thematize animals. Like most film footage that documents humans hunting animals or animals hunting other animals, the hunting sequence culminates in a series of tracking shots that lays bare the medium’s significant technological antecedents in the hunt. The structural influence of hunting on filmmaking is most patently manifest in Étienne-Jules Marey’s 1882 invention of a chronophotographic gun (un fusil photographique), a device modeled, as its name indicates, on rifle mechanics. The French physiologist used his gun to “shoot” birds in flight, producing the first moving images of animals (he went on to “capture” falling cats, trotting horses, and numerous other animals in motion).14 Burt contends that the “tracking shot” is among several “aspects of the hunt” that structure a range of proto- and early cinematic documentary enterprises: Marey’s and Eadweard Muybridge’s animal locomotion studies; the emergent practices of wildlife photography and film; and the numerous actualités that documented animals in all manner of turn-of-the-century spectacles (zoos, circuses, horse races, bullfi ghts, parades, ceremonies, and transport).15 To Burt’s list we could add the popular genre of trophy-hunting films, such as Terrible Teddy, the Grizzly King (Edwin S. Porter, US, 1901) and Roosevelt in Africa (Cherry Kearton, US/FR, 1910).

Marey’s camera-gun, the ubiquitous tracking shot, and trophy-hunting films demonstrate the way in which apparatuses function as “reified theory.” Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, glossing Gaston Bachelard, assert that each successive iteration of a technology “embodies” or “harnesses” the particular constructions of knowledge that enabled the production of its predecessors.16 This understanding of epistemology’s material manifestations indicates that, even today, the cinematic apparatus mobilizes the technology and techniques of hunting. In this light, it is evident that the participative gaze of the hunting sequence does not make an anomalous appearance in La Règle du jeu, but rather surfaces in a remarkable range of films. Indeed, we could say that this gaze bears a trace in and on all encounters with the profilmic world.

I craft my explication of Sobchack’s propositions on death in documentary in circuitous terms so as to draw out a significant problem elided by her focus on human death. Read for structural absences, her work indicates that the ethics of filming and viewing real death are species-specific: in short, the rules for game are different. Sobchack acknowledges as much in passing: “we know that it is easier to kill a rabbit than to teach it to play dead. We also know it is easier to teach a man to play dead (that is, to act) than to kill him. What is meant by easier in the ethical context of our culture and the economic context of cinema is ‘faster,’ ‘cheaper,’ and ‘less morally problematic.’”17 Her devastating synopsis of this pragmatic economic logic goes a long way toward explaining why cinema regularly resorts to animal proxies. Yet the medium’s recourse to animal fl esh circumvents not only the social prohibitions and high production costs that impede the documentation of human death, but also the material limitations—that is, the medium’s fixed physical parameters—that hinder such representations.

  • 1. Akira Mizuta Lippit, Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000) and “Th e Death of an Animal,” Film Quarterly 56.1 (Autumn 2002). See also Gregg Mitman, Reel Nature: America’s Romance with Wildlife on Film (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999) and Derek Bousé, Wildlife Films (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000). Published contemporaneously, Mitman’s and Bousé’s studies of the specialized genre of wildlife fi lms would seem to off er a counterhistory to Lippit’s. Yet as Anat Pick points out, however, “the veritable trend in art-house productions to include the real slaughter of animals [is] closely aligned to the remarkable fl ourishing, in quite other quarters, of the wildlife fi lm.” Anat Pick, Creaturely Poetics: Animality and Vulnerability in Literature and Film (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 169.
  • 2. See Jonathan Burt, Animals in Film (London: Reaktion Books, 2002); Anat Pick, Creaturely Poetics; Nicole Shukin, Animal Capital: Rendering Live in Biopolitical Times (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).
  • 3. Journal for Critical Animal Studies and Society and Animals have published numerous articles about and reviews of documentary fi lms that disclose animal mistreatment and killing. For two examples that are disciplinarily adjacent to critical animal studies, see Jamie Lorimer, “Moving Image Methodologies for More-than-Human Geographies,” Cultural Geographies 17.2 (2010): 237–58; Belinda Smaill, “New Food Documentary: Animals, Identification, and the Citizen Consumer” Film Criticism 39.2 (Winter 2014/2015): 79–102.
  • 4. Jane Giles, “Th e White Horse, Seul contre tous, and Notes on Meat as Metaphor in Film,” Vertigo 1, no. 9 (1999): 42. Giles focuses on Noé’s film and touches on the slaughterhouse films of Franju, Wiseman, and Duke.
  • 5. Chris, Watching Wildlife, xxi. Chris discerns the dual functions of education and entertainment specifically in the genre of wildlife films.
  • 6. Sobchack, Carnal Th oughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Oakland: University of California Press, 2004), 228.
  • 7. Ibid., 228–30.
  • 8. Ibid., 235.
  • 9. Ibid., 235, 231.
  • 10. Ibid., 249.
  • 11. Ibid., 245. Sobchack provides a curiously reduced death toll: “there are two instances of death in the film. [. . .] The first to die [. . .] is a rabbit. Th e second is a human character.”
  • 12. Or at least they did not at the time. A fi ner point needs to be made here. At the time of the fi lm’s release, both the culture at large and industry-specifi c production codes tolerated the production of indexical images of animal death. To borrow Sobchack’s succinct phrasing, it was acceptable for animals to be “executed not only by but also for the representation” of narrative fi ction fi lm. Sobchack, Carnal Th oughts, 247. Changing cultural values of humaneness and animal cruelty laws have put a check on this practice, at least in North American fi lmmaking. As Michael Lawrence explains, “it is predominantly in fi lms produced outside the United States that we watch real animals being killed. Th e American Humane Association has, since 1940, sought to ensure that ‘no animals were harmed’ during the making of feature fi lms.” Michael Lawrence, “Haneke’s Stable: Th e Death of an Animal and the Figuration of the Human,” in On Michael Haneke, ed. Brian Price and John David Rhodes (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010), 64.
  • 13. Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts, 247.
  • 14. See Chris, Watching Wildlife, 7; Burt, Animals in Film, 108–11.
  • 15. Burt, Animals in Film, 110–12. Th e etymological origins of the cinematographic term “tracking shot” are contestable. While Burt suggests that it derives from “tracking” animals in the hunt, most textbook defi nitions connect it to the technique of rigging the camera to a “track.” See, for example, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art, 8th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006), 269.
  • 16. Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: Th e Construction of Scientific Facts (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979), 66–68.
  • 17. Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts, 246.

Article Information

Publication title: 
Framework: A Journal of Cinema and Media
Volume number: 
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Publication date: 
May 01, 2016
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