I took a class on realist cinema last year in which I was treated to French and Italian neo-realist films that were revolutionary for their location shooting, use of non-actors, and socially relevant themes.
One thing I noticed (and that the teacher adamantly denied) was that, in almost every one of these films, the treatment of animals echoed the treatment of humans. In Rossellini’s Rome: Open City, a lamb is grotesquely slaughtered from behind, foreshadowing the murder of a priest in the same fashion. In Renoir’s Rules of the Game, a rabbit-hunting expedition shows the brutality of the hunters, some of whom figure in a murder later in the film.
Another professor of mine mentioned a few months ago that he had loved March of the Penguins, and wondered why we can’t make movies about humans that make us empathize with them so closely. I said I thought it was because humans carry too much baggage — we can’t love them purely in the way we can love an innocent penguin.
I think we have a complex relationship with animals that, purposefully or not, shows up in the stories we tell. Animals often serve as stand-ins for humans, and we project our feelings about humans and how they should be treated onto them. They say that psycho-killer types first learn how to torture and kill by practicing on animals.
It complicates things to know that Hitler was a vegetarian.
What interests me is the way that many of us can look at animals as purer, more innocent versions of ourselves yet inflict or benefit from harm upon them, either in the form of inhumane slaughtering practices or in the many uses of animal products among consumer goods. Most of us would rather not know how the meat we eat was produced, or how the gelatin in our marshmallows came to exists (horse hoofs) which is fine, I guess. But we still cry at the penguin movies, or at…
Kong! Besides being a wonderful commentary on performance and its many uses (something that Naomi Watts has amazingly portrayed ever since her meta-role in Mulholland Drive), King Kong asks us to take a revolutionary look at how we treat nonhuman animals. Yes, Kong is metaphor for a bunch of things that I won’t get into, but on the surface he is an animal who, in his animal way, can love and lives majestically. The magic of the film compels us to empathize with him rather than the humans (except for Watts’ Ann Darrow, who is given the most amazing scenes in the film). Like Penguins, Kong makes it easy for us to empathize with an animal and feel sorrow upon his death.
So why, in real life, do so few of us care? Is Kong only a metaphor for how we treat ourselves and others, or does the use of the animals in film signal an innate desire to care for animals, despite our barbaric treatment of them?
p.s. I can’t get over Naomi in that movie. An amazing scene: Ann Darrow is reading the lines of her favorite writer, Jack Driscoll, as she is filmed on a ship as they travel to Skull Island. She is overtaken by Driscoll’s words and weeps straight through the take, unable to stop. It’s a scene straight from Mulholland Drive — she is acting in a film within the film, yet her meta-performance is so emotional and powerful it’s almost hard to watch. For some reason, Naomi is best and truest when she is asked to fake it.