Thoughts On: The Private Life Of A Cat
An experimental film by Maya Deren all about cats.
This is a simple yet awe-inspiring film. It takes a home-grown approach to the idea of a documentary and turns it into an almost fictional narrative. We see this in the use of POV, the intimacy of the shot types that always keep us close to the cats, but most importantly in their personification. Documentaries are quite obviously the documentation of real events, the goal is to portray literal happenings, not manipulate them. With the use of POV and the emotional telling of this story we are feeling the hands of the directors (Deren and Hammid). This manifests itself in the form of personification, in us seeing the animals as characters, as beings, through comparison to ourselves, somewhat understandable. This injects the fantasy into the narrative, slowly pushing it further from a ‘documentary’. However, in saying such we enter a semantic debate. If you look to almost any documentary on animals you’ll hear personifying terms, things such as ‘he’, ‘she’, names of the animals (not Buffalo or Lion, but Ben or Lenny), emotions of them, their internal intents or thoughts. This is all delivered in voice over by the likes of the legendary Attenborough and is there to turn what is often random pieces of footage into a cohesive story, into a captivating narrative with characters and emotions. This is the accepted format of modern documentaries and has been for a long time. However, I’d shy from calling them just that. To me, these are most coherently documentaries…
These films are about people, real events involving a skewed portrayal of a mundane reality by design. In other words, all of these films have an agenda, they mean to portray something from a predecided position or bias – especially the first two. However, because the subject of these documentaries focuses on the biases of Michael Moore, Herzog or Coppola, we are supposed to see the documentation of what is essentially their perspective. The reason why something like Frozen Planet or The Private Life Of A Cat cannot really be put into the same category as these films is that animals cannot project their own perspective by interacting with the camera of giving their own voice overs. This essentially means that there’s a documentation of an external bias in these films, that the source of documented commentary has little validity as it doesn’t portray exactly what it set out to do. However, this is where the semantic debate of what is and isn’t a documentary becomes almost trivial: you can’t document an animal’s internal thoughts or emotions. This leaves filmmakers resulting to V.O and personification to sell the documentary. This, for me, isn’t good enough reason to call the likes of this film or Frozen planet true documentaries. That’s simply because they approach the narrative without a stated or explored philosophy of what animals are. This is what Grizzly Man, in part, does. It asks how different animals are from ourselves, if we should or can pass the ‘Invisible Line’ between ourselves as one species and them as another. If the likes of Frozen Planet explored this question, if it looked into the biology and psychology of these creatures before personifying them, then I believe we’d have a true documentary because there’s an established bias or accounted perspective. As mentioned though, there’s another distinguishing point of what is and isn’t a documentary under the guise of form…
I love Man With A Movie Camera and bring it up almost every time I touch on documentaries, but I don’t really see it as one. Man With A Movie Camera is just a film to me – a fictional one. Because of the film’s form, its technical focus on direction, editing and camera operation, I see its crux in the manipulation of reality to convey a narrative point. The same can be said for The Private Life Of A Cat. This film is not about documenting how cats live, it touches upon foundational ideas of life – society and reproduction – and keeps its focus there. By using POV, tight framing and personification it means to have us think about ourselves, about existentially human concepts before a feline perspective. This is a crucial distinction in my opinion because it truly opens the cinematic gates. By assuming everything containing a camera on a real person is a documentary we wouldn’t have fictional cinema. Moreover, we wouldn’t just be calling all films documentaries, but we wouldn’t have action, romance, fantasy and science fiction on screen as we would now. By assuming an approach to cinema that was dogmatically documentary-centric, filmmakers’ fundamental question when approaching a script or premise would be: how do I make this real, how does this reflect reality? This means that verisimilitude, making things believable and real, would be the primary judgement of a film as good or bad. This would ruin cinema as we know it. We couldn’t have a Hulk, Terminator or Godzilla. They would all be a ridiculous gimmick that’d make no sense under the laws of documentary – it’d be silly people using films to project childish imaginings, not comment on ourselves through entertaining bodies or forms (Hulk, Terminator, Godzilla). All films under the law of documentary – this really should be a sci-fi film about the first director audacious enough to make a blockbuster – I’ve said it here first, so if any of you wants to steal the idea, I want story credit, ok? Anyway, all films under the law of documentary would be strictly dramatic, would be at the most extreme, shitty reality TV.
Having recognised this hypothetically fundamental approach to film where we wouldn’t see, let alone accept, actors as actors, as people pretending to be other people, we can now turn back to documentaries on animals. There’s not really such a thing as animal actors – outside of reality TV (burn… I know). In all seriousness, there’s no animal actors. We’ve had birds, apes and dogs that star in films, but that was a gimmick, that was a bit of fun or for the purpose of children’s movies/programmes. What this says is that we kind of already live in the sci-fi Documentary Law world in respect to many ‘documentaries’. The whole reason why the likes of Frozen Planet are boarder-line documentaries is that we find it quite difficult to bridge the gap between animals in respect to fiction and documentary cinema.
What we see here is the closest we get to using animals seriously in fictional film. What’s interesting though is how quickly things turn childish and then complete shit. I’ve not see War Horse so I can’t say anything about that, however, I don’t really like any of these films. Some, such as Marley & Me are fun, but not really much more. What this says to me is two-fold; firstly, The Private Life Of A Cat is in fact quite a special film, and secondly, personification in film is a difficult thing to pull of.
We’ll zoom in on the latter first. Personification is a hard thing to pull of for many reasons. The most obvious is that we don’t understand the psychology of other species very well and that you should never work with animals (or kids – or reality TV stars – burn…). But, beyond physical application and filming, personification is difficult because its not too different from this…
Yes, you could say it’s racist, insensitive, this that and the other, but, to me, this is first and foremost a terrible artistic attempt. It’s a combination of bad writing, bad acting, bad make-up and direction. One day when we create chips that we can insert into our own and animal’s heads as to talk to each other, they’ll be looking at this…
… as the same thing as the Landlord from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. All of this would be misrepresentation, oppressive, prejudice, and if you’re laughing, plainly hateful. But, it’s at this point I’d like to note, I don’t like dogs or cats, I’m miserable and aren’t drawn to this subject because I’m an animal lover, like to look at these pictures, think they’re cute or whatever. Why’d I have to say that? I don’t know, I’m miserable. Either way, the point is that in the same way you can ‘white wash’ human characters you can also ‘human wash(???)’ animal characters too. You can put onto bodies misrepresentational disguises to entertain no one but yourself. Do I think this is the end of the world and that we should all be calling PETA? No, not at all, I couldn’t care less. The point being conveyed, however, is the need to personify dogs, horses and cats is one born out of a miscommunication.
Now, hopefully you’ve read the last posts (link here) because we’re going to be picking up where the talk on imagery left off. Art is all about communicating, from our internal cages, from our minds trapped behind flesh, goop and blood, to others that we exist. Communication can be done through words, writing or art. In the same way these squiggles communicate my internal thoughts to you, so would a painting, dance or film. How successfully and poignantly a movie, performance or painting does this is the measurement of good art. Art is then there to find new way to communicate things with (hopefully) greater accuracy and weight about ourselves to other people. If you look at this concept under the idea of imagery, you could say that all images in a film, each and every frame, is a painting that has a thousand words. Now, the further implication of this is that everything in the frame is an expression of an artist. So, when we look at this…
… we are seeing the art of Tom Hanks as an actor, Roger Spottiswoode as the director, Adam Greenberg as the cinematographer, and a whole bunch of people as writers (Michael Blodgett, Daniel Petrie, Jack Epps Jr., Dennis Shryack, Jim Cash (how many screenwriters does it take to screw in a light bulb, huh?)). However, you wouldn’t really say that you are seeing the art of Beasley the dog here, would you? Because the answer is no, we are seeing the art of the director, actor and writers expressed through him as a vessel. This is called personification. Personification is then the use of animals (any non-human objects) to talk about ourselves. We are seeing Hooch personified as aggressive, as protective and territorial. Now, here again we delve into a somewhat trivial debate of semantics. Can you really call a dog these things? Or are these human words with human definitions that, when dogs and people get the cross species communication chips, the dogs disagree with? I lean towards the idea that dogs wouldn’t call this action territorial in the same way people would. People are territorial out of our compassion or love being confronted by fear of threat. We protect our homes not just because they are where we lay our heads, but because they are where the people we love live. We are territorial to protect them. Are dogs territorial for the same reason? Are they protecting their owner out of love? Or, are they just protecting the guy who gives them food? Is that love? Is love protecting an external possession or goal, things such as the material items our loved ones may provide us, but also the chemical rushes they facilitate within us? There’s so many questions here, and we’re essentially questioning Herzog’s ‘Invisible Line’, but in recognising there is a line, that humans and dogs are quite different, I think there is some point of agreement whereby we see the use of animals as an expression of our own thoughts more than theirs.
This point of personification is interesting as it mechanises the artistic process, it essentially demonstrates why we do it. Personification is there as a means of communicating through the world whilst simultaneously manipulating in. What this does is layer the subtext of artistic intent. By using a dog to communicate a story about friendship as in Turner and Hooch, you expand upon the theme of relationships as presented by Tom Hanks’ and Mare Winningham’s character. This is probably a talk for another time, but the character arc of Turner and Hooch is there to show how a man can go from secluded to open. It’s there to detail the subtle progression of a man obsessively cleaning out his fridge in the middle of the night, to raising a family. It’s the personification of Hooch here that is probably my favourite example of the use of animals in film as it communicates each step of this change in Turner perfectly. The darker themes of the film, one’s of crime, violence and death, really bring down the cheese factor present in the likes of Marley & Me, Free Willy or Hachi – which further helps. However, we’re getting slightly off track. Understanding what subtext mechanistically can do for an artist, we can come back to The Private Life Of A Cat. In the same way Turner and Hooch comments on a single man becoming a married one with a family life, we see an experimental reflection of an idea of family in Deren and Hammid’s short. The beauty of this film is probably in your first viewing of it. The subtle personification of the two cats as a couple proceeding the birth of their children strikes you with a profound conception of a movement in life, of what is quite simply birth. Also, consider this specifically in the 40s, a time before you could easily watch people or cats give birth on TV or the internet. This film focuses on what the title suggests: a Private Life. It’s not as much about the cat, but a private life of all things, the profound experiences we keep to ourselves and those close to us. This, for me, is what the film conveys beautifully and is the source of the awe it inspires. What this film in fact reminds me of is the bubble of feelings surrounded by ‘first times’. Think of the first time you went to high school or saw a naked person in a sexual context. These were pivotal moments of your life. However, think back to your first contact with these ideas and you’re likely to think back to movies, to teen films you watched as a young kid wondering what its like to be a 15/16/17 year old ‘grown up’, to the first crush you had on a girl/boy in a movie. There’s a myriad more of examples like this, but they’re all bound to a beautifully naive idea of a first contact.
To me, The Private Life Of A Cat sits on the periphery or in silent commentary of this kind of feeling or concept. The whole point of showing something private in this respect is to present something almost taboo, but at the same time intriguing and somewhat educational. In the digital age, with the internet and so on, these kind of experiences are brief, but multitudinous. We can Google anything, anything, from porn to people having surgery, giving birth, being beaten up, killed, humiliated… whatever. We can expose ourselves to these profoundly abstract parts of life without enduring them or maybe before we’re even meant to. That’s, for a lack of a better word, pretty special. It’s the crux of a digital revolution in society. We don’t have to rely on rumours and our stupid friends telling us about breasts feeling like sand-bags…
… or a vagina looking like a fleshy flower, the predator’s mouth if he had a moustache. We (kids with phones and so on) can hear stupid shit like that and then just Google it. The existential learning curve of society is steepening at a tremendous pace, and as they say, knowledge is powerful; knowledge is not having to rely on misunderstanding, incoherency, lies, fantasy and superstition. The Private Life Of A Cat taps into all of this from the 40s under the theme of life and birth, but also presents an unfathomably poignant cinematic lesson in what personification is. Personification is often the abstract telling of these private pockets of truth. What makes this film special is its intent to show something so deeply intertwined into the mysteries of life through an artistic and cinematic lens; a great lesson in life and in the application of your art.
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