The Private Life Of A Cat – Personification

Thoughts On: The Private Life Of A Cat

An experimental film by Maya Deren all about cats.

The Private Life Of A Cat

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.

Previous post:

Witch’s Cradle – Imagery

Next post:

Cinderella – The 3 Plot Lines

More from me:

Advertisements

Witch’s Cradle – Imagery

Thoughts On: Witch’s Cradle

Another experimental film by Maya Deren, but this time in collaboration with Marcel Duchamp.

Witch's Cradle

I don’t much like this film. It’s overwhelmed with empty images that don’t build into anything resembling a story, a point or a narrative. In saying such, I see no purpose behind this picture, I see nothing to be zoomed in on and picked apart. This may be for lack of trying, however, it’s hard to delve into the details of something that doesn’t capture your imagination or attention very well. Nonetheless, this is a very interesting film to me, not on the basis of it as a story, or even as a film, but much rather as a movie poignantly depicting a technique: the use of imagery. This film, much like Meshes Of The Afternoon, has a precise concentration on imagery in an attempt to translate a story by essentially creating its own language that we inherently understand. But, this is something we’ll get onto in a moment. As said, the imagery in this film is overwhelming – and Meshes Of The Afternoon is probably the best film to use as to comparatively explain why. Deren, in this picture, attaches with great succinctness, all imagery to a character. This somewhat reduces or transforms the abstract quotient of the film–and is a very important thing to do for an audience. With abstraction in art you are essentially telling a mystery, something not much different from the likes of…

      

The key to telling a great mystery is in the information you divulge. A great mystery slowly gives you tiny details of a case, it uses character as a vessel to take you on a journey of gradual discovery. However, to keep you interested, mystery writers have to inject twists, turns and silent revelations into their narratives (Twists, Turns & Silent Revolutions is now going to be my new band name). To keep readers/viewers riveted, a good mystery has you on the edge of your seat by simply having you want more – but only because you’ve had a taste of something good. It’s a bit like Pokemon – insert slogan. Using imagery to varying degrees of abstractness follows the same principal. You start very ambiguous, but with intriguing images such as…

… and from there you build, you imply a backstory, a movement or growth of character that you can attach to and use to comment on the film. In Meshes Of The Afternoon we see The Woman chasing the cloaked figure, constantly finding herself lost until the end where she is implied to have drowned. There is a progression here, an A to B, and the images given to us in between (everything from the key to the flower to the knife) are there as clues of the mystery, the mystery of why these abstract images are being shown to us and what they mean. This, in my opinion, is the fundamental reason why you’d appeal to abstract imagery to tell a story. It adds ambiguity and so opens up the planes of meaning. In other words, by having a non-concrete plot or narrative, you are engaging the viewer in an artistic, introspective and philosophical game. The game is to not just give the film meaning, but to take all of your implied points of meaning and articulate what they say as a whole. In this sense, we see experimental film as well as abstract and or surreal cinema as an attempt to entertain – an attempt to entertain in the same respect a mystery would. For this reason, I find the film at hand, Witch’s Cradle, both an intriguing attempt to test the boundaries of cinema, but also a caution as to where I’d want to go. Its faults lie in the lack of movement, the fact that there is no announced or compelling progression of events, just a lot of things going on with string under the loose theme of traps/games. It’s then this kind of film that moves toward the realm of splatter paintings for me – it’s an approach to art I find no sense, interest or joy in.

However, I don’t want to focus on why I don’t much like this film, instead try to articulate what it best teaches – to anyone who doesn’t really get it, and doesn’t really want to. This kind of film is hard to criticise beyond saying ‘it doesn’t interest me much’. But, it’s also this kind of films that can easily be defended by saying ‘you just don’t get it’. This creates a vacuum whereby the only means to an end is to agree that the two opposing opinions disagree. Why do they disagree though? Why do some people say they get it and why do some people not? I see the answer in the inherent purpose of imagery. As touched on, imagery is an artistic attempt to simultaneously create, teach and communicate in a new language. This means that films such as this, Meshes Of The Afternoon and Eraserhead, are like a Spanish speaking teacher trying to teach an English speaking class how to create new Spanish words for the translation dictionary they’re going to create. The same can be said for almost all abstract or untraditional form of art (new kind of art we’re not exposed to often or used to). But, to clarify on the point of imagery and language, films don’t talk to us primarily in words. Let’s take a famous example of classical Hollywood cinema with this:

Hitchcock, without stuttering, tells us that Marion is running away with the money because of her feelings for Sam – her boyfriend. This is cinematic language, this is using imagery to communicate a story or point. However…

… what is Lynch saying with this? It’s not as simple as Marion undressed, stressed, wanting to escape town with the motive of being with her boyfriend. The Lady In The Radiator is an abstract dream of Henry’s, one connected his girlfriend, his drifting sexual thoughts and desires, the baby he’s been left with and the ‘In Heaven’ song. With Eraserhead, unlike Psycho, we then get a network of images that work together at unclear distances across the narrative. So, whilst Psycho talks in direct, simple sentences, “Marion wants to leave town with her boyfriend. Having taken thousands of dollars under good trust, she is now undressing, bags packed”, Eraserhead talks in circles, tangentially, fingers poised and waving…

What this says about cinema is that there’s two approaches to ‘talking’, to translating to your audience a story through images. There’s the direct way and the abstract way. Few films sit on either end of the spectrum, but somewhere in between. However, with Witch’s Cradle, Eraserhead and films alike, we get pretty close to the extremes of abstraction. In doing such, we are experiencing the impossible Spanish class touch on before. But, what is probably the most fascinating thing about cinema is that with successful abstract or surreal films we understand the class – we come away with a complete book of personal translations. Having said that, it’s important to recognise that Eraserhead and Meshes Of The Afternoon are clearly not too far cut from Witch’s Cradle. Nonetheless, Witch’s Cradle is the kind of film that is abstract, but to the extent people (I for example) might not get like they would the others. So, again, we’re sucked into the vacuum; I don’t like the film, but maybe I just don’t get it. The question also arises again: why must the two opposing opinions be polar to the point of agreeing to disagree? It comes down to communication. With Eraserhead as my absurd Spanish teacher, I can come away from class with a book of translations I feel comfortable with. With Witch’s Cradle… I got nothing worth bragging about.

Now, I understand that all that I’ve just said is pretty redundant and circuitous because I’ve kind of explained why the imagery doesn’t work for me already. However, I mean to pick up on a larger paradigm of films we get and films we don’t get. The reasoning behind us not getting certain films is down to miscommunication. Beyond why or how this happens, I think there is something much more macro and micro-cosmically universal going on. By this, I mean, through something as conceptually banal as ‘imagery’, we see an existentially intimate and vast relationship between people and the world around them.

These images focus on string as a webbing that possibly trap a woman or couple. In such, I see the presentation of an image, of imagery, as the use of a physical presence to communicate an intangible being. We see the string as an attempt to talk about the intangible concept of the couple, their relationship, feelings and so on. (Though, I’m not too confident in this analysis of the film). Nonetheless, imagery is all about using the world around us to communicate how we (characters) perceive things. It’s with this definition that we can see all the better the difference between Psycho and Eraserhead…

With Marion looking at the money we are seeing the intangible concept of her feelings articulating themselves – it’s emoting/behaving/acting that tells us the story here. With Henry stood before The Lady In The Radiator, it’s not enough that he seems scared, that The Lady seems sweet, that the actors underneath the characters are portraying emotions. Their physical presence isn’t doing much of the talking – instead it’s the film around them:

The same attempt is being made in Witch’s Cradle – the attempt to communicate internal ideas of the characters through external and physical objects…

What inhibits this expression or communication between myself and this film just as it may you and Eraserhead (any abstract film you don’t get) is the fact something is malfunctioning along this line of communication. It’s either me, the image, or the character on the other end. What myself assuming that the film, the characters or imagery,  are at fault says is that the filmmakers have failed to prove to me that they or they’re characters exist. I know, existential, but let me clarify. The whole point of using physical things to talk about intangible ones is that the intangible ones can’t speak for themselves. We’ll hold onto the idea of Marion in Psycho to delve deeper:

Yes, this is a direct example of an expression of character, but, on a fundamental level isn’t. We’re being told of Marion’s plans to run here – we’re being told of her imagination. However, her imagination isn’t physically telling us that its going to use this human body to take this paper and run away so that the brain it’s attached to continues to pump out the good drugs: love, happiness, comfort. Such is obvious; we’re not telepathic. Instead, humans are built to read facial expression and body language. And so, it’s the image above that quite literally has the capacity to speak up to or more than 1000s of words. It’s the physical presence of Janet Leigh as the middle-man that connects the lines between Marion Crane’s imagination and ours. What’s interesting is what this says about these images:

Deren, Duchamp and Lynch are in the business of employing new telephone operators to connect lines.

Instead of using actors, they use flowers, knives, string… weird, foetus things. It’s the artistic exploration of imagery that is the human endeavour to better communicate. It can be in French, Latin, Spanish, on paper with words, on stone with hieroglyphs or on screens with emojis, but people constantly strive to say things in ways that better communicate their hidden internals – their mind hidden behind their eyes – to the internals trapped in other people.

And it’s here where we come upon the crux of what imagery is. Abstract, simple, somewhere in between, all imagery is the endeavour to best say that we are alive, that we exist, that there is something going on in here. Imagery in film is just the attempt to speak in a unique language that hopefully communicates succinctly who we are and who characters are. Keeping this is mind, we have the tools to better tackle the concept in application. What’s more, to the stand-still vacuum presented by you saying “I don’t understand this film and I don’t really want to” and someone else retorting, “You just don’t get it”, you can now just reply: “I just don’t think the film exists”. Sure, there’s still an agreement on a disagreement to be had, but also a pretentious segue into a debate on the existential tangents of imagery. And if that keeps people talking, well, that’s kind of the point, what we all seem to want: to keep yammering on about ourselves.

Previous post:

Swiss Army Man – Something I Just Need To Get Out

Next post:

The Private Life Of A Cat – Personification

More from me:

amazon.com/author/danielslack