“In The Piano, as Ada sought Baine’s help to return by horseback for her beloved piano left abandoned by her husband, Stewart, on an isolated beach, the camera hesitates for a moment on the eye of Baine’s horse. What vision is being sought of the danger that’s brewing as Ada breaks with convention? Why do we believe animals can see what we cannot, or will not, see? What wisdom lies behind their eyes?”
At the end of the IMAX movie, Jane Goodall’s Wild Chimpanzees, Goodall says if she had one wish left unfulfilled from her life work with the chimpanzees, it’s to look out from their eyes, see what they see, feel what they feel. What secret vision might she be seeking behind the look she gets from a chimpanzee?
Barry Lopez suggests an answer in his Field Notes* when he writes, “My one salvation, a gift I can’t reason through, has been the unceasing kindness of animals. Once, when I was truly lost, when the Grey Spider Hill and the Black Sparrow Hills were entirely confused in a labyrinth of memory, I saw a small coyote sitting between two creosote bushes just a few yards away. She was eyeing me quizzically, whistling me up with that look. I followed behind her without question, into country that eventually made sense to me, or which I eventually remembered.”
What look passed between coyote and man that day to show him the way home?
We cannot be sure whether we project the wisdom we find in an animal’s eye or whether the wisdom comes on its own but an eye to eye connection between human and animal often creates an alliance of mysterious strength and renewal. Babies know it, chimpanzees know it and especially an endangered animal knows it. It’s a natural, unconscious tendency on the part of humans to see an answer to a desperate need, wild desire or sacred dream in an animal’s eye. An animal’s eye, perhaps, is the ultimate mirror of the wisdom that has brought us this far.
My friend, poet and author Deena Metzger, had an opportunity to have a brief look into the eye of a great bull elephant in Africa when he approached her transport truck curling his raised trunk with clear determination to defend his turf and family from the mechanical intruder. In her book, Entering Ghost River, she wrote about having a few minutes with him, eye to eye, as he came within an elephant trunk’s distance of her. He gave her long enough to ask a question from deep within her mind. What wisdom for an alliance of peace in a world torn by terror, famine and atrocity could he give her? As if a pact were struck, the great bull elephant, his friends and family moved on into the valley along the river. So did Deena’s truck with her friends and family. I’d like to think Deena and the elephant cleared more of a path that day for all of us, one opened by ‘the look’ Barry Lopez followed when he was lost in the canyon. Whether the world itself makes way or we remember our way, ‘the look’ is there if we take a moment to notice it.
In the following films, there are some markers showing that path of creative alliance marked by ‘the look’ from an animal. Films often bring their audiences eye to eye with animals, giving us a gift of being up close and personal long enough to ask a question. Watch for the moment. And ask your question. And tell me the answer you receive by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Novel by Nick Evans II
Performances by Robert Redford, Kristin Scott Thomas
“I don’t help people with horses. I help horses with people.” Tom Booker (Robert Redford) says. He might well have said, “I help horses help people. When the horse in Horse Whisperer gets crushed by a Mack truck as he rears in a mighty attempt to protect his young rider, he is left with more than bodily wounds. He is terrified to reconnect with another human being. This 20th century catastrophic collision between machine and horse is a powerful metaphor for the effect of machine on humans that has left so many people feeling alone, homeless and terrified. However, the fear beneath loneliness is usually well hidden beneath the busy lives of modern families – like the one in this film – coping with city life. As Pilgrim, the horse in Horse Whisperer, progresses in his healing with a man who lives close to the earth and near to his soul, the spirit of family is renewed. They find a home they’ve never known with each other and, for the moment, terror is pushed back.
CinemaShrink Asks, “What does Pilgrim need? What does his family need? What does we all need?
Her Response, “A renewal of trust.”
Gorillas of the Mist
Directed By Michael Apted
Written by Dian Fossey, Harold T.P. Hayes (article)
Performances by Sigourney Weaver, Bryan Brown, Julie Harris, Iain Cuthbertson
Fortunately, the best part of Gorillas of the Mist are the scenes of Dian Fossey with the mountain gorillas. She rolls on the ground, squats in the bushes and grunts realistically as she imitates their behavior, making her way into their midst. Perhaps because we don’t get as attached to Dian Fossey as we do to her favorite gorilla, Digit, her murder does not shock us as deeply as his. But, perhaps, we see more death in his than hers. It takes your breath away for this beloved gorilla who becomes our friend (as well as hers) to be crudely decapitated, hands and head stolen by poachers for sale as trophies. Of course, the desperate plight of the mountain gorillas simply mirrors the desperation of people in central Africa. What an awful choice to have to make, kill a mountain gorilla for its trophy value or let your child die of starvation.
CinemaShrink Asks, “What are the mountain gorillas dreaming? What are African children dreaming? What are we all dreaming of?
Her Response, “A safe home.”
Directed By John Huston
Screenplay by Arthur Miller
Performances by Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach, Thelma Ritter
Marilyn’s getting a divorce in Reno. “You can’t make me sorry for you any more”, she says on the steps of the courthouse when her husband asks for a second chance.
Eli Wallach’s lost his wife to childbirth and Marilyn asks, “She’s dead because you didn’t have a spare tire?”
Thelma Ritter reminds Marilyn, “Dear girl, you’ve gotta stop thinking you can change things.”
But Marilyn persists, “We’re all dying aren’t we. We’re not teaching each other what we really know, are we?” She dances with the men on her lovely toes but leaves them to dance alone with a tree.
When Clark says he wants to get her home all in one pretty piece, Marilyn asks, “Would you have a spare tire”?
Clark puts the moves on Marilyn without knowing she’s not kidding. He wants respect for being a man but she wants respect for her feelings. That’s a problem. And it all comes out after they pick up Montgomery Clift, a young rodeo rider who can’t even buy his mama a birthday present. Poverty of man meets poverty of horse meets poverty of the spirit.
Cowboy meets Marilyn, an endangered species who can take a bet and keep on ticking but can’t see a man or beast take a beating. One woman, two cowboys and a rodeo rider with a father who was killed by a hunter and became a step-son to a man who wanted to offer him wages on his own father’s ranch. After all, Clift asks, who do you depend on?
All three men look to Marilyn who looks into the eyes of animals looking for an answer that can make yesterday today. Clark has no tomorrow to offer. Only Marilyn has an idea and that’s no idea at all. She can only feel what she feels, looking out from her eyes at men willing to ride a bucking bronco to their death, drink to oblivion and hang on to failing egos for dear life.
Clark is a man who thinks he just gets a little angry, not understanding a woman’s fear that a man will hate what he just, one moment before, found irresistibly desirable. And that’s the story of the Misfits.
Once upon a time, the mustangs were the pride and joy of the very men who now send them to the glue factory. Dogs were wild too, once upon a time. They, like women, are still afraid they’re going to end up dead when a man becomes a stranger. Nothing can live unless something dies; that’s a manly story. A woman’s story of a love that prevents death may seem silly next to it but she wants the same respect a man wants.
When she does her thing, he says he takes his hat off to her. But things look different in the morning. And Clark is back to manly business, rounding up mustangs for sale as pet food pretending that he, himself, is not following the same route. What comes into his sights – a stallion, four mares and a colt — is unmistakably the family he’s never had. And as the men encumber the stallion with spare tires, the metaphor of a woman who died for lack of a spare tire is not far behind.
When Marilyn pleads for the mustangs, a triad of heroism – Clark, Clift and Wallach – falls before her. Clark will give the mustangs to her but not if she gets what she wants, only if she gets what he wants to give her. Wallach will give them to her but only if she gives him what he wants. Clift sets the mustangs loose because he’s a man with nothing to lose, nothing to gain. Marilyn stands screaming in the desert, wanting what a man can’t give her but what he takes from her. Then Clark wrestles the stallion, a battle between man and beast that cannot be settled in any desert of discontent.
Clark’s final manly words? “I don’t want anyone making up my mind for me. I got to find another way to feel alive, that’s all.”
And then he offers Marilyn a ride back to Reno. They pick up the dog. The mustangs run free. And, Clark promises that the big star in the sky will take them right home. He’s right, right?
CinemaShrink Asks, “What do wild mustangs need? What do men need? What do we all need?
Her Response, “Respect”.
This month New Cinema Lab may be searching in the eyes of animals on film for their “common sense politics”. Yet CinemaShrink found a real life story of an animal on the verge of extinction that ran smack into human respect, had an amazing return and inspired a renewal of family spirit. Perhaps it should be a movie?
Once upon a time, the duck hunters in the swamps of Louisiana could look upon wild ducks as an endless target for sport, endless food upon the table. Then duck hunters began to use semi-automatic rifles, killing an unprecedented number of ducks in a single season. Soon the skies above the swamps were empty. Preservationists and game wardens were helpless to stop the slaughter. No amount of game regulation could keep up with the hunting spree. Duck hunters would simply pay the fine, do the time and return to hunting with an even greater sense of entitlement.
It wasn’t until a dedicated duck hunter realized if the slaughter were to continue, there would be no ducks for his children to hunt that things began to change. He began to advocate a quota on ducks so the sport of duck hunting could be kept alive for coming generations. With a little help from his friends and local game wardens, he visited schools, community organizations and corporate headquarters to talk about quotas and the joys of duck hunting. Within a few seasons, the ducks were thriving.
In this case, it wasn’t laws, good intentions or spiritual ideals that made the difference. It was one duck hunter’s desire to keep duck hunting as a sport for his children that connected self-regulation and preservation. To this man’s mind, the sport of duck hunting was essential to a healthy up-bringing of his children. Well, then, it was logical. The ducks as well as his children needed his protection. Tony Soprano sought a shrink when he realized that his life of crime could not protect his family — and the realization launched one of the most successful tv shows of all time when a family of ducks landed in his swimming pool giving him ‘the look’.
Animal wisdom or good common sense?