"The Animal Other"
The plangent wah-wah of vintage Duke Ellington accompanies the gyrations of sea horses in the opening images of Jean Painleve's The Vampire (1945), giving viewers the sense of benevolent well-being offered by so many other nature docs. That superior distance is undermined, however, when a crippled, harelipped vampire bat makes its appearance -- dragging its body about like Lon Chaney Sr. in some uncensored Tod Browning nightmare -- and is then completely shattered as the bat begins feeding on a much larger, unaccountably immobile guinea pig. The image would not be so horrific if we did not relate to bat and pig as conscious creatures, not unlike ourselves -- one of the points of the excellent program of short films, "The Animal Other," being presented by the S.F. Cinematheque this weekend.
Our anthropomorphism comforts us while we watch the cute little fox jogging through Arne Sucksdorff's A Summer Saga (1941), sucking eggs and eating bugs -- but stings when we're confronted with the slaughterhouses of Georges Franju's The Blood of the Beasts (1949), as whistling, coffee-swilling butchers matter-of-factly dispatch a horse, a bull, and lambs whose limbs keep wiggling after decapitation. (The poetic narration is by Painleve.) Franju, whose later feature work (e.g., Eyes Without a Face) partakes from the same wellspring as this early documentary, introduces his film and breaks into it periodically with charming street-scene footage of urban-rural interface, all the better to set off the bloodletting from which our society springs. The program, which also includes the Edison Studio's Elephant Execution (1903), Ladislas Starevich's beautiful Voice of the Nightingale (1923), Moss and Thelma Schnee's Ant City (1951), Microcultural Incidents in Ten Zoos (1968), and George Kuchar's hilarious Mongreloid (1978), is a good way to begin rethinking animal-human relations -- from their perspective.