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Anthropomorphism And Film

May 3, 2013

I’ve been laying off posting about every review of Blackfish that comes across my Google alerts.

But I just came across a fascinating review of Disney’s movie “Chimpanzee,” which dives into a deep discussion of how animals are portrayed in feature films and documentaries:

You could say cinema and nature got off on the wrong foot, or paw, right from the start. In 1926, to much excitement, an adventurer named William Douglas Burden brought back two komodo dragons to New York’s Bronx zoo – the first live specimens the western world had ever seen. Most of that excitement had been generated via a movie Burden had made depicting these semi-mythical reptiles in the Indonesian wild, voraciously devouring a wild boar. By comparison, the real, live komodo dragons were something of a disappointment. They just lay about lethargically in their cage, and died a few months later. It later transpired that Burden’s film had been heavily edited and staged to amp up the drama. The dragons hadn’t actually killed the boar; it had been put there by Burden as bait. The slow reality of nature was no match for the drama of the screen, it turned out. The science couldn’t match the fiction. One of the first to learn this lesson was the film-maker Merian C Cooper. He went on to incorporate elements of Burden’s Komodo expedition into a fictional movie: King Kong.

We have come a long way since Burden’s day in many respects, but that tension between rigorous natural history and populist entertainment is still very much at work in the nature genre, especially now that it has migrated on to the big screen in a big way. Where once we flocked to see animals painted as man-eating monsters in the movies, Jaws-style, now we want to get closer to them, physically and spiritually. There could be several explanations. Maybe it’s guilt at our destruction of their habitats, the proliferation of internet-related animal cuteness or because there are parents keen to give their children something more edifying than Iron Man 3. Or maybe it’s just because we’ve got so much better at filming wildlife. Nature films are one place where all the technological advances of film-making really come into their own: high-definition, 3D, surround sound, lightweight cameras.

But while cinema has made all these advances, nature itself hasn’t really got with the program. Unlike characters in Madagascar or The Lion King, real wild animals haven’t learned to take direction any better than Burden’s giant lizards. It can take years of uncomfortable, patient, expensive observation to gather enough footage for a feature-length documentary. And although it was common practice in the past, faking it is very much frowned upon. We like our wildlife cinema authentic, but we also want it exciting and dramatic, and that is still a challenge.

My view, based on the fact that the more we learn about almost any animal, the more we realize that their thinking and social lives are more complex and sophisticated than we assumed, is that we should err on the side of anthropomorphism. But perhaps “anthropomorphism,” is not even the right word anymore. It is a concept that is based on the idea that humans are unique in the animal world, and so to assume nonhuman animals have intelligence, or emotion, is to assume they are like humans. Instead, I think what science is showing us over time is that intelligence and emotions are to greater and lesser degrees universal among animals. And so perhaps we should start thinking of emotion and intelligence in the animal world as qualities which don’t necessarily set us apart from other animals, but connect us to other animals.

One of the elements of Blackfish that strikes audiences is the degree to which the orca brain has an architecture that suggests cognitive abilities we don’t yet comprehend, cognitive abilities which may in certain respects be superior to human cognitive abilities. So maybe one day as we come to better understand orca cognition and the relative quality of human cognition we will find ourselves orcapomorphizing.

I’m happy to say that this article picks up on exactly that, because Blackfish should make you think, for the first time, that the hierarchy of intelligence and cognition might not always have humans at the top:

Another new film in this vein throws the anthropomorphism debate into fresh relief. Blackfish by Gabriela Cowperthwaite deals not with animals in the wild, but in captivity, namely killer whales at the SeaWorld chain of resorts in the southern US. These creatures are essentially coerced into performing entertaining tricks for the benefit of a public audience, but one whale has been linked to the deaths of three people. Free Willy it ain’t.

As the story progresses, ex-trainers express regret over the treatment of whales, and the lies they routinely trotted out about how “happy” the whales were. There is much sinister footage and gruesome description showing just what killer whales can do to humans if they feel like it.

Blackfish makes no attempt to anthropomorphise its whales and it doesn’t need to. Like chimpanzees, they are evidently highly intelligent and social creatures, and they clearly don’t like what SeaWorld is doing to them – which is in effect imprisoning and torturing them until they snap. Where once they roamed the open ocean, they are now confined to tiny pools, mothers are separated from their calves, and they are forced into unnatural, violent behaviour towards themselves and us. If anything, we empathise with the whales more than the humans because they’re treated like animals. Does that mean they haven’t been anthropomorphised enough?

Like the other nature docs, Blackfish is a gripping movie, with drama and characters and emotion, but unlike them, it’s one that reminds us how much of a gap there is between humans and animals, and between movies and reality, which often amounts to the same thing. Thanks to cinema, we’re able to see nature better, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re any closer to it.

During filming, one of the ideas we used to joke about a lot with the former SeaWorld orca trainers is the idea that Blackfish is like “Planet Of The Apes,” except the humans are the apes who are incarcerating a being who they don’t really understand or credit with intelligence and emotion. After a few beers, we’d have Tilikum banging the tank walls, protesting “I am not an animal!”

The idea that an orca, say, or a chimpanzee, might have intellectual or emotional capabilities that exceed a human’s obliterates the idea of anthropomorphism. That makes it a revolutionary, and thrilling, idea that can completely change how you think about, and relate to, animals.

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