Filmmakers have always been attracted to animals as subjects of cinema, often because of their symbolic underpinning or their capacity to draw out certain emotions in the film’s characters. Think of Robert Bresson’s donkey in Au Hasard Balthazar, for example, or how the kestrel in Kes becomes the young boy’s only friend in a cruel world. Animals often tend to draw in crowds hungry for “cute”, and the Dog Cinema industry is testament to this, from the awful slew of Beethoven films to the mawkish Marley and Me.
I’m interested here in when the director’s love of certain animals feeds idiosyncratically into their film work. You see this often in diaristic films, experimental cinema and the home-movie, such as that of Lithuanian-born New York-based Jonas Mekas, who often filmed cats in several of his film diaries, notably Walden (1969), as well as French film essayist Chris Marker, of course, who famously filmed his cat in the short film Cat Listening to Music. In this list, we chart our favourite film-makers with eccentric and idiosyncratic animal obsessions.
Walerian Borowczyk was obsessed with snails
For the Polish arthouse director and animator, snails appear more than once as objects or erotic-exotic fascination. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but the squelchy snail trails of this common-or-garden ‘terrestrial pulmonate gastropod mollusc’ seem to hold some sort of bewitching power. In Escargot de Venus (1975), Borowczyk explores the erotic artworks of Bona Tibertelli de Pisis, the wife of poet Peyre de Mandiargues. Bonas' artworks featured nudes arranged coitally with snails, weird men and women with snail horns come out of their heads or phalluses bedecked with snail horns. At the film's finale, she feeds her pet African Chameleon. In his bestiality feature The Beast, when Boro isn't recurring to vaginal rose motifs, hid camera often focuses on the snail as it glides across surfaces, crawling in and out of shoes or squelching on human hands. This one’s a very specialised kink, I tell you.
Chris Marker was obsessed with cats
“A cat is never on the side of power,” says the voiceover in French filmmaker essayist Chris Marker’s A Grin without a Cat. Cats are omnipresent in Marker’s work – as statues, as trinkets, as cartoons (particularly in his work on the virtual reality platform Second Life), as totems, and even as motifs to hide behind. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the recurring figure of the maneki-neko (or beckoning cat), a lucky talisman for Marker which frequently appears in his films, most notably in Sans Soleil, but also in his private workspace, as filmed by Agnes Varda in her TV miniseries From Here To There. Cats are everywhere, even in their absence: in Sans Soleil we see a couple praying for their lost cat Tora in a cat graveyard in Japan, bedecked to the nines with maneki-neko and floral gardens. In his short film, Cat Listening to Music, Marker filmed his much-loved sleepy cat Guillaume-en-Egypte, stretched out lazily in the filmmaker's apartment, as he listens to a piano sonata by Federico Mompou.
As is well documented, Marker often sent an image of a cat when asked for a portrait of himself. We also see him hiding behind the cut-out of a cartoon cat in Agnès Varda’s The Beaches of Agnes. And in the credits of Sunday in Peking, Marker’s name appears next to the image of a cat; the figure of Guillaume-en-Egypte, as we see, is Marker’s foil against the world, as well as our guide to Marker’s own personal universe.
Chris Marker was also obsessed with owls, elephants and wolves
Marker’s love of animals wasn’t limited to cats or owls, and Nora M. Atler’s 2006 monograph on Marker makes a point of this by dividing each of her chapters after one of Marker’s talismanic animals – not just the cat, but the elephant, the wolf and the owl. In his short film An Owl Is an Owl is an Owl, Marker combines cut-ups of footage of owls to ambient music, creating a bizarrely enchanting combination of owl eye cutups and transcendental ambient sounds. In Slon Tango (1993), another short from his Bestiary collection, an elephant dances bizarelly to Stravinsky.
Akira Kurosawa was obsessed with horses
It’s hardly surprising that horses appear in abundance in the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa. We see them in extended dramatic battles, riding through rain or the smoke of houses set alight – see The Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985). However, the horse seems to function as more than mere accessory for battle, often rich in symbolic meaning as a creature hard-done-by in life, struggling against human power and natural weather. In Chris Marker’s documentary on Kurosawa and the making of Ran, A.K. (above), Marker comments on the director's love of horses, tracing this interest back to Kurosawa’s work as a second-unit director on Kajiro Yamamoto's classic Horse (1941). Horses are always in the background, fainting, being revived and worked to the ground again: noble slaves with the ability to incite sympathy in an audience of onlookers. Apparently, Kurosawa also directed a TV documentary about horses called Song of the Horse (Uma no uta, 1970).
David Lynch is obsessed with fake birds
Sandy: I had a dream. In the dream, there was our world and the world was dark because there weren’t any robins, and the robins represented love. And for the longest time, there was just this darkness. And all of a sudden, thousands of robins were set free, and they flew down and brought this Blinding Light of Love. And it seemed like that love would be the only thing that would make any difference. And it did. So I guess it means there is trouble ’til the robins come.
When, at the end of Blue Velvet, a robin finally appears on the windowsill, something is very clearly up. The robin is very clearly mechanised: it’s about as real as the noses in a Harley Street waiting room. In a Baudrillardian simulacrum of a real robin, Lynch’s attention to the fake bird seems to point to the characters’ hyper-realised world and the fake nature of the film’s romantic sub-plot. The mechanised bird (symbolic of beauty, love, truth and hope) is eating a bug, thus showing a horrified Sandy that the world is capable of both beauty and ugliness and that life and death, light and darkness can coexist, here visible in the mouth of the mechanised robin. Lynch’s mechanised birds also appear in the opening sequences of Twin Peaks and the twitching bird roast in Eraserhead. Hold on, there’s something weird going on here.
And finally Werner Herzog is obsessed with chickens...
‘The enormity of their flat brain. The enormity of their stupidity is just overwhelming.’
Werner Herzog wants you to do yourself a favour. Next time you’re in the countryside, yomping on a farmer’s field, and you see a chicken: look it in the eye with ‘great intensity’. The intensity of stupidity that looks back at you, apparently, is something to behold. Chickens are also very prone to hypnosis, he notes, and he claims to have hypnotised several in his films. For Herzog’s love of the surreal, see the mad dancing chicken in Stroszek (above) or the terrified chickens in Even Dwarves Started Small.
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