Horses on Film
The Existence of Animals on Screen
Obviously, there has been a burgeoning field exploring animals in the context of cinema, including Animals in Film by Jonathan Burt and Animals and the Moving Image by Michael Lawrence and Laura McMahon. But what we want to do is to discuss just one, the horse, and how fundamentally affiliated the horse is with cinema, even the very existence of celluloid. The horse and film appear much more affiliated than say the cat and cinema, the cow and film, or even the dog and the movies. Perhaps it rests on cinema and the horse closely linked at its inception, with Muybridge using film to prove that all four legs of a horse can be in the air simultaneously. More obviously it rests on one of the major genres of cinema utilising horses as an inevitable part of its imagery and function: the western. No other genre allows for a nickname that includes an animal in its title but the western is frequently referred to as a horse opera. However, we might also think of the horse as both dinner and transport, as a means of nourishment and as a means of travel and see how important the latter happens to be for films set before the early years of the 20th century. Other animals can serve as both on the plate and as a chance to explore vast terrain but no animal more than the horse suggests the latter, while when people think that eating animals is wrong, many might dispute such a claim who still wouldn't consume horse meat. People may eat like a horse but that doesn't include consuming them. The bible describes various unclean animals including the pig but doesn't have anything to say about horses, even if many around the world who eat pork would be unlikely to eat horse flesh. Offer someone a bacon sandwich and many will happily accept; offer them a strip of horse meat between a couple of slices of bread and butter and expect to meet more resistance. Some countries do eat horsemeat and in 1866 France legalised its consumption, reckoning that it allowed the poor to eat meat who couldn't otherwise afford it: "poor families struggled to afford pork and beef. Many more were forced to eat it [horse] when the 1870-71 Prussian Siege of Paris caused severe meat shortages." (Reuters) The horse nevertheless seems to have for itself a noble role that cinema augments, as if eating horse meat might seem all the more problematic after viewing the horse's presence in so many films over the years.
To get us started we can leave aside for the moment the horse opera and the eating of horse meat, and think of two films, one of which has within its production a horse whose death haunts the film it takes place within, Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev. The other is predicated on an anecdote showing all the consideration to animals that Tarkovsky, in that instance, lacked: Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse. The great philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, seeing a horse brutally whipped after exiting a Turin apartment he was visiting, hugged the horse and cried, breaking down not only there in the square of Turin but for the rest of his life. It becomes the premise on which Tarr's film is based, and the film opens with the anecdote spoken against a black screen before cutting to a four-minute shot of a horse pulling a cart. The emphasis here is important; most films show a cart or carriage pulled by a horse. The point is rarely the horse and usually the cart or carriage is significant because of the people in it or riding it. It becomes a form of defamiliarisation not through metaphor or anthropomorphism but by a reversal of priorities. We invoke Shklovsky's notion of ostranenie (defamiliarisation) partly because when he discusses the idea he mentions Tolstoy and a story with a horse as its central character and narrator. As the horse says: "...I simply could not see what it meant when they called me man's property." The words, 'my horse' referred to me, a living horse, and seemed as strange to me as the word 'my land', 'my air', 'my water'."
Shklovsky gives a number of other examples from the Russian novelist and the point isn't that the perspective is that of an animal (numerous fables do this and hence the anthropomorphism) but that Tolstoy finds ways to make perception anew. As Shklovsky says: "after we see an object several times, we begin to recognise it. The object is in front of us and we know about it, but we do not see it hence we cannot say anything significant about it. Art removes the object from the automatism of perception in several ways." ('Art as Technique') Defamiliarisation does that. How often have we seen horses pulling a carriage? Very rarely. How often have we seen a carriage pulled by horses? Very often. All we have to do is watch a handful of scenes with horses and carriages and notice how little importance is given to the equine. Let us take an extreme example of this: a moment in Dr Zhivago. Here we see the titular doctor and another character in a horse-drawn carriage but we must assume the carriage is drawn by horses because of the motion of the carriage and the film's setting: before the Russian Revolution, where there was no automotive industry until the Soviet era. There are no horses shown in this briefest of sequences, so the sentence becomes: two men ride in a carriage. If Tarr so defamiliarises that the man is secondary to the horse; David Lean so familiarises that the horse needn't be shown at all. Few viewers watching this brief transition, fifty-four minutes into the film, will see anything untoward about the scene. But imagine if it showed just the horse but not the carriage behind it? We would have a defamiliarised film image while in Lean's film the object isn't in front of us at all; the viewer doesn't need to see it such is the familiarised role of horses in film, where their purpose is usually insignificant.
Yet we should also remember that around the same time that Dr Zhivago was being made, Andrei Tarkovsky was shooting Andrei Rublev, an equally epic account not of the Russian Revolutionary period but the medieval era. If Lean ignored the horse in one scene; Tarkovsky very much offers it a presence in a moment where a horse falls down the stairs and is actually and not only filmically killed. "Frantic and unable to regain its balance from the fall. Soldiers then descend upon it and spear it to death. The horse's fate was already sealed, however, as it was sourced from a slaughterhouse for the production and was due to be shot the following day." (Little White Lies) Better surely getting left on the cutting room floor and ignored diegetically than given a horrible and cruel demise onscreen. One of the difficulties watching violence towards animals in the cinema is that we know it may very well be real, especially in older films. Even though The Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act of 1937 "prohibits the exhibition or supply of a film [in the UK] if animals have been cruelly mistreated for the purposes of making the film", as Anne Billson noted in an article addressing animal violence on screen, this didn't stop Jean-Luc Godard filming a pig having its throat cut for Weekend or Sam Peckinpah' showing chickens decapitated Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
If an animal is harmed on screen it is both more real and less serious than when it happens to a human being. We offer no hierarchy here. It is more a question of a person able to speak in their name and an animal unable to use the language of the human in defence of their rights. It doesn't mean humans aren't exploited cinematically but a director will know that an animal cannot talk. It was Tarkovsky who announced that he killed the horse very deliberately, saying to Aleksandr Lipkov "we took the horse from the slaughterhouse. If we didn't kill her that day, she would have been killed the next day in the same way. We did not think up any special torments, so to speak, for the horse." (Cinephilia and Beyond) But can you imagine the same claim made for a human life? Imagine if Tarkovsky said that a man was to be executed the following morning and instead Tarkovsky gave him immortal life on film by finding a way to kill him live on screen? When critics talk of snuff movies they very specifically mean human deaths deliberately engineered for the camera, so numerous moments that happen to have been caught on film do not constitute snuff. Whether it is the burning monk, the death of a Vietcong boy, or Ceausescu's execution, footage captures their deaths but the camera doesn't instigate it. Tarkovsky does exactly that with the horse's death in Andrei Rublev.
Yet Laura McMahon wonders about the horse's suffering in The Turin Horse as well. "As the long take patiently traces the horse's lurching movement against the unrelenting gale, her gestures suggest weight, force, pressure, burden, her blinkered eyes widening in a way that signals stress, exertion. As the road inclines, we note further signs of physical exertion - her head pulling to the side, her mouth opening." Tarr (and his editor, wife and co-collaborator Agnes Hrantizky) adopts a long take which allows the horse a presence usually denied it in most other films, but one which also insists on showing us the arduousness of a horse pulling a man along in a cart in real-time. A horse given fifteen seconds of screen time pulling a carriage, before the director says cut, is given less of a presence on screen but more relaxation time offscreen. Like Tarkovsky's horse, the one in Tarr's film is given screen exposure but at a price it may not have been happy to pay. Speaking of the horse, Tarr says he very much wanted her to have a presence: interviewed by Jonathan Romney Tarr says, "it's not a parable. This is a horse who has history, who has background, who is definitely somebody. In Hungarian if you say torinoi with a small 't', it just means "from somewhere" ["from Turin"]. But if you write it with a big 'T', it looks like a name ["The Turin Horse"]. She has a name. "She" - because we have a female horse." (Sight and Sound) The price of such fame is a little bit of suffering, perhaps but she is at least given an identity. As the film's cinematographer Fred Kelemen said: "The horse Ricsi is female. The name was given to her before. Bla found her. I was not present, so it is his story to tell. Ricsi is living on a farm now. We are pretty sure that she was poorly treated in her life before the film. She had this deep sadness in her eyes and she didn't like to move with a carriage." (Cinemascope)
Here we must note that a horse in film is quite a different thing from a horse in literature. The suffering that Tolstoy proposes to acknowledge on the page remains a symbolic horse in the fundamental sense: there are words on paper and no actual horse in sight. Maybe one reason why Tarr resists Romney's initial gambit that the film may be seen as a parable, or at least the Nietzsche anecdote that opens it, is that the horse exists. But then all horses exist in film just as they don't exist at all on the page: Tolstoy can have a horse treated cruelly with no need to concern himself with any actual horses representing that cruelty. He is free from the double bind the filmmakers find themselves caught within. McMahon discusses the horse's history when quoting Tarr, in the Romney interview, who says: "We found her in a market in a small village in the Hungarian lowland. I said immediately, 'This is the horse we need.' You could see this horse was humiliated. She's not that old, just around seven. She was a very sad horse. But I have to tell you, all horses are sad who are around people. The owner wanted to make her work, and she refused. And it happened like with Nietzsche, in real life - I stopped him immediately. I was screaming at him, and then he sold us this horse, and she's our horse now. Now she's OK - we found a nice place for her." (Sight and Sound) Cinematographer Fred Kelemen may note sadness in her eyes and that she didn't like to move with a carriage but as McMahon insists, we do see the horse move with a cart at the beginning of the film in a lengthy shot. McMahon wonders how many takes were required: "For the stress on the horse that takes place both diegetically and extra-diegetically is exacerbated of course by the demands of Tarr's signature long take: the four-minute shot begins mid-action, suggesting that the horse has already been running, and towards the end of the shot she looks noticeably more tired and strained. We might wonder too about the takes we have not seen." ('Animal Labour and Lines of Flight') Tolstoy can unequivocally condemn animal cruelty in film; Tarr can do so ambivalently. He may have saved a real horse from immense misery but in the process is also in danger of retraumatising her by reenactment. Tolstoy's defamiliarisation leaves the horse in the stable; Tarr's defamiliarisation, his attempt to show the horse in a light usually unrecognised by film, demands it suffers just a little for Tarr's art.
One needn't at all offer this as an accusation; more as a realisation that cinema as Tarr sees it is very much a pro-filmic medium that tries as much as possible to enact aspects of the real onscreen. Many filmmakers may no longer feel that obligation to the real as technology increasingly makes the actual obsolete; easily replaced by the virtual. As Oscar Schwartz says: "of course, this animation technique has been used in Hollywood for a long time to animate, with striking realism, creatures that otherwise belong only in fiction. The dinosaurs of Jurassic Park. The super intelligent primates in the Planet of the Apes. In this movie, however, computer graphics are used to replace a figure that has played an outsized, though often unacknowledged, role in film history -- the dog actor. At what cost?" (Guardian) Schwartz discusses a Harrison Ford remake of Call of the Wild which has a digital dog instead of the real thing, a dog that can be entirely manipulated by a computer, and reckons "a CGI [dog] Buck, a strange cyborg composite whose animal instincts are contrived by humans, fails to preserve this legacy. Indeed, he appears to represent precisely what [Martin] Scorsese laments: the technological domestication of cinema." (Guardian) The filmmakers can now work with animals as Tolstoy did but rather than words on the page as the symbolic form, the director works with numbers instead. In both instances however the animals are not subject to potential onset hazards.
One can see this as a gain in one direction but a loss in another. Imagine watching the opening scene of The Turin Horse and seeing a digitised image; what would be lost in the image being processed? It isn't as though Tarr is impervious to artificiality. The wind that blows through Tarr's films isn't always nature's, evident when Fred Kelemen says "we had some old wind machines and sometimes we used a helicopter." (Cinemascope) Yet as Kelemen describes a complex production that also tries to use minimal interior light and nevertheless needed to use artificial light to stop the house from appearing on screen in darkness, so we recognise the tension between the real and the artificial, the need to film a reality that at the same time, because it is filmed, demands constant and modest alterations. If filmmakers before the rise of digital technology have usually shaped their worlds using actual sets or locations, and actors with lives beyond the frame, in what is seen as a plastic medium of the actual, what happens when digitisation means that so much of the work is done by programmers? Indeed Filmmaker magazine and other journals have wondered whether filmmakers should learn to code. "Software is part of our everyday life; in some circles coding is seen as the new literacy and a means of empowerment." But as Jonathan Romney says the "entirely digitally generated...object can't get into the frame in the first place except as a result of a rigorously conceived set of calculations that determine its action and appearance down to the last detail." ('Million Dollar Graffiti')
Romney was writing this in 1997 and Lev Manovich wondered around the mid-nineties whose vision would these digitised images represent? "It is the vision of a cyborg or a computer; a vision of Robocop and of an automatic missile. It is a realistic representation of human vision in the future when it will be augmented by computer graphics and cleansed from noise. It is the vision of a digital grid. A Synthetic computer-generated image is not an inferior representation of our reality, but a realistic representation of a different reality." ('The Paradoxes of Digital Photography') Manovich adds that "by the same logic, we should not consider clean, skinless, too flexible, and in the same time too jerky, human figures in 3-D computer animation as unrealistic, as imperfect approximation to the real thing -- our bodies." They are, he says "a perfectly realistic representation of a cyborg body yet to come, of a world reduced to geometry, where efficient representation via a geometric model becomes the basis of reality. The synthetic image simply represents the future." ('The Paradoxes of Digital Photography')
We ought to be wary of straying too far from our point and purpose: the horse in film. But if we want to understand our relationship with animals in the cinema, surely it is important animals exist in a world other than on the computer. If we want to be a little more at one with nature then better we don't reduce it to ones and zeroes. While we may have to fret over the extreme cruelty of Tarkovsky and the ambivalent considerations of Tarr, part of our relationship with the horse in each case is that they have a reality we are concerned over. To worry about how an animal is treated on film is to worry about an animal, one with a history that we can trace. We know about Tarkovsky's horse; it has a biography, however terrible, as it was destined for the slaughterhouse when Tarkovsky momentarily used his film set as an abattoir. Tarr speaks of saving the horse from a hard and harsh existence, turning Risci into a character on screen rather than a beast of burden which it would have continued to be. It is perhaps often in the anecdotal that the animal exists just as so much of a human actor's existence rests too in the extra-diegetic material that surrounds a film's reception and perception. Few watching a Clint Eastwood or John Wayne film are oblivious to the presence of these stars and even if one happens to be, the anecdotal is never far away. We can find out how old Eastwood was in High Plains Drifter; more grimly, discover that John Wayne was struggling with cancer while playing a character dying of the disease in The Shootist. Such anecdotal information that sits behind the film and within the film gives to cinema the sense that it spills out into life.
To use Computer Generated Imagery on screen to depict animals would be to deny that spillage and take even further what John Berger sees to be their general reduction and marginalisation. Looking at how animals are farmed to consumerist perfection, utilised for behaviourist experimentation or ensconced in domestic environments, Berger speaks of "the cultural marginalisation of animals". ('Why Look at Animals?') But we can also see in these different roles a further one that film utilises: the representation of animals. If Deleuze and Guattari are right in saying that a "racehorse is more different from a workhorse than a workhorse is from an ox" (A Thousand Plateaus), then what about a horse in a film as opposed to a racehorse or a workhorse? Is a dog in film closer to a horse in film than a workhorse is to a film horse? When Tarr invokes the history of the horse it is as though he acknowledges the differences Deleuze and Guattari propose and says that its history as a workhorse is vital to its role as a film horse.
If Tarr wishes to acknowledge in the presence of the horse its past, then a CGI horse is very far removed from the workhorse but of course from any animal presence. If actors both perform and exist then, for all the animal wrangling involved, the animal's presence is stronger than the human's by virtue of the acting's absence. This is usually countered in action so that, in the absence of acting and the refusal of presence, the animals enact: they perform actions - dogs running after criminals, horses drawing carriages or carrying cowboys, birds flying through the sky after hearing a gun go off and so on. There need be no stubbornness to these actions with computer-generated animals and hearing about Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are you can understand why a filmmaker might wish to create their own creature rather than a real dog. "The film shows an exhausting night shoot in which Jonze, the animal trainers, and the rest of the crew try everything that they can think of to coax the furry diva into performing the two tasks simultaneously. They just don't, the trainer explains helplessly. I mean, he stops and barks. He doesn't bark and run." (ScreenRant) The animal retains its own specificity as a dog no matter what the narrative wishes of him. The dog that can easily do these two things at once, the CGI dog, is a whole lot further removed from the actual dog than Deleuze and Guattari's racehorse and workhorse. Thus the computer-generated animal can offer all the actions that narrative demands: they can enact but they cannot be. While a CGI horse in numerous westerns and historical epics wouldn't be ideal; neither would it be absurd. To try giving presence to an object that is based on a digital existence, however, might be.
When we think of horses in film we are not trying to ignore their actions but what matters most is to acknowledge their presence, presence all the more pronounced when we think that the shift from the horse as an object of use to a subject of representation coincided. In other words, as the horse in the early part of the 20th century gave way to the car, so cinema put to work many horses as they returned to public consciousness as a screened presence. Once again we can think of the shift: from workhorses to screen horses, from a specific function to representation. However, if the filmmaker emphasises only the function within the representation, the presence is absent.
Let us think further on this question by looking at a handful of examples of modes of relative presence and absence. In Red River, we have two actors enormously dissimilar both riding horses. John Wayne was synonymous with the western; Montgomery Clift made only two, Red River and the Misfits, the latter a modern-day western about rodeo-riding. Clift here fits into the western that John Wayne mastered but what interests us chiefly is what happens when we focus on the horse in a scene rather than on the riders: if we ignore the story and pay attention to the animal. Are they consistent with the narrative thrust or contrary to it we might wonder; are we so used to ignoring the horse that we don't muse over this separation? At the beginning of a tense scene where the cattle the cowboys are taking across the country stampede, Clift's horse is momentarily on its hind legs and gives the impression of being as involved in the action as its rider. But look closely at the horse and it appears indifferent, as if it were preparing to eat grass. Watch the entire sequence from the horse's perspective and you have a different drama. Obviously, director Howard Hawks wants us only to see the human drama, evident when a rider and his horse fall during the stampede and, though we hear the horse neighing, the camera focuses on a close up of the rider and point of view shots of the man being crushed under the cattle.
In Unforgiven, there is a scene where Clint Eastwood struggles to get back on his old horse as he returns to his gunfighting ways and reckons: "this horse...is gettin' even with me for the cruelty I inflicted. I used to be able to cuss and whip a horse like this but your Ma God rest her soul showed me the error of my ways." Eastwood may have been recognising the various problems he had the last time he got on a horse in Pale Rider: the "horse he was riding fell through thin ice and launched him forward. Clint suffered a dislocated shoulder." (Imdb) The horse in Unforgiven is also a plow horse and an old one at that, greying with age. It is clearly too a symbol for Eastwood's character who is an ageing gunfighter now past his prime. The irony in the film is that both Eastwood's character and the horse are equal to the task that might seem beyond them: Eastwood takes out the villains and takes off on his charger.
In Heaven's Gate, as we see horses exiting the train around two-thirds of the way through the film, one horse looks like it slips as it gets off the carriage in a shot that might remind viewers a little of the scene in Andrei Rublev. Director Michael Cimino may include this moment of animal precarity but it doesn't look as if he wants to comment on it. The viewer might view it out of context to suggest how animals are often at risk in film, but it would be a stretch to claim that it is being remarked upon within the diegesis even if Heaven's Gate changed the way films were monitored. "The animal action in the film includes an actual cockfight, several horse trips, and a horse being blown up with a rider on its back. People who worked on the set verified more animal abuse, such as chickens being decapitated and steer being bled in order to use their blood to smear on the actors instead of using stage blood." American Humane adds that "the controversy surrounding the animal action in Heaven's Gate prompted the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the Alliance of Motion Picture Television Producers (AMPTP) to contractually authorize AHA oversight of animals in filmed media." It would seem unlikely that Cimino's interest in animal sensitivity was evident in the diegesis when it clearly didn't go beyond it.
One offers no criticism of these westerns as works. Red River and Heaven's Gate are masterpieces of very different kinds and Unforgiven is a fine western. It is merely to say that they are all examples of films that are reliant on the horse but not at all inclined to focus on the horse's presence. In this sense, the horse is absent even if Unforgiven ostensibly gives the horse a role as the other films do not. If Eastwood was seen late in the film riding another horse it would need to be explained: the viewer would probably notice the difference because the horse's existence has been acknowledged. But the horse in Heaven's Gate, however briefly, troublesomely and without apparently drawing attention to it as a moment of diegetic precarity, reveals itself much more. It is for a couple of seconds, present. That presence is somehow more pronounced than when in Budd Boetticher's Ride Lonesome, someone is shot, and the film cuts to a horse's shaken response. In Boetticher's film, it serves chiefly as a metaphoric moment, a common enough device in classic cinema where violence is implied rather than explicitly shown, and in this sense not unlike Eastwood's horse serving as a symbol of his own decline.
In contrast, though Luchino Visconti has little use for horses in his 19th century set L'innocente, with much of the film taking place in opulent interiors, nevertheless some moments give the horses a presence, and perhaps all the more so if we think of their complete absence in a similar moment in Dr Zhivago. In a scene forty minutes into the film where the central character arrives at his mother's house, the film shoots not from inside the carriage or from a distant long shot but from behind the horses. This wouldn't seem so unusual if the carriage driver was a vital character or if in the scene we had been given any reason to view events from his point of view. By remaining invisible, the horses become visible. The film gives us a sense of their power and force as the carriage pulls up outside the house. In another scene late into the film, it seems like Visconti offers a similar approach to Lean in Dr Zhivago. Here we have the central character and his lover arriving at his home and we focus initially and exclusively on the pair of them in the carriage. But as they arrive at the building, a medium-long shot shows the horses on the left-hand side of the frame, and one of the horses offers a ferocious turn of its neck as though acknowledging the arduousness of pulling a carriage and three people.
Anecdotally, we can note Visconti wouldn't have been indifferent to the horses. "Educated in the privileged and opulent Art Deco milieu, Visconti developed, in his twenties, a passion for the sport of kingsbreeding, training and racing horses." (The Florentine) He more than most would know the difference between racehorses and workhorses but what matters is that the horses have a presence, however modest. Next to The Turin Horse, they hardly exist but next to Dr Zhivago and Red River they have a sense of more than their function. It is in their exclusive use as a function in David Lean and Howard Hawks' films that they are absent because, though they are obviously present within the narrative, they are often little more there than a car or a bus. When Martin Heidegger addresses the problem of usefulness in Being and Time, and Graham Harman attends to Heidegger and Husserl on Object-Oriented Ontology, we have a dense problem that might allow us to say something about the horse in film. Without getting too intricately involved in the philosophy, and yet without one hopes simplifying certain positions, Heidegger notes three problems concerning our relation with tools: the obstinate, the obtrusive and the conspicuous. In the obstinate, things can get in the way; where one might have to clear the workbench before getting started. Then there is the obtrusive, which means the tool we need isn't there, and then there is the conspicuous when the tool is there but happens to be broken. For Jonathan Hale, thinking of Harman and Heidegger, "this is where that shift of perception starts to happen in the midst of performing the task." He quotes Heidegger saying: "When we concern ourselves with something, the entities which are most closely ready-to-hand may be met as something unusable, not properly adapted for the use we have decided upon... We discover its unusability, however, not by looking at it and establishing its properties, but rather by the circumspection of the dealings in which we use it." (Being and Time) Heidegger notes that "in conspicuousness, obtrusiveness and obstinacy, that which is ready to hand loses its readiness to hand in a certain way." Graham Harman sees that central to Heidegger's point is a disagreement with Husserl: "the rebellious genius of Heidegger's tool-analysis was to show that Husserl was wrong: for the most part, dealing with things consciously is a relatively rare and derivative scenario." (Object-Oriented Ontology) But what we can note is that while an artwork asks for our attention, the hammer usually does not unless there is a problem with it that draws it to our attention. The horse in film is usually like a hammer as a character and actor in cinema are not. The character both gets to enact and also act: even the most propulsive of actors like Tom Cruise or Steve McQueen have numerous moments where they are dys-functional where they must reflect after a buddy's death or take stock of a situation that shows them looking at available options. The more dys-function required, the better or more apparent the actor. A Cruise film minimises it; a Day-Lewis or Joaquin Phoenix film will emphasise it. Equally, the more dys-function, the more complex the character a Bergman character is usually a lot more so than one in a Tony Scott film if for no better reason than a Bergman character cannot shoot their way out of or run away from a problem. The resolution of a situation doesn't reside in an obstacle being overcome but an emotional problematic potentially comprehended. But whether it is Cruise or Day-Lewis, a Tony Scott film or an Ingmar Bergman one, actors both act and enact. Animals in film, unless anthropomorphically depicted, can only enact. Yet at the same time the filmmaker can register, if not their acting, then their non-enactment. Yet this isn't quite the same thing as saying that they are present in their inability to function as Heidegger notes about tools. In that sense, a car is present when it won't start. A horse with a broken hoof doesn't become present even if it will become narratively pertinent as it wouldn't have been if it could ride normally. It becomes present only if the filmmaker acknowledges its presence: its being there as a horse.
However rather than seeing this as a binary process of a horse's presence or absence in the film, better to see it as a continuum of acknowledged presence or absence. One could watch L'Innocente without thinking of the horses at all, but we couldn't watch The Turin Horse without doing so. Tarr and his team insist on predicating the work on the horse of the title and the horse we see on screen, but once we start thinking of horses in cinema we will find many instances where their presence becomes at various moments manifest. Some critics and commentators have seen this presencing as often evident in the animal's existence as opposed to an actor's performance; others as very understandably problematic. Frequently the animal is present in their pain and we are no longer lost in the diegesis but witnessing the documentative. We might sense this in the example we have given from Heaven's Gate. Vivian Sobchack reckons an animal's "quivering death leap transformed fictional into documentary space, symbolic into indexical representation, my affective investment in the real and fictional into a documentary consciousness charged with a sense of world, existence, bodily mortification and mortality, and all the rest of the real that is in excess of fiction." (Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture) Bazin says that "'[d]eath is surely one of those rare events that justifies the term [...] cinematic specificity'." ('Death Every Afternoon')
Both remarks are picked up on by McMahon who says of Bazin's claim, "Bazin seems more interested in what the animal's death means for cinema rather than what it means for the animal." (Cinematic Time and Animal Worlds) McMahon also sees that an analysis offering such a stance is a problem: "the limit position of the animal risks being essentialised: the animal is equated with the real/contingency/excess/the impossible/the 'essence' of cinema itself. These theoretical moves inevitably flatten out the question of animal worlds because animals are seen only to make meaning for the cinema rather than for themselves." (Cinematic Time and Animal Worlds) Whether it is the elephant deliberately killed on film in Edison's 'Electrocuting an Elephant' or the bull killed in 'Bullfight', the ontological reality is the same even if the moral difference is pronounced. In the former instance, Edison thinks nothing of creating on film a death that we can watch, while in the latter the bullfight would take place whether a camera is present or not. Many films have refused to harm animals deliberately but numerous works have utilised footage of animals killed by others.
In the Australian film Wake in Fright "to capture the footage [director Ted] Kotcheff and his crew joined an actual session of kangaroo culling that played out similarly to the events in the film. Members of the crew were shocked to find the hunters drinking during the hunt and described the event as an 'orgy of killing'." (Senses of Cinema) No kangaroo was harmed in the making of the film but harmed kangaroos were used by the film. Morally, the position is distinct from Edison's but ontologically we are still seeing actual death on screen. We can be both morally and ontologically horrified in the first instance; merely ontologically horrified in the latter. When an actor dies on screen, it is taken for granted that we have witnessed a diegetic death; frequently when animals die in the cinema we are watching not a performance but an existence, and in its death the existence becomes all the more pronounced as its life ends. Such a problem rests partly on the ease with which an actor can die plausibly within the diegesis, and the difficulty of getting an animal to die within the story. Bazin's preoccupation with film as a medium of the real allows him to accept death on screen as someone who is either more concerned with the animal (as McMahon may seem to be), or rather less concerned with the status of cinema as an indexical form, will not. A person who is fine with cinema that becomes increasingly, digitally enhanced won't see the loss to the medium and will instead see a gain for the animal world, or at least a viewer's sensitivity towards it.
When McMahon wonders whether Bazin is more concerned with the status of film over the status of the animal, from a certain point of view the answer would be yes, just as one can say Michael Haneke is Bazinian in his interest in the documentative even if contains potentially the ethically problematic, a problem evident in films far away from CGI cinema and closer to the Bazinian. Speaking of the pigeon in Amour, Haneke said: "that was awful! There were little seeds to guide it, but it went its own way through the apartment, always differently. (Guardian) It survived, however, unlike its fellow creatures in previous Haneke films. The family dog is the first victim in Funny Games, several horses have their throats slit in The Time of the Wolf, and Benny's Video begins with the butchery of a squealing pig - Haneke's perfectionism required the sacrifice of three swine. Of course, he had a theory ready to account for this carnage. It is a hierarchy of power, he said. Men on top, then women, then children, then animals at the lowest end. They are the ones that have to bear it." (Guardian) Haneke, like Bazin, may not want the animal harmed but he does want to see a pro-filmic reality at work: he wants film to capture what is front of us, even if that may be hard to watch.
In contrast, the special effects advisor on 2016's The Jungle Book, Rob Legato, notes that "it would take 30-40 hours per frame, and since it's stereo [or 3D], it requires two frames to produce one frame of the movie at 2K, not even 4K," Legato says, "so you can tell how much the computer has to figure out, exactly what it's doing, how it's bouncing, how much of the light is absorbed, because when it hits an object, some gets absorbed and some gets reflected." (Inverse) Undeniably no animals were harmed in the filming but no animals were evident at all. The only actor in the film had no interaction with animals whatsoever: "We motion-captured Neel [Sethi], and we had humans kind of mimicking the animals he talked to so we could see a live digital composite of Neel with the dialogue with the bear or other animals, so we created eyelines for him to look at." (Inverse) If Berger suggested a marginalisation of the animal in his essay written in 1980, when animals were at least everywhere in cinema, then what would he make of this absence that becomes no more than a digital presence?
By analogy, it is a little like cruelty-free meat, the idea that no animal was harmed in the making of this meaty meal just as no animals were harmed in a CGI production. "Cultured meat, produced in bioreactors from muscle cells taken from live animals, has been approved for the first time by a regulatory authority" Barbara Ellen says in the Guardian. If something in both these scenarios troubles us, is it just because we have an out-dated notion of food and film? Perhaps, or it might be that such ideas disturb us because we feel that the immediate solution contains within it a deeper problem. Ellen says, as a vegetarian, "I wouldn't eat lab meat, but I love the thought of others being able to consume safe, cruelty-free meat with a clean conscience. If animals aren't suffering, if the environment benefits, there's no issue... right?" That ellipsis in the sentence is far from a Heideggerian one as Ellen says people who have a problem with lab-meat would prefer if we weaned ourselves off it altogether. But our problem with both the cinematic absence of animals and the replacement with living meat with dead meat, with animals who are farmed and animals that are cloned, is that both remove the interactive aspect that generates all sorts of questions in our being and our place in the world. The lab meat and the studio animals are examples of the calculative playing havoc with our being. When Heidegger says "only to the extent that man for his part is already challenged to exploit the energies of nature can this revealing that orders happen. If man is challenged, ordered, to do this, then does not man himself belong even more originally than nature within the standing reserve?" ('The Question Concerning Technology') In other words, man finds himself in the process of master and slave simultaneously. By controlling his environment he also becomes at the mercy of his new creation. Heidegger compares a mid-twentieth century forester with his grandfather and sees that while ostensibly doing the same job, the grandson is "made surbordinate to the orderability of cellulose, which for its part is challenged forth by the need for paper, which is then delivered to newspapers and illustrated magazines." ('The Question Concerning Technology')
We can create digital animals and we can create lab meat but that doesn't mean we should, especially if one feels the possibility of losses elsewhere. We may not wish to see animal cruelty on film but to avoid doing so must animals be banished from the screen altogether and be replaced by digital direction, one that leaves the special effects advisor as the creator of the work? We exaggerate perhaps, and for most of cinema's history animated films have brought cats, dogs and elephants to life on paper, rather than recording actual animals. Yet there was no sense that Dumbo was going to replace the elephants in Magambo. Someone might still object and say that many a classic Hollywood film used back projection and stock footage (Magambo was partly shot in a studio despite locations using various parts of Africa); but even if the foreground was a studio interior and the latter a generic elephant shoot, the elephant existed albeit in a different time and place.
Let us not make too much of this but instead end by acknowledging what we see as the presence of horses on film, to see them not as functions of the plot where they enact but beings who can be in their non-acting. At the end of Kagemusha, we see a series of horses after battle. The director Akira Kurosawa suggests that they are in the middle of human defeat, looking as if they have suffered no less than the soldiers but are bewildered by their world, by their suffering. In contrast to Red River, which asks us to ignore the horses all the better to focus on the actions of men, Kurosawa in this scene asks us to acknowledge in various manifestations the presence of the horse. The warriors are both cognizant of and responsible for their pain, they are samurai who live by the sword and die by it but who take with them in their vainglory the lives of animals who do not know why they are in the midst of the turmoil in which they find themselves. There are many films of course that show us horses dying in battle along with their riders but the collateral nature of the damage rarely countenances attending to the horses themselves. They might be part of the debris of battle but Kurosawa wants to suggest more than that. He captures well their dis-orientation; that their world is confused. At one moment we see a horse not with a rider on their back but with their back on the ground, their legs in the air as their world really has been literally turned upside down. It is here in such moments we can see the horse's presence, even we might at the same time wonder how exactly Kurosawa achieved the horse's upside-down state. In this scene, we are with the horse more than the rider who is as anonymous in this instance as the horse usually happens to be.
One might think too, of a few brief shots in Grigori Kozintsev's King Lear, especially a short scene where we see horses stealthily moving through a field with neither soldiers on their back nor pulling a cart. They are shown freely and for themselves even if they also reflect a broader chaos as the weather is stormy and Prokofiev's soundtrack furiously registers the madness to which Lear is succumbing. Yet nevertheless, they exist in a purpose that is their own and that we cannot understand as they are neither serving a human action nor anthropomorphically given an agency, one that we often find in animated films about animals that act without human direction but suggest human characteristic nevertheless, from The Aristocats to Bambi. The horses exist as pro-filmic fact, and also in something resembling their presence. The viewer doesn't watch for a rider to jump upon its back or for a horse pulling a carriage towards its destination. In another moment we see a horse scrambling up a small hill after Cordelia and her husband have returned from France. It resembles just a little that shot from Heaven's Gate but we might think in this instance that Kozintsev has included it to show the animal in its struggle.
Our final example to conclude this essay comes from Lancelot du Lac. The director Robert Bresson had earlier given an animal a key role in Balthazar, au Hazard as the film followed the trajectory of the donkey of the title rather than the characters which surround it. Throughout Lancelot du Lac the presence of the horse is manifest. Bresson has always been interested in defamiliarisation, making of his shots new things out of old things by a different emphasis. It might be a character entering through a door and where the cinematic framing suggests the door handle is as important as the person coming in, or where someone in a fight will be grabbed by their jumper and thrown across a room, and all we see is the hand after it has pushed the person and the table that is turned over in the melee. In Lancelot du Lac the framing frequently defamiliarises the typical film relationship between humans and horses. When a third of the way through the film the knights get on their horse, Bresson shows us a series of matching edits of each rider getting on the horse but doesn't show their faces once aloft. Throughout we see more of the horses than we do of the knights. At the end of the film when the knights lose their lives in the forest, Bresson shows us a horse with an arrow in its head and its eye disconcertingly wide open. It is still alive and twitches with animation before a cut to the birds returns us to one knight struggling to get up as the horse blinks next to him. The knight walks off and Bresson stays with the horse briefly. A few moments later we see the knight joining the other knights as he falls upon them with the last bit of life he has in him and, together in their armour, they look like scrap metal. The horse seems more real to us than the humans, more in its body than all these knights who throughout the film have clunked around in their protective gear. It is one of the key sounds the film utilises, but we also have the neighing of the horses and the cawing of crows suggesting a world beyond their clunky honour.
When Heidegger distinguishes between behaviour and comportment he does so to separate the animal from the human, to suggest that animals can never finally escape themselves, to transcend themselves. "...our behaviourin this proper sensecan only be described in this way because it is a comportment... because the specific manner of being which belongs to man is quite different and involves not behaviour but comporting oneself toward. . . ." Thus Heidegger sees "the specific manner in which man is we shall call comportment and the specific manner in which the animal is we shall call behaviour." ('Disruptive Behavior: Heidegger and the Captivated Animal') Brett Buchannan who quotes Heidegger here also mentions the German philosopher saying: behaviour is thus the animal's "absorption in itself", what Heidegger sees as captivation." We don't want to clutter the conclusion of this essay with weighty terms by the German philosopher but it might be useful to think of how, if an "animal remains within itself", film can capture that aspect rather than the animal's function. If the horse is usually marginalised in film, it rests on our ability to ignore its presence and attend to the uses that are made of it narratively: to see how human comportment utilises its behaviour, forces it into a use function and then all but ignores the horse behind that function. In our examples from Visconti, Bresson, Kurosawa and Kozintsev, in the monumental presencing that takes place in The Turin Horse, one sees a presence coming through as the function recedes.
Much of the work by Buchanan, McMahon, Anat Pick and others are concerned very understandably with how animals differ or otherwise ontologically from humans. Our purpose has been to propose how they might be seen differently from humans onscreen, and how at the very least their presence may be recognised. John Berger wonders if "the animals of the mind, instead of being dispersed, have been co-opted into other categories so that the category animal has lost its central importance." ('Why Look at Animals?') Our hope has been to return it, just a little, to that central role taking into account how Tarkovsky's horse didn't only die in the film and for its making. We should note too that also the very substance of the celluloid itself would have been made potentially out of horses' bones. As Peta says "we do not know of any film that is made without gelatin" and of course, gelatin is made from "protein obtained by boiling skin, tendons, ligaments, and/or bones with water." (Peta) This does not only come from horses of course it came from cows and pigs too. "From the oil used to power film production, transmission and consumption, to the collagen-containing gelatin of the filmstrip emulsion, the stearic acid in the plastic parts of computers, or the human labour in front of and behind the camera..." Anat Pick and Guinevere Narraway note, "...animal life is quite literally the stuff of images." (Screening Nature) From a certain point of view, the horse has always been on screen in the very material that allowed the film to exist, as well as their presence and absence in numerous films. That most fundamental of existences as an emulsive surface seems the ultimate and terrible example of that presence and its absence.
© Tony McKibbin