Friday, February 13, 2015

35 Years Later, Infamous Flop Still Bad

This year marks the 35th anniversary of "Heaven's Gate," the infamous cinematic flop that bankrupted the United Artists studio. While there seems to be a growing urge among critics to rehabilitate the film's reputation, I must reluctantly side with the original consensus. Director Michael Chimino's vision of class struggle on the American West is an absolute snoozefest, despite increasingly topical subject matter. Moreover, animal abuse involved in production has been completely lost in discussion of the movie's legacy. Meanwhile, the film's narrative highlights the historic entanglement of violence against humans and animals.

It's hard to overemphasize what a critical and commercial disaster "Heaven's Gate" was upon its release in 1980. The film was initially provided a $12-million budget, but this grew to a then-astronomic total of $44 million, due to Cimino's endless retakes and insistence on historical authenticity, among other things. In the end, "Heaven's Gate" recouped a mere $3.4 million at the box office, while receiving a critical drubbing. In the New York Times, Vincent Canby likened it to a "forced four-hour walking tour of one's own living room."

As mentioned, in recent years there has been a noticeable trend among critics to reevaluate the film more favorably. For instance, in 2011, Time Out London staff named it the 12th greatest western of all time. The following year, in the New York Times, Dennis Lim argued that "present-day viewers may well find that time has been kind to 'Heaven’s Gate,'" describing the film as an "elegiac rethinking of the myths of the West and the western." Writing for the Guardian in 2013, Peter Bradshaw called it a "spectacular western epic," both "colossally ambitious and mysteriously moving." Despite my sincere desire to join this positive reassessment, I can't honestly do so. Admittedly, I haven't seen Cimino's most recent, 216-minute cut, which the 2012 Venice Film director called an "absolute masterpiece." But if it's anything like the 219-minute version available on Amazon, I can say that though the movie is beautifully shot, it remains tremendously boring and overlong.

Further, the allegations of animal cruelty perpetrated during its production should not be forgotten or ignored. According to the American Humane Society's review of "Heaven's Gate," the movie "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." Ultimately, this led the actors' guild and the producers' association to authorize the American Humane Society to monitor all animal use in film. But as a recent expose in the Hollywood Reporter demonstrated, the oversight is far from adequate. One hopes that if "Heaven's Gate" were made now it would rely solely on CGI animals.

What the film does offer is an illustration of how violence against humans and animals has historically overlapped. As sociologist David Nibert put it, "harms that humans have done to other animals — especially that harm generated by pastoralist and ranching practices that have culminated in contemporary factory-farming practices — have been a precondition for and have engendered large-scale violence against and injury to devalued humans." Primarily Nibert traces European colonization, showing how violence against indigenous populations was often made possible and motivated by animal exploitation. "Heaven's Gate," set in 1890s Wyoming and loosely based on the Johnson County War, follows a similar pattern, though the human victims in this case are European immigrants. In Cimino's film, rich cattle barons, whose wealth is generated through the murder of cows, kill those impoverished settlers who threaten their herds.

But this unintentional representation of a historic phenomenon is not nearly enough to save "Heaven's Gate." Thirty-five years after its release, don't fall for the revisionist hype. Because it's still a bad movie — purely on artistic terms. Worse than that, the production involved willful torture of animals. 

By Jon Hochschartner

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Goldfish Enrichment and Wildlife Rehabilitation

As a Virginia resident, I follow the "wildlife"1 rehabilitation efforts of the Wildlife Center of Virginia, efforts which often entail heartwarming stories about bear cub rescues (something I've always found ironic, as it is completely legal to shoot and kill bears in my state). There is also a lot of focus on saving eagles, and the Center's social media site often posts links to webcam feeds of animals healing and playing in their enclosures or inspiring videos of eagle releases. Today they posted a video of "fish enrichment" for eagles on the mend.

In the video, we see a crude plastic pool imprisoning several fishes2 with no filter, no pebbles, no air pump, and no plants or hiding places. The fishes seem to be treated as though they have no interests and they exist solely for the eagle to jump on, harass, terrify, and kill. The Wildlife Center posted the video as a cute update on the rehabilitation status of Buddy the eagle, but all I could see was the cruel and tortured existence of the goldfishes who have been completely objectified for the Virginian fetishization of eagles. Indeed, no commentator to date has expressed any unease with the well-being of the fishes on Facebook or YouTube. Viewers simply see this video as "cute" and entertaining.

It should go without saying, but the goldfish industry is one that imposes great amounts of suffering on fishes, and goldfishes are a highly sensitive animal who easily succumb to inferior habitats, water that has not been treated, and stressful conditions.

Like bears and eagles, goldfishes are sentient and social animals.

"Wildlife" rehabilitation reinforces the notion that some animals (usually charismatic megafauna) are more important than other animals (like goldfishes and the animals we kill for food, clothes, sport, and entertainment).  I've also seen the Wildlife Center asking Virginia "hunters" to please switch to non-lead ammunition, so that scavengers will not be poisoned by ingesting the corpses of deers, turkeys, and other animals who matter less. The notion that "hunting"3 might be a problem in itself is never addressed. Our thinking about other animals is quite compartmentalized. Compartmentalization helps us to reconcile our inherent empathy for other animals with our existence in a society that systemically exploits Nonhuman Animals for our benefit.

What's to be done with animals like eagles that need to consume the corpses of other animals to survive? I believe there are alternatives that can be explored. Goldfish "enrichment," however, is most certainly not a requirement for eagle rehabilitation and cannot be morally justified.

1. "Wildlife" is an objectifying pejorative best replaced with "free-living animals."
2. I avoid mass terms like "deer" or "turkey," which work to deindividualize some species.
3. "Hunting" is a euphemism for systemic violence against Nonhuman Animals.

Monday, February 2, 2015

What Can Buster Keaton Teach Us About Animal Abuse?

This year marks the 90th anniversary of Buster Keaton's pastoral comedy "Go West," which in its own clumsy way explores humanity's domination of animals. The 1925 silent film, that Pauline Kael described as one of Keaton's lesser works, and which I will momentarily spoil, centers on a lonesome ranch hand who befriends a cow. In a bizarrely-triumphant finale, he rescues her from death, while leading the rest of her herd to slaughter. I'm genuinely unsure what one is supposed to make of it.

It should be mentioned the production clearly treated its non-human cast in an egregious manner. Sadly, one doubts Keaton saw anything objectionable in this. After all, much of the abuse was likely standard practice in his era's flesh industry, which has since only grown more brutal. Further, Keaton himself was no stranger to rough treatment, having worked in vaudeville from a young age. As Roger Ebert noted, "by the time he was 3, [Keaton] was being thrown around the stage and into the orchestra pit, and his little suits even had a handle concealed at the waist, so [his father] Joe could sling him like luggage. Today this would be child abuse; then it was showbiz." Given his past and societal speciesism, one can easily imagine how Keaton might rationalize animal abuse for the sake of entertainment.

In "Go West" the ranch hand Keaton plays, called Friendless, removes a troublesome rock from the hoof of a cow he oversees. The animal, named Brown Eyes, subsequently saves him from a charging bull. So their bond begins to form. The movie's laughs are designed to come from Friendless' ineptitude at ranching, with his seeming inability to objectify Brown Eyes as a mere head of livestock perhaps being the prime example. When he sees the cow is slated to be painfully branded, Friendless attempts to hide her behind some shrubbery. After being discovered, he shaves the desired marking into her hair, creating the illusion of scorched tissue, which successfully fools the owner. Eventually, it's time for Brown Eyes to be shipped to slaughter. Keaton's character violently opposes this, drawing his pistol on another ranch hand and shoving his boss out of the way. But it's no use. The owner refuses Friendless' offer to purchase the animal with his remaining wages, saying, "You can't buy her, she'll bring twice that much."

The herd is then loaded onto a train for a Los Angeles stockyard. During the trip, the transport is attacked by bandits, leaving Keaton's character to manage the animals on his own. Upon arrival, he initially moves to escape with Brown Eyes, leaving the rest of the herd in confinement. But remembering his boss' financial insecurities, Friendless decides to bring the herd to the abattoir. When I first saw the film, I initially thought in releasing the animals from their boxcars he intended to bring them to freedom and safety. I was surprised when he ultimately brought them to the stockyard gates, for which the boss granted him ownership of Brown Eyes, something he could not have counted on.

So why did Keaton's character, despite apparently valuing one of their kind, choose to bring the animals to slaughter? Broadly I see three explanations. The first is he valued the entire herd, but saw their deaths as inevitable, and for whatever reason thought bringing them to the stockyards himself was the best option for all. The second is he only valued Brown Eyes, as an exception to his overarching speciesism. And the third is Keaton's character didn't transcend the anthropocentric paradigm at all, and rescued his chosen cow merely for the benefits she could provide him, in this case, companionship. Regardless, the film's cheery ending does not seem to match the facts of the situation. 

By Jon Hochschartner