After recently seeing Lars Von Trier’s incredible film Dogville (2003) I was keen to check out the sequel Manderlay (2005). However whilst reading about the film online I discovered the story of John C. Reilly. Reilly is probably best known recently for his involvement in silly comedies such as the Will Ferrell vehicles Talladega Nights (2006) and Step Brothers (2008) and has also appeared in the more serious fare such as The Thin Red Line (1998) and Magnolia (1999). The story went that whilst filming on the set of Manderlay, Reilly, a vegetarian, became aware of the fact that a donkey was set to be slaughtered for the purposes of the film. As a result, Reilly refused to work further on the film and stormed off the European set in protest. A little further reading cast doubt on the veracity of this story. The donkey was killed, but it was doubtful that it was the reason Reilly walked off set. In fact he never even made it on set, the reason appearing to be his part had been cut to be so small, it was not worth the trip to Europe to complete filming. The script that Reilly was sent did feature the donkey slaughter so it may have contributed to his decision to abandon the venture. When pressed on the slaughter of the donkey, Von Trier’s response was essentially that the donkey was old, and was going to die anyway.
I have been vegetarian for a few years now and have recently transitioned to a vegan lifestyle. Wherever possible I try and restrict the ways in which my life adversely affects the lives of animals, leading to their mistreatment and/or death. I no longer purchase leather and choose products not tested on animals wherever possible. So is it hypocritical of me not to apply these philosophical tenets to my passion of watching and writing about film? There are a reasonable number of vegetarians who wear a leather belt and shoes to work and I have always found this strange and somewhat hypocritical. I also feel that the way the industry is currently structured, there is a fundamental hypocrisy in eating a vegetarian, not vegan diet (I do not mean for this to be derisory toward vegetarians. The shift to a vegan diet for me has been a tough one and one I have had to think over deeply. If everyone on earth went vegetarian I would be a happy man). But am I any different? Many films, especially of an older era where animal rights was not an issue so central to the public consciousness, feature shocking acts of animal cruelty. Two films on the 1001 list which I have seen, but not yet blogged on fall into this boat. The Sergei Eisenstein silent classic Strike (1924) features the brutal slaughter of a cow intercut with other images toward the close of the film. Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War-set adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now (1979) features an even more shocking and inhumane example of animal cruelty when the local population brutally slaughters a water buffalo with machetes. Like Eisenstein, Coppola cuts this image with others. But the slaughter is still shown unflinchingly, from a stationary camera. The viewer sees the machetes scythe deep into the flesh of the buffalo, exposing its flesh as it slumps to its death. It is truly a confronting scene and one I struggled to watch.
Even between these two examples I feel I can draw distinctions. When Coppola was making his film animal rights were much more of a notable issue. The American Humane Society had begun issuing it’s “no animals were harmed” end credit to films as far back as 1940. Apocalypse Now unsurprisingly did not receive such a stamp , rather receiving an “unacceptable” rating from the society. Whatever the case, Coppola certainly understood that by filming the graphic slaughter, he was ignoring the notion of animal rights for some notion of artistic glory. The slaughter does not even add much to the end product of the film from memory, contributing to the overall vagueness and ‘otherworldliness’ of this world controlled by Marlon Brando’s Kurtz that Martin Sheen’s Marlowe now finds himself in. I am doubting highly that in 1920’s Russia, Eisenstein had a body such as the Humane Society for him to appease. For some reason I think that his is less of a crime so to speak, but this may just be ignorance on my part. Thinking that just because animals rights, in general and in the sphere of cinema, was less of an issue early in 20th century than later on when Coppola was making his film. No doubt Eisenstein was aware that the cow he was killing was a living, breathing, feeling entity just like him. I also feel that the slaughter adds more to his film than Coppola’s does. But should this be a consideration at all? Probably not. A question easier for me to answer is will I watch these films again? Yes I will, and I will watch any films on the 1001 list that I become aware feature examples of mistreatment. I have set my task to watch and write about them all and I intend on completing that task (however slowly). Perhaps to remain ‘true’ to my moral standpoint on the treatment of animals though I need to address and draw attention to these scenes, however briefly.
Will I put money in the pockets of film producers who should and do know better though? No, I will do my best not to. One of the instances that prompted me to write this piece was that not too long ago me and my (also vegan) girlfriend were looking for a film to catch at the cinemas. When we came to Water for Elephants (2011), a film I was none too fussed about seeing, my partner informed me she refused to see it because she had read about the manner in which the main elephant used in the film had been trained prior to filming. I will not see Water for Elephants*** and I wish I had not seen The Hangover 2 (2011) (recently serious questions have been raised regarding the treatment of the ‘drug dealing monkey’ in that film… plus it was shit). In a funny way, at least in my head, money comes into it. If I was to go and see a current film release I know featured questionable treatment of animals then I would feel like I was directly funding their abuse. I don’t think Sergei Eisenstein is cashing too many cheques because of me watching Strike. Even hiring a DVD such as Manderlay would seem like less of a direct endorsement, or at least provision of financial benefit than attending a cinematic release. And does, or should intention come into it. If a movie depicts the slaughter of an animal to promote a cause I believe in, does that make it different to one that mistreats animals for the sake of ‘entertainment’. There are numerous scenes of animal slaughter in Fast Food Nation (2006), however this film presents an anti-big business and fast food sentiment that I agree with. Conversely a film such as Jackass 3D (2010) which I have raised my issues with previously, in my view is unacceptable as animals are mistreated horribly for some sick notion of humour.*** So for me, whether rightly or wrongly a spade is not necessarily a spade. Intention and notions of my personal financial endorsement come into it.
I would be interested as always to hear your thoughts on this one. Am I just taking my vego-political correctness too far, or not far enough? Or would it be hypocritical of me to see a film where I am well aware that an animal has been slaughtered to supposedly ‘enhance’ the experience. By viewing a film such as Manderlay, or Water for Elephants would I be like that strange breed of vegetarians who find eating meat abhorrent but wear a leather belt and shoes to work.
***Note: It is worth mentioning that both of these films received positive endorsements from the American Humane Society. Water for Elephants received an “outstanding” rating. However this rating refers only to events on-set, and is in no way an endorsement of the prior training of the animals. Jackass 3D received an “acceptable” rating because not all of the scenes were able to be monitored by the Humane Society, however no animals were harmed in those they did monitor. Quite amazingly (given that there has never been anything really raised about it) it turns out a lot of the Jackass stunts are actually faked. There is a massive database of American Humane Society ratings for films that you can find here: http://www.americanhumanefilmtv.org/movie-review-archives/