COLLECTION #4: FELINES AND CANINES

The Mongreloid 1978 George Kuchar
The Mongreloid, 1978, dir. George Kuchar

The fourth instalment of COLLECTIONS, a monthly series in which Daniel & Clara gather together thematically connected materials as they map their own path through the history of cinema and moving image art.

 

Google ‘cat videos’ and you get 3,830,000,000 results, ‘dog videos’ and you get 12,090,000,000. The desire to record our beloved pets is universal, the human species seems to have a compulsion to capture our four legged friends in moments of humour and cuteness as well as weird or even aggressive behaviour.

This fascination with our animal companions isn’t new, in fact the depiction of cats and dogs in images goes back to our ancient ancestors so it is not surprising that now, when each of us has an image making device constantly attached to our hands, we frequently turn its lens toward our cats and dogs.

Of course the filming of cats and dogs didn’t begin with the invention of phone cameras or even the invention of the home-movie, our furry friends have made themselves visible on screen since the beginning of cinema itself. In this collection you will find ten examples of moments when felines and canines become the central subject (invited or not) of short films and moving image works dating from 1895 to 2017.

Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon (1895) – one of the first films ever made, shown at the famous Lumière screening at the Grand Café in Paris in 1895 – features not only the factory workers as they leave through the factory gates but also a large dog whose presence in the scene steals the show. There are three versions of this 50-second film, each with slight differences, each shot within a couple of months of each other, but they all feature a dog who walks in and out of the frame, accompanying the workers in this historic cinematic moment.

Watching the three versions one after the other, a narrative builds up – as the gates open, a dog lingers just outside as if waiting for its owner to appear amongst the torrent of people; then it playfully chases one of the workers across the frame and out of sight; a moment later, it walks casually back into frame, wagging its tail at the workers as if greeting them, before trotting out frame left, scared by a horse driven carriage that comes out through the gate as this version ends. In the next two versions, the dog runs alongside a man on a bicycle, dashes across the street in the foreground and out of sight before a horse carriage, and then trots into view again for a final look as the factory gates close and the film ends.

As we watch with our attention on the dog rather than the workers, its appearances mark the sequence of events almost like plot points, especially in the last two versions. The consistency of the dog’s actions make us read it like a character, making us wonder about how much this scene was directed, whether the movements in this “actualité” are choreographed or constructed. At the same time, one can’t help but read a personality into the brief glimpses of the dog, who comes across as both calm and friendly and excited. In both its consistency of action and its spontaneity, the dog adds a touch of playfulness, an immediacy and also an unexpected warmth to this ordinary scene – perhaps these are some of the reasons humans keep pets in the first place?

Andy Warhol’s Eat (1964) is a part of those early Warhol films which Jonas Mekas has described as “taking cinema back to its origins, to the days of Lumière”, for his use of fixed-camera shots recording single, apparently banal, events. Though this technique may appear simple, and to some even naïve, we stand with Mekas in defence of Warhol as a truly original filmmaker who has deeply understood the language of the medium and used its restrictions to create complex works which renew the act of looking.

Eat is in many ways a continuation of Warhol’s lifelong work of portraiture. In this 39 minute film, we see a static close-up shot of the painter Robert Indiana while he eats a mushroom. Like most of Warhol’s early films, Eat is screened at 16fps, slightly slower than the recorded frame rate of 24fps. Time is extended while we are fixed in space, creating a cinematic equivalent to a meditative stance. But all is not as straightforward as we might think, Warhol rearranges the 100ft reels out of chronological order, jolting us back and forward in time every 4 minutes or so. Still the experience is one where our narrative expectations are lowered, we aren’t expecting great dramatic events, instead we find ourselves paying attention to all the subtle things that are happening, every nuance of Indiana’s expression and every element of the mise-en-scène is scrutinised and reflected upon. We recognise that even though Robert Indiana is very relaxed in front of the camera, this particular act of eating is not really a mundane event, it is a performance for the camera – this is not a document witnessing daily life, but an action lifted out of life into a restrained set of conditions in order that we can better observe it.

Then at about 17 minutes in, at the start of a new reel, we are surprised by the unexpected appearance of a cat, held up by Indiana next to his head. The cat, like many subjects of Warhol’s screen tests, stares at the camera looking into and beyond the lens but, unlike many of Warhol’s attention-hungry stars, the cat seems indifferent to the situation and loses interest after only a few minutes. As in Workers Leaving the Factory, the animal introduces a significant “plot point” in the narrative of Eat as well as a sense of spontaneity, as there is something irrepressibly present in the cat’s gaze as it takes in what’s going on around it. The cat’s fixed stare at the camera – curious, a bit wary maybe, as if waiting for something to happen – amusingly matches our own attention peering at the screen.

George Kuchar’s The Mongreloid (1978) cannot be described as anything other than a love letter from a devoted human to their dog. In this delightful short film, George Kuchar sits down with his dog Bocko and talks about their life together, recounting some of their adventures over the years, remembering places they visited together and things they experienced. As he speaks, the film cuts to pictures and home movie footage of some of those moments. In his characteristic style, Kuchar treats everyday, diaristic subjects with a dramatic cinematic flare, bringing out of the everyday an almost mythical sense of narrative, resonant with the great American myths like the gold rush to the West and the wildness of the great outdoors.

Kuchar’s exquisite use of a collage technique in the soundtrack is crucial in directing our reading of the narrative, he cuts up old movie soundtracks to insert fragments that give particular inflections to the stories he’s telling. He also uses songs from musicals which, when superimposed over scenes, help to imbue those particular instances of personal life with collectively understood narrative contexts. The music he uses throughout much of his work often adds a meteorological element to the scenes, infusing them with the energy of wind, rain or storm. There is an especially enchanting instance of this in The Mongreloid, when the wind-like rhythm and melody in the soundtrack matches a shot of Bocko looking out onto a lake, his ears flapping like wings in the wind. Bocko’s life is, in this way, celebrated like that of a great American hero, an adventure story spanning from coast to coast, a life lived to the full in which he has known freedom, love and glory, with some embarrassing anecdotes on top.

Agnès Varda’s love of cats is well-known, but it is in Hommage à Zgougou (2002) that we see them as the main focus of a film. Zgougou is one of two cats who grace Varda’s office with their presence, but Zgougou, Varda tells us, is the queen. We learn how she takes over the top of Varda’s computer as a perfect spot for a nap, how she enters the scene and purrs loudly whenever interviews are taking place and how she also likes to pose for the camera. The film is a charming tale of our willingness to indulge our beloved pets in their eccentricities, it shows how willing we are to go out of our way to please them. Varda’s narration has sometimes the tone of a self-aware anecdote, laughing perhaps more than anything at her own submission to this wonderful creature, but at its core this is a sincere compliment to Zgougou, an acknowledgement of her being her own cat-self without compromise, an “old angel with a kitten’s soul”, with whom Varda has been sharing her life.

A similar devotion to cats is present in Carolee Schneemann’s Infinity Kisses (2008) albeit here with a more intimate tone. A series of photographs are shown digitised and transformed by video as they blow-out to white momentarily in the transition between each image. Each shot shows the artist kissing her cats, laying eyes closed, lost in a moment of embrace caught by the flash of the camera. The grainy shots, accompanied by a soundtrack of purring and echoing rattles and drones, create a dark dream-like tone, this moment of private intimacy captured stirring questions regarding the relationship to these animals as being both dependent and erotic.

the meaning of life 1979 b. wurtz
The Meaning of Life, 1979, dir. B. Wurtz

American artist B. Wurtz goes as far as naming his 1979 super 8 film The Meaning of Life (watch here), although this title may be referring more to the absurd repetition and actions on screen than the human/cat relationship. This short two and half minute film features a man laying on the red carpeted floor of a room clicking his fingers to encourage a tabby cat to hop over him from side to side. Each time the cat takes the leap, which it seems to do reluctantly, the man rewards it with a stroke along its back. This action goes on several times while on the soundtrack we hear crackling static and repetitive beeps and clicks, occasionally with the sound of a voice breaking through announcing the time. The cat in this film is clearly uninterested in performing but the man pokes it and clicks his fingers for its attention over and over. Eventually with a cut he vanishes from shot, leaving the cat centre frame poking at what appears to be a folded hanky, which holds its interest far more than its human companion had.

Chris Marker is another filmmaker for whom cats hold a fascination, their image and their presence is felt constantly throughout his oeuvre. There is one cat in particular who takes a special significance, Guillaume-en-Egypte, his pet, who is sometimes used as an avatar for Marker himself (as in Varda’s The Beaches of Agnès). Cat Listening To Music, made in 1993, is a beautiful portrait of Guillaume, an intimate home-movie made with a master’s touch. Here Marker recalls the day he made the film: “He was fond of Ravel (any cat is) but he had a special crush on Mompou. That day (a beautiful sunny day, I remember) I placed Volume I of the complete “Mompou by Mompou” on the CD player to please him…”. As the music plays Guillaume lays extended over the piano, slumbering like only a cat can. The various shots emphasise his deep immersion in the music, in the moment, the small movements of his ears twitching and paws flexing as he sinks deeper and deeper into relaxation, soaking up the melody with all his being.

It is a powerful thing to live with an animal, each animal has its own particular rhythms and its own approach to life, one finds that one begins to see life through their eyes and is influenced by their presence and their energy. Cats are creatures of the moment, they have their own minds and do things in their own time, not when it pleases humans; and they are more private than dogs, more secretive, and therefore more mysterious. Historically they are associated with witches and magic, and for this many have been burned alive, but they have also been worshipped as gods (incidentally, in Egypt). The cat evokes a mysterious knowing, its movements are precise and soft, its body both powerful and relaxed, an embodiment of total presence.

It seems that cats reign strong as the favourite pets of artists if the films collected here are anything to go by and Joyce Wieland’s Catfood (1967) only confirms this, being another ode to the untameable free spirited feline. In this film a lounging tabby spends the duration of the film devouring three raw fish. A mackerel, a sardine and a sea bream are laid upon a white table cloth and the camera lingers over them while the cat chews its way through them with what we can’t help but read as great pleasure.

Interestingly, like Warhol, Wieland edits the shots out of sequence so we don’t witness the fish being eaten from start to finish but instead cut back and forth to different stages of the meal. Towards the end, sped up moments interrupt the realtime speed, punctuating the pace with frenetic fast chewing. The soundtrack consists of the gentle crashing of waves and the occasional ping of a ship’s bell, conjuring an atmosphere of fantasy or even a dream. This may account for the choice of opening shots which show the cat laying on its back as if half asleep or waking from a blissful catnap.

Peeping into the mysteries of a cat’s life is the subject of The Private Life Of A Cat (1945), a short black & white film by Alexander Hammid and Maya Deren. The film shows a cat family coming into being, two cats (Deren and Hammid’s pets) become parents, give birth and then watch over their young litter’s first steps. The whole film is shot from the cat’s perspective, giving the impression of a cat-only world without humans, but its use of a conventional film language and the obvious construction of the narrative through the use of point-of-view and action-reaction shots reveals a projection of an undeniably human experience onto the feline couple.

The film’s style brings to mind the Disney nature documentaries of the 1950s and it could almost be one, if it wasn’t for its explicit birth scene which got the film banned. There are two versions, a silent version with inter-titles and another version with soundtrack and narration by Deren. Even though the film is ultimately more about human experiences than the cats’, it is an intimate and moving study which boldly faces us with some of the realities of domestic life which were at the time often hidden away from the cinematic eye, and it is remarkable in its inventiveness and its adaptation of film language to the cat’s perspective. As Stan Brakhage notes in his book Film at Wit’s End: “only Maya can be responsible, for instance, for those angularities of shots which go up to indicate the cupboard where the mother cat is looking for a place to have kittens. Itʼs only Sasha [Alexander Hammid] who could have made the image where the camera starts with the catʼs eye and lifts as with the wings of Phoebus (or the very best of Hollywood dolly shots) up over a box and ends in a superbly crafted composition.”

We end now with a film by British filmmaker Peter Treherne. A Sentimental Piece in High ISO (2017) is a short experimental film which on one level operates as a structural experiment in pushing the recording device to a technical extreme, but it also exists as a work of domestic poetry. Shot on a DSLR using a lens that had been refrigerated to cloud the image, the film depicts the gradual clearing of vision from abstraction to the representation of a furry companion sleeping by the fire.

The deep rumbling of the log burner, the dim orange light and the filmed subject all evoke a winter’s evening after a day working out in the cold, maybe on a farm or some other rural setting. As we stare into the buzzing pixels we can feel that sense of heavy dozing – slowly the condensation clears from the lens and we see the moving body of a creature breathing before us, in deep sleep, resting unaware that it is the subject of a film.