In praise of Devastating Films…of Conscience


Last night my neighbour’s baby screamed for many, many, many hours. Coupled with this, I drank a cup of tea that was stuffed with caffeine, mixed with a small quantity of water, and a nanodotular of tea. And so sleep was a stranger to my body, which although tired, behaved as though it wanted to run round the block, stand on its head, and redesign the Royal Pavilion. So I was awake. At 3am I went upstairs and turned on my computer, and jumped into BBC Iplayer-land. The first thing the BEEB offered me was a tragic documentary Called Project Nim, about a Chimpanzee that communicated using sign language.


Although I hadn’t seen this documentary before, I had seen something almost exactly the same in terms of its moral standpoint, world-view and conclusion… it was a documentary called Blackfish – an incredibly beautiful and terrible film about a Killer Whale called Tilicum. Both films reveal that the rot in the lives of these innocent, beautiful beings begins and ends with human ego, in one case supposed academic aspiration and fame, in the other greed, fame and the wish to make large sums of money. There isn’t a lot of difference at the end of the day; both are about humans exploiting animals in order to advance human ambition.

By the time one has finished seeing these films one wonders what kind of moral wisdom we have that allows us to do such terrible things to highly social animals that have a powerful bond with their mothers and communities, and should be left alone to enjoy life and love in their own free and different way. When we come along we play around with these fabulous creatures, until we get bored then shove them into metal boxes, prod them around a bit, feed them a little, and close the lid. This is pretty well what happened in both cases. Both films show how all the people involved in these tragic stories shift from self-serving stupidity to mega-sentiment and guilt, then shame and sorrow and back to meg-sentiment with tears.


After you see these films you come away hating mankind and its cruelty, stupidity and egotism. Although hate is not wise at the best of times, one can get to disapprove of a brand of American sentimentality expressed by the perpetrators in these sad films that hangs over them like a bad smell. It reminds me of a nice quotation by Norman Mailer: “Sentimentality is the emotional promiscuity of those who have no sentiment.” It’s a great line, and serves to remind me that Hitler was said to be sentimental, particularly about dogs.

I think both films have come out of the USA in one way or another – the mad, conservative, consumerist, meat eating nation that is also full of people working towards changing themselves – creating films and books that examine their own mistakes, and seek to learn lessons from them. By the time China becomes the fully fledged top nation it’s dubious if the spirit that made these films will be allowed to express itself, or even want to, so we have to be grateful to those that create such inspired stories of sadness.


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