LAUGHING AT INJURED ANIMALS
Gag Reflexes in Topsy-Turvy Times
RECENTLY, I LEARNED OF a pastime in 14th century France, one involving unfathomable savagery against a specific mammal. I’m not going to describe it here, mostly because I’m not going to describe it ever, to anyone. It’s just another piece of shitty info about our species that I have to stuff into a deep cranny of my mind and then go on with my life. But if you watch enough movies, you’ll get some unwanted thoughts of your own. At the dawn of cinema, Thomas Edison’s company filmed an elephant’s execution, distributing the short film on his own coin-operated kinetoscopes. You could go your whole life and never see Electrocuting an Elephant, but you still might encounter the horse death in Andrei Rublev,or the gored buffalo in Apocalypse Now, or the rabbit clubbed and skinned onscreen in Roger and Me.
2000’s Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? squeaks onto this list, being one of the last films of the twentieth century. Even there, there’s an asterisk. This grand finale of nostalgia, double-nostalgia really, looked back seventy years to the Dust Bowl south, depicting an era which itself harked back to a different time, the world of the ‘old timey’ mid-19th century, meaning the world before jazz. But if the music—bluegrass, folk, gospel—built the film up (and charted, and Grammied) as a triumph of nostalgic Americana, the visuals ushered in the world of the future. Oh Brother was the first digitally color-corrected film. The directors, Joel and Ethan Coen, wanted something painterly, a throwback, emotionally if not technically, to archaic film processes. Their new process recast landscapes and forests and even water in the general hue of rust.
There’s another digital first hidden in this film, although it’s subjective, meaning maybe it was just a personal revelation. In one scene, gangster Baby Face Nelson machine-guns a herd of cattle from a moving vehicle. The bullets thwap on cowhide like paintballs. Spooked, the herd charge behind him, meaning onto the road and in front of his pursuers, the coppers, causing the lead car to collide with the lead cow.1 Watching this in a theater, I knew that I was seeing something new. The scene clearly read as CGI—close to what I would imagine a car hitting a cow would look like, but somehow, intangibly, not quite there—so I was reacting not so much to the depiction as I was to the knowledge that this depiction marked a change in the state of affairs. And yet I winced, even though I knew it was false.
Last March, a horse had a heart attack and died on the set of Amazon Studios’ Rings of Power. PETA called on studios everywhere to completely switch to CGI animal talent. This feels inevitable, if not by basic human decency, then by the colder logic of capitalism in which digital animals will soon cost less than real animals. Technology is closing in. In 2019, the charity World Animal Protection created a one-minute ad depicting animal cruelty with CGI. If glimpsed without scrutiny, the fake animals—circus, safari, and factory farm scenes—each look more or less real. I’ve seen lots of harrowing anti-vivisection images over the years, so my own initial reaction was relief that the footage wasn’t more graphic.
BUT IF FAKE ANIMALS are inevitable, so is fake animal abuse. You can watch the boundaries stretch on the big screen. Digital animal cruelty in Guardians of the Galaxy 3 made some test audiences, or at least critics, squeamish (the bits I saw online felt nihilistically stupid, not disturbing). The bear attack in 2015’s The Revenant worked not just because the bear looked real, but because the bear was the aggressor. This in contrast to the chubby cubs kicked in 2023’s Cocaine Bear, which, because of their relative realism, made me feel gross. I suspect this reflex is strong. It’s the visceral reaction some of us get when a human kicks over one of those Boston Dynamics robot dogs and it stands and rights itself without complaint. Meaning, even headless nightmare animals can squeeze sympathy from the human brain.
I’m pessimistic on a permanent failsafe for animal stuff. It’s tempting to envision a future that works like Midjourney’s library of banned words, which has swelled to over a hundred in a seemingly quixotic bid to keep nightmare porn off the Internet, at least for a while longer (lawmakers are only now catching up with regular, non-nightmare AI porn).2 But each of these forbidden words represents an untapped market. As this technology matures, someone somewhere will tap those markets. Midjourney has a strong interest in keeping their brand name unattached to headless nightmare porn attached to their name. But some people, some segment of a market, will want exactly that flavor of porn.
I SAW SCHINDLER’S LIST in a theater and remember the audience around me stiffening in shock at the shots of children jumping into sewage to escape Nazis. Two years later, everyone audibly groaned when the lights went up after the credits for Se7en. As the filmgoing experience becomes more solitary, what will this mean for the things moviegoers once found unpalatable? Audiences draw lines, but those lines move. So, I guess the real question is: Once entertainment has reached parity with electricity—once content can be produced and consumed in the same instant—where will that line settle? And how far will private users be able to push that line? It’s hard to imagine any sane world in which virtual child pornography will be legal. But virtual animal cruelty feels like a question mark. Even if it is a known indicator for future serial killers.
Soft content will stretch auteur theory out to the horizon. With the right level of personal computing capacity, everyone becomes an auteur filmmaker. Among many other things, this will mean an end to the barriers that traditionally prevent filmmakers’ worst impulses. In a motion picture designed by one person, there will be no producers or DPs or grips or extras to advise against crossing baseline human norms about filmic depravity. That thing from earlier, the one I didn’t mention, back in the 14th century? Someone will be able to show that. Now that we can make anything (or will be able to in a few months), ‘anything’ will include fake animals suffering what appears to be very real torture and mutilation. Boundaries shatter faster than the public can process at this point. As of this year, there is a new genre of TikTok video featuring dead children narrating their own murders. It’s unsettling in 2023. By 2024, it could be quaint.
Even more old-timey, the film is loosely based on The Odyssey. In Homer’s poem, Odysseus’s men kill the sacred cows of Helios, and Zeus smites them with thunderbolts. In Oh Brother Where Art Thou, Baby Face shoots cows and is later electrocuted. By the rules of the story, cows had to die.
The word ‘hardcore’ is allegedly banned, as are ‘badonkers,’ ‘Cronenberg,’ ‘Lolita,’ ‘veiny,’ and ‘President Xi.’ The list runs over a hundred words (although there’s no way to test its accuracy, as using banned words get users banned). After Trump’s first indictment, the word ‘arrest’ made the list. And forget about anything to do with human reproductive systems. When two researchers found a workaround—the British spelling of “gynaecological exam”—Midjourney produced several terrifying pictures of shapeless blobs in doctor offices.