“The Animal Gaze”
Masha Vlasova (Wofford College)
I’m new to dogs. I adopted my dog, Azul, in February 2020, a month before the COVID-19 lockdowns began. Under quarantine I was home a lot and eager to be a good dog owner, so I studied her: her eyes, her growls, the varied expressions of her tail. I learned to decipher her, but occasionally she’ll do something unexpected, and I’m confronted with my inability to read her. In these moments, I return to John Berger’s brilliant 1977 essay, “Why Look at Animals.” In it, he critiques the evolution of animals in human culture, from subjects of cave paintings to symbols of the divine to reminders of our own alienation. Berger argues that, under capitalism, animals have been marginalized as entertainment at the zoo or domesticated as pets in our otherwise animal-less houses and yards. Animals are no longer fundamental participants in our daily lives. As such, animals are something to look at but impossible to see.
I know Jonathan Rattner’s films well. I’ve written elsewhere about how Rattner’s approach to filming light disrupts the indexical relationship between image and referent. In these films, light is more than the thing that makes indexicality a possibility, linking us to the world, the moment. Light is both material and subject of Rattner’s films.
Here, I want to turn my attention to a different radical pursuit in Rattner’s work. Re-watching The Interior (2015-16), in the presence of my animal, I’m spurred to re-think all three films – Grey Seals (2020), The Interior, and END, END, END (2013) – as attempts to restore the look between animal and human, the loss of which Berger laments in his essay: “[T]hat look between animal and man, which may have played a crucial role in the development of human society, and with which, in any case, all men had always lived until less than a century ago, has been extinguished.” For Berger the loss is irredeemable, leaving animals in the position of always being “the observed” object and never the observing subject. But Rattner’s attentive lens imagines a world otherwise.
The Interior opens with the sound of a low rumbling motor. Black screen. The rumbling continues as we move to a long, wide angle GoPro shot of a homestead at sunrise. The shot jiggles like jelly. The camera is positioned on whatever it is that’s rumbling; it vibrates with it. Then: part of a silhouette, a close-up sound of a human hand handling the camera, crinkling, swooshing over the mic and covering up the lens. The screen fades from black to a fleshy red—the sensor adjusting, capturing what little light penetrates the hand. Rapid, jerky glimpses of a human face, torso. With the exception of one shot (about 17 minutes into the film) humans are dimly lit and blurry. Their images are choppy, distanced, often designated to the background or a corner of the frame. Human speech doesn’t enter the layered soundscape of The Interior for the first quarter of the film. When it does, it comes as a hesitant “Okay…,” spoken to no one in particular, not looking for a response. It is followed by humming, atonal singing, and mumbling. Human speech here is part of the ambient noise.
The first close-up is of a dog, reminiscent of the “talking head” shot in a traditional documentary. The husky sits in the golden hour of the morning, looking off camera, squinting. He acknowledges the camera, sniffs it, observes Rattner behind it, and turns away disinterested. Another dog howls off screen and piques the husky’s interest. He considers the howl, listens, then joins in. The howling is now joined by multiple voices. Another husky enters the frame. The howling continues from this point on for nearly the whole duration of the film.
Unlike the human’s “Okay…,” the huskies’ howls and barks are communicating something specific, if inaccessible to me. When I played the film at home, Azul climbed out of my embrace and listened carefully. She tilted her head, expressing interest in the sounds, and sniffed the speakers of my laptop. Occasionally she looked concerned, at other times focused and fixated on the window. I texted Rattner about my experience. He replied that this is not uncommon and that the film “seems to affect bigger dogs different than the smaller ones.”
The Interior, I’ll offer, is a film for dogs. I mean this as the highest compliment. Azul is part husky. Does she feel seen, heard when the film is on? Humans have no names, and in the limited daylight, dressed in full winter gear, it’s hard to tell them apart. The huskies are individuals—Copper, Neon, Rosie. Some are young, some are old. In the scene when the dogs get harnessed to the sleigh the mature and experienced runners are self-possessed, anticipating the run, in stark contrast to the newbies who look nervous, ears pulled back.
This foregrounding of the dog experience is most stark in perhaps the most ethnographic of the film’s sequences: the methodical preparation of the dogs’ meals. The mixing of frozen raw meat with hot water and kibble is followed by feeding, during which, lit by a single headlamp, the man calls the dogs by name, alludes to their performances in the harness earlier that day, and checks in on them. When we finally observe one of the men eat cereal (a meal that, unlike the dog’s food, requires minimal preparation), a curious pup looks up and sniffs the air, just like Azul when she’s trying to decipher what’s in my bowl. The human lowers the bowl. The husky considers the cereal. Satisfied and disinterested, he turns away. In the world of The Interior human actions and activities are accompanied, performed in collaboration with, or in service of dogs. Azul sensed that. As if the experience of the film left her worn out emotionally and mentally, when The Interior ended, Azul promptly fell asleep.
“Matter into Light”
Leo Goldsmith (The New School)
The first image we see in Jonathan Rattner’s The Interior (2016) is, for want of a better word, a wobble. An open space in a clearly rural, wooded area, snowy and half-lit by the winter sun, turns to jelly in the frame as the low rumble of a tractor’s engine groans from out of frame. What we’re seeing is an artifact of the camera lens—of the camera’s electronic image stabilization software or perhaps a rolling shutter effect. But the wobbliness of the image also captures something of the fluidity of the landscape and its inhabitants. Humanity and animality; civilization and nature—those things which are so often falsely opposed in our conception of the world become, in this shot, just a little more unstable, all part of the dense and mutable relations of the world.
This sense of the entanglement of humans with their environment and its other inhabitants is part of the vivid materialism of Rattner’s films, which is evident both in his preoccupation with the vibrant thinginess of the world—water, light, and animals all feature prominently in Rattner’s work—and in the ways in which the material world is assimilated and transformed by recording media, particularly the cinematic apparatus. In Grey Seals (2020), home movies of oceans and familial bodies partake in a transmaterialization of light onto celluloid, illuminated by a projector, then captured on the light-sensitive surface inside a digital camera. End, End, End (2013) pieces together a set of relationships between lowercase-n nature – glimmers of light, water, and sand on a shoreline, cows idle in an open field – and a series of found tape recordings. Repetitious and rapid-fire, the words heard on these tapes attain their own kind of glossolalic wobble (“THIS IS THE END OF THIS TAPE THIS IS THE END OF THIS TAPE”), an almost Burroughsian corruption of language down to its basic material substrate. Across his work, Rattner constructs a kind of materialist love triangle between the organic, the geologic, and the cinematographic—a political ecology of bodies, environments, and the technologies of recording.
In The Interior, the setting is Joe Bush Creek, Alaska, which – a title-card helpfully informs us – is home to fifty-six dogs and four humans, one of whom is professional dog-musher Brent Sass (of the Wild and Free Mushing Team). In Rattner’s film, Sass and his dog companions are inheritors to a tangled lineage of canis familiaris-homo sapiens interrelation, one in which dogs have served humanity as beloved pets and playthings, but also as sources of food, junior cops, weapons, and machines of conveyance.
Historically, the representations of dog-human interaction in films set in icy climes are often grim. One must remember that Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) is, among many other things, something of a dog movie: it concludes with a brief sequence of dogs shivering (and possibly freezing to death?) in the snow while Nanook (Allakariallak) and his family snuggle warmly inside their igloo. Flaherty’s central, ponderous theme of “man versus nature” becomes abundantly clear in this sequence: Nanook and family have conquered the icy wastelands for the moment, and the dogs are the mere tools that help them in this process.
Similarly, it’s worth remembering that the initial “Typhoid Mary” of John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) – which infects an all-male troupe of Antarctic researchers with a millennia-old, parasitic/mimetic alien lifeform – is also a dog (one played by, Wikipedia informs me, a charming Vancouver Island wolf-Alaskan Malamute hybrid named Jed). The alien’s infiltration of the camp – nearly the disastrous takeover of all of humanity – is no doubt aided by the fact that it appears as a dog, an animal partly engineered by humans to serve as companion and instrument. Reversing this order, the alien seeks to use humanity only as the latter.
The Interior presents dogs as neither mere instrument nor malevolent parasite. One might briefly think otherwise watching Sass, lit only by headlamp, hack up chunks of ambiguous meat with a hatchet and dump them into a steaming bucket of slop, but in fact he seems to enjoy the activity. Indeed, all of the labor of cohabitation we see in Rattner’s film is accompanied by a jolly, if occasionally tuneless double-soundtrack of Sass’s endless singing and whistling and the dogs’ (admittedly) far more melodious yowling. It is an index of a literal, if awkward harmony.
In her Companion Species Manifesto, dogs serve Donna Haraway as a privileged example of a complex process of coevolution between human and non-human. “We are training each other in acts of communication we barely understand” (2). For Haraway, dogs are the particular case that rescues humanity from a hubristic and combative relation to nature. It is not we who shape nature, nor nature that shapes us. Rather, it is a kind of coevolutionary entanglement: “Dogs are about the inescapable, contradictory story of relationships—co-constitutive relationships in which none of the partners pre-exist the relating, and the relating is never done once and for all” (12).
In all of Rattner’s films there is also a somberness, even a tenderness that subverts the all the harshness and violence that often mark relations between human and non-human. Back in The Interior, Sass’s attitude is bluff, jolly, musical; the dogs are surprisingly unmenacing. Rattner’s camera shares this space in close proximity: the dogs’ muzzles nearly butting into the camera lens as they patiently wait for their fellow canines to be outfitted with layers and reins. And when the mush begins, the camera finds a place in the exhilarating middle of things, zipping along the trail, between sky, snow, human, and husky.