Years ago, I had a quotation from Georges Bataille stuck above my desk: “Laughter is more divine and in meaning more elusive than tears”. At that time, tears often seemed to me to be so much theatricality: mock hysteria, contrived sentimentality, media manipulation – too obvious and too anguished. Laughter, on the other hand, was ironic, complex, knowing, playful. Strangely enough, it was The Trial of Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin, 1974), seen one night on TV in 1983 – particularly the last hour’s worth, which is a non-stop festival of weeping and wailing – which suggested to me, at last, that tears can be pretty damn elusive too. Crying can still be petty (just as laughter can be reflex), but I’m more taken these days with the excess and the profundities of sentimentality.
Jonathan Kaplan’s remarkable Project X brings all this back to me. It’s a film that will make many people uncomfortable, for it is a full-on tearjerker about … animals (chimps, to be precise). Oh god, animals – in the Disney-Spielberg school of (fake) sentimentality, those cutesy, wide-eyed, defenceless creatures that exist to take the wash of our mawkish tears. Animals, aliens and children all function as the same thing in a certain kind of cinema – as reassuring minors who allow us to exercise our parental or social-welfare mentalities. These Others are almost always eventually made same, integrated into community, family and ego; never the question of a threat, never the shadow of a doubt. You could call it the E.T. Syndrome.
Something else is going on in Project X. Here is an intransigent bunch of chimps – some old, some taciturn, all rebellious; each one characterised with a set of unique desires and goals. There’s a hero, a leader amongst them (named Virgil), but he is – in true socialist-realist style – the representative of a collectivity, not anyone particularly special.
You might imagine this would all constitute another familiar variation on animal cuteness: making animals appear, move and behave just like humans. Animals as, once again, our reassuring mirror. But Project X begs to differ on this point also. It keeps its humans and animal characters resolutely separate: what the chimps do, they achieve for themselves, and they don’t even take Jimmy (Matthew Broderick) with them into paradise at the end.
In fact, what Jimmy is made to learn in the course of the tale is that the chimps are a kind of untouchable and sometimes barely fathomable Other – to himself, and to human culture in general. He observes their desire and their vast, despairing rage; and he respects them from his proper distance. It’s a moral that runs through several of Kaplan’s films, particularly the breathtaking Heart Like a Wheel (1983): even within contrived, bogus units like the nuclear family, each member of the group must learn the lesson of his/her own and everyone else’s fundamental autonomy.
There’s a strong link between the way people typically use screen-animals as figures upon which to project their fantasies and anxieties, and the way those same people relate to real-life animals, particularly domestic pets. Everyone knows the sentimental attachment to a pet can be enormous – to the point of becoming frightening. I fully believe all those tales of old people on their deathbeds called back to life by the meow of their previously lost beloved cat. I believe it, because (some) pets have the power to transform me, too, in a split-second, into an intense, attentive child. My voice, my manner, everything changes when a cat approaches me. It’s a moment when my self meets a little bit of my other that is inside me –and never knows quite what to make of the encounter afterwards.
Early in Project X, as Teri (Helen Hunt) meets Virgil for the first time, she is told to expect a long period during which they will slowly get used to each other. In immediate contradiction of this prediction, Virgil jumps straight into her arms (it’s about here that the audience’s tears start flowing). This scene makes me think that animals (in life as on screen) symbolise, for we poor humans, the ideal of a pure, unmediated emotional relation: all heart, no defences.
This is what true, valid sentimentality is; the dream of breaking through numerous walls of personal and social repression and being able to let the energy of one’s emotions flow straight. Pets allow many, many people to live out this ideal quietly, in a socially sanctioned and hence invisible way; but what they give to their cat they might never be able to give to their lover, parent or child. This is not simply a funny or pathetic state of affairs; it’s actually (to me) awfully sad.
I find it amusing that so much animal-speak goes under the hippie alibi of ecology. The ecological cause is, of course, valid and important. But the human love of animals is more often like a love that dares not speak its name; through these handy creatures, we play out the dramas and walk the fault-lines of our own repression in the social order, not the natural order.
In fact, his psychodrama of human and animal, self and other cuts two ways. The animal is the human shrunken to its essential. Sentimentality translates as pure heart, unimpeded emotional flow. This is our ideal, positive Other – the chimp, the lion, the dinosaur. But there is also a negative other, a darker mirror image. Sometimes when humanity shrinks down to its core, that core is revealed to be something inhuman, nasty, disgusting. Or just an inert, unfeeling blob. Then it’s time to let in, not those creatures who bounce and play, but the ones who fly, crawl and drool – the insects and the pests.
Note: A later version of these thoughts on animals, aliens, children and Others in cinema appeared as the chapter “Dear Data” in my book Phantasms (1994).
© Adrian Martin June 1987