Chicken intelligence and the terror of a shaken tablecloth

We’ve had the chickens for maybe 8 months now.  They are funny creatures– much more sociable than I expected.  They come running if you enter the back yard when they’re out — always think you may have a treat for them (vegetable scraps, bread, or best of all, yogurt (!?)).

Sarah rigged up this stylish and ingenious door for them the other day.  Unfortunately, they so far seem incapable of figuring out how to go through it. Or rather, they will come back into their enclosed run — going “into the toilet,” so to speak — but don’t understand how to do the other way.


Sometimes I do think that they are kind of dumb.  But really, that’s an anthropomorphic way of thinking.  They just have a very different intelligence than ours.  On the other hand, if we think of intelligence as a form of cognitive resourcefulness outside of or beyond specific “scripts,” it does seem fair to say that they don’t have this in abundance.  They do, and like to do, certain specific things: explore the yard hunting for seeds or other food, dust baths (these are hilarious to watch), being together in a group, being able to go to sleep when and how they feel like it (they all huddle on their roost in the hutch together).

Certain activities clearly satisfy their urges, and some things scare them. What scares and does not scare them can be funny.  For example, a visiting dog barking ferociously and slavering at them through the fence bothers them very little.  But Sarah once came into the yard and shook out a tablecloth, and they freaked out and ran squawking for the corners of the yard. Our theory is that what most scares them are raptors– hawks, eagles, falcons, etc. I also think it may be the case that they are “programmed” to count on a rooster to guard them from certain earth-bound classes of threats (like dogs), so they don’t need to worry about those.  But for whatever reason — I guess maybe it makes sense — every hen needs to look out for threats from the sky for herself.

Thus the terror of the shaken tablecloth.

Marc Maron: Cats know more than we can understand

cat-Marc-Maron-Boomer-by-Dimitri-von-KleinMarc Maron with Boomer: [Photo by Dimitri von Klein from Catster]

I kind of wished I’d blogged about Marc Maron before he suddenly became ubiquitous… I’ve been listening to his podcast WTF (I get it on iTunes) occasionally but regularly for the past year or two.  I’m not sure what his secret is, but some of these conversations have been really memorable, so much so that I can remember where I was walking the dog or walking home as I listened to some of them. David Cross, Fiona Apple, Pamela Adlon, Mike White, John Oliver, Stephen Merchant, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, Diablo Cody… I guess those are the ones I remember most vividly. Maron is an over-sharer, he’s self-laceratingly critical and confessional, smart but insecure about his knowledge & status, obviously needy and competitive, but not too aggressively so, melancholic, eager to connect… And he seems to bring out a similarly confessional, over-sharing spirit in his guests.  Part of it may simply be the podcast’s length and flexible structure — it’s an open-ended conversation (conducted in Maron’s garage studio, which is now immortalized in the opening credits of his t.v. show), and as far as I can tell, he’s not aiming for a particular length, so the exchange can go into some slow patches, and then can pick up or open out into something new. (For example, I was feeling disappointed by his Lucinda Williams podcast– he seemed nervous, and interrupted her too often — but then eventually she got into fascinating stories about life as a child with her bipolar, alcoholic mother.)  The Mike White conversation was especially great, with some pretty startling moments of self-revelation on White’s part (but I am a huge fan of his anyway- he’s the creator of Enlightened as well as movies like Chuck and Buck).

Btw, one tip — although I know this makes Maron mad: every podcast begins with about 10 minutes of him riffing and ranting and promoting, so if you mostly want to hear the interview, you need to fast-forward.  (There’s often good stuff in the rants, though!)

I also just read Maron’s memoir, Attempting Normal, which is good.  You have to have a certain degree of patience for incessant discussion about his grim-hotel-room (and other) masturbation habits — generally pretty amusing, though.  The book more or less tells the story of his comedy career, his two marriages, his career slide and serious depression that preceded his comeback that began with his beginning WTF.  It’s episodic, though, and many of the chapters are basically little mini-essays or fragments, some of them artfully constructed.  The chapter “the Clown and the Chair,” about the role played by a particular piece of thrift store furniture in the endgame of his second marriage, is excellent, for example.  I also really liked his discussions of the weird, exhausting, and often alienating life he led in the late 80s and 90s as a “road comic” playing casinos, restaurants, and small clubs, in his case mostly around New England. There’s an amazing story about a comedian, Frankie Bastille, who’s since died, who snorted heroin in the passenger seat as Maron drove them to a show out of town (Maron was opening); when they got to the club, Maron had to physically haul in the seemingly comatose Bastille, who then proceeded to deliver a killer show, and then nodded out again on heroin on the drive home.

One thing that struck me, and that I found refreshing, is the degree to which Maron is basically a male Crazy Cat Lady.  The chapter “Cats” explains how he acquired his collection of formerly feral pets; they come up repeatedly elsewhere, and the book ends with a moving tribute to Boomer, his favorite cat who disappeared right when Maron was beginning to tape his new IFC show, Maron. [That is Boomer in the photo above.]

Why he vanished just as my life was changing drastically demands interpretation. I am not religious or spiritual, but I am prone to connecting dots in equations so that they defy coincidence.  Someone suggested that maybe this was the end of our journey together, that he had taken me as far as he could and that it was time for him to move on. I like that angle….

If you are awake and alive, sadness is a fluctuating constant. Hope is fleeting, a decision you make out of faith, desire, or desperation. Cats know more than we can understand. I don’t care about biology or brain size.


So far I’ve seen two episodes of his new show, #3 and #4.  I give it a 7.5 so far… or maybe an 8… It’s good and smart in some ways, and funny, but he and his story feel a bit constrained by the scripted sitcom format, and a lot of it feels a bit like a slight variation on Curb Your Enthusiasm: needy, narcissistic comedian in L.A. playing a just slightly fictionalized version of himself.  Louie too, I guess (Maron and Louie C.K. are old friends; there’s an amazing conversation about how they had a falling out and kind of patched it up on Maron’s recent Fresh Air interview), but so far I don’t think Maron has managed to get to the kind of raw insight, formal innovations, and originality that Louie offers.

The last episode, in which Maron decides to date “an age-appropriate woman” for once (i.e. not in her early/mid 20s), was seeming not-so-great to me, and then it took a twist and actually became much better than I expected. Maybe Maron is Marc Maron’s Lucky Louie and he needs to have this one cancelled and then regroup for his next great one. Or maybe this one will get better as it goes.

Bringing Up Hush Puppy: Free-range Child-Rearing in *Beasts of the Southern Wild*

As I watched the in-many-ways great Beasts of the Southern Wild I kept thinking about recent debates and publications I’ve read about child-rearing, specifically those that discuss the tension between “helicopter” or over-protective vs. “free-range” parenting and related issues.  I recommend therapist Madeline Levine’s new book Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success, [link to NYT review] which covers a lot, but perhaps offers as its biggest take-away the lesson that parents who believe they can control every facet of their children’s experiences are both kidding themselves and damaging their kids by denying them the potential to achieve autonomy/ become their own people.  I also thought about the much-discussed recent Elizabeth Kolbert New Yorker piece “Spoiled Rotten: Why Do Kids Rule the Roost?” which compared American middle/upper-middle class child-reading methods with those of the Peruvian Amazonian tribe the Matsigenka, in which six-year old children uncomplainingly clean, do household chores, and fish for, clean, boil, and serve to others crustaceans from the river.  (Whereas the typical elite American kid apparently is too busy nurturing his special, college-admissions-bait talents to do anything as mundane as household chores.)  Bringing up Bebe, which everyone seemed to be discussing his summer (even if they, like me, had just read reviews of it — although I did glance through it at one point), is also part of this conversation, in its advocacy of French-style parenting that expects children to behave in more responsible/ autonomous ways.

The New Yorker published an interesting letter in response to Kolbert’s article from an anthropologist named Nicholas Emlen who wrote,

During my recent nineteen months of anthropological fieldwork in Matsigenka communities, I, too, was impressed by the self-reliance and maturity expected of children. But Matsigenka hands-off parenting also has its disadvantages. I met several young children who had suffered serious, permanent injuries while cooking and hunting without adult supervision. Additionally, Matsigenka parents generally do not encourage their children to pursue education beyond primary school—although in recent years, many Matsigenka parents have begun to think of education as essential. To this end, these parents are trying to be more supportive of their children’s intellectual development, allowing them to spend afternoons doing homework, rather than collecting firewood, for instance. While Kolbert hopes that her sons will pitch in and “become a little more Matsigenka,” many Matsigenka parents are modifying their parenting strategies so that their children may one day become a little more like Kolbert’s sons.

So anyway, I was thinking about these sorts of questions while watching the movie.  Beasts of the Southern Wild stars a rather incredible child actress, Quvenzhané Wallis (who was in fact six during the movie’s filming!), playing the six-year-old Hush Puppy who lives with her single father Wink in “the Bathtub,” a fictitious bayou community in Louisiana.  And, like the children of the same age in the Matsigenka, she catches and cleans her own crustaceans; there’s a memorable scene in which all the adults chant for her to “beast” a crab, which means to snap it in half and suck out the meat. (We went to the movie with a vegetarian friend who found the Man vs. Beast dynamics a bit much throughout.)

The events of the movie, which reminded me a little of Zola Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, occur before, during, and after a massive Katrina-like storm that floods the Bathtub and leaves Hush Puppy, Wink and their friends stranded and floating in a house turned house-boat. Hush Puppy is an almost absolutely “free-range” child– or we could use the word neglected, or even abused.  Her mother has vanished and she does not even live with her father, who has his own shack next door.  She eats canned cat foot, and (this was a pretty hilarious moment, actually) starts a semi-functional gas stove by donning a helmet-face mask and lighting the gas with a flame thrower.  (This does not turn out well.)  Wink cares for and seems to love his daughter, but often ignores her and sometimes hits her.  Before the storm, she wanders around completely unsupervised.  In many ways, not just shellfish cleaning, her experience seems more like that of a Matsigenka child than a contemporary middle-class American.

In the still used for the movie poster, above, Hush Puppy is running with her hands full of fireworks.  Having recently supervised my kids as they used sparklers, I winced at the sight of her holding what seem to be much higher-power firecrackers in a setting where all of the adults are falling-off-their-chairs drunk.  On the other hand, she is certainly having a blast.

The movie continually prompted me to spiral through a series of reactions along those lines.  First, something like “oh no!” — judging her father to be criminally neglectful —  and then a counter-reaction of recognizing that Hush Puppy gets to experience things and sensations that the film represents as intensely meaningful and valuable.  Yes, her father and his friends are always drunk and Hush Puppy appears to be in grave danger of injury throughout the movie, but we see her immersed in a vivid world in which she interacts with the natural world and animals and nature, learns quickly how to take care of herself, and develops a fierce loyalty to her community and friends.

The movie could definitely be accused of romanticizing the Bathtub’s primitive world, and there are whiffs of pretty familiar strains of nostalgic, even slightly noble-savage-type valorizing of that world as a refreshing antidote to the sterile, heartless bureaucracy that is contemporary middle-class life — represented by the professional-class administrators who try to keep Wink and Hush Puppy in a disaster-relief tent city after they’ve been forcibly evacuated.  (The review in Salon took this approach, even suggesting that is offers a “dangerous political message.”)

To my mind, though, although I can certainly see the reviewer’s point, the movie is best approached as a non-realist (and often rapturously beautiful) fairy tale that, notwithstanding inescapable Katrina parallels, is certainly not trying to offer any sociologically accurate view of rural Louisiana or anything like that.  (I thought it was telling that it’s based on a stage play.)  Sarah commented that the whole Bathtub community reminded her a bit of the Popeye comics’ world.  Or maybe the fictionalized Okefenokee Swamp of the Pogo comics?  A wildly fantastical vision of a little girl’s dangerous idyll among the cat-fish, dogs, and wild boars of her imagination-infused surroundings, and a somewhat wishful (and yes, romantic) fantasy of how a child could live in a state of continual risky wildness.

Memo to self: demand that the kids procure and prepare fresh crab dinner for us this weekend.  Beast it!

No Future in Miranda July’s *The Future*

[image nicked from

This feels, for a while, like a typical mumblecore kind of movie: an arty, hipster L.A. couple, affectionate but not passionate, unfulfilled by work, hanging around their apartment, moving towards the big step of adopting a cat… But then things splinter into various forms of fantastical, sci-fi, & dreamlike modes that reminded me of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (M. July is very Michel Gondryesque as a filmmaker).  I liked it a lot.

The following does not really contain any spoilers.

The most audacious and potentially off-putting (but IMO brilliant) element of the movie is its narration by the above-mentioned cat, Paw-Paw (a nod to the best-known track from the Shaggs’ Philosophy of the World, “My Pal Foot-Foot”?).  Paw-Paw is an injured shelter cat (he burned his paw) whom Sophie and Jason (above-mentioned hanging-around-the-apartment hipsters) plan to adopt.  Turns out Paw-Paw needs a month’s recuperation time before coming home with them.  They decide that their carefree youth will in effect be concluded once they take on this responsibility (they are 35), so the movie plays out in this final month before “the future” arrives — whatever that will bring.

I realize I’m echoing similar points I made about the Mike Leigh movie (idee fixe?)… but I read the movie as being about care-taking and responsibility and the fear that one is unable to care for another — ideas that get extended in somewhat dizzying ways to environmentalist thoughts & feelings about care for the earth.  These underemployed slackers can barely hold down a job, and so the thought of adopting an injured and possibly traumatized cat frightens them (to be fair, I remember having thoughts like this when we got Figgy circa 1999 — ah, callow, childless youth!  How little we knew of what we could or could not, but must, take care of).  Also, the shelter will apparently give them no more than a one-day grace period, once this month is up, before euthanizing Paw-Paw (seems like a pretty harsh policy, but this is L.A.), so this month, the movie’s chronotope, becomes potentially either a period of healing and movement towards life or one towards abrupt termination of life.

The movie posits several different what we could call “objects of care” or of responsibility.  First, there’s Paw-Paw, our narrator who occasionally breaks in from his cage at the pound to explain his excitement and difficulty in waiting for his adoptive parents to take him home.  (Paw-Paw is narrated by Miranda July herself in baby-voice with the help of some crude prosthetic paws).  Then, there are the baby trees that Jason ends up “selling” in his job as a door-to-door solicitor for an environmentalist group called “Tree to Tree” that aims to re-forest L.A.  (A few of these are delivered to their apartment at one point, their roots wrapped in burlap; they seem like babies dropped off at the entrance to an orphanage.) There is also a child, someone’s nine year old girl, who ends up (in one of the movie’s various increasingly surreal/fantastical moments) in effect planting herself like a baby tree in the back yard.  (Is this akin to self-burial or suicide?  Or an attempt at self-care?)

Finally, at a more cosmic level, there’s the earth itself (as “object of care”).  In his depression, Jason at one point remarks to an uninterested customer something like, “you’re right.  It’s too late anyway.  You know that moment when the wrecking ball has hit the building, and for one moment, the building is perfectly still before it collapses?  That’s us, we’re like that building.”  When the guy asks why, if this is true, Jason is even bothering, Jason says (this is very approximate) “I don’t know.  I just liked it, you know?  Not just the trees and the birds and stuff, but the houses, cars, t.v., coffee shops… I liked the whole thing.”

[If we’re looking for keynotes of the art and culture of our moment, surely one major one will turn out to be moments like this, when a character articulates a frighteningly apocalyptic vision of environmental collapse.  E.g. the character in Franzen’s Freedom who loses it and screams at a news conference: “WE ARE A CANCER ON THE PLANET!  WE ARE A CANCER ON THE PLANET!”]

So the movie ends up drawing a parallel between Jason and Sophie’s desire to adopt an injured cat, and their perhaps well-founded fear that they will not be able to care for it properly, to our more general desire to care for our injured & traumatized planet.  (And along the way a few other objects of care: the baby trees, the self-planting little girl.)

The movie’s big question is, at various levels, is it too late?  Is there “a future” at all?– for this relationship, for Paw-Paw, for the girl who plants herself in the ground as if to try to care for or raise herself on her own, for the planet?

So I don’t agree with those who dismiss July as a twee, self-regarding slacker… She uses the materials & aesthetics of that kind of lifestyle/ attitude (Etsy crafts, self-documenting or curating, underemployment, found objects & texts, lost pets, obsession with youth and old age/ evasion of adulthood) but turns them into something pretty deep.

Piggy Swine: Maurice Sendak’s terrifying new book

[image nicked from

The great Maurice Sendak has just published his first new picture book in thirty years, Bumble-Ardy.

It’s very disturbing.  Bumble-Ardy is a young pig who has never celebrated a birthday.  Initially because his parents “frowned on fun,” then because they just forgot, then because they were all fattened up and eaten: “forged and gained weight/ and got ate.”  That pigs are raised to be eaten is a major subtext of the book– Sendak does not let you forget this.

After the slaughter of his parents, Bumble-Ardy goes to live with his nice aunt Adeline, who is planning a 9th birthday celebration for the two of them.  While she’s at work, however, Bumble-Ardy puts the word out to all his buddies, who show up for a big party; in Sorcerer’s Apprentice-esque scenes that take up much of the book, these “piggy swine” “broke down the door and guzzled brine / And hogged sweet cakes and oinked loud grunts / And pulled all kinds of dirty stunts.”  These scenes recall Where The Wild Things Are, but it feels less like a wild rumpus, more like a scary and out-of-control house party — you see one pig sucking the “brine” directly from a hose — that’s threatening to devolve into an orgy (what are these “dirty stunts” precisely?).  Note, in the image above, the pig holding the vaguely apocalyptic sign, “Where Do We Go From Here?”

The WSJ reviewer describes the scene well: “As soon as Aunt Adeline leaves for work, a masked and costumed mob descends on her house. We see a pig in clown clothes carrying a ventriloquist’s dummy, a pig carrying the mask of a stubble-chinned man, a pig disguised as a yellow-eyed squaw, and a pig wearing a piratical skull and walking on chicken’s legs.”  Many of the figures look like gangsters with their molls.

There’s something distinctly malevolent and decadent about the images of masked pigs bent on mayhem — their dull, glazed eyes staring blankly — which put me to mind of Eyes Wide Shut.

It gets worse, though, when Aunt Adeline gets home.  Given how downright creepy Bumble-Ardy’s party has become, we assume that she will shoo everyone away and restore order.  She does, but in doing so, she becomes the most disturbing figure in the tale.  In a frightening series of images, her face darkens, twists, and metamorphoses into what is in effect another horrible carnival mask, as she pulls out a large cleaver and tells the guests that if they don’t leave immediately “I’LL SLICE YOU TO HAM!”  Her comment makes you realize that when these “piggy swine” have been “swilling brine,” they may simply have been pickling themselves in preparation for slaughter.

Bumble-Ardy now, terrified, blubbers to his aunt that he promises he will never turn ten– a comment that feels over-determined considering that his entire immediate family was recently killed.  There’s a more cheerful final scene of reconciliation, but as far as I was concerned, it was too little, too late for this fable to seem anything other than sheer vindictive nightmare.  We all know that the ovens in In the Night Kitchen hinted at concentration camps, but there the child’s fear of being devoured was buried a bit deeper, and transformed by a spirit of play and joy; here the fear that those one loves will be eaten, or will eat you, is right there on the surface (like the mother-figure’s rage).

The book is pitched to kids ages 4-7.  Holy moly, if my kids read this when they were 4 they would’ve had nightmares for months.

All respect to Sendak, a genius, and for the most part I’m with him that children’s lit could use a lot more Grimm, but I’d consider this one an envelope-pushing experiment in the genre more than something you’d actually want to read to your little tots before bed.

Ideas and Idealessness in *Rise of the Planet of the Apes*

I happened across these comments (by Vadim Rizov in GreenCine, via Jim Emerson’s Sun Times commentary) about the seeming paucity of allegorical meanings in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (especially considering how metaphorically laden the franchise has been in the past, particularly in reference to race):

“Rise” decides it doesn’t really need resonance or grown-up subtext. It has something better: digitally rendered monkeys that can move really fast. When the chimps make a run for the woods, they move at velociraptor speed. The ’60s and ’70s didn’t have such technology and relied on profundity, but “Rise” doesn’t need ideas…. Steve warns Will not to get too emotionally involved in his research since investors want results, not feelings. The metaphor applies to the movie—it’s mostly mechanical, honed on results rather than motivations—but it makes for good craft, and the chases rule.

I thought this was a good point that made me think of Neal Gabler’s thinkpiece in yesterday’s NYT Sunday Review (is that what they’re calling it now?), “The Elusive Big Idea,” in which he argues that “in effect, we are living in an increasingly post-idea world — a world in which big, thought-provoking ideas that can’t instantly be monetized are of so little intrinsic value that fewer people are generating them and fewer outlets are disseminating them, the Internet notwithstanding. Bold ideas are almost passé.”

I think there are some problems in Gabler’s claims… For example, “To paraphrase the famous dictum, often attributed to Yogi Berra, that you can’t think and hit at the same time, you can’t think and tweet at the same time either, not because it is impossible to multitask but because tweeting, which is largely a burst of either brief, unsupported opinions or brief descriptions of your own prosaic activities, is a form of distraction or anti-thinking.”  Thought cannot occur in fragments, in small bursts or pieces?  Tell that to Nietzsche or Oscar Wilde.  Thought cannot occur socially, manifested less in individual geniuses than in social networks?  Tell that to… I dunno, Addison and Steele.

But, I don’t think Gabler is entirely wrong that our culture today is less interested than it used to be in “ideas that can’t instantly be monetized” or instantiated in some technological form (or that Twitter has its limits as a vehicle for powerful or fully-articulated ideas!).  In that sense, I agree with Rizov’s reading of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which abandons allegory or deep/”hidden” meaning for kinetic motion and technological spectacle and illusion.

The movie can be understood more positively in this sense through the lens of something like Sontag’s “Against Interpretation.”  It’s beside the point to plumb its depths for “meaning” or allegory.  One should instead meet it on its own terms via immersion in the flow and kineticism of its spectacle.  I was dazzled and entranced by the movements of the apes: hurling themselves through the air, confined in indoor spaces and then, in their freedom, unconstrained & released, turning San Francisco into a Parkour environment for flying, swinging, spinning, ricocheting.  The scene where the driver and the jogger stop at the strange sight of rustling trees and falling leaves on a suburban street, and then turn their gazes upwards to see the shadowy apes traversing the city above the treeline, is extraordinary.  At some level the apes have to be figures for the camera itself, released into three-dimensional exploits unimaginable before the rise of contemporary action film technologies, allowing human vision to transcend ordinary, ground-bound limitations.

The film arguably does enact a “meaning” which can be described as a fulfillment of a belief in ape species-being flourishing in kinetic movement and activity.  The trajectory of the movie is from confinement, and subordination to human control, to a unchecked flow of pack or tribe bodily expressiveness through movement, from tree to tree, structure to structure, and more broadly away from city towards the forest.  “Evolution becomes Revolution” (the film’s tagline), linear movement becomes the “monkeying around” of spinning, rotating bodily performance.  So when Rizov comments that “the chases rule,” he’s being a bit too dismissive, IMO, of the “deeper” (though that’s not really the right term) meaning of the chases, which enact and display the movie’s primary values in jaw-dropping ways.  And in this sense this is definitely a Planet of the Apes movie for our moment.

That said, the human acting [by this I mean by human beings portraying human beings; Andy Serkis as Caesar is fantastic] was really lousy!  James Franco called to mind his wooden Oscar-host performance (very little movement kinetic or otherwise).

Killing “The Yearling”

This was a heavy one. I’d taped it off TCM and before watching it with the kids, I did a quick look at the reviews on Netflix; on the first page they were all saying “classic film, great family movie,” etc. It’s really good: Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman as the husband and wife homesteading in the Florida swamps in the 1870s, and Claude Jarman Jr. as their 12 year old (?) son Jody. Jarman was one of those slightly melancholy child stars who never made it as an adult actor.

It was filmed on location in Florida and the sense of place is wonderfully vivid. Sarah had just read that new novel Swamplandia so she especially enjoyed the depiction of the swamps.  The basic plot is that the little family is, with difficulty, trying to eke out an isolated living with their only human companionship some slightly scary neighbors a couple miles away.  Jody has a warm relationship with his dad, but the Jane Wyman mother character is critical and cold; we soon learn that she lost three previous children (we see her looking at their gravestones) and so she withholds affection from Jody out of fear of being hurt once again.

There’s an intense scene of bear-hunting in the swamps: the black bear tussles with and tosses around the family’s dogs, and Pa’s rifle sticks so he nearly blows his own face off.  Later dad is bitten by a rattlesnake and only Jody’s valiant bravery allows him to (just barely) survive.

The main dynamic of the movie involves Jody’s desire for a pet, something he can love.  Ma doesn’t think they can afford the costs of keeping another animal in the house.  (I was never quite clear why the dogs couldn’t do it for Jody; he needs something all his own).  A pretty strange emotional system is operating in the household.  Ma withholds her love.  The son, as a response, needs something else to love, but Ma forbids this.  The stalemate breaks in a somewhat overdetermined manner.  After Pa is bitten by the snake, he pulls up his gun and shoots a doe, which he then commands Jody to go to, cut open her belly, and pull out her heart and liver to place on his wound to drain the poison.  Jody does this, which apparently saves his father; they then notice that the doe had a baby faun with her.  They rush back to the house, but once it seems that dad is pulling through, Jody asks permission to go fetch the faun as a pet.  This time Ma can’t say no, and so the adorable little creature becomes a member of the household.

Trouble develops when the faun, whom they’ve named Flag, turns into a yearling, a mischievous, hard-to-control older animal.  When Flag eats the family’s desperately-needed garden crop one time too many (they were counting on selling tabacco as a cash crop to pay for a new well so Ma would not need to carry water a half-mile), the still-bedridden Pa commands Jody to kill the deer.  He refuses, and so Ma has to do it.  She’s a bad shot and only wounds the animal, so Jody has to finish Flag off.  Jody tells his parents he hates them, runs away, collapses on an abandoned boat in the swamp, is found on the river and returned home.  He now accepts that Flag did have to be killed; he himself is now no longer a yearling but a man.  Ma can love him unconditionally (with no competition from Flag).

Now, on the one hand, there’s a realistic logic to all of this and I can imagine a scenario of this sort actually unfolding in these circumstances.  I even felt it was at some level a useful thing for the girls to think about, the hardship and difficulties people used to endure that would lead them to such a dilemma.

That said, the whole movie does play out as a somewhat bizarre lesson in the necessity of killing the creature you love.  After all the upbeat reviews on Netflix I came across this more critical (one-star) one:

This is another one of those message films about animals that were so popular during the 1940s and 1950s. These films warn that if a child or adult dares to elevate an animal to the level of a human, they will pay for it. The main theme is this: Beware of loving an animal too much–this is a childish notion and practically a sin. This misguided love will come back to hurt you in the end. Another example would be The Red Pony with Robert Mitchum. Fine actors such as Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman (or Robert Mitchum in Red Pony) cannot take away from the terrible sadness of these films. If you’re an animal loveing adult or a child, this is one you should avoid.

This commentator does have a point; there’s a certain sadism in the way the movie encourages you to love Flag as much as Jody does and then to face up to the necessity of destroying him.  Again, these sorts of choices did have to made, I’m sure, but there’s something pointed in the way this movie (and some others of the period) develop the narrative around precisely this dynamic.  And in this case there seems to be an especially odd sacrificial logic at play.  (A) Jody’s siblings all died, so his mother cannot love him fully.  (B) He therefore needs an animal to love.  (C) But the necessary cost of earning his mother’s unequivocal love is to kill that animal (which was literally taking water and food out of her mouth). (D) Also: to be a man is to kill the animal (Ma can’t actually kill Flag, Jody must do it in the place of his father).   (E) And don’t forget that Flag could only join the family because its mother, the doe, served as an organ donor to save Pa.  So the animal is needed, but not to love, only as a resource, something to be “harvested” like a crop.  (Jody had actually allowed Flag to curl up on his bed, which seems a fundamental taboo.)

The girls were not as upset by it as we expected, possibly b/c we took a break and then watched the last 45 minutes the next day after explaining what happens.

Jacques Tati’s poujadiste “Mon Oncle”

The whole family went to see Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle at the IU Cinema.  A pretty robust crowd for 3 pm on a beautiful Saturday.  In the introduction, it was mentioned that we were about to see the dubbed-English version; you could hear actual mais non!s from the audience, but then the speaker trumped us by pointing out that it was the Jacques Tati estate itself that chose the English-language version to restore.  I found this intriguing and counter-intuitive, and/but I have to say that the English dubbing made a certain sense to me — it underlined the movie as international, part of a global modernism.  Also, the movie has very little dialogue, so it’s close to a silent movie (albeit one in which sound if not language plays a key role).

The movie is so great!  I had never seen it.  The plot, such as it is, involves a few days in the life of the Arpels, husband and wife; he the boss of a plastics factory, she a housewife in a squeaking rubber house-dress, their son Gerard, and their semi-bohemian — or at least poor and unemployable — uncle/brother, M. Hulot (Tati himself), whom M. Arpel sets up with a job in his factory.  (This does not go well, in ways that evoke Chaplin’s Modern Times: a kind of Sorcerer’s Apprentice-like struggle with the factory ensues).  The movie is all about a clash between the forces of mid-20th-century-industrial modernity, planned culture, the plastic pipes manufactured by M. Arpel’s factory (shade of The Graduate — “plastics” — we don’t know what these rather perversely-coiling red tubes are actually used for), futuristic (Jetsons-like) gadgets, plants contorted into artificial shapes in the garden, and a top-down, status-oriented professional-managerial class that oversees these regimes of order, on the one hand; and on the other, everything associated with Mr. Hulot, the shambling, messy, wandering, erring, foggy-headed uncle filled with a spirit of improvisatory play who rides a rickety bike everywhere and lives in a shabby boarding house.  (We see him ascending the irrationally non-linear stairs to his room in a cut-away shot, bowing and dodging to avoid neighbors and hanging laundry.)

The girls seemed to enjoy it quite a bit too, seeming to relish all the weirdly hilarious, subtle physical comedy: the dolphin fountain which only goes on for high-status visitors; the absurd winding paving stones in the Arpels’ front yard; the comedy of the broken water pipe; the food carts, the boys who whistle at people to make them walk into signs, and the hilarious little gang of dogs racing through the movie as a force of aleatory randomness. Tati’s argument for chance and play is enacted in the filming of the dogs; Tati seems just to have let them go and tried to follow their crazily-criss-crossing itineraries as best he could.  The movie’s anti-industrial/modern themes sound a bit obvious or even smug, but it all plays out brilliantly and surprisingly.  The movie feels like a Rube Goldberg device, a hyper-stylized, perfectionist contraption (the sounds and the score are amazing).  It’s one of the most stylized and amazingly-designed movies I can think of, up there with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg — there’s a certain irony in that, of course, given the ways the movie always seems to favor “nature” over artifice.

This was maybe my favorite scene (on the bottom), when the Arpels accidentally lock themselves in their laser-motion-detector garage and are trying to convince the dog to walk through the beam to trigger the door.  (There are a number of shots in which round windows appear, with heads at the center, like giant eyeballs.)

The dogs are allied with the wayward boys whom Gerard falls in with when he can, to escape his parents’ oppressive oversight: swarms/packs of unruly creatures defying rules of order, propriety, and linear movement.  (Wiki tells us that, interestingly, “At its debut in 1958 in France, Mon Oncle was denounced by some critics for what they viewed as a reactionary or even poujadiste view of an emerging French consumer society, which had lately embraced a new wave of industrial modernization and a more rigid social structure” — I did not know that term, poujadiste: “Poujadism was opposed to industrialization, urbanization, and American-style modernization, which were perceived as a threat to the identity of rural France.”)

Konrad Lorenz, Selma Lagerlof, & Nazi chickens

I recently read through (meaning skimming parts of it) an interesting book, Patterns of Behavior: Konrad Lorenz, Nico Tinbergen, and the Founding of Ethology (Chicago), by Richard Burkhardt, Jr., about how the study of animal behavior emerged from its former place as a sub-category of natural history to become a full-fledged science in the twentieth century.

With apologies for going straight to the most sensationalist aspects of the book, Lorenz’s accommodation to the Nazi regime, and the Nazis’ promotion of his work, was a bit shocking for me to discover (as someone with vague pleasant memories of reading King Solomon’s Ring in high school).  Lorenz was (for a time) a Nazi, notwithstanding his supporters’ attempts to cover this up or whitewash it after the war.  In a major 1938 speech in Bayreuth, he

proposed that the degeneration of instinctive behavior patterns in domesticated ducks and geese corresponded to the cultural and genetic degeneration of civilized man…. The danger to the race, he warned, lay in the undesirable types that proliferated under the conditions of civilization.  Summoning up an image with which the Nazis were obsessed, the naturalist who only a few days before had applied for the membership in the Nazi party likened degenerate members of society to cancerous cells in an organism: ‘Nothing is more important for the health of an entire people than the elimination of invirent types, which, with the most dangerous and extreme virulence, threaten the penetrate the body of a people like the cells of a malignant tumor.’

Lorenz’s arguments found favor with an important Nazi psychologist, Erich Jaensch, who drew on Lorenz’ basic claims in order to compare “the pecking styles and other characteristics of northern vs. southern races of chickens.”

[Jaensch] concluded that the differences between northern and southern races of chickens paralleled the differences between northern European and southern European races of humans.  Northern chickens pecked steadily and accurately while southern chickens pecked rapidly but impulsively and inaccurately.  This mirrored, he claimed, the calm, measured, and tenacious behavior of northern, Germanic types as compared with the restless, lively, and flexible behaviors of Mediterranean types.


Ethology did begin to improve in the post-National Socialism 1950s.

One non-Nazi-related detail that also caught my attention was that Lorenz credited his childhood love for animals, in part, to

Selma Lagerlof’s classic children’s book The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, which was read to him when he was about six.   Nils is the story of a boy who is magically changed into the size of an elf and flies off on the back of a barnyard gander with a flock of wild geese.  By Lorenz’s account, the story led him to want to become a wild goose himself or, failing that, at least to have one…. In Lagerlof’s classic, wild geese are identified as clearly superior to their barnyard cousins.  Thus, beginning with the bedtime stories of his childhood, Lorenz was taught that wild animals are stronger and more admirable than their domestic relatives are.  This idea would feature significantly in his thinking for the rest of his life.

Because my daughters must learn of the superiority of the hearty wild Swedish goose to its emasculated domesticated cousin For some reason I felt compelled to get hold of a copy of Nils, which we read to the girls.  It’s a pretty great book, although at a certain point it kind of devolves into a Swedish travelogue in which Nils learns about each region of the country as he flies around on the back of his goose friend.  It’s an anti-cruelty book, among other things; Nils gets turned into an elf because of his mistreatment of farm animals, and he has to go through his adventures to learn a new comradeship with his feathered and furred friends.

Exotic Feline Rescue Center

We finally visited the Exotic Feline Rescue Center after 8 years in Southern Indiana, an excellent post-Thanksgiving day trip.

It’s a couple miles off 46 East on the way to Terre Haute.  The entrance has a vague resemblance to an autobody parts store or some such.  You pay your entrance fee, and one of the volunteers/employees explains the rules/guidelines (if you touch a cat you will be asked to leave; if a cat turns its rear end towards you, it may be planning to spray you; move quickly to the side) and takes you on a tour.

It’s an amazing place!  They have about 200 big cats.  A lot of tigers, some lions, and also leopards, bobcats, servals, cougars, and ocelots.  Most of them were rescued from abusive/neglectful situations: breeders, pet owners in over their heads, drug dealers, other shady characters who like the idea of having a lion in their backyard.  They do not breed animals and they don’t place them elsewhere; it’s a permanent retirement home.  They say that for every animal they can adopt, they have to turn down about 40.

The animals definitely seemed to pay special attention to the girls and another young boy with our group.

The animals tended to be fairly interested and would come up to check us out.  You’re not supposed to come within an arm’s reach of the cages, which at some points means you kind of have to squeeze through a relatively narrow passageway with giant cats sitting or pacing on either side.  It all seems very well run, but on the other hand, it’s just normal fences and padlocks between you and the animals, no high-tech zoo moats or walls.  At one point Iris got scared and didn’t want to come into one area; she eventually braved it by riding on my shoulders.

A few minutes into our tour the lions started roaring back and forth, a very eerie sound.  We saw one of the big lions chewing on a leg of some sort — the lady said that local farmers will often donate a cow or horse that dies.  The center goes through 3000 pounds of meat a day.

They’re definitely doing good work here.  Sad to think of so many of these creatures kept as pets.  There are no national laws governing exotic pet ownership so it’s a state by state patchwork; in Indiana (surprisingly) it’s fairly stringently regulated but in Ohio there are virtually no rules, anyone can buy a tiger cub, stick it in the back of the pickup truck and take it home.

This was a cute guy rubbing his head against the fence.

As we were leaving we noticed a little tabby cat walking around the entrance area.  She looked ridiculously tiny.  I guess she must know to stay out of the cages.