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.


Saw an interesting lecture today by a writer/cultural historian named Rachel Poliquin about the history of taxidermy and its legacy in contemporary art.  She’s curated an exhibit that just opened in Vancouver, where the museum has had sitting in its basement a collection of old taxidermy that no one wanted to see for 50 years.  So Poliquin got a grant to refurbish and re-purpose this creepy, abandoned old collection.

She didn’t mention the fact, but could’ve, that the most famous symbol of the excesses of contemporary conceptual art and the art market is Damien Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” a taxidermy tiger shark preserved in a tank.  It’s interesting that this is so, that an art-form (or whatever it is) so strongly associated with archaic old Victorian practices became the signature of 21st century conceptual art.

One of Poliquin’s points I especially liked was that a shoe or an upholstered arm-chair is, essentially, taxidermy.  Abstract taxidermy, maybe.  We make a lot of things out of animal skins.  When they look enough like animals, we call them taxidermy.

What kind of sign is a taxidermy animal?  Is it indexical, iconic?  A taxidermy fox is often taken to represent the fox species, and so is an iconic sign of the larger group and concept.  But it is also indexical, a representation of the individual animal that it was.  In fact it is presented not as a sign but as the thing itself.

Here’s a bit of the handiwork of my favorite taxidermist, the Victorian Walter Potter:


I’m looking forward to Rachel Poliquin’s book Taxidermy and Longing which will supposed be published by Harvard UP in 2010.  Here’s her website.

Full of Kitten

I read an interesting book this week by a political theorist named Jane Bennett called The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics.  It’s basically an argument against the Weberian theory that modern life is characterized above all by “disenchantment.”  One of the categories of modern “enchantment” she considers concerns what she calls cross- or inter-species encounters:

Their magic lies in their mobility, that is, in their capacity to travel, fly, or transform themselves; in their morphing transits…. Metamorphosing creatures enact the very possibility of change; their presence carries with it the trace of dangerous but also exciting and exhilarating migrations.  To live among or as a crossing is to have motion called to mind, and this reminding is also a somatic event.  My hunch is this: hybrids enchant for the same reason that moving one’s body in space can carry one away — think of dancing or the rush after a hard push on the swing.

Living with cats allows a kind of cross-species enchantment.  Everything in the house that means one thing for us, the people, means something different for the cats: couch, rug, chair are caves and bridges; bottle cap, shoe, sweater are prey or toy.  Having cats in the house means continual unexpected transformation and movement.  I think maybe there’s something fundamentally anti-depressant in this quality, the way the inert domestic space is animated and enlivened by surprising movements, leaps and jumps, stretches.  (And sounds: light thumps, coos, tussles, mieows.)  Anywhere you look you might find a creature prowling or patrolling; motion is called to mind.  This can be true of any domestic pet allowed free run of the house, but compared to dogs, cats seem to me more unpredictably other in their species-being and habits, in their own world.

I put my foot out yesterday to push down a corner of the rug that had bunched up, and it turned out that Pot Luck was curled up inside it.

The other day Celie picked up both cats on the porch to bring them inside and asked me to open the door: “I’m full of kitten,” she said.

Christopher Smart:

For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion….

For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, though he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadrupede.

Neko Case “People Got a Lotta Nerve”

Neko Case is offering a free download of the first single, “People Got a Lotta Nerve,” from her new album (Middle Cyclone, due out March 3), and her record label is donating $5 to Best Friends Animal Society for every blog that re-posts it.  So, I am doing so: you can download the song here.  Here’s the explanation of the deal.  I love Neko Case, can’t get enough of her spooky, haunting voice.
The song features an elephant in a zoo, an Orca in a tank, and maybe a man-eating tiger? It’s about carnivorous animals and the way human beings try to control them and contain their instinctive violence.  “I’m a man-eater, but still you’re surprised when I eat you…. It will end again in bullets fired.”  Makes me think of Rilke’s “The Panther” and John Berger’s “Why Look at Animals.”  Also of the tiger that an archaeologist friend of ours had in her lab for her students to dissect; it had escaped from its owner at a highway rest stop in Illinois, and was shot to death by state troopers (and then made its way to the lab).
I like the song a lot, but hope Neko can live with the inevitable Hall & Oates references.

Battery-operated Guinea Pig Unfortunately Does Not Poop

There’s this one detail from the NY Times article “Our Love Affair With Shopping Malls is on the Rocks” that Sarah and I were laughing about because it seemed such a sadly apt emblem for the U.S. economy.

The economic crisis has caused shoppers to go into an essentials-only mode. But the mall has never trafficked in essentials. You can’t, for instance, fill a prescription at the Mall of America, because it doesn’t have a pharmacy. You can, however, buy a vanilla hazelnut fragrance candle in the shape of a miniature cooking skillet. Or a $13 baseball hat that looks as though it’s made of cheddar cheese. A store called Corda-Roy’s sells a variety of bean bags that convert into beds. Magnet Max sells a battery-operated guinea pig that runs continuously on a spinning exercise wheel.

It’s the battery-operated guinea pig that stuck in my mind as a little icon of pointless/wasteful U.S consumerism (and maybe of the U.S. consumer too).  We went on a post-Xmas expedition to the Indianapolis “Fashion Mall” a few weeks ago and I had the thought that 80% of what was on offer constituted a sort of money-laundering operation, just in the sense that it really only exists in order to have something to spend your money on.  (The heavily marked-down Christmas gifts and paraphernalia especially conveyed this impression.)

A different article in today’s Times mentions the popular iPhone application iFart: “as you can pretty much deduce from the name, it enables your $200 to $300 mobile device to emit a variety of noises simulating flatulence.”  Compared to the vanilla hazelnut fragrance candles in the shape of a miniature cooking skillet, etc., though, at least the iFart application is cheap (99 cents) and will not end up in a landfill.

By the way, speaking of guinea pigs, when we got home last night at 8:30 or so we stepped over a big garbage bag in front of our front door.  It says something about our housekeeping that no one commented on it; I assumed it was something Sarah had left there for some reason.  As soon as we got in the door, the phone rang; it was Steve across the street letting us know that the bag contained a load of guinea pig poop from their pets, which Sarah covets for our backyard compost heap.  There’s quite a lot of traffic in guinea pig poop between the two households, although unfortunately Steve will not accept the contents of Pot Luck and Daisy’s litter box in exchange.