People act differently when under the fixed scrutiny of a camera; other animals don’t. That’s the trick and the artistry of acting—to shed or channel the self-consciousness the camera provokes. In other words, the essence of cinematic acting is an attempt to negate the camera, to make it disappear in the minds and eyes of the viewer. This self-consciousness, and our attempts to control it, separates us from the beasts. Several modern films tap into this in intriguing ways, highlighting the animals we humans surround ourselves with—both common and uncommon—and using these creatures to make slyly radical statements on our relation to the medium. These deceptively charming pets chew through the scenery, scratching the illusive fabric of the films they inhabit, and clawing open layers concealing the creative process.
It’s a strange, seemingly maladaptive, impulse, this fostered codependence between species that has persisted through history. In our modern times, we have almost fully removed the utility from this relationship; it is purely a matter of companionship. This has been a topic of interest since the beginning of film. For many of us, cat videos still take up large portions of our daily lives. In film, these creatures represent humanity at its most curious and transcendent, displaying moments of compassion and tenderness outside direct personal gain. These animals also signal our penchant for loneliness and yearning for connection and to be needed, so these creatures expose us at our most vulnerable.
David Fincher’s turns this to his advantage in his twisty, fractured thriller/murder-mystery/meta-diegetic-hall-of-mirrors, Gone Girl, through the housecat of the central couple—Nick and Amy Dunne. Gone Girl is a film that gets off on façades and fake-outs. It’s the type of film where you literally can’t judge a book by its cover (as in there is actually a book with deceptive import, multiple books really). As the narrative progresses, fissures emerge and preconceptions snap under the weight of new manipulations and misleading information. Once a layer is removed, there is only another layer of artifice and deception below. Truth is an undiscoverable illusion, and the ongoing search for it, and process of keeping up, is the real, easily overlookable point. It may sound crazy, but the cat is an exposed wire in this film—an element utilized by Fincher as an agent of manipulation that also paradoxically undercuts and reveals the film’s conceits.
In all the intrigue, the cat (unnamed in the film, Bleeker in the novel) is given consistent screen time. Unlike many other prominent movie cats, he is not introduced then forgotten. Nick is drawn back to what he discovers to be “the scene of the crime” by the cat—a neighbor calls his bar to inform him the cat has gotten out of the house. The cat is at one point beautifully illuminated by the incessantly flashing cameras from the media circus intensifying outside the Dunne household. Nick corrals the cat away from a broken glass he smashed in frustration. There is a designated “cat’s room” in the house. At one point, the lead detective is enlisted to feed the animal. Nick holds the cat after Amy’s return and after we are privy to the intricacy of her plotting. And, the morning after, the cat is propped upright in the kitchen as she prepares crepes. There are also several mentions of a robot dog—and a companion robot cat is given as a gift—emphasizing the organic presence of the cat in the home, and highlighting the play between the artificial and the natural that is going on in the film. The cat is the only real sign of life in a sterile, spare setting.
Because of his prominence, many have noted the cat and have argued for his importance as an emotional barometer in the ebb and flow of the film, and in the constantly shifting character/audience-sympathy terrain. The animal functions as a narrative device, in other words, manipulating the audience’s allegiances with particular characters in anticipation of the next reveal or reversal. But, there is a deeper purpose for the cat, one that aligns with some of the other mangled thematic threads. The cat serves as a baseline deflating the interwoven structural, narrative, and thematic complications. The cat is a consistent, distanced, innocent bystander in a world where everyone has a motive and a game to play—including Fincher—and he attunes us to the mantle-deep layers of artifice and absurdity. The cat provides some levity to the bleak setting, remaining blissfully oblivious to the mounting complexity of the situation and the machinations unraveling from all sides. Fincher, for his part, taps into a variety of storytelling tropes and narrative devices. Twists, turns, concealed motives, role reversals, red herrings, unreliable narration, etc., provide bursts of endorphin-boosting stimulation. Gone Girl compiles these tropes and conventions compulsively, almost embodying a compendium of such maneuvers and structures. In all this turmoil, there is the cat, attuned only to the presence of the goings on rather than the specifics of the motivations, desires, and tricks, immune to the manipulations Fincher is weaving through viewers’ subconscious.
Gone Girl’s cat brings to mind two other recent films that use animals in similar ways, with some variations. Jafar Panahi’s smuggled protest piece, This Is Not a Film, documents the director’s plight under house arrest and under a twenty year ban from filmmaking handed down by the Iranian government. In this film, he enlists friends and confidants to interview him ruminating on his situation and art and culture in the modern world, while also enacting and outlining planned projects crippled by the sentence. The film is necessarily confined to his city apartment and in the process of milling around this abode we get a sense of his singular and somewhat eccentric personality. In this decorous setting he has a pet iguana that slowly slinks around, climbing over and around wherever it pleases. At one point in particular, Panahi is researching the current state of the Iranian film culture on his laptop, lamenting the lack of risk that has resulted from harsher scrutiny and the disbanding of formerly creatively thriving collectives forced into seclusion, all while the iguana crawls over him, clawing at him in its attempt to get to the top of the sofa. It’s a strange, lovely distillation—an eccentric, exotic creature domesticated in a strange, foreign, unnatural environment. Both these creatures are confined and both of their instincts shine through. And, similarly, the brutal absurdity of Panahi’s dilemma is amplified by this focus.
Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, brings this full circle, operating at the opposite end of the spectrum from Panahi’s gentle, humanist treatise. Herzog turns rifts into chasms, charting the rapid primeval decent of his protagonist, Terence McDonagh, as he slithers through the murk of the environment around him. Herzog’s film—a murder case narrative following the unraveling, depraved, unhinged, drug-addled eponymous policeman—has two moments in particular that stand out: the infamous iguana scene, where McDonagh sees iguanas in a stakeout room that no one else can apparently see and a similar alligator scene at a highway accident site. In both scenes, Herzog abruptly switches to oblique, alienating camera angles that align our view with these animals. The style and viewpoint of the film totally changes, degrades even—moving from slick, consistent, functional images to roving, untethered digital videos. He literalizes what I’m talking about here, bringing these disjunctions straight to the front, unafraid to pinpoint the absurdity that is narrative cinema, willing to snap its seams and give a perspective with a tenuous affiliation with the proceedings—and this just may be how McDonagh views the world, and how Herzog envisions humanity. In these shots, the world is warped and unfamiliar, distant and alien. It’s distinctly, pointedly disjoined from everything else. It’s a grainy, filtered, fish-eye point of view that warps and contorts. The characters fade to the background behind multiple layers of distortion and the events they are involved in briefly fade away and seem unimportant and minor.
Fincher’s works approach a similarly post-human ideal reminiscent of Dadaist impulses from early film reactionaries. As early as the 1920s, artists sought to reorient already complacent eyes to the inherent obliqueness of the cinematic form by negating the human elements in works, and emphasizing industrial processes and warped perceptual conundrums. Theirs was a war on narrativity, and they attempted to confront the grafting of mainstream culture on a medium with such potential for distortion and chaos. Fincher is infamous for his autocratic direction, reportedly relentlessly breaking down actors—effacing natural ticks and reactive instincts with grueling take counts and mind games. He has spoken often in interviews about his distaste for earnestness—that natural human tendency when placed before a camera—in performance. It’s an approach that yields a distinctly detached feel, where elements cross-cut against the outward tenor and tone of the works. He whittles characterization down to the trace elements of human instinct and communication and refracts these through a factory of tricks, manipulations, twists, false starts and dead ends. In the process, the machinery overwhelms the human, and our conditioned, comfortable state of obliviousness to the filmmaking apparatuses curdles with cruel irony as we are forced into harmony with the machine. Gone Girl’s Bleeker is undoubtedly Fincher’s most adorable ghost in the machine.
This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine.