Look(ing) at the Animals: The Presence of the Animal in Contemporary Southern Cone Cinema and in Carlos Busqued's Bajo este sol tremendoby Valeria De Los Ríos

Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies


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The State University of Iowa

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by Members of the Centre of African

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Valeria De Los Rı´os






The intention of this article is to investigate the visual presence of animals in contemporary literary and cinematic productions, specifically in the films La cie´naga (2011) and La mujer sin cabeza [The Headless Woman] (2008) by Lucrecia Martel, Verano [Summer] (2011) by Jose´ Luis Torres Leiva, Perro muerto [Dead Dog] (2011) by Camilo Becerra, and in Carlos Busqued’s 2009 novel Bajo este sol tremendo [Under this Terrible Sun].

Despite the fact that authors like John Berger and Akira Lippit have claimed that the animal tends to disappear in modernity, authors like Pick and Jonathan Burt have rescued a persistent animal presence in literary and flim productions as a positive element. Burt emphasises the visual agency of the animal not so much as subjectivity, but rather as an affective power facing the human observer, and Pick underlines the vulnerability of the animal on screen. In this article I show the importance of the animal-human figuration, the look between species and the mobility/immobility duality as axes around which the visual presence of animals is articulated in these contemporary Latin American cultural productions.

Keywords: Latin American cinema; Latin American literature; animal studies; film studies; Southern Cone; Carlos Busqued

What I am interested in doing in this article is investigating the visual character of the presence of animals in contemporary cultural productions, where the sign ‘animal’ ceases to be assimilated into the traditional binary divisions between nature and culture. In his 1999 essay ‘From Hypnosis to Animals’ Raymond Bellour assures us that from the 19th century onwards, every art, beginning with literature, has witnessed the growth in importance attributed to the representation of animals. According to E´tienne

Souriau (quoted in Bellour 2014: 14) the presence of animals in film art is overwhelming, to the point that when the horse stops being used as locomotive power (a practical consequence of the invention of the railway) the fact reverberates through cinema with the invention of a genre: the Western. In Animals in Film Jonathan Burt asserts that the animal is present in cinema from its beginnings, in films ranging from q 2015 Taylor & Francis

Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies, 2015

Vol. 24, No. 1, 33–46, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13569325.2014.1000285 documentaries on wildlife, to Hollywood hits, cartoons and surrealist and experimental films.1

In his essay ‘The Screen of Fantasy’, the French critic Serge Daney analyses Andre´

Bazin’s work on montage, in which the latter theorises that where it is possible to enclose heterogeneous elements in the same frame, montage is forbidden.2 Acccording to Daney, Bazin’s theory of montage converts cinema into a history of animals. This is because in his references, Bazin includes films that show scenes with members of the animal kingdom: Une Fe´e Pas Comme Les Autres [The Secret of Magic Island] (1955) by

Jean Tourane, Crin-Blanc [White Mane] (1953) by Albert Lamorisse, Nanook of the North (1922) and Louisiana Story (1948), by Robert J. Flaherty, among others. In fact, when he refers to Lamorisse’s Le ballon rouge [The Red Balloon] (1956), Bazin draws attention to the ‘zoomorphism attributed to the object’ (71). Discussing other fragments, Bazin notes how the film is manipulated to bring together a tiger and one of the film’s protagonists in the same shot (72), suggests that ‘it would be inconceivable’ for the seal hunt in Nanook not to be shown in one shot (78) and describes as ‘admirable’ the sequence in Louisiana Story in which an alligator catches a stork (78). In Daney’s judgement, what justifies the prohibition of montage for Bazin is not just technical aspects of cinema, such as the liberation of depth of field, the birth of Cinemascope or the growing mobility of the camera, but above all the nature of what is being filmed, the status of the figures (above all men and animals) who are obliged to share the screen, even at times risking their lives (30). The prohibition of montage – says Daney – is a function of this risk. Bazin chooses not to fragment the screen, but to figure fragmentation within it, and therein lies the essence of realism (Daney 2004: 30). So to make the animal figure in the shot the highest degree of otherness is for Bazin one of the paradigmatic forms of realism.3

Another of the interesting characteristics of the visual presence of animals in cinema is the way they occupy genuinely filmic dimensions. According to Souriau, these are kinetic, morphological and expressive dimensions. In addition, the diagetic relation between animals and humans makes available a series of emotions and affects.

According to Burt certain types of animal imaginaries, magnified and intensified by film’s artifice, evoke more emotional responses and hence ones less mediated by judgements that we would apply to other imaginaries. The emotional response to animals is empathetic and hence constitutes a direct natural expression of feeling towards these creatures. In addition, cinema, from its invention and popularisation, has itself influenced the popular construction of animals (Burt 2002: 10).

Burt asserts that the roles that animals play in fiction films include notions of agency,4 so that their presence determines their effects just as they are themselves determined by the position they are placed in by human beings. However, the animal imaginary cannot be subsumed under an abstract and general semiotic theory, since for historical reasons the visual animal carries specific connotations tied to the themes of the treatment and welfare of animals. This tends to erode the limits between fiction and reality (30). Hence, Burt maintains that the animal image constitutes a form of rupture within the field of representation, that says much about the position of animals in our culture (11).5