“Among the earliest forms of human self-awareness was the awareness of being meat.”
– David Quammen, Monster of God
I’m fascinated by the role that predator animals play in popular culture, in particular the way in which Hollywood movies utilize the “rogue beast” trope in entertainment. Whether they take the form of environmental precautionary tales (ex: the global warming theme of 1977’s Day of the Animals) or eschew content in pursuit of unmitigated pulp action (1997’s Anaconda, or any Jaws sequel), these movies speak to base fears that most people, especially those living in urban environs, seem to share: the fear of “other” in the form of animals, the fear of subordination to them, the fear of being eaten or defeated by creatures we cannot control. The advancement of civilization has always required the extermination of alpha predators as the basis for conquest.
It’s not as though Hollywood films or even pulp novellas present new treatments of this theme – history is full of predator animals in fictional and mythical interactions with people. What I find intriguing is the repetition of this theme in contemporary entertainment, and it’s continual success at creating a binary understanding of “The Wild” despite the usually absurd presentation. From the giant octopus in the first 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916) to Snakes on a Plane (2006), modern filmmakers continue to recycle formulaic stories in which people are forced into violent interactions with perverse versions of the natural world, usually ending in victory for the humans.
What originally began as a study of scenes of human-over-animal victories in contemporary movies eventually evolved into a larger documentation of these violent interactions from any film I ccould get my hands on. This growing database of footage was at the core of my video work from 2007 until 2012.
I created this video especially for the Fugitive Projects’ invitational 60 Second Video Project 2009.
The footage is remixed from a pivotal scene in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Bear (1988), which I first saw as a child.
The Grey Stare was created specifically for the July, 2012 Acid Rain public access television series, curated by Jerstin Crosby and broadcast in Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina and in Manhattan, NYC. You can, of course, watch this piece online, but my intention was towards something that would operate in the channel-surfing realm.
Timed to (roughly) coincide with the cable television and DVD release of The Grey (2012), a Liam Neeson survivalist blockbuster, The Grey Stare loops the Man v. Beast stare-down from the final scenes of the film. I really got a kick out of the notion that someone would be flipping channels and land on what they thought was a new anti-wolf monster/action flick, only to realize (in a few seconds, probably) that thew were watching an endless, looped stare-down.
From the Acid Rain Vimeo site:
“Acid Rain is pleased to present a world premiere of Shaun Slifer’s “The Grey Stare”. As with many of Slifers’ videos, he employs clips from animal-horror films into a new psychological space […] As he mentions, the theme of ‘man’ overcoming the odds and dominating nature is as old as the oral traditions, a metaphor for longstanding primitive fears, and the struggle for dominion. Though when filtered through Slifer’s perspective, with the triumph removed, we are left with representations of nature-gone-wild, wreaking havoc on mankind.”
Testing the Waters, which specifically details sharks, was my first effort to give birth to ideas to a form for my growing archive of Hollywood animal violence movies.
It is as much a nod to my childhood fascination with sharks as it is a piece of humor and an exercise in editing process.
Over on YouTube, where this video was posted in 2008, it has 1.4m views as of December, 2019.
“While some informed people may have decided that sharks are really not so bad, they yet may find reasons for not swimming in the ocean. Traditional island peoples widely regard the shark as a spiritual being whose analogous aspect in the human self is an embryo. That sharks rip open the body of their victims has a double horror of an unborn monster ravaging the self. Sharks are neither intrinsically terrible nor sacred, but they are utterly fascinating and therefore a perfect candidate for encoding extreme feelings and concepts.”
– Paul Shepard, The Others
My ominous treatment of that crucial scene in Disney’s Old Yeller (1957), wherein Yeller battles the rabid wolf that terrorizes the Coates family throughout the movie, contracting rabies as a result of his wounds from the fight.