Credit: Walt Disney Productions (1941) ©This was a week of good news and bad news for both movie buffs and animal activists. Count me in as a member of both unappreciated groups.
The good news is that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Circus, which has delighted little children for decades with its crass exploitation and shameful abuse of animals, is finally - at long last - folding its tent.
Not surprisingly, the plasticized anchors who host the local evening news (seemingly the same people in every market) bowed their heads in unison and lamented the passing of such a "beloved institution."
All of this is in preamble to a reminiscence. It was my first week on the job as a movie critic in Philadelphia and things were rather slow. There were no screenings. As is the wont of newspaper editors, they wanted to get my byline in the paper, even if it wasn't attached to a new film. Well,
the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Circus was opening that night in Philadelphia and my editor thought it would be "groovy" (his word, not mine) if I reviewed it. Dutifully, I went and sat through the ordeal.
But I wrote my review of it not as an all-purpose critic but as an animal activist. Not good. You probably know where I am going with this. The paper never ran my review. Too radical. This was not an auspicious start.
Yes, my first professional review was scrapped.
Now for the bad news for the movie buff/animal activist that defines me. It has to do with footage unearthed by TMZ and turned into a cause célèbre by PETA . But first, I have to double back.
Back in 2015, I wrote an essay titled "joe's dreaded genre." It explained that, even though I love animals, I don't like movies about animals because movies about animals are always sad. Always. If you've noticed, terrible things tend to happen to animals in movies about animals.
What I failed to reveal in that piece is that I also have serious reservations about what is required to get animal to "act" in a movie, particularly a sad one full of one hardship after another. Yes, the "abuse" played out on screen may be simulated, but exactly what is the animal put through to complete the scene? What discomfort does it experience and withstand?
And beyond sequences depicting danger, even the most innocuous moment can be trying, stressful, for an animal. It is not natural for an animal to perform, any animal - not an elephant, not a dog and certainly not a cat. Nor a horse. Which brings me to a case in point...
My wife adores George Stevens' "Giant." Me, not so much. Yes, it's a great movie in most ways. But for me, I can't get past the sequence in which Mercedes McCambridge abuses Elizabeth Taylor's beloved horse by driving her spurs into its sides. It's a disturbing scene and the horse is clearly in agony. But was the horse "acting"? Later, after the horse throws McCambridge, killing her (justice served), it limps back to the ranch - shot in silhouette, against a nighttime sky. An evocative, disturbing moment.
But also an ugly one.
Making that particular moment in "Giant' even more deplorable to contemplate (let alone watch) is that, once the men in the film realize that McCambridge died after the horse threw her, they shoot the poor animal.
Which brings me to an upcoming film that wasn't designed to be as iconic as "Giant" - "A Dog's Purpose," based on a book by W. Bruce Cameron that was apparently very popular. I wouldn't know. This movie was made by the estimable Lasse Hallstrom and stars Dennis Quaid (among other humans) and several dog actors as reincarnated versions of one dog.
It was a German Shepard named Hercules who was allegeddly mistreated by the film's second-unit crew and forced into mechanically-charged torrents of water. The dog seems distressed in the TMZ footage and, exacerbating matters, the crew working for Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment, producers of the film, seems to be laughing on the video.
Filmmakers - such as Stevens and Hallstrom - are usually too busy directing scenes involving actors to know exactly how their second unit is operating. And that's part of the problem. That's why the American Humane Association is so crucial n such cases, given that it ostensibly monitors and reports on the treatment of animals on film sets.
I've a hunch that situations like the one involving Hercules on "A Dog's Purpose" happen all the time and are not just restricted to second-unit crews. In the not-too-distant past, stories like Hercules' were only hearsay. The difference these days is that anything can be caught on tape.
Ah, yes, the tape. What we see is clearly incriminating, but spokespeople for Universal and Amblin have referred to the video as "edited," an important point. Also in an interview with Variety, Cameron has rightfully questioned why it took 15 months for the footage to be unearthed and revealed. Why not sooner? And why weren't authorities contacted at the time of the alleged abuse? And he also brings up the matter of it being an edited video, which is disturbing. What was eliminated? What was left out?
Reportedly, Hercules performed the stunt without any problems during rehearsal but became stressed during the actual shoot when a different side of the same pool was used. Who knows. We may never know.
Whatever the truth is, the only issue that matters is whether it is moral or ethical to exploit animals for the sake of a movie or a circus or a zoo.
And in terms of moviemaking, given that so much can be easily accomplished these days with CGI, why use real animals at all in potentially dangerous or stressful situations? Remember, these animals don't volunteer to participate in movies. They have no choice. FYI: In an excellent byline piece for The Hollywood Reporter, the film's producer, Gavin Palone, confirms that a computer-generated dog was created for the difficult parts of the sequence in question and clears up the question of the edited video. He also takes responsibility for whatever miscalculation made by the second-unit crew and the trainer in the handling of Hercules.
The point to all this is that a film set really isn't a place for Hercules - or any animal, for that matter. And what's ironic - and sad - about this particular movie controversy is that "A Dog's Purpose" is a film whose intention was to celebrate animals, clearly not harm them.
Addendum: This piece was updated with additional information on January 22nd and again on the 24th .