This week we’ve moved on to the topic of “biomorphism,” which refers to the dimension of life and sensuous interactivity in a film-world – the liveliness that’s found between the passivity of the object-world (the geomorphic) and the human activity of the subject-world (anthropomorphism).
Here is where a film depicts objects as alive, or animals as social, like us, or humans as animal-like. I’ve argued that this is where everything ultimately happens – in the action and interaction between sensorial bodies, things that can perceive and respond to other things. The geomorphic and the anthropomorphic are two ends of the continuum that stretches across the biomorphic field of possibilities.
But since we’ve already dealt with nonliving things (chapter 3) and with humans (chapter 4), we’re focusing here on living, animate things – or what film depicts as living, animate things. Nature films, wildlife documentaries, animation, horror and monster movies, and certain kinds of science-fiction are the genres that most commonly engage this biomorphic realm in the most interesting ways.
The class went on a field trip to see The Act of Killing last week, which fit our reading of Chapter 4 of Ecologies of the Moving Image better than I could have planned. (That’s the chapter that deals with “anthropomorphism,” that is, the “becomings-human” — or “becoming-subjective” — within the world of a film.)
The Act of Killing is Joshua Oppenheimer’s chilling documentary about the perpetrators of the mass murders committed by the Suharto regime’s paramilitary death squads in mid-1960s Indonesia. The filmmakers interview some of the worst of the perpetrators and — controversially — invite them to re-enact the killings for the camera, filming these scenes in the style of their favorite film genres. This interplay between mass murder and Hollywood movies — gangsters, westerns, and musicals — is a focus of the film.
What Chapter 3 did with the world (and, specifically, nature), Chapter 4 does with people (and, specifically, their relation to nature). In particular, it deals with contrasts between a normative, “modern” (western, industrial) relationship to nature and a non-normative one: non-western, pre-modern, “primitive,” and all those other characterizations that carry so much baggage in the modern creation narrative.
(“We ‘moderns’ are what we are because we . . . [ascended from, descended from, evolved out of, transgressed, superseded, conquered, etc.] this more . . . [primitive, natural, better, worse, etc.] way of being.”)