The opening scene of Becoming Animal is a tapestry in motion. An elk sinks to its shoulders in a landscape of splendid autumn colors. The animal slowly turns its head to reveal its majestic antlers. Shortly afterward, the elk rises to full stature, showing its impressive figure. As if the sight of one alone might not be wonderful enough, it wanders over to another equally impressive elk. These full-size, satisfyingly harmonious creatures evoke a magical sense of serenity. Another similarly atmospheric scene follows shortly – a memory of warm summer nights in forests full of life and sounds that awaken the senses as much as they subdue the conscious mind.
We are in the Grand Tetons National Park in Wyoming. The sound of the huge animals’ mating rituals gradually develops from high pitched overtones sliding through the night, descending into deep grunts. The grainy recordings and dense shadows create a greater sense of presence. The trio behind the film – filmmakers Peter Mettler and Emma Davie, as well as the philosopher and writer David Abram – are out together recording under the full moon. The grunting sounds lend themselves to a peculiar atmosphere. Small talk evolves into a philosophical conversation led by David: they argue that the enormous spectrum of mating songs may have been the roots of man-made music.
David presents his thoughts whilst caressing a beautiful birch trunk. He reflects upon the tactile surface, the chilliness and the smoothness he experiences. The meeting is mutual; the tree senses the chemical imprint from his hand on its bark. The trees move with the light and play an active part in the meeting, and, in this way, the trees also seem to perceive humans. One of the directors, Emma, explains that the film not only takes us on a journey of perception, it also has a clear premise: the documentary sets out to merge David’s philosophy and Peter’s visionary cinematography.
Peter Mettler is known for his intuitive, essayistic documentaries. Emma Davie is mainly known for the gripping movie I am Breathing, about a young dying man. Both filmmakers have the unique ability to elevate ideas, objects or concepts others may consider mundane into entities sacred and meaningful far beyond their physical presence. Together they create iconic scenes. The camera angle and composition, movement and meaning symbiotically create something so memorable that later scenes convey callbacks that are easy to link to earlier moments.
«The grunting sound of the mating rituals creates a particular atmosphere. Small talk develops into a philosophical conversation.»
Take the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho – the very reminder of it causes you to imagine the knife slowly entering the shot, slicing the shower curtain, the dark stripe of blood flowing down the drain, and a terrified, screaming face. In Becoming Animal, we’re rather being served balm for the soul, but via similar methods. And while cinematographically beautiful, this documentary offers insights and observations into the philosophy of modern man and how far away from nature we have placed ourselves.
The timely question of the human obsession with documenting ourselves is a hot topic. Is the arguably excessive recording of contemporary life going to help us understand how that very overuse started to occur sometime in the future? They criticize the fact that the experience of that, which has not been photographed or filmed, is unlived and hence has failed.
And so the film at times seems to be playing with its own criticism. The film crew is often glimpsed as part of the film – a metacommentary or a contradiction? The philosopher, David, is often filmed amid spectacular scenery. In the beginning, this is very pleasing. However, during the latter parts of the film, I notice that placing people in the scenes becomes grating; the film departs from its focus on nature.
«The timely question of human obsession with documenting is being discussed.»
I half-heartedly accept shorter scenes that include buildings, signs, etc., but inside, I silently beg for the film to move on and cease these disruptions. This reflection on man as a part of nature, followed by man’s visual interference. Why do I need the back of a human head in the scene’s foreground as they are filming? Fortunately, this disturbance does not last long and serves to make this point.
Writing and the experience of time
The presence of animals and the magnitude of nature provides space for reflection. Thought-provoking words have more impact in the silence of dusty black and white national park tableaus. The characters moving at the edge of the frame become insignificant silhouettes. While steam is rising against a backdrop of black mountains covered in forest, we hear David’s voice narrating, «in the moment humans began to write things down, they developed a beginning awareness of time, perceiving chains of events as linear.
It is only us two-legged that have a perception of that we are coming from a distant place, going somewhere else.» The philosopher continues, «the written language derives from the hunter’s need to be able to read animal footprints. The hieroglyphs in the caves render simplistic forms taken from nature and thus the shapes of nature became the source of the alphabet.»
«David’s thoughts float on top of the nature scenes that fill the screen. The perceptional alternations shoot off to heaven and dive down like birds.»
David’s thoughts float on top of the natural scenes that fill the screen. A slimy snail unfolds in a captivating beauty. Its protective shield is rough like a mountain, the slime blends with a perfect drop of water and turns into a prism. I watch parts of the film over and over again. Ironically, it is the sequence that deals with how «the written language and the linear narrative created a distance to nature» that puts it all into motion. I dive into selected favorite iconic sequences.
Out of time
A foreground of bright, blurred grass and chocolate-warm fur fills the screen. I would like to lean up against the chewing bison. The composition is so tight that it might as well have been a shot of a modern pillow if it hadn´t been for the subtle movement and the mouth of the ox slowly becoming so visible.
Rattling, golden leaves, shivering in the treetops. The wind catches the branches furthest up and makes them dance, quickly in and out of focus. The camera records a symphony of various leaf and branch movements. When the scene ends, I restart it. I let go of the linear narrative to be able to stay among the swaying treetops.