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Afterthoughts and Postscripts, 54.3: Sarah O'Brien
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Postscript to “Nous revenons à nos moutons: Regarding Animals in Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep

Sarah O’Brien


One of the first responses to my initial foray into writing about Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett, 1977), the film at the center of my article in Cinema Journal 54:3, was one of those third-person remarks about oneself that are devastatingly right in their observational acuity: “Sarah believes in rhetoric.” The point was made during my dissertation field exam by Angela Cozea, a committee member and the professor who had led me, by way of lectures that tracked human-animal encounters from Rabelais to Proust in her seminar on French literature, to explore the “question of the animal.” By “rhetoric,” Angela was referring, in a tone of disenchantment yet not cynicism, to my discussion of the ways cinematography makes arguments about the world. I don’t remember hearing her remark in the exam itself (the pulse of adrenalin being what it was), but I do recall it jumping out from the notes of the exam that my supervisor, Eva-Lynn Jagoe, had the foresight to transcribe. I laughed. I may have repeated the line and laughed aloud. I remember thinking I understood its surface and undercurrent—its prognostic and even performative value: Sarah believes in rhetoric now, but she will soon come to doubt it.

It is one thing to be forewarned of an impending crisis of conviction, quite another to experience it. The weight of Angela’s remark would reveal itself—indeed continues to reveal itself—over time, as I shaped my thoughts on filmic documentations of violent animal death into a dissertation, and now as I expand those ideas into a book, Slaughter Cinema: Human-Animal Violence in Analog and Digital Film. This project began with my unease with the rhetoric of shocking exposure that pervades conventional animal-rights films (and, indeed, contemporary popular documentary at large) and is most concisely summed up in one of the movement’s better-known slogans, “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, we’d all be vegetarian.” This rhetoric asserts that the legitimacy of institutionalized practices of animal use and abuse rests on their perceived invisibility, and it thus reassuringly proposes that the corrective to these practices is simply to expose a benighted public to grisly scenes of exploitation; appropriate action will follow. Among the many ethical problems this rhetoric raises, the most troubling for me is that it simply reinscribes the sense that animal life and death is something that takes place outside, over there, apart from our everyday human lives. My aim as I embarked on this project was to look to film history for representational strategies that do not reveal (and, as a seemingly inevitable by-product, revel in) the horrors of violent animal death, but rather that disclose an awareness of the multiple, complex ways in which animal death props up and permeates our lives. Forging a recognition of these relationships—that is, a recognition of violent intimacies that we are more and less aware of but which we regularly disavow—is the only hope we have of beginning to change them.

The history of cinema, it turns out, is punctuated by evidence of animal killing. Across disparate genres and traditions, documentary footage of violent animal death is frequently called on both to stand in for human trauma and to demonstrate cinema’s medium-specific properties, with the most oft-remarked examples including Stachka / Strike (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925), La règle du jeu / The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939), and Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979). Meanwhile, the operations of industrialized animal slaughter and disassembly have been subject to sustained attention in a number of documentaries set in slaughterhouses and other spaces of routine animal killing; the guiding imperatives in this latter corpus may be allegorical (Le Sang des bêtes / Blood of the Beasts, Georges Franju, 1949), educational (This is Hormel, Hormel Food Corporation, 1965), and/or political (Food Inc., Robert Kenner, 2008). Killer of Sheep sits somewhere in between these two already unstable groups: it is a docudrama, a fictional film that documents a specific socio-historical time and place, and its power rests, I argue in my article, in its refusal to cast nonhuman animals as metaphorical foils for its human actors, and its insistence, instead, on proliferating connections between humans and animals.

Writing about Killer of Sheep, some of the films listed above, and a number of films unnamed here has convinced me that cinema is equipped to do much more than—and something different than—simply pull the wool from our eyes; for example, through unsettling juxtapositions of sound and image, matches on action, and graphic rhymes, Burnett’s film develops a canted view of a world imbued by the effects of animal killing. At the same time, and just as Angela promised, my work on these films has fundamentally challenged my investment in the rhetorical value of cinema, leading me to question my belief in the relationships—however tenuous, indirect, and impossible to measure—between how we see the world on screen, and how we live and act in the world. At various points along the way, I’ve been sure that one of these positions would win out; more often than not, it seemed that the latter one, paralyzing doubt, would dead-end everything. I find myself now, as I begin a new chapter on the politics of immersion in underwater documentaries such as The Cove (Louie Psihoyos, 2009) and Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, 2012), coming to appreciate the extent to which both positions inform my work. On the page, negotiating this ambivalence means remaining attentive to the tense, degree of certainty, and scale of my arguments and readings. In the world, it means learning to live with my belief in rhetoric, and all the uncertainty that it brings.

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