Pierre Alferi (b. 1963)
La protection des animaux (2000)
(Animal protection, 24min, music by Rodolphe Burger, 2000).
Off voice (translated by Stacy Doris) :
Richer chords carried Alice’s voice. Their dissonance was marvelous. And I heard: the animals’ voices. And I saw.
Hidden in the scenery, the majority smaller than us, since our embarkation they’d been guarding the river, smoothing the waters before the bow. Alice already lived among them, inhabited the river better than Tom supine or me standing, seated inhabited the water’s surface of a vaster and smaller world that was no longer the human world of measure, hard for little things. Little, she understood from the first the animal noises, which her voice now immeasurably amplified.
Animals watched over Tom’s sleep and my towpath, sounding the applause for our great runaway scene. But their theatre housed a destroyed community, a disjointed public. The crowd spread itself over balconies and boxes without railings, burrows litters nests perches without common measure. There was a turnout, yes, and not human, there were masses blown up by the angle of each shot. Perspective of a frightened owl I could finally make out amid the camouflage, of a rabbit couple quivering like leaves of grass, of a turtle disguised as a rock, in their respective bubbles grazing the bubble of the boat all lights out. In the interest of sleep—Tom’s snoring—and its tricks—Alice’s trance, my stupor—their bubbles could encircle our bubble with a suction cup kiss and dissolve us. Coming out just as soon as night fell, there were crowds, living stars, connected by nothing but ourselves. Alice spellbound sounded the call of the drowsing realms, the thread of her song was the line to take to them, lines of water, animal worlds. River wind life that says nothing but flows and transports inhabitants, carries emigrants, runs past residents.
Inflated animals—of bubbled glass?—lit each from inside, within its own world, bordered the bed. Neither stuffed nor human this time, figures The Toad The Owl The Turtle The Rabbits The Fox figuring what? The wonder was dissonant, worlds cut off from others, englobed in embalming resin, in reflective air. Planted along the banks that they bordered here and there, yes planted, stuck to moss a branch mud a rock, keeping at bay, totems of what, if not themselves, their respective worlds? They represented themselves, the Owl with a capital O sent by the owls—speak for us—the majestic Couple for the rabbits, the Fox in glory for the vulpine community, as the figure not quite the face of the specimen. Poising and posing again, living picture of a still life, the majority in profile.
Why in profile? Were they decoys? Was this another, half-animal, in sagittal silhouette? Yes, as opposed to a half-man, with a medallion profile. In its refusal of face to face the beast didn’t fool me, because in presenting just one side it continued to face me. It saw with one eye, to the side better than ahead, except for the relief. How I would have loved to be able to do that: survey the surroundings at a wide angle, nose to the wind, anchor on the shoulder, with a single eye never turning back. Plenty of fish reptiles birds even mammals have that Egyptian look that inspires devotion, eye head-on in a profiled face, that Cubist look that makes for stiff necks. The Toad, The Rabbits, The Fox, shown here in bas-relief with their unrelenting vision, preferably lateral, were eternal profiles. Such collector’s items, so unmoving, so abstract in their low-angle gigantism, so eminent, such numismatic monuments, that I jumped each time they moved on the banks. End of watching, wisdom of images. Imagine me close to them, following the distant boat in the shot of which they took up at least a third. Their close-up shot so near so clear standing out like a cardboard figurine against the river, two paintings on glass separated by lots of emptiness.
The Toad couldn’t be torn away from his rock; he refused to budge from it. He was made of the same stuff but polished on his tiniest bumps, a metal whose rock would be mineral. Chiseled in the block yes cut out no, legs and belly united with the pedestal made from what was left of the stone. Attention, the enormous right eye you saw, black, blinding because it reflected the beam of some spotlight, is actually his cheek. The eye is above to the right, so tiny I had to squint. It gives him a sort of extraterrestrial something, the third eye. And then there was his throat about to puff out in a second off screen like liquid enamel or better still: bubble gum—when would it pop? Awaiting this blazing inflammation of the larynx, he had difficulty breathing blinked drew back a step. Boiling, this aspiring warty bull, boiling, his life amounted to making bubbles! Bubbles of bile translucent gooey marbles, eggs, poisoned back boils big eyes goiter.
Only The Owl faced forward, a fraction of a second, then turned back in a morning dusk. Face forward because her fishy look was almost human, one eye’s field of vision encroaching on the other’s. A philosopher’s summing up look, topped by two diabolical thin pointed plumes. Whoo! Whoo! Searchlight, this darkroom skull just poised to rotate on its base, with the transparent lever of its lid—quietest, coolest click—pulsation of light and breath, slow, slow!
The Turtle, more evidently than The Owl, was the guest of honor, the most calming, least solemn of the bunch. To make up for her slowness (overestimated, by the way), she got down to the daily grind first thing. The cracked skin of The Toad and his rock came together on her, and she carried it off. No close-up needed to show her saintly halo: half-buried, she could still stick out her nose and feet all the while displaying her planispheric roundness with latitudes longitudes, never moving without it. A curve, a striation, carapature, cartography, planetting.
(Tom—because it was the morning and he had better things to do than gape in awe with me—saw nothing more there than soup in an oblong can. Still, it is perhaps on this night and this dawn that his interest, until then restricted to flies & co., began to extend to bigger beasts: they grew before his hungry eyes.)
The Rabbits were also in profile, in a lovers’ tete-a-tete—the female a bit above—like a Harcourt photo, neckless. Or else a neck brace in furs, donned after the rabbit punch? They tucked their lucky feet under the covers to sleep tight all night. When one played an extra, the other went along for the ride, like some taxi driver’s friend. That’s nice. But they shivered with cold and their hallucinatory presence had to do with the trembling of grasses tinkling of ears colliding, like The Owl and her wink The Turtle and her walk, The Toad whose balance suddenly broke with a leap. Their nostrils perpetually pulsed—systole. Their heads which they tried to keep cool were besieged by tics, and one of them finally turned away. Their autonomous ears, the spitting image of maple seedcoats, made various acute angles: traffic signals. A vibration, these fur balls with hidden folds, a vibration! Working to blur their contours, to transmit quick staccato signals like Morse code, to seed the racing glance with dashes, always dashes, startled, scampering off.
The Fox looked embalmed on her branch larger than life. In her best profile shot, chin raised, paw flexed above the branch for a hand kiss, well-brushed tail, impeccable pelt, a real show animal. Thanks to her cautious ways if she chased she seemed to be fleeing, and the inverse. Woooooooo! Was her call a war cry or alarm? It separated her two apparitions. She was a smooth talker, in any case, too unsentimental to howl at the moon. At death yes, maybe: her presence was furtive faulty, too crudely lit on too dark a platform. Besides, no sooner did she start up her tune than she flopped and took her bow. A vanishing act, this little Méliès devil appeared disappeared to sink her line in the waters of night! Roles, unrollings, understudyings.
Even the domestics were struck by strangeness. Less lit up than the wild animals, not so much fixed as quickly sketched in, placid by-passers, they watched over the collapsible manger without ever blinking back the tears in their eyes. Keeping their distance, reserved. The Lamb before the black fence (astrakhan? No: shadow). In his cage house in a house back-lit The Canary oscillated metonymically. The truncated Cows ship’s keels seen from below. The bleating the twittering the mooing sounded the hour, adding to the hypnotism of these biological clocks.
In a sort of neutral ecstasy I gazed upon each of these shore dwellers. Did they see Tom and Alice? Quite possibly. The Toad pivoted, turning almost head-on to the boat; The Turtle plodded in the water’s direction; one of The Rabbits looked back in its footsteps; The Owl likewise: and The Fox made off, and The Lamb looked them up and down. There was nothing less sure, nothing more fragile than the ballistics of glances in this flat picture. To each his own individual shot that had nothing to do with us. There, too far there, too far from Tom and Alice ‘midst the bed, too close to me watching the scene from shore, to menace us or offer themselves up. Neither hunted nor hunter, in relation to us without us, the animals saw nevertheless. Me on the frontline watching, huge foreground shot, like some fuzzy winged curtain between myself and the boat. Tom and Alice in the rear guard protected from predatory night. The animals watched over, increasingly astounding. In imperceptible, continual excrescence, crescent moons, waxing in the unending crescendo of a magic beanstalk. The Toad’s throat inflated between croaks it was a hot air balloon; The Owl’s eyes expanded in fright; The myxomatotic Rabbits The sly Fox, The Galapagos Turtle growing to death, not exploding, filling the world, the planets. Which their eye described, black pearl like Alice’s eyes, still highly animal, single eye of The Toad, single eye of The Rabbits, single eye of The Fox, The Owl’s azure pair. The eye curved the universe, percussed by inner voices, bells in full swing:
owl owlette owlowlette owlowlettette
owhoo whoohoo boohoo whohoot
ra bit raw pit rappap bit ra
tur tule tor ture toor tuur
fox-y fix-y fax-y ffff
toad toa k took tata
Their deep song filled Alice, deafened Tom—who slept unsoundly, eardrums alert—while its steady crescendo allowed me to measure the distance between us. I was the one who compared the boat in the far distance with its two flylike children front and center; compared the boat to the toad’s rock, the boat to the rabbits’ ears wired left to right past the ballbearing realms, unmeasured amplified on board. It was me but now suddenly I saw in reverse angle an animal as big as—with my unadjusted eyes. And if it was what it seemed to be, if Tom Alice saw it, like me, like? A giant, or were we midgets, the flies in the song?
The river said: Put yourself on the level of the animalcules, measure yourself against the worlds of little things. Become midges, trifles, to slip through the net. Take advantage of the night which kills distance, of the vast flatness, of the depth of field of night. Infinite depth: smooth surface. Held on the glass of a lens, everything is thin thin one-size from the play of perspective. Maco-micro, where each has its own scale, its absolute grandeur, no size any longer. Erase the measures, begin again. Everything unframed, take advantage my little ones, life is reshot in the mind’s studio. Come, come, under the animal’s protection. Or under the camera’s eye, same thing, since the benevolent gaze is no more human than what pulled the scene’s strings from off the set, singing, neither maternal nor paternal.
I saw when the image shifted from the river to The Owl hooting, The Fox yapping without missing a moment of our passage: their eye filmed us as children. It was the eye of the animals that kept us safe, that protected us, from something more threatening and darker in the night. On duty, detoured from their realms against an opaque background, they kept along the edge of something that was no world any longer, but chaos. They slept, we kept watch—now they kept watch and we, children, slept. On the banks a canary in his shadow puppet cage counted the hours better than a cuckoo striking twelve. The cozy udder of the Nativity cow warmed the hay better than a hot water bottle. Meanwhile we had to glide, glide between these monumental figures, a ghost train, with a moon and stars dipping before us, fixed on strings.
Glide between what? Were they animals and we, children? In this free zone where sizes equalized, flattened by the screen? But nothing. Zoo zone next to the wall, muddy no man’s land. Outstretched, a hand would touch what? Hyper-real viscosity smelling of flesh and the studio, the sweathouse, vivid qualities confused, cold hot dry and humid. Put out your hand, to see, touch the water mixed with earth, muddy breath bed unrivered, come, touch, lips chapped cracked in dried clay and bubbling spittle at the edge, crocodialed skin of The Turtle joints dislocating, bubble eye of Toad, cold sticky Rabbit nose groins. This gooey zone, danger of forgetting, molten and catastrophic. Unseen in the interstice of flat images, everything can glide get engulfed. In the half-sleep that whispers and flames, that drives scenery and extras to the foreground, the head capitulates, in other words the focal point. Blurry reality, neither conscious nor unconscious, half-ground glass of clear-cut animal and human silhouettes: wavy, vague turbulence,
Now, this free zone exists. Mental soon physical when your sleepless attention sticks its abstract toe in the bed’s mud, then sinks down spreading to the actual toes. An animal warmth takes hold enfolds ending by ending. The animal awakens in Tom’s torpor. Body thought, instinctive muscular, whirlwind of air or water along the limbs in motion. Some force tints the invisible safe zone that the movements trace: an ease. This less human zone was the waves of the river, progressively weaker wider around the boat. Visual too, between a Tiger’s burning eyes or the cross-eyed Chimpanzee’s unfocused gaze and the children’s sight, clinging to the guardrails, this buffer zoo zone, moats and bars. Each the opposite seeking their eyes, not recognizing, nevertheless sees something, diaphanous medium, shaft of fog, joining them like or not. It was the link shot between the close-ups of The Owl, The Fox, The Turtle, and the panoramic shot where Tom and Alice drifted, that unfilmable zone. Biological? Between silent organs and growling appetites, all that was missing were the words. The most fertile zone of the most stifled life. The zone of interanimal cross-fertilization.
Confusion, confusion. The animals and Tom Alice superimposed for me, melted segued. Was I hallucinating? Two shots in the key gripped special effects of my brain by chance linked, two overlapping bodies. The moon was full of transformations, the shock of unheard of violence, but with dazzling results: Alice sprouted two rabbit ears and stiff whiskers; Tom still slept but would wake up snouted furry clawed, elbows and knees at accute angles. A nose grew where a forehead shrank with the sound of a treading on plastic eggshells; a jaw prepared for attack from behind—wisdom teeth devolving to incisors; thumbs retreating to claw stumps, fur swarming like flies. Lips bared teeth; nails spiraled out; the atrophied vertebras that form the skull pushed through the scalp; a column stretched out through the air, flailed side to side, look: a tail. I was dreaming a nightmare of hybrids. Here slicing and there grafting with a vengeance, inventing werewolves and felihumans. And what chimera had I become? No longer human, at least, finally we were all three monsters. You’re the one who dreamed us up, we said to the absent adults, licking our chops. You’re the ones who made us play children, and we’re willing. But we’re animals too, we don’t give a hoot for your stories. We’ve bolted, bolted for good.
Creatures of the Zone, rich in missing links in the chain of beings, Tom Alice I incognito could now fit in with the fauna. I closed my eyes, counting the seconds, the time of a shot that we had to disappear. I saw in flashes then, gaze jumping from one bank of the river to the other, The Fox, The Toad (Tom?), The Turtle, The Owl (Alice?). Youuwho! Where are you? But we’d already glided intact into the zone, we’d already slipped through the tarantula’s web without getting caught.