How far has humankind grown from its origin?
Allegro non Troppo, L’age D’or, and Un Chien Andalou: films about human nature
By Maya Zaydman
"In the beginning there was Coca Cola". This is Bruno Bozzetto’s idea of our creation. Our first ancestors were carbohydrates, caffeine and sugar. Come to think of it, we are not that far away from our ancestors. Or are we?
The sparkling fluid in the coke bottle does not remind us of the refreshing beverage that we know. It looks more like thick, bubbling mud. One can think of it as the existentialist mud that is actually ‘being’ – existence, as Sartre’s protagonist in "Nausea" describes it:
"…And then, all of a sudden, there it was, clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself. It had lost the harmless look of an abstract category: it was the very paste of things… This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses all in disorder – naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness."
According to Bozzetto, that muddy
coke, that very paste of things, is our origin. He takes
At first, we were mushy, brown, and a bit monstrous – close to the substance that we came from. But, there was still something that made us different from it. We developed the capability of intelligence. Humankind has evolved to be an intellectually advanced creature. This sentence carries an underlying hypothesis that this is a good thing: that human beings are benefited by their distinguishing abilities. But, experience shows us that this is not always the case. The capability of knowing can be a curse. Knowledge, or too much knowledge, can lead us to bad places. By this, I refer to the atom bomb, to technology that harms nature, to asking too many questions about oneself – digging in the soul, going crazy. It is not merely the capability of knowing itself that brings people to bad places. It has to do with the desire to know more, to innovate, and to achieve benefits out of knowledge. It seems as though sometimes our mind is abused, instead of used. This leads us to turn against ourselves and against our origin – nature itself.
"Allegro Non Troppo" turns our attention to those weak aspects of human nature. The animated parts, (as well as live parts), illustrate humanity as greedy, obsessive, and indifferent to its surroundings; arrogant and, sometimes, just pathetic. However, the film does not criticize humanity severely. The point of view is more of a warm and amused one. By putting a slightly distorted mirror in front of us, Bruno Bozzetto does not tell us that things have to be different, or that it would be better if we had not had the ability to know at all. He just asks us to look and think for a while. Despite that, one cannot ignore the negative points that the film raises. Knowledge is displayed as one of the chronic diseases of humankind. Modernity, the consequence of the use of knowledge, is described in grotesque, sometimes frightening colors.
Another section of animation in the movie, which is set to Stravinsky’s "The Firebird Suite," demonstrates this very concept. The scene starts with a big eye, representing God trying to design a creature out of a lump of clay. So many associations arise with that image – the eye of Big Brother in "1984," the lovers from Jan Svankmajer’s "Passionate Discourse" and the idea of existence as a mass of protoplasm. The biblical version of creation is brought into it in a slightly modified form, as we shall soon see. After unsuccessfully tempting Eve to eat the apple, the serpent eats the apple itself. Having eaten from the tree of knowledge, its eyes are opened and something is changed. The music suddenly gets stronger and more frightening. Knowledge in the form of the devil starts hunting the serpent. Hundreds of cars chase it; technology products surround it; naked women, straight out of hard-core magazines call to it from so many television sets; a laundry machine swallows it and then vomits it out. All the electrical devices turn into bills, which then turn into gold coins, pouring down onto the helpless creature, drowning it. A coffin is built around the serpent and, as it tries to escape, the devil dresses it / him to look like a typical lawyer. Finally, the serpent is brought ‘down to earth’. Terrified and shivering it throws the whole apple up, takes off its clothes, and leaves the place
The serpent does not want to know. Knowledge, consciousness and thinking are all the sons of the devil. Humankind, the knowledge holder, is the son of the devil in a way, making a deal with him while leaving its true creator, (God / nature) far behind.
There is another piece of animation in the film that demonstrates how far we are from our beginning and how close. It is the part described at the beginning of this paper – Ravel’s Bolero (and Coca Colevolution). Throughout the long march of time and the progressive evolution of all the creatures, the monkey always manages to precede them. When those creatures arrive in areas that the monkey has already ‘conquered,’ they find highways crossing the land (their land) and skyscrapers emerging from the ground, stretching so high that one realizes how far we are from nature. Humankind is ugliness incarnate, painted with dark colors (unlike the preceding colorful and exotic creatures), frightening and threatening.
One of the scenes in this sequence shows an encounter between the less developed creatures and a cross. From their point of view (they are short and the cross is gigantic), the cross is as scary as hell. In my eyes, it has something to say about religion and where it brought us. In a way, religion has developed in order to answer questions. People needed to know the answers to fundamental questions: Who are we? What is the purpose of our existence? Why do events happen the way they do? God was one answer. By leaning on the idea of a supreme being, some of the responsibility of our existence has been shifted. Another problem has to do with the rules that are embedded in religion. If there is a supreme being, to whom we owe our existence, we should listen to its wishes and obey its will. Sometimes ‘God’s will’ (or what some people thought should be God’s will) was, ironically, set against humanity’s will, or that of nature.
A cross that is very similar to Bozzeto’s cross appears in Luis Bunuel’s "L’age D’or." In the final scene of that film, we the viewers are informed about a big, sadistic orgy that is being held in a castle. One of the participants in that orgy is Jesus. When the last survivor of the orgy, a young woman, tries to escape, Jesus escorts her back into the castle and closes the door. Then, a scream is heard. He walks back out without her and without his beard (is that because he doesn’t want anyone to recognize him?). This scene ends with a giant cross, standing in the middle of nowhere, deserted by the crucified.
The irony! The son himself, walking out on his father, leaving the cross behind, only to get some good, sadistic sex.
Both crosses stand out in their glorious emptiness, symbolizing the isolation between humanity and nature, at least in the eyes of Bozzetto and Bunuel. Bunuel’s films are full of symbols that mock religion. In "Un Chien Andalou," two priests are dragged along the floor, tied to two pianos with two dead donkeys. In "L’age D’or", the bishops are literally rotting while mumbling their prayers. In the same movie, a man throws a priest from the window. Of course, this is a surrealist use of the moving image: employing exaggerated elements (such as throwing a man from a window) as a part of a regular scene (the man throws some regular objects from the window, too). Regarding the exaggerated as obvious makes the viewers wondrous, intrigued.
Bunuel’s criticism of religion can be taken as a part of the surreal movement’s religious criticism in general. The surrealists tried to shatter every ‘classic’ (and therefore out of date and boring) concept, and to reconstruct an art that was fresh and not committed to old values. Their purpose was to take the aesthetic and logical variables out of the art equation. One of the main concepts in their doctrine concerned the unconscious mind. The surrealists were interested in the part of the mind that is not controlled by moral and aesthetical values, or by social rules. No wonder religion and religious rules were under attack for limiting the freedom of the mind / spirit. We can accept or deny the surrealist movement and its ideas, but we cannot ignore the call for a substantial change in people’s concepts. The reason for this need lies in the problems that were raised above: the wrong use of mind and especially the wrong use of knowledge. Artists, religious people, scholars, have all sinned that particular sin. According to surrealist ideas, people need to free themselves by getting closer to who they really are, by getting in touch with the unconscious dimensions of their own minds.
It seems as though Bruno Bozzetto uses the cross in a less dramatic tone. However, just like every other point that he makes in the film, it is intended to inform, to alter the viewer’s attention. The crucified in "L’age D’or" is a hard-core hero. The cross in "Allegro non Troppo" ‘belongs’ to a former monkey. This demonstrates the difference between Bunuel’s strong, surrealistic images and Bozzetto’s cynical, bittersweet images.
Bozzetto is just a witness, who happens to be a part of this big herd called humankind. The witnessing part of his narrative illuminates dark aspects of our existence, while the fact that he is a part of the herd makes him do it in a warm and empathic way.
The animation to Dvorak’s Slavonic
dance No. 7, is a ‘praise song’ to the herd mentality. A man tries to stand out
and do things differently, but everyone else persists in imitating him. He
decides to fool them into a final imitation – to inspire them into jumping off
a cliff after him (while he catches a branch that hangs just below the ledge).
When he realizes that no one has jumped after him, he climbs back up and, on
the edge of the cliff, he is greeted by the herd with a global
"mooning". As funny as this is, the herd mentality has led humankind
into terrible and inconceivable eras, such as World War II. The utilization of
extensive propaganda, including the medium of film, for the purpose of
brainwashing, has led people in
Bruno Bozzetto’s "Allegro non Troppo" and Luis Bunuel’s surrealistic films, as all films, have something to say about people. Both directors bring a unique way of expressing their ideas about what has become of humankind. Both directors criticize the abuse of the property that distinguishes humanity from other species – intelligence and the ability to gather knowledge. They make us use this very property (our mind) while watching their films in order to encourage introspection – to look within ourselves as private people and, also, as a group.
The origin of humankind lies in the substances of nature. However, there is a qualitative difference between human beings and those substances. One conclusion that suggests itself from the films that have been discussed above is that the qualitative difference has led to an ongoing withdrawal from this origin. In my eyes – this does not say anything good about human nature.
Philosophy and the Moving Image
Lecturer: Dr. Louis Sandowsky
Submitted by: Maya Zaydman.