2018년 9월 10일 월요일

Il cento notti di orrore- The One Hundred Nights of Horror Relaunched: DOWN A DARK HALL (2018) and COLD SKIN (2017)

Today, I have decided to revive one of the less "academic" features of Q Branch prior to my unexpected hiatus in 2013 due to health reasons, Il Cento notti di orrore or The One Hundred Nights of Horror series.  After Q Branch had been relaunched, I was pretty much trying to use WATCHA and Twitter as archiving platforms for the films I watch, but I have grown frustrated over them for various reasons.  Make no mistake, I like Twitter (although the stinking presence of The Great Orange Leader there is almost enough for me to quit it altogether sometimes), but trying to archive my movie watching habits there has become a bit like trying to subsist on eating cupcakes and party mixes only.  WATCHA is a great movie-watching app but is very thoroughly Korean, and too focused on those movies connected to Korea (at least so far, in 2018). So I have come back to try it out again in the blog space.  Below I have cut and pasted the rambling introductory remarks I have written in 2013, pretty much the way it was, only updating a few time-specific references. 

The cinematic art itself may be biting the dust worldwide, as the endless parade of Marvel and DC superheroes colonize Hollywood, the indie cinema is selling out, film studies graduate students are watching source materials via Netflix streaming in their spare time, left over from decoding hallowed writings of Lacan and Deleuze, and Lars von Trier is lauded as the world's greatest filmmaker.  But hey, horror cinema is alive and well.  Even if future consumers of cinema would have to watch their “movies” on six-inch screens attached to their wrist-phones, you can guarantee there will be horror films, about haunted Google Glasses, your latest wonder drug with a side effect of turning you into a purple-skinned carnivore (“Your loved ones suddenly crave meat!!”), even maybe a teenage space-shuttle astronaut vampire, who loves inhaling human blood globule by floating globule, in the zero gravity.  

Watching horror films has always been one of the less mentionable-in-polite-company cultural habits of mine. And you are right to call on this sense of mild embarrassment as hypocritical. After all, what dumb English lit major would publicly state that Edgar Allan Poe is inferior to, say, Herman Melville, because the former mostly wrote morbid stories about the supernatural? My closest friends and loved ones can certainly testify to my ongoing and never-flagging love of the genre.  My wife, Angela, remembers me sauntering off to catch the third installment of Hellraiser playing at a Somerville theater all by myself, in between caffeine-induced bouts of paper-writing and seminar preparation.  In my youthful days a dinner conversation could easily slide off to a loving description of the effects of a “Stonehenge chip” embedded inside the Silver Shamrock Halloween mask in Season of the Witch... you get the idea. 

Now I am enjoying motion pictures on a staggering variety of platforms-- In addition to Netflix, Hulu Plus, Vudu, Film Struck, Amazon, Shout! Factory TV (such a thing truly exists… I am currently fast-forward watching, of all crazy things, Ultraman Leo on it) and other glut of streaming and VOD services, I still catch a chunk of horror films not only through Blu Rays and DVDs but at the local theaters-- and horror genre is far from shrinking in proportion and importance in terms of my movie-going life. It certainly remains an important sector of the archival Blu Rays and DVDs I purchase-- especially among the cinema of '70s and '80s-- but even among relatively new films, its power and influence have not diminished.  Now whether there are more good horror films these days than, say, '80s: that's another set of ballgame. Has the quality horror cinema gone the ways of civil discourse in American politics and VHS tapes? Or are we in fact facing another renaissance of ingenious and creative horror cinema? 

So I had this idea of watching one hundred horror films in one year, regardless of national origins or year of production, the only condition being that I watch them in proper venues (with the correct aspect ratio, preferably HD presentation) and that I have not laid my eyes on them before.  Call it a tribute to horror cinema from a fan.  In terms of Korean cinema, I am politically more invested in seeing a truly excellent SF film (a goal partially met in 2013 with the release of Bong Jun-ho's majestic Snowpiercer), but that's for the future happiness of South Koreans. For the future happiness and philosophical growth of the mankind (I hope you do not take my pronouncements as juvenile humor or even misplaced irony, thus revealing your hideous cultural prejudices against the genre: I will remind you again, Edgar Allan Poe did HORROR. Mary Shelley did HORROR. Dostoevsky did HORROR. Goethe did HORROR. The truly great masters ALL did horror), we could still do much more with horror.

As I am reviving this series in September 2018, I will give it until December 31, 2019, to tally up one hundred horror films. I don't think this will be difficult at all, in terms of keeping up with the supplies. Shucks, I could probably fill in the quota even if I limit myself to only Asian horror films, or North American ones. I will also discard my long-held feature-film-only prejudice and include TV series and short films in the roster: the rather arbitrary rule of thumb will be to count three or four episodes of a series or the same amount of short films as one feature film, although obviously exceptions could be made.  

A word regarding the format: I am not going to list the usual detailed staff and cast information, and the reviews will be shorter than my full-on Blu Ray-DVD reviews, or other academic pieces such as interviews with scholarly colleagues or creative personages.  A word on the star rating system: I use the black-and-white star ratings system developed by the Japanese film critic and hardboiled mystery specialist Futaba Juzaburo 双葉十三郎 (1910-2009), with a white star counting for twenty points, and a black star for five points. The average score falls somewhere between fifty five ☆☆★★★ and sixty ☆☆☆, as few movies actually score less than twenty points.  I might drop the star ratings after a while, as rating the movies is really not the point of these lists. It is really for 1) archiving my movie-watching habits, and 2) discussing the evolution of cinematic horror as an ineradicable component of the broader cultural expression of the global mankind.   

1. Down a Dark Hall (U.S.-Spain, 2018). A Fickle Fish/Nostromo/Temple Hill Entertainment Production. 1 hour 36 minutes. Widescreen 2.35:1. Directed by Rodrigo Cortes. Screenplay by Michael Goldbach, Chris Sarling, based on a novel by Lois Duncan. iTunes, Rented. Down a Dark Hall brings together two strong trends of today's genre cinema, the Spanish-language Gothic thriller tradition on the one hand, and young adult literary resources a la Hunger Games and The Maze series, on the other.  The result is reasonably well constructed but entirely predictable Gothic hokum, with the central idea that really sounds like it was daydreamed up by a suburban-bourgeois teenager sick and tired of having to go through piano lessons or math tutoring classes. 

Considering the already existing countless stories about girl's boarding school it would have required some other ingenious turn of events to elevate Down a Dark Hall above average. But the filmmakers have little ideas other than the admittedly interesting casting of Thurman in the tyrannical headmistress role (she seems to be a tad too sincere: a kind of droll, Lynn Redgrave-on-oxycodone approach might have worked better).  AnnaSophia Robb does what is required as the suitably harried young heroine Kit, but the materials she is given to work with are just not up to the snuff.  Rodrigo Cortes, director of Buried (2010) and Red Lights (2012), keeps the kettle boiling and the Blackwood Boarding School set is pretty impressive.  Jarin Blaschke's (The Witch [2015]) cinematography, while plenty atmospheric, sometimes becomes so pitch-black as to entirely obscure the goings-on.  Probably appropriate for a popcorn-munching spook-show screening during a junior-high girls' slumber party (they wouldn't know Uma Thurman from Meryl Streep, I suppose?), I was not seriously bored with the film, but still can't give it a score higher than ☆☆★★★. 

2. Cold Skin/La piel fria (Spain-France, 2017). A Babieka/The Ink Connection/Kanzaman/ Pontas Film & Literary Agency Co-Production. 1 hour 48 minutes. Widescreen 2:35:1. Directed by Xavier Gens. Screenplay by Jesus Olmo & Eron Sheean, based on a novel by Albert Sanchez Piñol.  Purchased, iTunes. Cold Skin is another classically-oriented horror opus filmed in English language with the British leads but dominated by the Spanish-Catalan sensibility. The director is Xavier Gens, who has primarily worked in the Francophone cinema, and, as evidenced by his previous films, Frontier(s) (2007) and The Divide (2011), has tended to gravitate toward the characters in confinement forced to reveal their animal-like true colors.  This particular film, about a young, unnamed weather observer (David Oakes) stationed at an isolated Antarctic island (nicely location-shot at Canary Islands and Iceland) running afoul of a disgruntled, possibly insane lighthouse technician Gruner (Ray Stevenson) as well as a horde of amphibian humanoid creatures, is inevitably going to be compared to Guillermo Del Toro's The Shape of Water.  There is even a female humanoid christened Aneris (impressively embodied by the Spanish actress Aura Garrido under layers of blue-grey latex) who Gruner keeps as a sexual slave.

The creatures and the desolate, salt-bitten island-scape are quite effectively drawn, and the screenplay does not dawdle on, quickly introducing the otherworldly menace and keeping the viewers on their toes for the most part.  The human characters, on the other hand, are simply not interesting. Gruner is such a thoroughly unsympathetic rapist-cum-mass-murdering-scumbag that the young meteorologist's initial willingness to join in the former's daily routine of extermination campaign against the humanoids comes across either as a form of transmitted madness, or an irredeemable moral failure on the latter's part (possibly both?). Gens possibly intended all this as a political allegory (heavy-handed references to the genocidal character of the First World War,-- the movie is set in 1914, following the source novel, I assume-- not to mention a groan-inducing epigram taken from Nietzsche-- that's right, that "you gaze into the abyss and the abyss gazes into you" jazz--, seems to corroborate this interpretation), but without a sympathetic character or even a relatable villain, the movie tends to fall back on creature-attack action scenes and other monster-movie boogaboo stuff.  Concerning those things, at least, this film is not too bad. 

I didn't expect Cold Skin to be as powerful or genuinely weird as The Shape of Water or Splice (2009), but given its considerable technical prowess, I wish it had the temerity to swim beyond its sub-Jack-London, men-are-the-true-beasts literary-trope atoll and to genuinely surprise the viewers. ☆☆☆   

Well the class is starting soon, and I still have many, many things to do, so I will resume at No. 3 hopefully in a few days.  I know, I know, it is a constant struggle to keep the blog going, but seeing that some of the people I know or read, who are far more prolific and diligent than I am, eventually shut  their blogs down or keep them unattended for months on end, I take solace in the fact that this problem is not unique to me.      

2018년 9월 5일 수요일

A Nightmare Doll in Girl's Boarding School- THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED (1969) Blu Ray Review

1 hour 42 minutes (Original Spanish Release Version), 1 hour 34 minutes (The American Release Version), 1969. Aspect Ratio 2.35:1, 35mm, Eastman Color. Written and directed by Narsciso Ibáñez Serrador (writing as Luis Verña Peñafiel). Music by Waldo de Los Rios. Cinematography by Manuel Berenguer, Godofredo Pacheco. Edited by Mercedes Alonso. Production Design by Ramiro Gomez. Costume Design by Victor Maria Cortezo. 

Cast: Lilli Palmer (Señora Fourneau), Cristina Galbo (Therese), John Moulder-Brown (Luis), Mary Maude (Irene), Maribel Martin (Isabel), Candida Rosada (Señorita Desprez), Andrea (Teresa Hurtado).

In the new century, Spanish-language genre cinema, both Spainish/Catalonian and the Central-Latin American variants, is doing remarkably well, especially in the realm of orthodox (puzzling-solving) mysteries and politically conscious horror-thrillers. Just check out the roster of new movies and TV series added to Nexflix and Amazon and it should become obvious that many interesting and rewarding Hispanic works of horror and dark fantasy are steadily supplied nowadays, even if not all of them demonstrate the level of creativity scaled by the Guadalajara native Guillermo Del Toro or the Barcelonite J. A. Bayona. For the last two decades the DVD (and now HD disc) revolution has also steadily rehabilitated reputations of the classic-- '60s to '80s-- Spanish-language horror filmmakers, such as Armando de Ossorio (of the Blind Dead films fame), Paul Naschy (a.k.a. Jacinto Molina Alvarez, the "Spanish Lon Chaney" himself) and, er, yes, Jesus Franco (There are also cult favorites such as the Brazilian auteur Jose Mojica Marins, whose language of choice is Portuguese, so perhaps the "Spanish-Portuguese-language" is really the technically correct designation). To this illustrious roster belongs Narsciso Ibáñez Serrador, who directed only two theatrical features, this film and the monstrously powerful Who Can Kill a Child? (¿Quién puede matar a un niño? 1976), bracketed by more than fifty years of celebrated TV work, most notably the long-running genre series Historias para no dormir (Stories to Stay Awake, 1966-1982).

Often cited online as a film that inspired Argento's Suspiria (a perversely diminishing claim reproduced in the Scream Factory Blu Ray's back cover), La residencia unabashedly dives into a hoary Gothic set-up, a 19th century girl's boarding school for "troubled girls," run with an iron discipline by a sexually repressed headmistress. The film's ostensible protagonist, Therese, is immediately picked upon by a clique of mean seniors, led by the nasty Irene, upon arrival. However, she also befriends the headmistress's weakling son, Luis, apparently willing to help the frustrated girls escape the stuffy establishment. Unfortunately for them, a knife-wielding murderer is stalking the corridors of the dormitory, and the presumed "escapees" have in reality been gruesomely dispatched by the maniac.

The full description of the plot (including the "shocker" ending, which I shall not reveal here) makes the film appear unbelievably lurid and exploitative, but compared to, say, the Italian horrors such as What Have You Done to Solange? (1972), also starring Galbo, of the same period, La residencia remains quite restrained and levelheaded (until the very last fifteen minutes of the film, but perhaps even then). Serrador spends a lot of time not only building up considerable suspense and atmosphere of dread, but also illustrating character traits, not usually paid attention to in the flamboyant Euro-horrors of this period. Even though the director pulls off a few flashy stylistic set-pieces, mostly during the startling murder sequences (including a very effective use of slow-motion, both sonic and visual), he for the most part keeps things subtle. There are potentially exploitative scenes-- such as a girl stripped of shirt and caned as a corporal punishment, and a group shower-- but the prurience quotient is not high at all (the shower scene does manage to work up sexual tension leading to a silent confrontation between a girl and Madame Fourneau, but it highlights repressive atmosphere rather than eroticism). 

Despite the fact the film is more or less confined to a (admittedly huge) single mansion, Serrador eschews excessive theatricality, and wrangles good to excellent performance out of his cast members. Anglophilic affectation is a strange problem that still plagues some Spanish-language genre films even in the 21st century, but most viewers will not have a problem accepting the English-language dialogues of the (allegedly) French characters in this Spanish production (Serrador's uncommon sensitivity to the spoken languages is in fact one of the reasons why Who Can Kill a Child? works so well with the English-Spanish mixed soundtrack, and not with the Spanish dubbing).

Having said that, one of the weaknesses of the film is that it is really about the relationship between Madame Fourneau and her son, and the film's obvious identification figures, including Therese, are in fact pawns of the director deployed to mislead the viewers, or to serve, in the ultimate sense, as objects putting plot mechanisms in motion. Like quite a few psychological thrillers of '60s and early '70s, La residencia goes through an abrupt shift in the positionality of central characters (no doubt some of this is due to the overwhelming influence of Psycho), which is certainly effective, but as a result, the viewers are not allowed to receive dividends from their emotional investments in the main characters. Well, it is a horror film, after all, and slapping the viewer's faces out of their complacent expectations might be regarded as a fair game. Yet, the British couple of Who Can Kill a Child?, its fish-out-of-water protagonists, have zero trouble garnering our sympathies, without Serrador having to resort to any kind of genre-savvy manipulation of the viewer expectations. La residencia, while an undeniably high-quality Gothic horror show, does not exactly transcend the visible mechanics of the genre.    

Lilli Palmer might have been cast thanks to her famous turn as a teacher in the 1958 version of Mädchen in Uniform. I am not sure a 19th-century French school mistress would quite have the kind of cutting diction (in English) as she uses in this film, but otherwise her performance is excellent, adding shadings to the character so that she would not end up a mere sadistic dragon lady. Moulder-Brown, who had had a long career as a child actor since late '50s, was possibly cast for his angelic looks, but in this film and the unclassifiable masterpiece Deep End (1970) he manages to leave an indelible impression as a soft-spoken teenager gradually revealing frightening levels of instability and obsession to the viewers. Among the girls, Mary Maude (equally striking in the rather twaddle-dum cult horror opus Crucible of Terror [1972]) leaves a strong impression as the meanest but strongest-willed potential victim.  

Critics will probably have little difficulty in reading allegorical meanings into La residencia, given that it is about a closed-off, repressed community under a stern but ineffectual "dictator" who unintentionally allows psychosis to brew under the façade of order and enlightenment, but taken at its face value, the film remains a strong psychological thriller-Gothic horror that rewards multiple viewings and certainly deserves its classic status. 

Blue Ray Presentation:

MGM/Scream Factory (Shout! Factory Imprint). Region A Blu Ray.  Video: 1080p High-Definition Widescreen 2.35:1. Audio: English DTS-HD Master Mono. Subtitles: English. Supplement: A U.S. import version, Interviews with John Moulder-Brown and Mary Maude. TV Spots, Radio Spots, Still Gallery. Release Date: December 27, 2016.

The House That Screamed has been one of the titles high up in the list for restoration of its longer cut for many years but remained inexplicably MIA during the DVD years, except for bargain-basement budget edition from Sinister Cinema, even when Serrador's Who Can Kill a Child? received a lavish special edition treatment by Dark Sky Films, forcing fans to procure the Spain-produced DVD with the Spanish language edition only, without English subs. In 2016 Scream Factory, the horror imprint of Shout! Factory finally filled in the gap with a welcome special edition that includes both the original release version (clocking at 102 minutes) and the U.S. release cut shorn of approximately ten minutes by the American International Pictures.
The longer cut switches to SD-level footage noticeably inferior in quality whenever the excised bits are reintroduced. Thankfully the process is not too distracting. Curiously, the Spanish language audio is not included, although, given the English-language command of Palmer, Moulder-Brown and Maude, the English track makes greater sense than the Spanish dub in any case.    

The 1080p transfer certainly looks good but is supposedly taken from internegatives, and color scheme tends toward somewhat subdued red and brown, which might well have been Serrador's original intention. While not as colorful and fresh-looking as some viewers might have hoped, the visual presentation is overall rich and robust, unlike some other vintage BD titles that tend to sport "faded beige" look. The DTS-mastered mono audio also does its job. In fact, the crackle and pop that suddenly intrude in the soundtrack in the inferior-quality restored scenes are far more distracting than the drop in visual quality.   

Supplements include brief interviews with Moulder-Brown (conducted in 2011 at a German screening of Deep End) and Maude (done in 2012 during the Manchester Film Festival), both well-aged and pleasant, giving the audiences nice run-down of the production of La residencia, with impressions of Serrador (apparently a tough taskmaster) and Palmer (an old school film star). Not as professionally put-together as a piece done by Red Shirts or other specialists in DVD supplementary docus, they are nonetheless very welcome additions.   

2018년 8월 8일 수요일

What Jane Has Taught Us about the Primates... and Us-- A Special Interview with Professor Jae Choe, Distinguished Professor of EcoScience at Ewha Woman's University

In order to explore some of the issues touched upon in the documentary Jane and to improve our understanding of Jane Goodall's pioneering achievement as a primatologist, I have sought out a special interview with Professor Jae Choe (Choe Jae Chun), one of the best-known scientists currently working in South Korea and a powerful voice for environmental conservation, biodiversity and animal rights. 

Professor Choe received a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology at Harvard University under the supervision of Edward O. Wilson and Bert Hölldobler, and had taught at Harvard as well as University of Michigan before returning to Seoul National University in 1994 as a professor of biological sciences.  Since 2006 he has been in charge of the newly created EcoScience program at Ewha University as Distinguished Professor of EcoScience at Ewha Woman's University. 

Professor Choe has also been one of the most successful popular advocates of science in South Korea, having authored and translated more than fifty Korean-language books on the topics ranging from evolutionary biology, ecology, and life sciences, in addition to six academic books and countless articles in English, including The Evolution of Social Behavior in Insects and Arachnids (Cambridge University Press, 1997), The Secret Lives of Ants (Johns Hopkins Press, 2012) and Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior (Second Edition, Academic Press, forthcoming in 2019), for which he served as the Editor-in-Chief.

Finally, as the first director of the National Institute of Ecology, he has extended multiple invitations to Jane Goodall (the country is now one of the regular stop-overs for her global itinerary) for a series of highly successful conscious-raising programs of public lecture and forum.  

The interview was conducted in July 30, 2018, at the EcoScience Laboratory located in the Ewha Woman's University campus, Seoul, Korea. The version uploaded here has been edited for clarity and brevity, but the conversational, informal tone of the actual discussion is preserved. The contents of the interview herein are copyrighted to Kyu Hyun Kim and Jae Choe, and may not be reproduced without their explicit permission. 
 Professor Jae Choe (left) with the interviewer,
at his EcoScience Laboratory at Ewha.

Abbreviation: Q indicates the interviewer (Kyu Hyun Kim) and J refers to Professor Choe.

Q: I am honored to have you as the interviewee in discussing the National Geographic documentary Jane, Jane Goodall's life, and questions about primatology and animal sciences in general. Aside from Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey studied gorillas and Birute Galdikas worked on orangutans. Perhaps this is a politically insensitive question, but why were the acknowledged pioneers of primate studies all women? 

J: You are correct, we must be careful about answering this question, given we are in the Me Too era. Having cautioned you, though, Irven DeVore (1934-2014), one of the first American anthropologists appointed in Anthropology Department (at Harvard University) for studying primates (in his case, baboons), once claimed that male scientists in the field were actively constrained by the primate males.

Goodall's great achievement was that she studied the chimpanzees up close. As someone who had studied primates myself-- our team has been studying Javan gibbons in Indonesia for ten years now--, I can vouch for just how difficult and frustrating studying primates  could be. 

By the way, the documentary does not show in detail the process of Goodall struggling to obtain the Ph.D. degree, but she did receive much criticism for her "intimate" and "close" studies of chimpanzees, that her approach lacked objectivity and scholarly distance. This criticism might have made sense applied to studying insects or other animals, but for primates whose social behavior was so complex, without the kind of up-close approach that she employed, all we could learn would have been their basic behavioral patterns, what food they eat, under what circumstances they mate, and so on. And then based on those raw data, we would have had to speculate on the meaning of their behaviors anyway, and that would not have been in any way more "accurate" or "objective" than what she accomplished.

Q: I see.  It would have been like an alien ethnologist recording human behavioral patterns, like when we brush our teeth, how many minutes a day we make noises into our smartphones, and so on, and based on those observations trying to figure out what we "think." (Laughter)

J: Exactly. 

Q: So at that time, no one even thought of primates as the creatures who could be so much like us, with "minds" of their own?

J: That's right, no one did.  Anyway, going back to your initial question, and seriously answering it beyond Professor DeVore's initial suggestion, the consensus among us primatologists is that female researchers in these circumstances have patience-- knowing how to wait--, and commitment-- their capacity for paying less attention to matters other than the object of their observation. I was actually unhappy about the latter view, thinking that it was vaguely putting down female scholars. But, as you know, I was conducting fieldworks in Central American jungles, and I have never lasted longer than six months at any given point.  All of my female graduate students for primate studies at Ewha had lasted longer than eleven months.

Q: In the jungle?!

J: Yup.  

Q: That's amazing.

J: As mentioned in the documentary, the paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey (1903-1972) was the one who had sent Goodall, Fossey and Galdikas to study primates. It is clear that he had an idea that studying primates would help us understand early humans.  Moreover, I think he knew that female researchers could get the works done, whether he openly acknowledged it or not.

When Goodall finally discovered the now-famous episode of chimps using hay straws to capture the ants, she sent the report to Leakey. His response to her findings was that "We now have to redefine what tools are, or what humans are, or accept chimpanzees as humans." So that was the breakthrough moment in her research.

Leakey was also instrumental in guiding her, who did not even have a bachelor's degree, to get the Ph.D. so that she could get her own research funds.  The grueling "vetting" process Goodall had to endure to qualify for the Ph.D. degree from Cambridge is, I suppose, less cinematic for the purpose of the documentary, but the fact that she successfully defended all of her research in an academic setting, despite the relentlessly denigrating and skeptical treatment it had received, is a stupendous feat in my opinion.

Q: Her evaluation committee members, I suppose, were sticklers for the proper protocol for research and so forth…

J: Right. And Goodall was told that nothing she had done was "right" by those standards. One of her advisers, the zoologist Robert Hinde (1923-2016), later visited Gombe and had the opportunity to observe Goodall's work firsthand, and he came around to acknowledge how little he and his generation of scholars knew about the chimps.  

Q: It is very moving to listen to this story, as it is indeed one of those moments in which science makes an advance, as the guardians of the old paradigm admits that it is time for new ideas to come to the fore.

J: Absolutely.

Q: We have already broached this subject above through discussing how Goodall came to receive Ph.D. degree, but what is your thought about the problem of anthropomorphism, of projecting human qualities to other species of animals?

J: Oh, it is a serious problem, no doubt. If you are a dog or cat owner, you are convinced that your dog or cat is a genius who perfectly understands everything you tell it. (Laughter) However, this problem is by no means confined to the lay people. Academic researchers must be careful about letting "wishful thinking" intervene in interpreting animal behavior.

At the same time, it is only in the astonishingly recent years-- a few decades ago, really-- that we have come to even consider that non-human animals are capable of thought. Robert Hinde was careful to tell Goodall to modulate her statements. For instance, Goodall was describing the behavior of a young chimp "Fifi" toward its infant sibling as "being jealous," and Hinde advised her to state, "Fifi behaved in such a way that if she had been a human child, we would say she was jealous."    

The field of studying animal behavior, ethology, gained much legitimacy since its pioneers, Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989), Nikolaas Tinbergen (1907-1988) and Karl von Frisch (1886-1982) won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.

Q: When was this?

J: 1973.

Q: Holly Molly!  It was really recent. 

J: That's right.  Von Frisch is most famous for studying the "dance" communications of the bees, and his premier disciple was Martin Lindauer (1918-2008), whose student was in turn my adviser at Harvard, Bert Hölldobler. Lindauer was supposed to have met von Frisch as the latter was about to pass on, and the former supposedly asked his teacher, "Do you really believe that animals think?" And von Frisch's response was, allegedly, "You know as well as I know that animals think. Our mission is to find the ways to tell the rest of the world that  they do."  
Q: Wow…

J:  Since then our technologies and methods have progressed so much that this type of once-challenging way of thinking has become more widely accepted.  I must also point out that the students these days are very sensitive about anthropomorphism.  I certainly have been subject to accusations of "excessive anthropomorphism" in my Korean-language books, especially popular books for the general readers. Yet, I am fully convinced that the readers for these books do not take my "metaphoric" uses of human terms for the ants at face value.  Regrettably, some of these criticisms tend to be just showing off that they know the score, rather than thoughtful responses to the contents or approaches of my books.

Q: I believe I am not wrong to believe that the proportion of the South Korean population who accept and love animals has greatly increased in the last decade and a half or so. In your view, has this development helped or hindered the growth of various fields studying animals?

J: Talking about South Korea, we are not quite there yet in terms of this newfound sensitivity and awareness actually helping the scientific research on animals. But there is no question that the general awareness has been greatly expanded.  My student's generation might benefit from this. 

As you probably have heard about it, we have successfully returned to the sea five dolphins then confined in major entertainment facilities [in 2013], Seoul Mayor Park Won Soon getting actively involved, despite political criticisms. From the viewpoint of the environmental and animal-rights activism, it was a stunning success. Jedol and other four dolphins are still alive and well in the sea near the Jeju Island, and tourists flock to the island to see them.  I think Korean people, especially those of younger generation, increasingly refuse to consider it their "rights" to keep these beautiful, intelligent animals in miserable conditions, only so that the latter could serve as a small component of their family entertainment. 

Q: It is an incredibly heartening development.

J: Yes indeed.

Q: As the documentary shows, chimpanzees are in many ways "like us" but not necessarily in a benevolent, idealized way.  Goodall had to protect her son, Grub, from other chimps because they were known to grab the young of other families and eat them.  And yet "Flo" could be such a patient, loving and devoted mother to her own children.  So the messages that these primates send us are in fact much more complex than we initially might think.

J: Yes, Goodall herself went through a period of agonizing re-thinking once she had encountered the evidence of a vicious intra-species warfare.

Ultimately, it is difficult to underestimate the significance of Goodall's innovation to the way we scientifically think of animals and human beings by implication.  Let me branch off a bit into the territory of "what would it have been like without her contribution?"  

Japan is one of the five major nations dominating the field of primate studies-- U.S.A., Germany, United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Japan-- and their team began studying chimpanzees in East Africa only a year or so later than Goodall. They have a long tradition of studying apes because Japan is the only nation among the five that has native species they could study within their own territories. Yet, it has taken longer for them to adapt their research to evolutionary sciences and other global trends. Psychological approach to the animal behavior was predominant in the early phases of ethology, and this tradition survived much stronger in Japan, until recently.  

Seen in this context , Goodall's innovation becomes apparent.  She did not approach the chimps as "just like other animals," or try to study them confined in a lab.  What Japan did not have then was a fresh perspective provided by someone like Goodall. Of course, we must not forget that Japanese researches, especially those based on decades of patient, meticulous observation and data accumulation, have since made enormous contributions to the primate studies.

Q: Can you tell us some of the most interesting directions in ethology/animal sciences?

J: This might surprise you, but many among the primate studies are turning toward studying… dogs.

Q: Dogs?!

J: Yes. If you point a finger toward a certain direction, a dog gets that we are pointing toward that direction, right?

Q: Yes!

J: Well, chimpanzees don't. They just look at the tip of your finger.

Q: Really?! (Laughter)

J: The interesting thing about the dogs is not their IQ, or their brain capacity, but they understand us. The latest theories about the human-canine relationship suggest that, instead of humans domesticating dogs, dogs approached us on their own. We still do not know that how our inherently "obscure" communications make sense to dogs but not to other supposedly more intelligent animals. This line of inquiry has new implications about the way we understand "intelligence," helping us move away from the simplistic approach that tries to assign, for instance, the equivalence of human age to animals in terms of intelligence, as in, say, "a chimpanzee has the equivalent IQ of a six year old human."

Q: The last question I would like to ask you is, what is your new book project? (Laughter)

J: Well, I have an excellent title (Laughter). It's called They Know. "They" here refer to animals, of course. The book is about the animal-human relations, focusing on my argument that animals are aware of human beings, and our behavior. When we purposefully hurt them, when they know their lives are in jeopardy due to human action, animals do show awareness of that fact, sometimes in startlingly direct, and heartbreaking ways.  

Q: God, I will be so looking forward to reading it.

J: We shall see how it turns out.

Q: Thank you for a mind-bogglingly educational interview!  

Only She Saw How Much They Were Like Us-- JANE (2017) Film Review

JANE. A National Geographic Studios/Public Road Productions Co-Production, U. S. A., 2017. 1 hour 30 minutes. Aspect Ratio Various (mostly 1.85:1). Screenwriter & Director: Brett Morgen. Music: Philip Glass. Cinematography: Ellen Kuras. Archival Photography: Hugo Van Lawick. Editor: Joe Beshenkovsky. Producers: James Smith, Tony Gerber. Archival Producer: Jessica Berman-Bogdan. Animation Director: Stefan Nadelman.

CAST: Jane Goodall, Hugo Van Lawick, Hugo Van Lawick. Jr. ("Grub") 

 As this new documentary on the pioneering primatologist Jane Goodall opens, we see footages of exotic-looking caterpillars crawling across the screen. With Goodall's primly accented narration in the background, we see her twenty-six year-old self, blond hair bound in a ponytail, unassumingly clad in short pants and khaki shirts, sauntering around in what is today's Gombe National Park in Tanzania. She occasionally glimpses at the camera and favors it with shy, knowing smiles. Goodall, in these precious time-capsule records, taken by her first husband, the Dutch nobleman and nature cameraman Hugo Van Lawick, is a hauntingly ethereal presence, looking so unspoiled and innocent that one is momentarily thrown for a loop. The uncanny sense of an entirely new perspective taking shape, of someone fearlessly, or rather innocuously traversing into what had hitherto been forbidden to the mankind, is palpable. In the course of their activities and married life together, Van Lawick produced nearly 140 hours of 16mm film footages recording every imaginable aspect of Goodall's research and chimpanzee behavior, a very small portion of it had been incorporated into the fifty-minute-long 1965 National Geographic's "wildlife documentary" Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees, narrated by Orson Welles.

The documentary, directed by Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture [2002], Chicago 10 [2007] and most recently Cobain: Montage of Heck [2015]), almost immediately displays its color, that it is not at all going to be like Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees, or for that matter the Nat Geo's usual nature docus, despite its prominent company logo. Jane is first and foremost an exploration of Jane Goodall as a young, fearless and, as she herself is quite ready to admit, ignorant-in-the-ways-of-academia researcher, bereft of even a bachelor's degree, commented on with the wisdom of hindsight but not much irony by her octogenarian self of today. As such, it includes a surprising amount of personal details about her life, with her former husband Van Lawick's camera voraciously, and at times lyrically and heartbreakingly, taking in the extraordinary texture and feel of the experiences she, her family members and her students had had studying the African chimps.

For sure, Morgen and Goodall do not censor themselves regarding the difficulties, disappointments and dark aspects of her findings and their seismic impact on the world. Jane does a great job showing how the global media responded to her works, to the observation, for instance, that chimps could manipulate tools-- the now-famous behavior of using hay straws to catch termites-- and to her femaleness and youth as if they were defining character traits (as you could easily imagine, more than one "Me Tarzan, You Jane" jokes were printed as news headlines reporting on her research). Goodall herself had to have her perhaps almost unconscious idealization of the chimps as creatures "just like us, only not as evil" painfully challenged when they at one point engaged in a vicious tribal warfare. However, she was certainly not naïve about their nature, as when the Van Lawicks had to build what amounted to be a large cage to protect her infant son Hugo, affectionately called "Grub," since, as Goodall readily acknowledges, the chimps are meat eaters and would sometimes grab and eat the young of other family members.  

Jane also quietly details the dark episode of a polio epidemic that decimated a large number of chimp population at one point, and Goodall's controversial decision to put one of the oldest chimps, heartbreakingly deteriorating from the incapacitation of his legs, to death. She fiercely defends her decision against the view that she should have let "the nature take its course." Indeed, Goodall has been accused of treating the Gombe chimpanzees "too much like humans," giving them names such as "Greybeard," "Flo" and "Frodo," instead of serial numbers identifying them as specimens, for instance. It is clear, though, that Morgen and the elder Goodall are fully aware of the dangers of "Disney-fying" these wild animals. Jane's defense of her pioneering research work remains measured, thoughtful and resolutely non-ideological. At no point does she come off as the kind of animal activist who resorts to emotional blackmail or guilt-trip based on people's bourgeois consumption habits to push her agenda. She remains, despite the controversies about methodologies and other matters she had to endure, and the positively superhuman amount of public advocacy she had engaged over the last fifty years, a scientist first and foremost, and the documentary never really loses sight of that core fact.
Jane's team of editors and archivists has done a superb job of restoring and integrating Van Lawick's decades-old footage (which he shot for the National Geographic Society) into the newly lensed and animated sections recreating Goodall's field notes, illustrations and news headlines (Jane is, among its numerous honors received, the 2018 winner of the Best Documentary Eddie Award given by the American Cinema Editors Association). Some stylistic choices are rather obvious, such as the "chimp war" footages being presented in black and white, but those come with the territory, I suppose. Compared to, say, those of Alexandra Dean's Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, Jane's stylizations comes off as less ironic if no less sophisticated.

The great advantage the film enjoys in relation to similar works is Philip Glass's propulsive score, whose simultaneously contemplative and exultant music adds enormously to the quasi-spiritual, out-of-this-world quality of the archival footages. It is also a perfect complement to the lilting, poised but strong and committed narration from Goodall herself.  

In the end, the most important choice Morgen made was to refuse to make Jane a story of "Jane and Her Chimps." This is not a "nature documentary" as you usually imagine one to be, as, even though you could learn a lot about chimp behavior and would certainly be exposed to some extraordinarily beautiful and stunning shots of the African chimps in their natural habitat, it is solidly focused on Goodall as a young female adventurer, a loving but imperfect (and therefore most human) mother, a fierce public advocate, but ultimately, a scientist who, following her instincts rather than academic conventions, helped the mankind redefine the meaning of its own "humanity."