Friday, July 19, 2013

Blackfish and the Effaced Spectator


Blackfish, a recent documentary about SeaWorld, raised some issues for me that I felt worthy of a longer blog post. I don't know if it's fair to equate this documentary with an entire body of American progressive political documentaries. This one is more aesthetically interesting than some (though I didn't find its formal approach entirely satisfactory) and certainly more insightful than some (though less insightful than some others I've seen). Since I try to avoid making this a politics blog and I'm aware much of my reaction to this film is rooted in my own political sensibility, I hesitated in writing this post. But I think there's something larger at stake in how some half-Griersonian/half-activist films in the US work as political documentaries.

Blackfish, to begin with, is an expose of the practices of marine mammal shows, particular those popularized by Sea World. I had no prior knowledge of the issue: in short, killer whales/orcas have occasional attack tendencies that seemingly emerge from being held in captivity and outside their normal social groupings. A pattern of attack incidents on trainers has emerged, but Sea World has suppressed these incidents and its own culpability for them, through the legal system or public relations, all in the interest of profit.

On one hand I think the film's case is strong. Admittedly, I don't have an independent framework or body of knowledge by which I can weigh the film's case. But I tend to find structural critiques somewhat persuasive. On top of which, the "other" side, Seaworld's, lacks an adequate account of the incidents.  There is even an online petition (independent of SeaWorld?) to boycott the film -  which seems to ascribe the filmmaker's intent to be financial, an odd proposition if one knows what's involved in issue documentary production. Given that the legal power and money seem to be on SeaWorld's side - and given that the general public does not know much about what goes on - I think the filmmakers are fighting the good fight and deserve wider play with the film.

That said, things kept nagging me. Blackfish does raise some valuable secondary issues - how SeaWorld markets itself, how labor issues are at stake in addition to environmental ones - but as a spectator I kept wanting the film to pursue lines of analysis that it would suggest but never develop. I got the feeling that the filmmakers thought these would detract from the primary critique of the Aquatic Mammal Industrial Complex. I disagree.

- What makes people like the Sea World shows? Even if SeaWorld does all sort of nefarious things and hides the truth, do the audiences have no moral culpability in what's happened?

- What role does anthropomorphism play? It's not that I don't believe the experts interviewed who vouch for the mental and emotional complexity of these creatures (though I wouldn't mind the film showing some skepticism). But if the film's thesis heavily anthropomorphizes these creatures it might be worth noting that anthropomorphism is what got us into this mess to begin with.

- Toward the end the one ex-trainer testimonial sympathetic to SeaWorld puts forth the idea that SeaWorld has been instrumental in fostering an environmental and conservationist consciousness in our culture. The audience around me snorted derisively at that comment, but it's an idea worth taking seriously. Both historically, since SeaWorld, like Cousteau films, were part of a popular environmentalism, and today. I'm not saying the ends justify the means but rather that the issue is complex

- What about cinema and the nature film as a type of spectacle? Maybe no animals are harmed in the making of nature film footage as in SeaWorld shows, but the two impulses are not so removed.

In short, if there's an ur-ideology to the American progressive documentary, it's that demand-side drivers of political situations (Gramsci's hegemony, ideology, what have you) don't matter, it's merely the supply side of oligopoly, big money, and corporate control. Or to be less political, as a film scholar I can't help but notice than in a film about the business of spectacle, the spectator is both crucial (SeaWorld viewers provide the vital footage of the incidents) and completely effaced.

For a less jaded take on the film, I'd recommend Tom Rosten at POV blog's discussion of the issue of nonfiction adaptation in Blackfish and recent documentaries. To his discussion I'd add Camp 14, which seems to have an interesting status as doc adaptation.

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