Tag Archives: animal

Women as animals: Kahlo and Cat People

The Little Deer by Frida Kahlo

This is a painting by Frida Kahlo from 1946 that I encountered in a book the other day. I think it’s very pretty and it raises a lot of interesting thoughts in my head. I guess the first few are thoughts like, Why is she a deer? as well as the inference that this is about herself being a victim. I love how she’s standing up straight, with a neutral expression on her face, bleeding. And how dead and ominous the forest and background look. I don’t have much insightful analysis to do here, but I wanted to incorporate this into a blog because this painting just struck me, as much as of Kahlo’s work has. Struck me in an unusual way, maybe in the part of me that feels sympathy, or the part that distinguishes between human beings and animals. The book I was reading mentioned that she paints herself as a male deer, with antlers and testicles. I don’t know too much about her biographically, but I wonder if she saw herself as some kind of gender outlaw. 9 arrows, piercing her flesh. Lost in the woods with a branch under her hooves. And that mesmerizing unibrow, always the most memorable element of Kahlo’s appearance. Who would shoot that many arrows into a deer like that, anyway? Maybe it’s a riff on St. Sebastian.

The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna

According to Wikipedia, St. Sebastian has received the cultural status over the centuries of a gay/religious icon. Taking Kahlo’s own bisexuality into account, maybe this is significant. I don’t really know. All I know is, I saw this picture in a book and it struck me. A woman’s face – and not just any woman – on a deer pierced with arrows and bleeding. It’s a very eerie, even upsetting painting. She looks like she’s in pain but not begging for pity.

Aside from looking at random paintings, I haven’t been up to much intellectually speaking or otherwise. Classes are at end and we’re in that twilight season between scholastic pursuits and running off to be united with my distant lover. But here’s something worth discussing.

The film is Cat People (1942), the first work of producer & master of horror Val Lewton. I realized today that it’s probably one of my favorite movies and one of the best horror movies ever made. Once you’ve watched it, it has a grip on you (kind of like that painting above). And it’s probably no coincidence the two works I’m discussing today involve treading the line between human and beast. It’s fertile ground; it has been since the days of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and before that. But that’s a broad topic and I won’t go into it now. Cat People attains a sort of pulp horror perfection. It’s a cheap movie – in fact, that’s part of the point – that plays with lights and shadows, bouncing through the water of a public pool at night, or along a desolate street where a woman walks alone, and turns it into pure fear.

Much of this is courtesy of Nicholas Musuraca, a cinematographer whose work went back and forth between horror (The Ghost Ship and the brilliant The Seventh Victim, other Lewton productions) and film noir (Cat People director Jacques Tourneur’s other masterpiece Out of the Past and Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night); this flexibility on Musuraca’s part, I think, demonstrates the kinship between the noirs of the early ’40s and Lewton’s style of moody urban horror. Cat People could very well be a film noir. Except its femme fatale, big surprise, turns into a cat and mauls people. A few months ago, I wrote a review of the film for this issue of the Carl, and summarized the plot like so: “boy meets girl. Girl is afraid she’ll turn into a giant cat. Boy cheats on girl with other girl. Girl turns into giant cat (or does she?).” It’s a simple premise emerging from vague dreams of dark and foggy Serbia, whence the cursed heroine Irena emigrates. (Serbia here is as good as Transylvania or Latveria or fill in your random eastern European country.) And we start out with a beautiful picture of American heterosexual normalcy until, well, Irena’s secret inbred something starts to catch up with her. We’ve got the classic scene where a feline stranger in a Serbian restaraunt addresses Irena’s as “sister” and disappears. The film is so rich with quasi-Freudian psychosexual confusion, more than enough to match the haziness of the lighting.

I’m going to bed now (it is 4 am, after all), but I highly recommend you watch Cat People. I want to see it over and over again. It’s a subtle, fascinating, seriously scary movie and I love it. The monster is the most sympathetic character, played by the cute, vulnerable French actress Simone Simon (who played another kind of femme fatale in Renoir’s La Bête Humaine [1938]), lost and alone, beholden to the chaotic emotions and powers brewing inside her. If you’re interested, Cat People is currently on YouTube here (though the fuckers won’t let me embed). Watch and be drawn into the strange and frightening nightmare which Lewton, Tourneur, and Musuraca create, as it gradually enfolds Irena and carries her off.

And pleasant nightmares to you, too.

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Birds do it, bees do it, bonobos do a lot of it

[Article about animal sexual behavior, first published in the Carleton CLAP 4/24/2009]

“There was an old miner named Dave
Who kept a dead whore in his cave.
You have to admit
He hadn’t much wit
But look at the money he saved!”

This limerick is the namesake of Davian behavior, in which animals live and copulate with deceased mates. Yes, inspired by Isabella Rossellini’s recent short film series Green Porno (viewable on the Sundance Channel’s website or on YouTube), here’s a handy guide to animal sex, taken mostly from Wikipedia’s article on “Animal sexual behavior“:

-Masturbation: horses (even when castrated), goats, camels, elephants, walruses, zebras, killer whales, vampire bats, etc.
-Mutual masturbation: bears and hyenas
-Autofellatio: kangaroos, bonobos, squirrel monkeys
-Sex toys: porcupines, ferrets, orangutans
-Homosexuality: giraffes, penguins, cattle, bonobos, sheep, dolphins, dragonflies, etc.
-Rape: dolphins, spiders, ducks, water beetles, elephants
-Pedophilia: moles, stoats, hyenas, bonobos
-Necrophilia: ducks, toads, squirrels

[Etc. = pretty much everybody does it. This list is far from exhaustive.]

Apparently the generally accepted term is “sexual cannibalism,” but I still prefer using “connubial cannibalism” to refer to the tendency, especially of female mantises, to bite off their mates’ heads in the midst of coitus. It’s nutritional, too! As we learn from Prete and Hurd’s enlightening text The Praying Mantids,

males are renowned for their ability to initiate copulation while being eaten. The organization of a mantid’s central nervous system will allow both copulation and spermatophore transfer in the absence of descending input from the cephalic ganglia.

In other words? Male mantids can fuck without brains. When you’re dealing with bedbugs, the phrase “All sex is rape” takes on a whole new meaning. Like a number of other invertebrates, they practice “traumatic insemination”: instead of simple genital-to-genital contact, the male uses his penis to pierce the female’s abdominal cavity and inject his sperm. Bedbugs conveniently evolved an organ called the spermalege, designed specifically as a sexual target for the male, but females of other species are not so lucky and have to deal with the health consequences of this brutal penetration.

The more we know about animal sex, the more we know about ourselves (maybe?). After all, Freud himself spent his early years in medical school studying the sex organs of eels. Moral of the story? Bonobos are some polymorphously perverse little apes.

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