"[At] the San Fernando Valley ranch of the late [Western superstar of over 300 films] Tom Mix...the most famous horse since Pegasus stood in the mildness of his last few moments alive... Tony was in no sense a trick horse. But he was intelligent and had what Tom called 'a genius for acting'... Now Tony was very old (39). Most of his teeth were gone...Since Tom Mix's death two years ago, there had been a vacant look in Tony's eyes."The Ghosts in Our Machine (2013) ****
- James Agee, "Exit Tony", Time Magazine, Oct 19,1942
Dir. Liz Marshall
Review By Greg Klymkiw
The following is an expanded revision of a piece that was originally published before the film's world premiere during the Hot Docs 2013 Film Festival.Okay, so something funny happened on the way to my home in the country. My wife and child, both being inveterate tree-huggers, got the craziest idea. What they wanted to do sounded like one hell of a lot of work. They promised I would not have to avail my services upon any aspect of their venture. Well, good intentions and all that, but now I find I'm not only a gentleman farmer, but involved in the rescue of animals living in horrid conditions and headed for inevitable slaughter.
I'm certainly no anti-environmental redneck, but some might think I am when I admit I'm not fond of nature. Yet, I do love living in the country. What I love most about it is not the great outdoors, but sitting in my dark office, smoking cigarettes, watching movies and writing. I occasionally step over to the window, part the curtains briefly and look outside to acknowledge - Ah yes, nature! I then happily return to my prodigious activities.
You see, prior to becoming a gentleman farmer, I liked the IDEA of nature, the IDEA of being in deep bush, the IDEA of living off-grid on solar energy. Well, more than the ideas, really, since I did enjoy all of the above in practice, but in my own way.
Now, I have animals. Shitloads of them that my wife, daughter and eventually I rescued from misery with the assistance of a super-cool Amish dude.
Needless to say, when watching Liz Marshall's film The Ghosts In Our Machine, I was completely blown away. You see, having experienced the joy of coming to know a variety of animals, I eventually realized that all of God's creatures I mistook for being little more than blobs of meat with nothing resembling character, spirit or intelligence was just downright stupid. I've always had dogs and THEY certainly have character, spirit and intelligence - so why NOT chickens? Or donkeys? Or hell, even bees. And, as I learned, they ALL are imbued with the stuff we have. Marshall's film, aside from it being a brave, superbly crafted piece of work is special because it exposes that very fact to those who might never know what I and others who are surrounded by animals came to know.
In presenting this notion of the individuality and spirit of all animals, The Ghosts In Our Machine does so by focusing upon someone I'd have to classify as a saint.
Photographer Jo-Anne McArthur is not only an astounding artist of the highest order, but by restricting her activities to mostly photographing animals in the most horrendous captivity, she's risked both her life and mental health. Given my recently-acquired predilection for animal rights, I watched Marshall's film three times. Yes, on a first viewing I was far too emotionally wound up to keep my cap of critical detachment on, but after additional screenings that I used to temper my visceral response I'm perfectly convinced of the film's importance in terms of both subject AND cinema.
It's a finely wrought piece of work that takes huge risks on so many levels in order to present a stunningly etched portrait of the heroic McArthur and HER subjects - all those animals being tortured to fill the bellies of ignoramuses and line the pockets of corporate criminals. (Not that I'm planning to go Vegan anytime soon, but I do believe that ANYONE who consumes any animal product derived from cruel meat factories as opposed to natural free-range is no better than a torturer and murderer.)
Not kidding about that, either.
What you see in this film will shock you. There is no denying what both Marshall and McArthur see and capture with their respective cameras. Creatures with individual souls and personalities are being hunted, incarcerated in conditions akin to concentration camps and/or bred in captivity and tortured until they are slaughtered. Equally frustrating are the corporate boneheads in a variety of publishing industries devoted to generating purported journalism. Her meetings with literary agents are astoundingly frustrating to watch.
The agents clearly love her photographs, realize their importance and recognize their artistry, but they must bear the bad news that the work will be a tough sell. It will sell, but placing it will take time and diligence which, the agents appear happy to do. The difficulty with which McArthur must additionally suffer to get her work published and to bring attention to these atrocities gets me so magma-headed I need to almost be physically restrained from going "postal". Readers, purportedly need the right time and place to be delivered this material and the corporate pigs of the publishing industry at all levels display trepidation over exposing such materials to their readers.
Seeing the problems of getting great important work to market is especially important within the context of what, ultimately, the film accomplishes by bringing the entire issue of animal rights to the fore by using McArthur's photographs to present the irrefutable proof that all of God's creatures are individuals.
And yes, the film achieves what some might think is impossible - it makes us see and believe that animals have souls and that the pain, suffering and torture most of them are put through is, akin to the atrocities mankind dares perpetrate against members of its own species. There's an overwhelming feeling throughout the movie that if what's already been done (and continues to be done) to other human animals BY human animals, how far will the culling go? This feeling, this question, is rooted in the eyes of the animals we see through both McArthur and Marshall's lenses.
One of the most terrifying and harrowing things you'll see on film is a sequence where Marshall follows McArthur deep into a hidden breeding farm where animals are held. We fear, not only for our human subjects, but eventually we're brought face to face with the torture through incarceration and neglect of creatures that have been put on this Earth for one sole purpose - DEATH. And yes, perhaps one looks at the eyes of these sickly creatures with that of our own human perception and intellect that infuses us with this feeling, but the fact remains that what we see is horrendous.
Most indelibly, what we experience is what it's like to look into the eyes of living creatures who, by pain and instinct, KNOW that they're in a place they shouldn't be, that KNOW something horrible will happen, that KNOW they will die. This is what ultimately reminds us of what it would be like to look into the eyes of human beings, human animals - for that's what we are, no more, no less - and have a glimpse into the hearts, minds and very souls of all those forcibly incarcerated, beaten, tortured and exterminated.
Simple shots of livestock trucks with pigs going to slaughter, horribly squeezed into these cages on wheels and some of the "lucky" ones being able to stick their snouts out through the air holes and twitching furiously for both oxygen and their last sniffs of life have an effect that's almost beyond powerful.
This is what we do to animals and to humans. It's one and the same. We're one and the same. So many well-meaning Liberals will go out of their way to boycott goods produced by child labour, but how many of them boycott food and/or goods created by the systematic torture and slaughter of innocent animals? How many of them have looked into the eyes of chickens squeezed together by the thousands into corporate farms, seldom seeing (if ever) the real light of day? How many of these same people eating this poultry have given one thought to how their meal has been delivered by keeping a creature in subhuman conditions with 24-hour lights on them (many need light to eventually lay eggs) and no medical care when so many of them acquire painful sores and deformities from their incarceration?
Mankind has blood on its hands - the Crusades, Auschwitz, the Holodomor, Vietnam, Afghanistan - the list goes on. And that's the blood of human beings. The torture, incarceration and slaughter of animals more than rivals this.
sAs for those chickens, I keep thinking about our own free-range chickens - rescued by us from places where they were raised to be slaughtered. Now they live out their lives in peace. They wander about the grounds with freedom. They lay eggs everyday. But what's even more powerful is how each one of these chickens have individual PERSONALITIES. One is a big, fat, cuddly and friendly little goof that cries for our attention and calms right down when it's picked up and held. Another is a tough-minded devil-may-care, no-nonsense gal who keeps the others in line. Then, there's the weak one - she's picked on by the other chickens and lives the life of a loner.
Recently she disappeared and we, my family and I, were heartbroken. Deep down we knew she was taken out by either a fisher, a hawk, an eagle or an owl - maybe a coyote, wolf or even a bear taking an early sojourn from its den. What we also knew is that our little chicken was outside, wandering freely through a beautiful forest, the rays of sun filtering through the leaves upon it. Yes, it died. But it's death would have been swift - an instant predatory kill. It was not forced to live in a cage with lights beaming on it constantly, developing sores and infections while it popped out eggs until its egg-laying feed would be changed to "finishing" feed. That's what it's called. Imagine: FINISHING FEED. Pumped with all the nutrients AND chemicals necessary to fatten it up before slaughter.
Yes, nature has given us a food chain that involves animals being killed for food by other animals, so while we were sad about losing our chicken, we knew it had had a good, full life with care and love - if not from its "colleagues", by us. And now it was gone. Naturally. In the way it had been intended to leave this Earth.
This is a luxury most poultry is not afforded. Yet we eat it, many of us knowing what suffering it's gone through.
Happily, there was an extra-special surprise in store for us. Many hours later, our missing chicken was not dead after all and came, poking and pecking its way out of the deep bush.
I'll admit these are things that enrich The Ghosts In Our Machine, at least for me, but I think for those who have not quite experienced this revelation - that animals are indeed distinct individuals - it will be a powerful and deeply moving eye-opener.
You must see this movie.
It presents a truth that so many are willing to ignore or refute. If you're a coward, loser and/or asshole and don't want to see the truth, then fuck you!
"The Ghosts In Our Machine" is currently in limited theatrical release via Indie-Can Entertainment.