Thursday, May 31, 2012

CinemArchetype 15: The Animal Familiar

"Animals emanate the breath of our lives by showing us certain qualities and behaviors that we should emulate somewhere in our daily lives. Our kinship with them teaches many things such as patience, endurance and the balance of our male/female aspect or sometimes called yin/yang energy or polarities. Subsequently, Carl Jung's concept of male/female in the "collective unconscious" concept is animus/anima respectively. Is it through the archetypal energy that we are able to communicate with this collective unconscious a gateway to our true selves. Animal wisdom emits these fundamental truths if we are willing to learn and understand their language. As humans we can learn and remember our connection to animals and the knowledge that inextricable links us with them. Nature is an amazing teacher that breathes new life into our spirit."- Finding your Animal Totem
1. Toto -The Wizard of Oz (1939)
The impetus and guidance for her success, is sparked by her devotion to Toto—or her strong instinctive responses to life’s circumstances. She protects Toto on two occasions and then he protects her. He plays a crucial part in each stage of Dorothy’s quest. Like Dorothy, he is small and fearful, but he insists on asserting himself. As a non-verbal animal he stands for her uncivilized part of herself who exposes the illusions and vulnerabilities of the coercive authority and propels the conforming child into adventures and actions that her social conscious would not consider or approve.

On page 91, in the book, "Mere Creatures, A Study of Modern Fantasy Tales for Children," Elliott Gose gives a comment from Max Luthi, “Man is in contact with nature, which accepts his assistance and in turn comes to his aid. But like Toto, the helping animal can also embody unconscious forces within.” He continues to say, “Helpful animals are ‘symbolic figures’ that embody and represent the instinctive forces of our nature, as distinguished from the higher human qualities of intellect, reason and power."" - Jeanne House, Wizard of Oz and the Path to Enlightenment

2. Pieawacket - Bell, Book and Candle (1958)

Their weird chemistry worked in their previous film, Vertigo, because Stewart was allowed to be kind of a creep, more in love with her ghost image than with the plain real girl behind it, and the tragedy came when Novak effectually spread herself between so thin between two images, neither of them her true character, that she almost became herself and thus had to die. But here in Bell, Book and Candle the chemistry flops under Stewart's grandpa-style American decency. A May December only works when the December is in some ways more liberated and decadent, immature, or 'younger' in at least some way or other, then than the May. And when Novak tries to tell him about her witchy ways Stewart proves he's none of those things by acting as condescending and dismissive as the Catholic stand-in villains in The Golden Compass. 

Still, the scene with Piewacket and Novak busting their magic spell on Stewart is one of the key hottest witch moments in all the world of cinema. Piewacket ends up bailing on her when she loses her powers, for love, ugh, who wouldn't? It's so forced, like a pre-arranged marriage orchestrated by a studio with an eye on Jimmy's box office clout estate. Piewacket's final gesture of humanity, if you'll forgive the expression, is to climb up to Stewart's office window and thus force Stewart to return him to Novak's shop. What a pal, even though she's all virginal in white and as boring as a mousy Cinderella....
"The term familiar in witch craft is some kind of animal, more often then not a cat because cats naturally live between worlds. Have you ever noticed a cat that seems to be mesmerized by something that YOU cannot see? Odds are likely that cat is seeing something that you can't. They are in tune with the Other-world. Throughout history cats have been suspected of living half in this world and half in the Other. Shifting between the two worlds to maintain elusiveness and power. A familiar for a witch, like Gillian in the film Bell Book and Candle, acts as an extension of power. Gillian's power embodied in animal form. The familiar can be assigned tasks to complete for the owner which in the film Pyewacket performs plenty. He is the most magical being in the film." - Hubpages
3. The Daemons of The Golden Compass (2007)
Everyone in this alternate reality has a familiar, and it's awesome. I dug this semi-ignored fantasy film and was pissed to learn there won't be a sequel. My guess? It stars a truly badass young woman (Dakota Blue Richards) named Lyra, with boys always in need of rescue instead of vice versa. Maybe in the sequel they could cut let the boys take all the glory? (Read the writer-director Chris Weitz's understandably peeved reaction here).

Co-star (he's got the Han Solo role) Sam Elliot (his familiar is a jackrabbit) blames the Catholic church who rained their sanctimonious venom on this film thus proving the film's anti-Catholic point more succinctly than the film itself ever could. I dug it myself, it imitates the feeling of reading the Narnia books as a kid better than the actual Narnia movies.  She slaps adults around, has a whiskey-slurping polar bear in her corner, and handles borderline Dickensian oppression with aplomb and rains fire over doughy doe-eyed softies like Harry Potter or Frodo. And the notion that the bad guys want to cut the power animal daemons from their children to help them grow up' is all to apropo of circumcision, Sunday school and Dr. Moreau exclaiming "this time I'll burn all the animal out of her!"

4. Johnny Cash (voice) - Space Coyote - The Simpsons - "La Viaje Mysterioso de Homer"
Could there be a better choice for a spirit animal voice than Cash's, wherein lightness shines over intense heaviness like an angel in 20 pound steel-tipped boots wading through the mud? Back in the late 90s when this episode came out it simply couldn't have been more timely. "Let 'em go Ralph, he knoows what he's doin'" - entered my ecstasy-popping clique's lexicon, especially as it reflected our favorite quote from the Poseidon Adventure, when Chico and the Man's Jack Albertson after Shelly Winters dives through the flooded porthole, "Let her go, she knooows what she's doing!" We lived by that code, my loungecore hussy posse and I, and now they're all dead or in advertising... or like me, which is worse, Space Coyote.

5.  Skippy as Asta - The Awful Truth, The Thin Man, Bringing up Baby
A good dog can make or break a film, and a relationship. When Cary Grant comes around for visiting rights over Mr. Smith (Skippy, "the pooch") we only partly think it's an excuse to visit Irene Dunne. A lot of us think it's really to see Mr. Smith. After all, a lot of us have perhaps stayed in a relationship because we like her cat, or his dog, or vice versa. It takes a special animal to have this power to 'complete' relationships sometimes. While cats and dogs elsewhere in this list are specific to one person, in Skippy's case the gift for being the magical talisman / familiar of couples is completely unique. So salute, Skippy.

6. Andy Serkis as King Kong (2005)

Kong was more of a dark animus/shadow to western civilization in the original, but in Jackson's lush remake he's clearly a besmitten familiar for Naomi Watts, his size and might granting her huge power and bringing her frail depression soul to life through his selfless service in the field of jungle navigation and T. Rex wrestling. His demise is therefore even more tragic than in the original. Too bad Jackson chooses to infuse the proceedings with egregious kiddie comedy in the portly form of Jack Black, over-acting like a silken-voiced Andy Devine, riding to the rear of the rescue; and Evan Parke straightfacedly shouting "Jimmmyyyy!" and "Jimmy, you got to be smarter than that!" and "Jimmy, you got to learn to read, you got to go to school!" All that though is just piffling shadows to the blinding white light of Serkis' genius, and Watts', who makes a great Fay Wray even if her dopey dance is always worth a cringe.

7. The raven/crow in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) 

The witch's crow is the 'audience' surrogate in Disney's vision, which is awesome as she's usually alone in her castle, preening in front of the mirror, vowing vengeance and engaging in spookily rendered arcane magic spellcasting. The crow/raven never speaks but we see his eyes bulge out in shocked excitement as her ravings increase in venom. This raven is neither a spineless yes-man lackey nor voiced by a stunt celebrity cameo (no Gilbert Godfried or Cheech Marin). In fact the bird's silence enhances his connection to us in the audience, for we are also mute and awed by the witch's evil (there's a few great moments where the witch seems to stare dead in our eyes). And their relationship captures just what it's like to spend a lot of time with only an animal for company if you're a raging narcissist, babbling insanely half to yourself, half to your pet, who doesn't understand a word you're saying but is concerned by your discordant vibes you may be losing your mind to the point you forget to feed it.

8. Nissa the Leopard as Baby - Bringing up Baby (1938)

As in Shakespeare and his doubles, there are two leopards in Bringing up Baby, but the good one, Baby, is the true familiar to witchy Suzanne Vance (Katherine Hepburn). Baby arrives magically by mail to her swanky apartment, and since David, Grant's nervous paleontologist handles 'bones and things' Susan automatically assumes he'll know just what to do with it. (Read Stanley Cavell's Comedies of Remarriage to help in translating the layers of sophisticated double entendre in the dialogue). The parallel is clear. David likes his bones 'dead' and calcified hard, his fiancee frigid and repressed; Baby and Susan are as sleek and alive as you can be, buzzing around him like bees frightening an allergic picnicker. That Susan arranges so David has to join her in a merry chase around Connecticut only affirms the magnetic pull of her familiar. Baby is the familiar as wild animal, yet tamed, a complete impossibility yet there it is. And most crazy of all, Susan's imperious aunt is one minute dismissing the idea there could be a leopard in Connecticut with a wave of her hand, and mere moments later mentioning she's expecting a tame leopard to arrive any day now from Susan's brother, a big game hunter. Thus the leopard as familiar is always shifting and changing -- knowing the creature is tame, Grant and Hepburn are less afraid, but by then the beast has shifted yet again, replaced by a vicious leopard on his way to the gas chamber after 'giving that new trainer a going over.' Thus we see how a wild familiar may bring you love and adventure, but it also may crash you down to the more life-affirming rhythms of the earth like a giant brontosaurus skeleton, or eat you.

9.  Clyde - the Orangutan -Every Which Way But Loose (1978)
There was a time called the 70s when fads were rampant: Jaws spawned craze for anything related to sharks; Star Wars for anything related to space; there were also pet rocks, mood rings, Spencer's Gifts, EST, Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics, Frampton Comes Alive, iron-on decals that read "Keep on Streaking," Bruce Lee, Farrah Fawcett-Majors, Jordache jeans, Cheryl Tiegs, wall-to-wall shag carpeting, and-- most importantly--Smokey and the Bandit (1976). This film was huge and launched a craze for Trans-Ams, brawls between truckers, stunt men and bikers; convoys;  road-blocks; CB radios (10-4, good buddy); truck stop waitresses smacking their gum as they poured coffee; hitchikers with cut-offs and names like Starla and Angel; portly sheriffs scrambling comically to get back into their vehicle and engage in hot pursuit; thick Burt Reynolds mustaches; snakeskin boots; amphetamines; gambling... Daisy Duke shorts and Daisy Duke inside them. What a time to be covered in axle grease with an oily bandana stuck in your back jeans pocket. Naturally Clint Eastwood got in on the act, and to spike the formula brought an orangutan along. Any Which Way But Loose was such a hit (second only to Superman in 1978 box office) that a sequel was rushed into production (Any Which Way You Can) and there was even a rip-off TV version called BJ and the Bear.

One of the cool things about Clint is that he always gives anyone or anything a fair shake. He meets love with love and violence with violence, unconditionally. So to him Clyde is no 'pet' but a genuine travelin' companion, a buddy with whom to spar, argue, mock wrestle, and philosophize. Clyde for his part is a friend in need ever ready with a rude noise or a pretty smile. The haunted-hot mess-sexy Sandra Locke may be around, as she always was in this era of Clint's filmmaking career, but it's Clyde who's the real bromantic love interest, and he gives Clint's fistfighting trucker a kind of St. Francis legitimacy.

10. Peter Lorre's pocket kitten in The Boogeyman will Get You (1942)
The kitten itself doesn't have much of a part, but is a great touch for Lorre's bizarre magistrate character in this early Arsenic and Old Lace-inspired murderous quirky comedy (paging Tim Burton - don't remake this classic and ruin it!). The kitten lives in one of Lorre's coat pockets and occasionally meows ("What do you want?" Lorre asks into his coat, "it isn't milk time."), to be let out as she sniffs some "crime and corruption." Maybe you think I should have put Lassie or Rin Tin Tin or Tigger or Trigger on this list instead, but their films ain't got no Boogeyman!

11. Blood (the Rover) in A Boy and his Dog (1975) / The dog in The Road Warrior (1981)
Ugh, as a young teen I was a huge fan of the Harlan Ellison post-apocalyptic short story "A Boy and His Dog," so naturally I thought the movie was a tragic waste of time --not at all how I imagined it. And they just had to one up the harsh twist ending with a nasty crack or two. And Don Johnson? and a little Benji-type dog instead of a mangy German shepherd like in my imagination? Actually, it wasn't even all that bad... but you know how it is.

A much better dog crops up in The Road Warrior, a movie I had to get my friend Alan's mom to buy us tickets for because it was rated R and the idiot box office taker wouldn't let us slide on our jaded 15 year-old expressions. And we expected, based on Richard Corliss's Time piece ("Apocalypse Pow!"), that it would be totally mind-blowing. 200 viewings later and we finally get it's rock-solid grace. And the dog is perfect. Max's last link to compassion and connection to some kind of anima mundi humanity, he knows when to strike, when to growl, and he dies to protect Max from Wes's mighty wrist rocket. It's not all the killing, raping and smashing of innocent oil rig commune dwellers that really tears it for us as far as wanting to see all these Humongous-following scuzzbags wiped out, it's the cold blooded killing of Max's beloved companion; it's what sets him over the edge, and sends that dog into our blistered, mangled, bullet-ridden hearts.

Either way, one of the things that always saddens me in real life is how dogs and cats seldom have a function, a job, a reason for living, other than supplying us with love and affection which, let's face it, we don't always have time for. When civilization crumbles and our lives depend on instincts and animal cunning once more, that sadness will be over.  Pets will once again become invaluable companions at the forefront of our consciousness, able to smell trouble and strangers miles away, providing a much better early warning system than any look-out in the dark and resuming their status as true archetypal spirit animals.

12. TIE:
The Cat in The Black Cat (1934)
and the Cat in The Tomb of Ligeia (1964)
In Bell, Book and Candle we saw an example of a fairly 'white magic' style familiar, so it wouldn't be fair not to end on two fine examples of the 'black magic' variety. In the 1934 Universal masterpiece The Black Cat, there's plenty of talk about how Satan emcee Karloff's black cat's spirit may have taken over, briefly, the body of narcotized houseguest Jacqueline Wells (after Lugosi kills it with a tossed butter knife). It's really more of an excuse for the Poe-tic title rather than a straight up plot device, but it's still cool, especially when Karloff lisps with rolled eyes that Bela, "is a victim of one of the commoner phobias. He has a complete and utter horror... of cat-ths." Karloff doesn't seem too worried after Lugosi offs the feline, but maybe it's because the pussy's not dead.... just transported to Miss Wells.

The twisted vortex of necrophilia and animistic reincarnation in Corman's final Poe film, Ligeia, is both more and less extreme. The cat here  begins the film already possessed by the spirit of Vincent Price's dead wife, a domineering Rebecca-like beauty who holds onto Price's gloomy Goth weirdo's imagination through deep hypnotic suggestion she planted in him before she died, and only her voice can release him. The cat in this film a kind of Mrs. Danvers in pussy form, always leaping out of nowhere at inopportune moments to attack Rowena, Price's smart, Mrs. Peel-style new lover. The essential familiar aspect of keeping its owner aligned with the forces of nature and away from the currents of delusional madness is reversed here, for it's not his anima, it's her familiar, like the Wells-cat possession from the 1934 film reversed. Like a dark version of Piewacket at the end of Bell, Book and Candle, the cat's final mission of service to her late witch owner is to lead her man away from the safe parameters of language, reason, and letters and home to the rarefied air of the silent dead.

Lastly I'd be remiss without a loving shout-out to my special animal familiar, the divine Miss sphynx, Olive. At left peeketh she forth, ready to absorb the unending stress I provide, and leave only a feeling of hypnotized calm. She's Xanax on four legs, more like a mellow dog than a peevish cat and enough like a grey alien in face that she's perhaps meant to prepare me for some future close encounter...and since she's hairless my usually crippling cat allergies are only partially present. Hurray for Olive!


  1. I have always been fond of Honey West and Bruce, her ocelot. The perfect companion for Anne Francis, a beautiful wild animal on a leash that only she may hold. They didn't feature Bruce all that much, but he was on the album cover, literally and figuratively.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. You know, I haven't given much thought to animals in movies. I can't even think of a decent one you've left out. Great post once again.

  4. Thanks Doug! Johnny, I like that ocelot too, but he's not really a 'familiar' in that he just hangs out at home rolling on the sofa, instead of actively helping them solve cases... or assisting in some sort of spellcasting or other. It would be great if they brought Bruce along and he leapt into battle in the climax, tearing the faces of the bad guys!

  5. They can just get Florida bath salt addicts for that. Cheaper, and you don't have to pay for special effects.

  6. Yeah, but you don't want them hanging around the office in a rhinestone collar.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...