Thursday, December 03, 2009

On Georges Franju's Blood of the Beasts

Reading this news item about the possibilities of “laboratory-grown meat” got me thinking about the two or three times in my life I’ve flirted with vegetarianism. As a child, after seeing a struggling chicken being carried to its doom through a lane behind a butcher's shop, I stopped eating meat for around 10 days. As an adult I've resisted the temptation to convert, having accepted one of the key hypocrisies of my life: that my very strong feelings about cruelty to animals (“animals” in this case being mainly cats, dogs and caged birds) are thoroughly incompatible with my eating choices. If or when I do turn vegetarian for good, it’ll probably be for health reasons (and with a sense that I’ve been the victim of a terrible injustice).

There have been a few times when I lazily considered converting for ethical or visceral reasons. One was after I read Eric Schlosser's description of the beef-making process in “Cogs in the Great Machine” (a chapter excerpt from Fast Food Nation). More recently, while watching Georges Franju's 1949 documentary Le Sang des bêtes (Blood of the Beasts), an almost unbearably impassive look at what goes on inside the slaughterhouses of Paris.

The film was made in black-and-white, which was the only reason I could keep my eyes on the screen from beginning to end: as Franju himself said in an interview, it would have been repulsive if it had been shot in colour. But even so, the most hardened non-vegetarian will feel squeamish about the scenes showing calves and sheep being decapitated and strong, proud horses being reduced to twitching carcasses by stun-guns, then casually bled and flayed until the inanimate mass lying on the floor is unrecognisable from the cantering, head-tossing beast it had been a few minutes earlier.

The slaughterhouse scenes are intercut with benign, pleasant shots of life as it goes on in the other, more “visible”, more respectable parts of the city: children playing, lovers kissing by the Seine. Reading a shot-by-shot description of the film, one might think that Franju has set out to make a profound moral statement about “the barbarism and cruelty that lies just beneath the thin surface of what we call civilization” (or insert similar portentous phrase of your choice). But watching the film, one doesn’t at all get that impression. All he’s doing, really, is recording a series of incidents, without comment or judgement (this is what happens in Paris, but see, this also happens), and that in a way makes the whole thing more disturbing. (“I like recording truth,” he said in the interview, while also expressing the hope that viewers would find his film “aesthetic”.)

Blood of the Beasts features as an Extra on my Criterion DVD of Franju’s Les Yeux sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face), which is one of my favourite horror movies (and which, creepily, I was re-watching the night before Michael Jackson died). Eyes Without a Face is a beautifully shot, lyrical movie with a ghastly subject: a surgeon tries to restore his disfigured daughter’s face by kidnapping other young women and transplanting their faces on to hers. This is by no means the hysterical mad-doctor figure of genre tradition: he’s a composed, serious-looking, slightly melancholy man who does everything he can – using his professional skills – to help his daughter. Watching him use his scalpel to make incisions and peel away a mask of skin in the film’s most unsettling scene, I was reminded of Franju himself, making Blood of the Beasts, methodically examining how things work.

Anyone who badly wants to turn vegetarian but needs a final strong push, get hold of Blood of the Beasts. You'll thank me for it. There’s a version of it on Youtube, with the voiceover dubbed in English.


  1. While we're on vegetarianism, here's a provocative question by a philosophy professor that I came across on Greg Mankiw's blog sometime back -

    Aliens from another planet, with vastly superior intelligence to humans, land on earth in order to consume humans as food. What argument could you make to convince the aliens not to eat us that would not also apply to our consumption of beef?

    Pretty difficult to answer.

    1. We created entire civilizations, interact with each other above mating, communicate ideas with one another and build upon them, and could also be taught to at least work "simple" alien machinery if necessary. You'd never be able to teach a cow to use a computer. Even if they had opposable thumbs.

  2. It is difficult, at times impossible, to not tread the Tiger’s tail and to not succumb to the Criterion Original Sin – to talk of a Criterion film and not mention their Extra-Terrestrial Cover Art (Eyes Without a Face is no exception) , the Badi Pikchar Kwaalty… and yes, the equally extra-terrestrial prices.

    Your focus, of course, was on the film itself and there is so much in there to even think of meandering.
    But, I am still surprised you managed to forego the temptation of throwing in a line or two about Criterion pleasures.

    A warm Criterion Tradition is of providing those ‘In Between’ films as extras – ones that will never possibly get a DVD release because they are too short or ‘not too important’. (And yes, the magnificent audio commentary tracks.)

    Your post brings this particular aspect to focus. If not for Criterion’s concern for their auteurs’ other brilliant works (Blood of the Beasts, in this case) would have remained obscure or inaccessible.

    But it is this love for important cinema that persuades me to spew fire, in vain, on the Indian DVD scene.
    How nice it would be if a DVD of Junoon or Ankur had an early documentary or a short film by Benegal!

    What is more infuriating is the virtual absence of Regional Avant-garde cinema on DVDs, the proper ones.

    It is impossible (I have almost given up) to find Mukhamukham, Amma Ariyan or Uski Roti on DVD.
    There is English, August – arguably the first avant-garde Indian-English movie – rotting in oblivion in some processing lab. And, an Inscrutable Americans that can officially be given the status of a Lost Film; the list is endless.

    More than anything else, the film-going culture in India requires a collective concern for the restoration and preservation of at least the Art-House Essentials (To borrow from Janus Film’s DVD Label)and more importantly taking them where they belong- to the public through proper DVD releases.

  3. Aditya: I'm sure I've waxed eloquent about Criterion in one of my earlier DVD posts. But just for the record again, I love their packaging of the "important classic and contemporary films". Feel a little thrill every time I go to the disc menu, which always looks so neat and elegant. And I agree with the rest of your comment too. Film preservation in India is dismal anyway.

    shrikanth: as indicated in the post, I don't think there can be any moral justification for our meat-eating. But from a strictly academic point of view, one answer to the aliens question could be: "If the communication levels between us humans and these superior aliens is high enough that we can exchange complex ideas and reasoning, they'd probably be persuaded that we are sufficiently like them to merit not being eaten by them."

    Okay, maybe that argument is a little weak if these are really hungry aliens!

  4. Hi Jai,

    As a congenital vegetarian I can tell you that there is no less cruelty involved in boiling,skinning, and chopping a potato than boiling, skinning and chopping a chicken. The vegetarianism v. non-vegetarianism debate is absolute hokum since a potato was alive as a chicken before we humans got them. So enjoy whatever it is that you eat.

  5. Nice post.. I also recommend you to watch the documentary 'Earthlings'.

    The production of dairy and eggs also involve the murder of 'unwanted' male calves and male chicks. So the best thing to do (for those who care) is to go Vegan or at least to try to minimize these products as much as possible.

  6. mayank: Here's a pretty good read that may change your ideas on the subject.

  7. "Aliens from another planet, with vastly superior intelligence to humans, land on earth in order to consume humans as food. What argument could you make to convince the aliens not to eat us that would not also apply to our consumption of beef?"

    Argument? Haha. Fight or die. This is how the world works.

  8. Jai,

    I suggest you read Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals. It was positively horrifying to read about what we let allow happen to animals for the sake of our eating pleasures. Foer isnt some born and bred vegetarian - he admits that he loved to eat meat. Enjoyed it. But when he started to question it, he couldnt force himself to consume it.

    I was raised a vegetarian but always had the freedom to take up meat eating if i wished to do so, but whatever little curiosity or interest i had in trying meat was effectively killed after i read Foer, Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser.

    People who say that boling a potato is like boiling a live chicken are fooling themselves. Foer has a chapter on eating dogs that i thought was particularly interesting.

    Etc etc.

    Basically. Incredibly sad. Made me cry. The cruelties we visit on other beings is just unbeleivable.


  9. What can I say? I love my meat! All kinds. I was taken to a slaughterhouse too when I was young, and I ate meat quite soon after that!
    I do not buy the sentience crap that vegetarians use to distinguish plant eating and animal eating just so they can look down upon us.
    Ultimately, if you consume a headache pill, you are endorsing the testing of that product on animals (and taking an animal and forcibly testing drugs on it is as bad as cooking chicken for dinner).
    I would just love it if vegetarians and non-vegetarians just got the hell outta each others' ways.
    Nice post!!

  10. @Liberalcynic

    Darling, i am sure you sleep very well at night comfortably coddling yourself with the knowledge that since 'vegetarians take medicines that are probably tested on animals when they are ill', your endorsement, encouragement and enjoyment of meat products is justified.

    Keep telling yourself that. Whatever helps you sleep better at night.

    Taking medicines that may or may not have been tested on animals when one is ill is not morally equitable with becoming an active party to the wholesale torture and murder of sentient creatures, the destruction of ecosystems as bycatch and the pollution of our environment by factory farms (one of which is Ground zero for Swine Flu. Yeah, buddy. A meat farm where millions of pigs were slaughtered was where the deadly H1N1 virus originated.) all so you can enjoy your favourite meat dishes for every meal.

    Effectively you are saying that your appetite and enjoyment of meat is equal to using life-saving medication. And that your enjoyment of meat is superior to the animal's right to life.

    And you know... the whole 'i wish vegetarians would just leave nonvegetarians alone' whingeing is just a prayer that no one points out your hypocrisies to you.

    Whether or not vegetarians use drugs that have been tested on animals, your fig leaf for being a nonvegetarian isnt that you enjoy it and couldnt care less about the torture of animals (which while being kind of brutal is at least honest) - it is that 'its not just me whose torturing animals, so are the evil drug companies!'. See how pathetic you sound?

    Being a 'liberalcynic' is a convenient and uber-fashionable political stance that allows you to perpetuate iniquities and live without questioning your life and what it stands for - after all why should you care about the environment, about other creatures, and about the cost of your unsustainable lifestyle? You are cynic and that absolves you off all responsibility, right? All you are concerned with is what you believe you are entitled to. Why the hell should you care about what is sacrified to get you what you want, right?

    Wrong. The sooner you figure out where you stand on such issues the better its going to be in the long run. If you dont give a shit. Thats fine. But dont be oblivious to the ramifications of your not giving a shit.

    I know this comment makes no difference to you. But now that i've got my anger at your smugness out of my system, i am signing off.


  11. Shrikanth,
    I assume you are the same guy who was involved in a discussion of similar nature on Nitin Pai's blog. Just curious you always talk about beef, does you consider other meat not worthy of your reasoning.


  12. Indophile: I have never commented on Nitin Pai's blog if memory serves me right.

  13. @anonymous
    Your myopic understanding of this subject mystifies me. Funny how you smugly point out my smugness.
    Either you condone the killing of animals or you don't. There isn't a nuance here. I do a lot of research with animals, and most of it is pretty cruel. Who died and made you the moral arbiter of what animal-use is good and what is bad? Let every person draw their own line. The liberal part of my name believes in everyone's right to their own opinion, and the right not to infringe on others' rights. The cynic part acknowledges the existence of patronizers like you.
    As for slaughterhouses being the birthplace for many diseases, that just asks for better administration of such establishments.
    As for plant eating vs meat eating, plants are living beings, and there is enough metabolic data to show that plants feel a kind of pain when their parts are plucked. But, I don't think you'd wanna hear such arguments, because a) it would not let you sleep at night, and b) it would mean scientific skepticism and actual discussion, instead of moral admonishments (which I must say, you're pretty good at!). So this sentience argument can be thrown out right there.
    Most of your argument is rhetoric, and very little fact. Let me reiterate, I wish people like me and people like you stay out of each others' ways.

  14. nice post.

    i'd have to disagree with you here though:

    "All he’s doing, really, is recording a series of incidents, without comment or judgement (this is what happens in Paris, but see, this also happens), and that in a way makes the whole thing more disturbing."

    though not overt, franju uses camera angle to convey meaning in the slaughterhouse scenes. not that you're rushing to re-watch, but if you do, notice the point-of-view shots from the animals' perspective 'looking up' at the slaughterer. though you're correct in a sense, camera positioning is not a verbal comment, i didn't interpret this as indifference or objectivity or neutrality on the filmmakers part. there is a comment there, but i suppose it's up to the viewer to determine what it means.

    i thought the film drew some strong connections to the holocaust. YMMV.

  15. Anon: thanks for the tip,will keep it in mind (IF I watch the film again!).