With seven awards to its name, the big winner at this year’s Emmys was the TV film, Temple Grandin, based on the life of the scientist known for her pioneering work in animal husbandry. That she is best known for also having high-functioning autism might have consigned this film to the ‘disease-of-the-week’ category. That she has overcome social disadvantages too (not least as regards how others treat her for not being ‘neurotypical’) to become an expert on and advocate for the ethical treatment of farm animals, might again tempt us into thinking of this as another cinematic cliché – ‘triumph in the face of prejudice’, the ‘human spirit once more overcoming the odds’, etc. Yet if we look at Temple Grandin, firstly, in terms of its heroine’s work in animal husbandry itself, then we do have a chance of sidestepping such critical pitfalls. That is because the success of her work – which has resulted in ameliorating the conditions many farm animals must endure, including those suffered during their slaughter – has stemmed, she says, from the fact that she thinks like an animal thinks – namely in images. This is not her human way of thinking about images, but a way of thinking in pictures, a picture theory, that, she also claims, allows her to empathise with animals, with their world-view, in a manner that might not be open to neurotypicals like the rest of ‘us’.
And here is where my curiosity is aroused a second time, for the content of this film begs a question about its form (if I can be allowed this old dualism for a moment): how have the award-winning images of Temple Grandin measured up as an alternative type of thinking? Is it true to say, given the animal and autistic kinship formed through image-thoughts, that this film offers us the opportunity to think (in moving pictures) about cinema itself as an animal mode of communication – the animal that thinks inside us when we are ‘at the pictures’? I don’t want to put any one movie under the spotlight on the question of its formal coherence, but, as well as being an excellent piece of experimental film-making, Temple Grandin does make me think again about the origins of the power of cinema. Why is it that we are so engrossed by film anyway? Like Pavlovian dogs responding to the dinner-bell, we salivate in front of the screen, to the image-stimuli agitating ours senses, almost as though we are in the presence of their ‘referents’. Many theories – psychological and philosophical – have been offered to explain this immersive effect: Freudian, Cavellian, Cognitivist, and so on. But what if the answer was as simple as this: the power of the cinematic image is purely the power of the animal that we (always) are when we think in images, or when images think in us.
Linda Williams has written of the three body genres of cinema that most obviously disturb our flesh (melodrama, horror, pornography) and, certainly, when we let the image arouse our tears, screams and genitalia, we do seem to approximate a little dog getting over-excited by stimuli. Yet there are also more complex responses, which are neither thoughtless flesh nor disembodied reflections, but affective thoughts, seeing-thoughts, that are all the more potent because they are imagistic (and non-neurotypical). These images are not any less the animal-thinking-in-us, however, nor are they either base or inhuman: they might simply be where our most powerful and animal thinking resides.