THE FADED CRITIC
Stoned Thoughts About Movie Shit
Currently Watching: Gorillas in the Mist
REVOLUTIONARY SYMBOLS: DIAN FOSSEY, JANE GOODALL AND BIRUTĖ GALDIKAS
by Steven T. Bramble
1988’s Gorillas in the Mist starring Sigourney Weaver isn’t a good movie, despite the sad fact that by the generally abysmal standards of serious filmmaking in the 1980s (masterpieces excluded, of course) it stands as a passably anodyne piece of work. But you don’t watch Gorillas in the Mist for the film—you watch it for the figure.
Dian Fossey, one of the three original female field-primatologists who worked for the paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey, struck a historical legacy for herself as controversial as it is fascinating. Fossey was the most troubled and militantly conservationist of her contemporaries, and even though she is mostly known for her primatological discoveries regarding gorillas, she should remain stamped into the popular imagination as something more akin to a revolutionary. She fought for the rights of animals, and as payment had her head split open by a machete.
However, this isn’t the full portrait of Fossey. She was also, as described by Tunku Varadarajan in the Wall Street Journal, a “racist alcoholic who regarded her gorillas as better than the African people who lived around them.” Indeed, some clarification regarding the Fossey legend has been needed. The Dark Romance of Dian Fossey by Harold T.P. Hayes, based on Fossey’s own correspondence, demystified her as a thoroughly unpleasant person to work with (perhaps even to know), a culturally ignorant Western white woman who felt entitled to call the shots in an African nation, and finally as the practitioner of some violence.
Obviously, the 1988 movie hardly bothers to tackle the intricacies of either Fossey’s scientific work or the woman herself. Timelines and events are abominably disfigured. Artistic liberties are taken not to emphasize historic and philosophic importance, but instead to fabricate a dopishly familiar Hollywood plot. Still, Gorillas in the Mist has enough admirable aspects to make it worth watching (at least until a more sophisticated film rears its head), and the most important among them is the mythological construction of Dian Fossey as an icon.
By whatever sorry route humanity happened to arrive at our perception of animal and plant life, whether it has been through the development of various theological and secular doctrines, or, more likely, the simple fact that we tend to feel justified when exercising power over those weaker than us, there remains no doubt we are in need of a conceptual revolution. And in revolution, symbols are powerful galvanizers.
Fossey forms only one-third of an aesthetically-pleasing secular trinity, consisting also of Jane Goodall, who researched chimpanzees in Tanzania, and Birutė Galdikas, who studied orangutans in Borneo. These philosopher-scientists did not merely make important natural and evolutionary discoveries, they also acted as gifted, empathetic ambassadors between the human and animal worlds. Even more specifically, between Western, Christian, imperialist societies and primates. So be it, we find ourselves in need of archetypes.
The point is, even if these three are not exactly pan-human symbols, their discoveries, writings and exploits—taken all together—tend to unlock something in the imagination not just powerfully inspirational, but also powerfully defiant. They are a group of distinct thinkers who constellated a movement, one whose larger societal implications may yet to be fully realized.
Maybe it’s a weird impulse, but I would like to see the left become slightly more credulous of symbols. I absolutely agree with the need to kill heroes so as not to turn cultish or buy into lies, but by flat-out refusing to reinvent our own symbology we’re leaving ourselves disarmed of a supremely effective weapon. All propaganda employs symbols, but not all symbols employ propaganda. We are entering into revolutionary times—there should be no shame in reacquainting ourselves with the mythic. But we should keep in mind that appropriating old symbols for new causes may not serve.
It’s important that symbols be complicated, even contradictory. They must necessarily embody both the ideal and the failure of the ideal at once. We always betray our passions, even if only temporarily, and we will find it necessary to commit our own crimes against the future. No one escapes life entirely innocent. So why not Fossey as the putative Che Guevara for animals? Is it possible we have to finally just sigh heavily and come to accept that any revolution in our own time will require its own t-shirt?
This is possible. Equally possible is that I got super fucking high, watched Gorillas in the Mist, and came to some weird conclusions. Either way, think of these three scientists the next time you witness injustice done to an animal. If it gives you the courage to intervene on their behalf, maybe we should all take a hit of what I was smoking.