Euology for a Film and Then its Reincarnation
Ostriches at Night was a treatment I wrote in 2018. Now its a teleplay called Animal Minds.
Eulogy for Ostriches at Night
Written August 2019
Revised May 2023
I once purchased an ostrich egg in Ukraine, to eat. I was 21. I brought it into the kitchen, took it out of its box, and knew right then I would never part with the beautiful dinosaurlike eggshell. I didn’t buy just eggs for four breakfast burritos! I bought art! Instead of cracking it open, I drilled holes in the top and bottom and pumped the egg liquids into a skillet with a bike pump, added cheese, called my friends. The shell, which ended up cracking anyway when I moved home, sits on my bookshelf next to an ostrich feather I recently collected. I’ve epoxied it back together with gold leaf mixed into the epoxy. Its broken and still pretty! By the way, it tasted like an “eggier” chicken egg.
Shortly after eating that egg, I began to doubt the existence of the human soul. A cause-and-effect relationship of this big change in me to the egg is unlikely. Like many Mormons, I had a faith crisis after my two-year mission. To get a grip, I pursued a bachelors degree in anthropology. I’m a bit unique in that I let the crisis happen very slowly and I never fully made the switch to the scientific notion that we are just biological beings. God may still exist, but its hard to believe he’d want everyone to become Mormon. If we don’t have souls, whats the deal with right and wrong? I think there is right and wrong beyond just being social constructs.
It went on through 28 when I started Stanford’s MFA Program in Documentary Film & Video. There, I made a film about my faith crisis called Non-Correlated. Editing it like crazy, I broke away to watch David Redmon’s donkey films. Choreography resonated with me, in particular. In each shot, donkeys on a farm look right into his lens like they know they are performing. Maybe animals have souls or maybe I’m an animal performing faith and a faith crisis. I, too, was on a farm of some kind. I, too, look into the lens a lot in Non-Correlated. I’d never felt like a donkey before.
For my thesis, I pitched a short verite-style documentary about a nighttime delivery of ostriches in Watsonville, CA. One farm was selling thirty birds to another and they were planning to move them at night in livestock trucks, customarily with socks on each bird’s head. Ostriches are aggressive and difficult to manage unless blindfolded, and, with that headshape... They’d arrive with headsocks like prisoners in Guantanamo. They’d walk rigidly, led down a plank. I had to film it. I hoped the film would be about my confusion with humanity and my new tinge of jealousy toward animals who don’t know virtue and vice. I’d focus on dark shadows and bright work lights.
It will look like a film on the ostrich industry, I was told. And without dialogue, how could it say anything about souls? Ahh the MFA student. My pitch fell flat and I felt dumb. My grandma told me to just make another film about immigrants. I don’t really do social issue films. The faith crisis was still a black hole with lots of gravity pulling on me. I regrouped and made another personal film about the Book of Mormon. My thesis follows a Mormon tour group on a cruise to the Yucatan, where they look at the Mayan ruins with their own interpretation. Its called For the Love of God.
Left: A 2009 selfie. My companion, Elder Campbell, thought the $40 egg a bad use of sacred funds.
Right: My classmate and friend, Barna Szasz, thought my thesis expenses a great use of funds.
My studies coalesced more around animal minds. I got into verite and sensory ethnography. I was surprised to find these modes in my own archives from my teenage years, stuff I shot that got me into filmmaking, but which I never thought were valuable in an academic sense. I fell in love with the documentary Leviathan (2012) by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel. I got to know Kirsten Johnson and her work, earlier that year I’d studied Cameraperson (2016). Worlds opened up about animals, humans, rhetoric, and media. Particularly curious, still, is how blurry the line is between fiction and non. Here are a few thought experiments from that era:
If you film a play, Shakespeare lets say, from a seat in the audience, people call this content fiction. If you film it from the wings, it feels instead like a documentary about acting. The actual action is the same, the footage is just accompanied by a different mindset.
If I interview a subject on camera its clearly non-fiction. If I ask the subject to describe a dream they had, is the footage still non-fiction? Yes it is. They really had that dream. What if I put this audio over a drawing of their dream? What if I cut out the part of the audio with my prompt? Add music? It would be labeled fiction, even though - once again - the subject really did have that dream and so its literally, factually non-fiction no matter its treatment. How many fictions out there are actually non-fiction? Is the Lion King a documentary to someone? One last critical side-bar question about dreams: to the extent that they fit in the non-fiction category in the first place, is this more because they are unintentional or more because they were spoken of in a filmed interview? If you don’t record them, are they fiction? Imagine that.
When an animal is on-screen is it fiction or non-fiction? Can you only answer this if you know the context, the film’s rhetoric? What if you just personally disagree with the director? Does your answer change depending on whether the animal is trained or wild? What if the director has no idea what the animal will do and is determined to include the shot a priori in the final film, like in a nature documentary? What if its a nature documentary inside a fictional story?
When I was getting into filmmaking, dad put a Go-Pro on Coho, our best cross-country skier.
I took a course with visiting Professor Kerry Tribe who asked me to put these questions and my archival material into a project. I filmed an octopus in a tank and added texts. The texts were actual texts between me and my sister, who didn’t know I was going to do this (thats how its a documentary, I’ll let the viewer decide about what). I made a second short in her class following rabbits at night called Hiding Place.
I now believe that animals both off and on screen have their own intentions that we can’t always know or manipulate, which means animal clips are non-fiction a priori. With this firmly in mind, for me even most of 1997’s AirBud is non-fiction. Taking it one bizarre step further, if humans are animals and not held to a higher religious standard, then written comedy films with actors are in fact nature documentaries about homo sapiens. Or, put this way, to an athiest, Seinfield has to be a comedy show. To God or to a cosmic entity, its non-fiction, like how any and all primate behavior to us is material for research.
I also know that people like fiction but LOVE non-fiction. Or the part of fictions that they love, they love because they’re the non-fiction part of fiction. I liked Succession. I loved the non-fiction part of Succession. I’m cooking up an entertaining new project to exploit the combination of facts in this and the previous paragraph. It is a TV writing project called Animal Minds. In it, I’ve set Mormonism aside finally and instead look directly at God. Read the blurb after this Eulogy.
Ostriches at Night - the film that got away. They said this would happen. In fact, I think this is what an MFA is: you get stoked on a great idea you can’t produce. Its a held-in sneeze on steroids. I loved my idea, graduated without it, mourned it. An iniated filmmaker is mourning all the time. The other experiments didn’t do what Ostriches would’ve done. Now I see that when you watch a film, what you’re watching is actually just the euology for the film the director wanted to make but couldn’t. This time, though, the eulogy is just this essay. I’ll end it with the final treatment I wrote in early Covid. This one doesn’t mention socks or trucks but it still helps me dodge the question what is right and wrong and its still at night. Night is when the mind is more free. Be free, Ostriches at Night.
Ostriches at Night (2020) is a short experimental documentary film about how either:
1) human beliefs, stories, and media are totally ridiculous, or
2) animals and humans are equal, cosmically or under God, there’s no such thing as sin, or
3) animals are capable of belief, they’ve just been shy about it. So what are animals’ beliefs?
I am most interested in number 3. In my film, ostriches in their pen at night will hear and react to a series of sounds played on a speaker system. Later, a projector is set up and the ostriches are shown a series of films about them, culminating in a film of a lion hunting on the savannah. Do the farmed birds believe in predators? Will they freak out?
The uselessness of this exercise speaks to the ridiculous human beliefs about ourselves, our media, and animals. Statements 2 and 3 emerge in the other content shown to the birds in the middle, such as films of an ostrich mating dance and egg hatching. If they pay attention, they should stir or maybe learn something, before they see the horrific lion film at the end.
Lastly, if the birds just aren’t interested in the projector screen or are unable to follow motion pictures - isn’t this also interesting? In this case, it would be a film of birds milling around or asleep while a director shows them content he thinks is relevant to them. Its hilarious.
I’ve loved you. I’ve got to leave to pursue my new God project. See you in there.
Animal Minds TV Show
Ostriches at Night was stillborn and eulogized fondly. From its ashes rise ten episodes. I was producing independently in SF when Covid hit and I lost all my gigs. I spent time studying consciousness, philosophy, anthropology, myths, linguistics, fiction writing, and psychology experiments - see my annotated biobliography. Now I work as an art teacher and I write. At various times I thought this was a literary review, a feature film, and a dissertation. Five years after Ostriches, I’m prepared to share this blurb. I hope I won’t have to mourn it, too.
Animal Minds is a TV show for 35-year-olds literate in science, religion, and film. In it, animal experiments are presented in a documentary form, but the experiments are led by two fictional scientists, August and Peter. Some would call this a hybrid format.
The two fictional scientists are enemies wrestling for control of their animal minds lab called Ur. August, the founder, loves animals. Peter loves himself. The story begins right after some of their joint projects gain notoriety. In the first episode, a new wing of the lab is announced: a school for animals. Institutions financing it hope to identify a few species that can grow in tiny and specific ways to be able to participate in a redesigned internet, new currency, and new narrative for earth.
Each episode contains a non-fiction part about a different experiment or procedure to (fictionally) condition the animals. The season culminates in a stage play production of the story of Adam and Eve, played by animals made ready to face a dilemma. Stretching certain theories, its the concept of dilemma that is the seed of consciousness. August plays the voice of God. Will the animals grow into their new role and use the new internet? It is okay if its a bit comedic, but...
The first season is a tragedy. After a tussle with his nemesis, August requires surgery. In the end, sadly, he’s reduced to a living brain in a vat. He can communicate yes and no only, by thinking of playing tennis or walking around his house, respectively. In charge, Peter can connect a microchip to August’s genius godly brain. Season two is a high-tech and surgical retelling of The Transfiguration. Its important in this day and age to say that I hope to avoid the subject of AI.
If you read the Eulogy for Ostriches at Night:
The biblical story of Adam and Eve is a 1:1 documentation of my adolescence, I think everyone’s.
I hope to relate to The Transfiguration in later adulthood! Just kidding, but I do have long hair.
The following are short visual experiments from grad school and before.
OCTOPUS BRAIN NODES and MY SISTER NATALIE by Jake Chamberlain
A HORSE TREADMILL by Jake Chamberlain
COHO’s POV by Jake Chamberlain
Night is different from day not just in terms of lighting, but in one’s thoughts. Have you gone on a long walk at night and waxed philosophic? I wonder if nighttime walks played a role in the evolution of theism. In my ostrich film, night will play a large role.
OWL at NIGHT by Jake Chamberlain
Finally, here are the lyrics to Animals by Talking Heads, for your consideration.
I’m mad. And thats a fact.
I found out animals don’t need help.
Animals think. They’re pretty smart.
Shit on the ground. See in the Dark.
I know the animals are laughing at us.
They don’t even know what a joke is.
I won’t follow animal’s advice.
I don’t care. They’re laughing at us.
They say they don’t need money.
They’re living on nuts and berries.
They say animals don’t worry.
You know animals are hairy?
They think they know whats best.
They’re making a fool of us.
They ought to be more careful.
They’re setting a bad example.
They have untroubled lives.
They think everything’s nice.
They like to laugh at people.
They’re setting a bad example
(go ahead) laugh at me.