Gilbey on Film: non-human stars

The talking animals in cinema worth hearing.

Dr Dolittle could talk to the animals. This much we know. But what about those beasts in cinema who want to express complex thoughts and emotions, or converse with someone higher up the actors' food-chain than Rex Harrison (or, heaven forbid, Eddie Murphy)?

One such example can be found in Beginners, which I will be reviewing in this Thursday's issue of the NS. In this movie by Mike Mills, a Jack Russell terrier communicates telepathically with its owner (Ewan McGregor), and the non-human side of the exchange is made accessible to the audience via subtitles. It's worth noting that Mills is the partner of the artist and filmmaker Miranda July, whose own latest movie, The Future (which opens in the UK in November) is narrated by a cat called Paw Paw. Mills admitted to me recently that he likes animals more than humans, but perhaps that's simply what happens when you've been in the film industry too long.

You can hear Mills and his cast discussing the honour of working with Cosmo the dog here. And here is a brief run-down of other notable talking animals in cinema. Animation and children's films are excluded -- well, almost.

1.The rancid fox in Lars von Trier's Antichrist proves with its menacing delivery of just two words ("Chaos reigns!") that there are no small parts, only small actors.
2.Harvey the hell-hound in Spike Lee's Summer of Sam commands the "Son of Sam" serial killer to continue his bloodthirsty spree. The voice is provided by Lee regular John Turturro.
3. The pig-man hybrid in Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man! ranks among the most disturbing sights in all cinema (watch the whole clip, with the creature unveiled around 2:21). Trivia nerds will already know that he is played by Jeremy Bulloch, who later donned the costume of intergalactic bounty hunter Boba Fett in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
4.A small variety of non-human speaking parts in Garth Jennings's film of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but my pick would be the stoical whale played by Bill Bailey.
5.Like Cosmo in Beginners, the cat in Doug Liman's underrated portmanteau comedy Go converses telepathically with its human co-star -- in this case, a young supermarket clerk who has just taken Ecstasy.
6.Okay, so I said no children's films. But this list would look plain odd without Snowbell, the withering cat squeezed out of his family's affections in Stuart Little. Listen to the incomparable Nathan Lane stealing the show as Snowbell in the 2002 sequel.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage