The Weekend's Viewing: Louis Theroux: America's Most Dangerous Pets, Sun, BBC2; The Story of Film: an Odyssey, Sat, More4
Monday 31 October 2011
We should probably have talked this through before you decided to do it, Tim," said Louis Theroux nervously in America's Most Dangerous Pets.
Louis' nervousness is a stock in trade, of course, part of his repertoire as a television essayist. But I think he was genuinely uneasy at this point because Tim had just let his Siberian tiger out of its cage. He'll be fine, said Tim, heaving on a hefty metal chain as the tiger went to get a sniff of British telly presenter. Louis wasn't convinced: "In a way, he's got you by the leash more than you've got him by the leash," he pointed out, as the tiger effortlessly tugged Tim off balance. He might have added that it was a moot point as to which end of the chain had the more dangerous animal on it, because Tim didn't strike you as entirely stable. "I fear people, I have no respect for people," he'd said earlier. "I refuse to trust any human being on this planet." "Not even your wife?" asked Louis, hoping to spare the feelings of the woman standing next to him. Not even her, replied Tim.
America's Most Dangerous Pets had been given an unexpected topicality by last week's story about an Ohio man who released his collection of wild animals before shooting himself dead. Looking at Tim – who seemed to think it was manly to have a fist-fight with a lynx – you wondered how long it would be before history repeated itself. And he isn't the only one either. Theroux also spent time with Joe Exotic, an Oklahama man whose animal park boasts 176 tigers, not to mention an unspecified number of lions and ligers, which is what results when lions and tigers turn to each other for comfort in captivity. Personally, I think one or two tigers would be quite enough to be going on with, but Joe had ended up with this surplus because he rescues animals from owners who succumb to the allure of tiger cubs and forget that they one day grow up. Joe thinks he's rescuing these animals, but Peta, the animal-rights activists, think he's simply perpetuating the problem, calling his zoo a "scamtuary".
In part, Theroux's film was a study of American consumer culture, with its drive for novelty and its problem with self-denial. These people thought it would be cute to have a tiger cub or a primate pet, so they went ahead and got one, with not a huge amount of thought about the animal's long-term happiness. If they'd never known the wild, the general argument seemed to run, they couldn't possibly miss it. And if they thought their monkey pets would look better with earrings they went ahead and got them some. Misgivings were brushed under the carpet, not always successfully. Visiting a woman who owned two chimpanzees, Louis got even more nervous, fretfully aware of another recent news story about a woman whose entire face was ripped off by her neighbour's chimp. Don't worry, you'll be fine, said Jill, at which point her male chimpanzee bounded across the back garden and shattered the kitchen window through which Louis was anxious peering. "We're thinking we may have what we need," he said politely.
Mark Cousins's The Story of Film: an Odyssey reached the glory years of Seventies American cinema this week, meaning there were interviews with Buck Henry, Paul Schrader and the great Robert Towne. Cousins's vocal style – a confiding, obsessive croak – takes a bit of getting used to and his approach is unapologetically scholarly. But he really knows and loves his films and the clips are picked with a critic's eye for the telling detail. Just occasionally, I hankered for him to love the films a little less. "Sometimes you look at it and think, 'Oh God, this looks old'," said Paul Schrader about his early works, a candour that was sharply refreshing in the context of Cousins's devotional reverence. But if you love films too, you shouldn't miss it.
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