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 Cinema e pensamento | On cinema and thought                                                                              @ André Dias

Electric animal (Akira Mizuta Lippit)

«Among the earliest spectacles of film, animal, and electricity stands Thomas Edison's 1903 actuality, Electrocuting an Elephant. In an effort to sabotage the development of AC (alternating current) electrical generators, which delivered electricity at a higher voltage and to greater distances than his own DC (direct current) systems, Edison embarked on a campaign to discredit the AC system and its primary proponent, the Westinghouse Electrical and Manufacturing Company. Edison's strategy involved a series of public events in which he and his associates electrocuted stray dogs and cats with AC currents of one thousand volts. Throughtout 1887 Edison staged the electrocution fo hundreds of animals in West Orange, New Jersey. Edison's campaign was so sucessful in disseminating the idea of high-tension electricity  as a sheer, swift, and lethal agent that the New York State Legislature, in a rare show of bipartisan cooperation, adopted in 1888 “a statute providing for the use of the ‘electric chair’ in place of hanging as a means of capital punishment.” Through a delusional but symptomatic economy, the projection of guilt onto the condemned animals made the progression from animal to human electrocution possible. An ethical phantasm at the base of animal and human murder binds the two modes of electric killing.
Edison's legacy of animal killings is recorded in the one-minute film, Electrocuting an Elephant. Filmed at Conney Island's Luna Park, the single-reel “actuality” shows in long shot the electrocution of Topsy, a park elephant that had killed three men. The evocation of the animal's name in accounts of the electrocution served to anthropomorphize the elephant and render it almost human in its criminality. Edison's execution of the criminal animal [...] “proved to be an attraction almost more popular, and undoubtedly more dramatic, than a docile animal.” The film consists of a complex mixture of cinematic elements, including a camera pan and several jump cuts, or temporal lapses. In the opening moments of the film, Topsy is led in shackles to a clearing accompanied by several men. The scene suggests not so much the destruction of an animal as the execution of a criminal. Through a gradual anthropomorphosis, this opening renders the elephant first guilty, the pathetic. Topsy advances from the background to foreground, creating the effect of a zoom; she approaches the camera, which pans to follow her movements, framing her briefly in a close-up. This proximity generates an air of theatricality, a tragi-comic gravity. The film then jump cuts to the camera position that remains largely intact throughout the rest of the film. Topsy is framed in a slight high-angle long shot, a Coney Island marquee visible in the background. She shuffles her feet and surveys the ground with her nose before suddenly tightening. After a moment, smoke erupts from Topsy's feet (which had been placed in special devices that introduced the current into her body) and she falls forward to her right. The camera adjusts slightly, panning left, to center the fallen elephant.
The elephant quivers on the ground as life and movement leave its body. What follows is perhaps the most macabre moment of the film. In what appears to be a temporal lapse, the camera stops, then resumes filming. The interruption is registered by a slight jump cut. When the scene of the dying elephant resumes, a human figure returns with it, fading into the background behind the lifeless elephant's body. As the film ends, this human figure exits to the left. The ghost-like man at the end of the film, who appears in the frame like a Melies trick, provides a haunting relief, as if the elephant's life had leapt, through an illicit pact, into this human form that appears from nowhere into the diegesis, into the dying world of the animal. A strange image of the afterlife appears in this final scene–a form of elephant survival. It is as if the human being is there to accompany the elephant to the other world, an agent of the transition from one existential state to another. Or, the spirit of the elephant appears to transfer to the man. The human figure hovers on the surface of the shot, never fully absorbed–an ectoplasmic manifestation of the anthropomorphosis that infuses the electrocution. Edison's current, his electrical charge, destroys and reanimates the elephant.
In the span of a minute, the elephant collapses. The moment of death, captured on film, is made visible by the elephant's sudden loss of muscular activity. One sees its animality cease in a moment. That moment of Topsy's death, which would otherwise determine a temporal and existential singularity, is destined in the film to return, inscribed in the very instant of death as a repetition. “The Edison Manufacturing Company must have banked [...] on the fact that in 1903 audiences would have paid not only to observe an intervention in the ‘regulated activity’ of the ‘living being’ but to study this intervention again and again on film, just as the laboratory scientist might watch just such a film over and over to analyze the execution of ‘life’.” Life and death are marked in the film by repetition, a repeatability that renders life and death automatic and electric. Topsy's life and death are dissected in the film, witnessed as an automated look or
autopsy of the elephant that remains after Topsy's death in the form of the film. The dying animal in Edison's film is survived by the film; Topsy lives on and survives as the film, which transfers the anima of the animal, its life, into a phantom archive, preserving the movement that leaves the elephant in the technology of animation. Electrocuting an Elephant signals, early in the history of film, an uncanny transference of life from the animal to film, illuminating in the exchange a spectral metaphysic of technology.»

Akira Mizuta Lippit, «The Death of an Animal», 
Film Quarterly, v. 56, n.º 1, University of California Press, 2002, pp. 12-13.

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