There is a case to be made for home movies as the purest form of cinema. It’s folly, of course, to pit films against one another based on the circumstances under which they were made; to argue what is realer, and thus more valid, than the other. In a camera’s lens, especially, the lines of truth and lies blur and overlap. It’s just that in what we believe to be reality the stakes are always higher, the emotions elevated. One of the first films ever made, the Lumière brothers’ L'arrivée d'un train à La Ciotat, was a succinct 56 seconds that depicted the arrival of a train at its station in Lyon, France. When it was first shown to the public it was the audience’s virgin film-viewing experience, and it was reported that many were frightened by the illusion that the train was coming straight for them. Precocious movie-watchers like myself had our mothers to pull us into their embrace and remind us we were safe in moments of peril, and these motion picture guinea pigs must have had someone a bit more grounded by their side to assure “Ne vous inquiétez pas, c’est juste un film.” It was a similar ordeal with The Blair Witch Project: my father, deaf and blind to pop culture and entertainment news, sat through the found footage horror flick thinking it was all true—and I’m sure he wasn’t the only oblivious one.
Some of the greatest movie works of history—let’s say Albert and David Maysles’ Grey Gardens, Jonas Mekas’ As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty, the ethnographic films of Jean Rouch, or pioneer Dziga Vertov’s experimental pictures which combined newsreel footage with “fragments of actuality”—all assume this home movie format, and by doing so suggest the most revealing manner by which what the camera sees and the screen eventually shows can coalesce. It is the show and tell portrayal of the world one knows. But who is to say something like François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, a bildungsroman that mirrored the story of the filmmaker’s youth and was shot in the Parisian hood of his boyhood, starring a kid who grew up into his doppelgänger, is any less authentic? So there’s always that little cracked vanity mirror, mirror, on the wall, reflecting life back at art when it shows it elusive face.
In the range of terms that comprise these filmmaking ideologies, from North America’s ‘direct cinema’ to its European counterpart ‘cinema vérité,’ to genre-bender ‘docufiction,’ one that compels me is the ‘cine-trance’: a term coined by Jean Rouch, and vague or all-encompassing as it is, can be explained with these 7 words: Totally surrendering to the events while filming. It can be applied on several levels, but is essentially when improvisation combines with the use of the camera to unveil truth. In pop nonpareil Katy Perry’s 2012 documentary Katy Perry: Part of Me, the pain of her breakup with husband Russell Brand is captured by the ubiquitous camera crew moments before she is expected to go on stage and wow a crowd of thousands. The heartsickness later informed the triumphant hit single which celebrated her resurrection on the third day, wherein Perry belts to the world: “I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter, dancing through the fire. Cause I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me roar.”
It wasn’t the only relationship that could not survive the throes of vérité filmmaking. Another such marriage was that of Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren. Marshall was a prominent Hollywood agent who would go on to produce The Exorcist. Hedren similarly built a career in suspense movies, as the leading lady in Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie and The Birds. In the late 60s, emancipated from the domineering filmmaker and transitioning into the next phase of her career, Hedren shot some pictures in Africa. While there, the serendipitous occurred: she and Noel came across a pride of lions that had overrun an abandoned game warden’s house. The pair couldn’t shake their discovery, and in 1969 Marshall began work on a screenplay inspired by the enigmatic felines.
Tippi and Noel scouted the stars of their film at zoos and circuses; by way of animal control officers, they sought out the unwanted. They brought the cats home with them to their place in Sherman Oaks, California. Although illegal behavior in Hollywood so rarely is, these newest introductions to the household were detected by the authorities, and so the family relocated to a ranch in Acton, California. And it was a sizeable family, all of whom were to assume roles in the scripted film playing versions of themselves: Noel’s sons Jerry and John would be featured alongside Tippi’s teenage daughter, star-in-the-making Melanie Griffith. Joel Marshall would be the art director and Mona Marshall assistant editor.
In their newfound abode, with the acquisition of the right permits, the makeshift family’s ardor for the big cats was able to run free and wild, without interference or judgment. I don’t say any of this in jest, nor do I judge them. While I believe living with lions and tigers comparable to a death wish, I similarly believe that love pulls the trigger of all irrational acts committed by man. As Tippi Hedren put it later, “it was always a case of love at first bite.” Is this not a statement to be held to all over-the-top emotional bonds? Each man kills, or is killed by, the thing he loves.
Photography commenced in 1974. It suffered a divine setback in 1978 when a flood destroyed the Hedren-Marshall ranch, ruined completed film footage, and took the lives of several of the feline protagonists. We were, then, a year into the new decade by the time the movie finally saw the light of day in 1981, which tags the project with a protracted 11-year span from point of conception to release. Public reaction to Roar was irreconcilable: with a final budget of $17 million, which was a far overshoot of the sums initially broadcast, the labor of love grossed an estimated $2 million domestic, and set up camp in cinemas for little more than a week. Deemed the most expensive home movie ever made, its tagline read “There’s never been a film like ROAR — and there never will be again!” It’s as if truer words were never growled.
Melanie Griffith said, on working with the kings of the jungle, “Lions are a really tough act to play with. Not because they are dangerous, but because they are so funny. They upstage you every time. If you are in a shot with a lion you just know everyone is looking at the cat instead of you.” The story is simple: a Timothy Treadwell type living as a researcher in Africa is visited by his sons, daughter and lover, and his 150 feline friends react accordingly. The plot of Roar most definitely loses its traction by the claws, and a viewer must wonder what the characters’ motives or the optimum end goal is—as in a horror movie set in a haunted house, you have to exercise restraint to keep from yelling at the family from the other side of TV-land to just “Get out of there!” But the beasts are formidable, dominant, deadly… and we can’t look away. Like the sight of the open ocean is so beautiful because it is so dangerous, Roar’s gimmick is that it presents real lives in real jeopardy. The movie precedes the pawsteps of C.S. Lewis’ Aslan and Life of Pi’s lifeboat tiger by presenting the kings in all their reigning glory, and even achieves moments of wilderness pulchritude that border on Terrence Malick-level harmony caught on camera. The real transcendent nature, however, is in the stunning cat fights and the non-bravado in the human performers’ eyes, when it’s evident they’re panic-stricken and really, really scared that these breaths may be their last.
What comes to mind are Pentecostal snake handlers. They make up a small albeit thriving sect of Christianity which is still found in the Appalachians and areas of the Southeastern US. Their rituals involve gathering in the house of God, as would any regular Sunday mass, but with poisonous serpents thrown into the mix. They touch, pass around and dance with the snakes, in the belief that the Lord’s almighty protection will prevent His adherents from being bit and caused any harm. Several snake handlers over the years have died during worship. They have in common with the cast and crew of Roar a certain faith against all odds—God, and the ferocity of nature’s beasts, don’t necessarily have it out for them. But then how does this play out? Throughout the making of Roar, all members of the cast but one suffered injuries ranging from the minor to severe. Cinematographer Jan de Bont was scalped by a lion and required 120 stitches before recovering to return to complete shooting. Young Melanie Griffith, the girl who would go on to star in films like Working Girl, marry Antonio Banderas and become a household name, was mauled and needed plastic surgery. Hedren said they never blamed the cats: “At first we just didn’t know enough about them to stay out of trouble.” Roy Horn of Vegas magician duo ‘Siegfried and Roy’ expressed similar sentiments on a stretcher in an ambulance rushing to the hospital to address wounds caused by the white tiger he’d been performing with: “Montecore is a great cat. Make sure no harm comes to Montecore.”
On the flip side, there is no evidence whatsoever of any harm brought to the lions, tigers, elephants, etc. during the production of the film. It was, in fact, only the beginning of Tippi Hedren’s identity as cat lady. In 1972 she founded The Shambala Preserve, a sanctuary for displaced exotic felines about 40 minutes outside of Los Angeles. It’s where Michael Jackson sent his Bengal tigers to live when he shut down the zoo at Neverland Ranch. Then 11 years later Tippi birthed the Roar Foundation, which exists to educate the public about the dangers of private ownership of these sort of cats. Antonio Banderas, Bo Derek, and Betty White all serve on the board of advisers. Hedren’s granddaughter also inherited this love for animals: Dakota Johnson, the 50 Shades of Grey starlet, rescued 10 Italian horses from slaughter last year.
So: weird Hollywood continues to set examples, passionately and peculiarly, from way out in the desert West. Although the picture might as well be preluded by a “Don’t Try This at Home” warning, the disclaimer instead tells us that it’s only fair that the untrained animals, which for the most part did whatever they pleased, share the writing credits. This designation says everything about the filmmakers that praise the animals’ instincts and admit to their own shortcomings. Director Marshall’s concept was to let do the cats do what they wanted to find the truest expression of their personality and behaviour; his wife Tippi and he, whether they realized it or not, were also doing exactly what they pleased—away from norm, away from safety, and off into the avant-garde. Unfortunately, what the cats dragged in may have been a view of their partner in the realest light. It’s like rewatching an old home video and wondering why you couldn’t see the hardships coming a mile away when the camera could, right there in the dimly lit close-up. Tippi Hedren and Noel Marshall would divorce less than a year following the release.