Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Wildlife on One '95: The Tale of The Big Bad Fox

"The Tale of The Big Bad Fox" was the opening installment of the 22nd series of the BBC's flagship wildlife program, Wildlife on One. Airing on 6th April 1995, it looked at the battle for survival between the red fox and its preferred prey, the rabbit. The title, reminiscent of a fairy story, is meant with some irony, for the film indicates at the start that it intends to dispel the preconception that the interplay between predator and prey can be perceived as a straightforward struggle between villains and victims. To a degree, such preconceptions are an inevitable consequence of the human tendency to adopt facets of the natural world as analogies for our own behaviour. The real-life rivalry between the fox and the rabbit was, most famously, used as the basis for the fictional enmity between Br'er Rabbit and Br'er Fox, familiar characters from black American oral tradition, which gained particular notoriety in popular consciousness when they were adapted by Disney for the 1946 film Song of The South. Nowadays, of course, Disney would sooner you forgot about that picture altogether and instead looked to their more recent representation of the ongoing hard feelings between rabbits and foxes in the 2016 film Zootopia. Whereas Br'er Rabbit's repeated outwitting of his vulpine nemesis (and various other predators) could be seen as the triumph of the underdog, in turning the table on his would-be oppressors, in Zootopia the fraught interactions between Nick and Judy are used to make a point about prejudice and social conditioning. In either case, the relationship carries overtones of human judgement. I seem to recall one review of Zootoptia that described the film as a "decades-delayed correction to Song of The South that allows the rabbits and the foxes to live in harmony". Only in a Disney movie. The reviewer in question was, presumably, not actually talking about foxes and rabbits, and the sins of Song of The South go way beyond the implication that these creatures are best viewed as inherent enemies.

"The Tale of The Big Bad Fox" is haunting for the manner in which it consciously evokes the aesthetic of a fairy story while positing itself as a counterpoint to such fanciful interpretations of the animal world. In the film's opening title (above) the face of the attacking fox is obscured, so that we see only its shadowy outline as it brandishes the limp carcass of a freshly-butchered rabbit between its jaws, giving it a sinister, almost monstrous appearance. Throughout the film, particularly in the closing stages, we see other instances in which the animals are seen only as silhouettes, creating the sensation of watching figures in a shadow puppet theatre. The animals are momentarily reduced to symbols, the idea seemingly being to evoke in the viewer the basic conceptions, and the associated emotions, about each of these animal as imprinted by childhood iconography. The film opens with a scene in which a woman reads the story of Br'er Rabbit and the Tar Baby to her two children, oblivious to the flesh-and-blood fox skulking in the shadows across their front yard. In the story, Br'er Rabbit is captured by Br'er Fox, but hoodwinks his arch nemesis into throwing him into a briar patch, where he makes his escape. "Tale" suggests that it will offer a very different picture of the rabbit-fox relationship; as is implied in David Attenborough's narration, there is no villain or victim in the real world of fox and rabbit, but at the end of this particular account one is clearly identified as the victor and the other the loser; the outcome is not altogether different from that of the familiar story we have just heard, but it closes on a much more harrowing note.

Outside of the aforementioned opening, "Tale" is largely devoid of any direct human presence. The Somerset backdrop against which the action unfolds isn't quite Eden, for the landscape is littered with fences and buildings and occasional livestock but, aside from one early scene of fox courtship occurring beside a churchyard, these are kept at a firm distance, and the film stays immersed at all times in the immediate world of the fox and the rabbit, seldom looking far beyond (a scene in which a buzzard predates a rabbit is the only inkling we get of the wider web of life operating around this specific animal relationship). The result is suggestive of, if not a world in which humans never existed, then a world which is totally impassive to the human activity happening far, far away. The effect is a timelessness, as if we are witnessing a conflict that has played out in much the same manner for millennia.

Like "Uninvited Guests", "Tale" is structured around the cycle of the seasons, opening in the midst of a harsh winter in which the rabbit's depleted food supplies leave it more vulnerable to attack from the fox, and closing in late autumn, by which point the creatures' fortunes have reversed, mirroring the story of Br'er Rabbit and the Tar Baby. "Tale" is a coming of age story, documenting the wildly contrasting strategies each species has for raising their young (unlike the fox, the mother rabbit leaves her kittens unattended for most of the time, which seems counterintuitive but in practice decreases their chances of being detected by a predator lurking above). In narrative terms, "Tale" gives the fox something of an advantage when it comes to endearing itself the viewer's sympathies, simply because they stand out more obviously as "characters"; while the foxes are represented by a dog and a vixen raising a litter of three, the rabbits are featured more generically, represented as more of a collective entity than individuals. Through the course of the film, we see several sequences in which the foxes launch attacks on the rabbits, and of their various tactics for circumventing the rabbits' vigilance, and while there are ample moments of carnage in those picturesque English meadows, the narration is at pains to stress that the fox inevitably fails far more than it succeeds. As to whether we should regard predator or prey (if either) as Nature's "victims", perhaps it was the Looney Tunes shorts that were closer to the truth all along.

"Tale" is a visually charming film, littering with various atmospheric shots showing the splendor of the English countryside - sunsets, dewy misty mornings, much green and much pleasantness. Many sequences are accompanied by an ambience consisting only of silence and birdsong - long stretches of apparent tranquility waiting to be ruptured by the omnipresent threat of violence and predation. Whenever this threat surfaces, it regularly heralded by a familiar piece of music - the introduction to Part II of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, which concerns a pagan ceremony, and young girl who is selected as the Chosen One and made to dance to her death in a sacrificial ritual. Since its tumultuous debut in Paris in 1913, the ballet has perplexed spectators with its strange and beguiling mix of the natural and distinctly unnatural. The poet T.S. Eliot, writing for the New York-based magazine The Dial, noted the contradictory manner in which Stravinsky's ballet appeared to juxtapose primitive ritual with the age of technological advancement when he observed that, "it did seem to transform the rhythm of the steppes into the scream of the motor horn, the rattle of machinery, the grind of wheels, the beating of iron and steel, the roar of the underground railway, and the other barbaric cries of modern life." Tom Service, reviewing a contemporary rendition by the London Philharmonic Orchestra in The Guardian in 2013, noted that, "The paradox of the primitivism in The Rite is that it can be heard as both a horrifying vision of the pitilessness of nature – and as an expression of the inhumanity of the machine age." (Stravinsky's composition too found its way into the Disney canon, in the 1940 film Fantasia, where it was used to convey a more primitive ritual still - the struggle for survival in the dinosaur age.) The beautiful yet unsettling character of the piece here makes it an apt accompaniment to this tale of two creatures locked in an age-old struggle from which there is no escape, and no alternative but to keep regenerating and passing down this enduring conflict to all successive generations. Perhaps this is the most troubling degree to which we might see ourselves in the fox and the rabbit - as beings cast, whether by nature or society, as villains or as victims, in predetermined roles in which, be they fulfilled out in the fields or surrounded by the cold comfort of modern technology, we have no recourse other to keep repeating the same dance over and over. There is the uneasy sense that, like the fox and the rabbit, who have no means of diverging from their fundamental natures, we are not in control of our own destiny. Perhaps we need the allegories of Br'er Rabbit/Br'er Fox, Nick/Judy and Wile E. Coyote/Roadrunner, most of all, as a means of confronting and coming to terms with our own inherent animal natures.

In "Tale", the brutality of nature is evoked not merely in the conflict between predator and prey, but in the rites of passage facing our three young foxes as they are gradually nudged out from the safety of their earth and forced to go at it alone in a world where, Attenborough makes it clear, the odds are stacked against their survival. The vixen is a dedicated mother, but the tight bonds she forms with her cubs will inevitably fade with the seasons, as is made clear when she spies one of her offspring from a previous litter intruding on her territory and savagery breaks out. Throughout the film, there is another clear narrative thread concerning the waning of her bond with her current litter. By the end, two of the adolescent foxes have departed on their own terms, forced out by the cessation of free food from their parents, but one remains with its mother, until the point comes when she no regards it as her offspring but as potential competition, and drives it away. Thus begins the arduous search for a territory of its own.

Only in the final stages of "Tale" does Attenborough's narration disrupt our sense of a pure and timeless conflict, with a reminder of how human encroachment has inevitably tipped the balance in one species' favour. As rabbit populations continue to surge, we are told that only half of the adolescent foxes heading out to find their territories at the end of the season will survive into adulthood, for danger awaits in the form of man, dogs, and possible starvation. Thus, "Tale" ends in sombre fashion, by subverting the rules of the traditional coming of age saga. We close with the three young foxes still not having found their place in the world, and their prospects of ever doing so uncertain. They may be the top predators of the Somerset countryside, but our three young foxes are not on top of their world, and as they are made to go their own way, they do so not not as fully-fledged hunters, but as pitiful underdogs. As Attenborough tells us: "They're poor hunters in general, and totally incompetent when it comes to hunting rabbits." For now, their best bet is to forgo their hunter status altogether and survive by scavenging a diet of earthworms, leatherjackets and blackberries. This seems like a lowly means of eking out a living for such a formidable predator, but Attenborough points to the fox's tremendous resourcefulness when he reminds us that, "foxes are, after all, omnivores, not purely hunters." Nevertheless, the closing image, which shows the sun setting as one of our vagrant foxes continues its potentially futile search, is disquieting. The fox, reduced once again to silhouette, fades into the darkness, with no promise of a new dawn. Attenborough underscores the harsh reality, conversely, by bringing us back to the world of Br'er Rabbit: "It seems the year has ended with the rabbit having, metaphorically, the last laugh."

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