Heath Ledger’s King Rat Video

The late Heath Ledger played an ambitious squire in A Knight’s Tale, a bi cowboy in Brokeback Mountain, and a psychopathic super-criminal in The Dark Knight, among other roles. It’s a real shame that this talented actor died so young. And not just because we won’t get to see more of him on the screen; he will also be missed as an advocate for the natural world.

Turns out Ledger had also been doing a little directing. And this week, the film and music collaborative that he was part of, The Masses, has released a work that he developed and directed, but did not quite complete before his death. The song “King Rat” by Seattle rock band Modest Mouse is the basis for this six-minute music video by the same title.

In January of 2007, while visiting his homeland of Australia, Heath Ledger presented Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse with an idea to direct a video for their yet-to-be-released song “King Rat”.  Heath’s vision, brave and unapologetic in its nature, would marry his love of bold and original music with his impassioned stance against the illegal commercial whale hunts taking place off the coast of Australia each year.

Have a look at  the video. (Note that YouTube has been disabling the audio on this film due to copyright concerns. I am linking to a copy that has not yet had the audio disabled, but by the time you read this, it may be gone. If it doesn’t work, you can search YouTube for a copy that still has audio, or you can just view the film at the home page of The Masses, here. (Update: changed the YouTube link to Modest Mouse’s own posted version, since that appears to be the only one left up, but embedding is disabled on it, sorry.)

OK, now that you have watched it, I won’t be spoiling the surprises and can offer some initial reactions. The video itself is extremely well done and is an unequivocal condemnation of whaling, which is what it was intended to be. But what of its approach? It seems like a pretty big biscuit to swallow for those not necessarily already committed to cetacean or other animal rights. The imagery is intense, even though it is a relatively simple style of animation. But the ethical implication is more intense: whales are the moral equal of humans. The film is saying that to hunt whales is as immoral as it would be to hunt humans. It asks how we would feel if the harpoons were turned on us and we were ground up into pet food. This is no dewy-eyed animal welfare message; it’s an in-your-face biocentric challenge.

In no way do I want to suggest that there is anything wong with biocentric or ecocentric messages and I’m all for an end to all forms of whaling. So, on one level, I appreciate the arrival of this video. I am simply wondering if, for the average viewer, this requires too big a leap of consciousness. I don’t know what the answer is. In some cases, it’s probably helpful to really push a new way of thinking with radical messaging. In others, a more subtle and incremental approach is preferable. Either way, our current consumer culture clearly needs to move towards a more ecocentric and less resourcist perspective if we are to achieve any kind of legitimate long-term ecological sustainability.

I also want to comment on the video’s central devices: anthropomorphism and zoomorphism. By creating a narrative with whales and other sea creatures as the hunters, processors and consumers, and the humans as the hunted raw material, the film pulls an extreme kind of Gary Larson Far-Side-esque anthropomorphic / zoomorphic role reversal. In his cartoons, Larson often reversed the relationships of animals and humans. In one cartoon, for example, two polar bears are eating an igloo and one says to the other “I just love these things! … Crunchy on the outside and a chewy center!” But King Rat goes way beyond that kind of simple humour. In fact it’s not really funny at all and the anthropomorphism is so improbable that some viewers will simply dismiss it.

Anthropomorphism and zoomorphism are double-edged swords. When they remain within the realm of the plausible, they can serve to help viewers/readers more closely identify with non-human creatures. But they can also go too far in creating unrealistic representations of other animals (as in Disney) that can actually obscure empathy and understanding. So, representing animals as having complex feelings, motivations, intentionality, etc. is plausible and desirable from the point of view of encouraging better relations with them. We can even imagine polar bears ripping open an igloo (assuming it was not well-enough built). But can we imagine whales having their own ships and hunting humans? No, that’s not possible. Is the alternative to see them simply as powerless victims of human exploitation?

What am I trying to say? If viewers are not ready to accept that whales are the moral equivalent of humans, then the video doesn’t really offer viewers another way to identify with the plight of the whales. In this video, the whales are not represented sympathetically. They are characterized as barbaric and greedy, presumably exactly as Ledger sees today’s real whalers. Now, I know that this video makes no pretense to reality and I have a hard time imagining that anyone would come away thinking that whales are like that. But what is the average viewer, so embedded in the anthropocentric ideology, to think of the whales? Perhaps they should also check out Charles Siebert’s recent piece in the New York Times Watching Whales Watching Us for a more nuanced perspective.

One thing I haven’t considered in this initial reaction is the music and the lyrics, the song itself, a not unimportant element. But perhaps I will leave that to you dear readers. I will simply say that the tone of the song, without thinking about the specific words, certainly fits the theme of the video.

Note that the first month of iTunes downloads of the video support the Sea Shepherd Society.

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About Mark S. Meisner

Executive Director of the International Environmental Communication Association (IECA). I also research, teach, write about, and speak on environmental and sustainability communication, media, culture, and policy. Facts are usually facts, but opinions and sense of humour are always my own.
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