Tales of Postmodern Mermaids
For those of you who missed it this weekend, Animal Planet re-aired its pair of “documentaries,” Mermaids: the Body Found and Mermaids: the New Evidence(as part of its “Monster Week,” the highlight of which was the premier of a similar program which posits that the Hobbit-like creatures, Homo Foresiensis, are alive and well and cannibalizing nature hikers in Indonesia). If you haven’t seen these programs…well you’re missing out on something pretty spectacular, though not perhaps in the sense that Animal Planet intends it.
The first of the two premiered in 2012. The bulk of the “story” concerns bits and pieces of a “body” that marine biologists discover in the belly of a whale beached off the coast of southern Africa. When pieced together, the body appears to be a “mermaid.” Subsequently, the authorities seize the scientists’ materials, and they return to America with no solid proof. Along with their fish tale, the “scientists” who appear in the documentary talk about the famous “bloop” sound that was recorded by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration) in 1997, a precipitous rise in the rate of beached whales, and something known as the “aquatic ape hypothesis,” which argues mermaids evolved at roughly the same time as, though on a parallel track to, homo sapiens.
The follow-up feature, Mermaids: the New Evidence, which appeared in May 2013, is even more fascinating than the original. It involves a panel discussion led by Jon Frankel – a reporter who has worked for ABC World News Tonight, Nightline, and Good Morning America among others. The panel itself includes the main scientist featured in the original program, several satellite interviews, and a second scientist who has captured new mermaid footage using a deep sea submarine.
Here’s the problem: while generally acknowledged (at least by the internet) as a species of “fake” documentary, both programs were presented almost entirely as “real.” In the 1000-word publicity for the original episode, one buried sentence mentions, “The film is science fiction, using science as a springboard into imagination,” but that sentence itself contains ambiguities, and it is surrounded by a host of other grand claims: “Mermaids: the Body Found paints a wildly convincing picture of the existence of mermaids, what they may look like, and why they’ve stayed hidden…until now”; “Mermaids: the Body Found makes a strong case for the existence of the mermaid” (emphasis added). Nowhere in the openings to either programs, or at any point during the broadcasts, up until the final credits, is any mention made of the possibility that they might be fake.
A series of four statements appear during these credits:
1. “The Bloop recordings remain… As do the testimonies of the scientists involved”;
2. “Though certain events in this film are fictional, Navy sonar tests have been directly implicated in whale beachings”;
3. “The ‘bloop’ is a real phenomenon. There is still debate about what it may be…”;
4. and in much smaller print, “None of the institutions or agencies that appear in the film are associated with it in any way, nor have they approved its contents. Any similarities in the film to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.”
None of these sends anything like a clear message that the film is fictional. And Charley Foley, the program’s creator, and a Vice President at Animal Planet, though apparently admitting the staged nature of the show, does so only coyly: in one interview with Mother Nature Network, for instance, he explains, “I wanted the story to appeal to a sense of genuine possibility, and incorporating real science and evolutionary theory and real-world scientific examples — such as animals that have made the transition from land to sea, much as we suggest mermaids did — and citing real, albeit controversial theories like the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, grounded it.”
But of course the most important source of confusion between the real and fake aspects of the documentary is the fact that it appeared on Animal Planet, a subsidiary of Discovery networks, channels normally devoted to reality programming about science and nature. Without going into the rather extensive history of documentary film, it’s safe to say that, while there are ebbs and flows in how people regard the form, no one who creates or studies documentaries assume them to be anything like a one-to-one representation of life. Documentaries are not “real” in the sense that we think of ordinary lived experience. Like photographs, they are perspectives on reality that, depending on the film-maker or the theorist, may be thought of as more or less “true” to the reality they claims to capture. After all, the very act of training the camera on a particular subject constitutes an editorial choice, in which we decide one subject’s importance over another.
Further, most documentary film makers and viewers accept the notion that a “non-fiction” film will be “re-constructed” in one way or another. At a minimum, the director will cut some material, perhaps a great deal, and in all probability edit what remains into an engaging story arc. Exceptions, such as Andy Warhol’s Sleep or Empire, in which a camera is simply trained on an object and allowed to film uninterrupted for a given length of time, are essentially unwatchable.
Almost from its inception, though the documentary genre has raised a whole host of ethical questions mostly around the practice of “reconstruction.” If shots are edited in such a manner so they appear in sequence but were actually filmed in a different sequence, has the film maker misled her audience? If an event actually occurred, but is re-performed by the performer for the camera, how genuine should we consider that performance? Television stations, for example, regularly shoot interview questions separately from the answers, editing them later so they appear to have taken place together (see the Oscar nominated Broadcast News for an interesting examination of this practice). For that matter, is any action that is performed multiple times (say, for example, a doctor treating patients, or a chef grilling a steak) “genuine” if the performer knows that “this time” he will be filmed?
Particularly germane to Mermaids is the question of a practice that began to be more and more common in the 90s, particularly with the rise of documentary television shows and networks – the re-enactment. The History Channel and The Discovery Channel certainly didn’t invent this practice, but they helped facilitate its spread. The popularity of such channels and their programs made re-enactment more routine, more commonplace, such that the audience simply accepted it as normal. Partly as a result, these programs began more and more to present such re-enactments without necessarily pointing out that they even were re-enactments. This may or may not be a reasonable approach, depending on the situation. As viewers, we would assume, for instance, that a shot of the pilgrims sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner would be clear enough to most people as a recreation. Continually labeling such scenes as “recreations” runs the risk of becoming comical overkill. What happens, though, when confusion is possible, when ID TV, for example, mixes actual footage of a robbery with re-created or even wholly crafted footage, all mixed together as the same?
The mix of real and artificial in Mermaids represents something else again: the producers not only allow for confusion, but seem intent on creating it. Sorting out fact from fiction becomes an almost impossible task. The story begins, for example, with a discussion of actual whale beachings in 2004 in Washington State, accompanied by what appears to be actual footage of the event. We are told these whales suffered from strange gas bubble lesions – also apparently true. Then we’re introduced to Brian McCormick, the shadowy lead scientist who arrives first on the scene and who now avoids all publicity. At this point, we’re shown a dramatic re-enactment of this arrival, clearly labeled as such. In other words we’re shown actors portraying scientists in reenactments, but those scientists themselves turn out to be actors themselves: actors portray actors.
Next, the scientists discuss at length the 1997 Bloop signature event, which again, did actually occur. To this day, that event has remained essentially unexplained, with NOAA claiming nothing quite like it has ever been heard (the most likely explanation has to do with cracks in the polar ice sheets, but this explanation is not definitive). We’re also given detailed explanations of the aquatic ape theory, a genuine evolutionary hypothesis, though it only exists on the fringes of the evolutionary discipline. Among other things, the theory supposedly helps explain how apes learned to walk upright: by being supported in low levels of water. We’re told about mermaid sightings by Christopher Columbus, again a real part of the historical record. Even the most important beaching, the South African beaching in 2005, from which the “body” was supposedly recovered did occur, and again, we’re shown actual footage of that event. We’re also shown pictures of cave paintings in the deserts of Egypt that feature swimmers, one more oddity that is completely real.
No surprise, of course, that blogs and tweets sprang up by the thousands debating the “reality” of the show. But if the original program was deliberately ambiguous about its reality, the follow-up took this ambiguity to another level. Jon Frankel, a genuine, reputable journalist appears as moderator, opening the show by noting “It was the explosive documentary that captured the attention and the imagination of the entire world. Mermaids: the Body Found revealed the tantalizing prospect that the creatures of legend and lore are real. Join us as we revisit the controversy.” A statement like this one admits the possibility the original show was faked, but does so in the context of questioning that very assertion. We’re told over 32 million U.S. citizens watched it, it was the most searched term in the world on May 27, 2012, and “every member of the Kardashian family tweeted about it.” Are these brags about the level of interest the show generated, or about just how many people bought into the hoax?
In addition to a discussion with the “scientist” from the original, this follow-up offers a few more surprises. First, we’re shown sightseeing footage taken in Israel of a mermaid-looking creature slithering off a rock and into the water. After searching the internet, I confess I have no idea if the footage is genuine or concocted by the show’s producers, but the mayor of the Israeli city Kiryat Yam, Mayor Shmuel Sisso does appear via satellite link. Sisso, the real mayor of the real city, has really offered a real $ 1,000,000 reward to anyone presenting conclusive proof of mermaids’ existence, and a story on that reward did appear on CNN. And Sisso comments about the “amateur” footage during the AP program as though he believes it is real (arguing, however, that the image is not clear enough to serve as definitive proof).
Consider, then, the various cons at work here:
Obviously money drives these programs to a large extent. Searching for big foot, or aliens, or ghosts, is just sexier and more lucrative than showing the life cycle of the Monarch butterfly. But whatever the drive, the result fits neatly into what we might term the “postmodern condition.” Jean Baudrillard, for instance, pointed out that when we create an artificial version of a thing (he used the example of the famous cave paintings at Lascaux France), both versions become copies; both become artificial versions of what was once real. How else should we view a television landscape in which the real and the fake exist side by side indistinguishable from one another, where Mermaids is followed by Bigfoot Hunters and then what purports to be the first ever video capturing a giant squid in its natural habitat, if not as completely and utterly “artificial”?
Let me end, then, with this: critics have been proclaiming the end of postmodernism off and on for some forty years. It has been deemed a tired, worn out theory that no longer seems to suit a post-theory world. Perhaps. Or perhaps the postmodern condition has not so much disappeared as become so ingrained into our culture as to no longer merit comment. Ten years ago I would suggest to my classes that the world of Facebook and Youtube and Twitter and texting meant the Matrix wasn’t the future; the Matrix was already here. I could expect some strong push back against that idea. These days when I say the same thing my students simply shrug. So while in one sense Mermaids seems a vicious – maybe even an unethical – hoax, maybe that view is simply too outdated and provincial, a view my students might call “soooo twentieth-century.”
With all this in mind, I offer up a brief clip from South Park, who might be the most astute postmodern thinkers America has so far produced.
MK Adkins has a Ph.D in English that he occasionally uses to think about literature, but more often uses to think about television, music and film. Adkins is the author of two popular culture books as well as numerous articles and reviews. Until recently, he worked as a college professor but made the decision to devote himself full-time to writing and podcasting in January 2019.
Don't have the time to listen to our podcast this week? Check out the transcript from each of our podcasts here.