In Ryan Cockrell’s quirky, macabre short documentary “Fishhooks,” he interviews taxidermist / artist Becca Barnet about her relationship to her work. What unfolds in Barnet’s reflections and the visual narrative is dense with reflections on art, life, death, and memory.
In the documentary, we first meet Barnet reflecting on life drawing and essentially the relationship between art and taxidermy. She notes that she most likes doing pieces for museums, where they remain unsigned and are there just to enhance the day of those who experience the pieces. In contrast, she notes that she finds the art gallery scene frustrating because people are always trying to interpret meaning in the piece. Here in the documentary enjoyment and interpretation are juxtaposed, and Barnet asserts that she loves taxidermy because it “is what it is.” For her, the allure of her taxidermy art is that it is close to life.
Barnet describes how she steers clear of her own discomfort around death and corpses by regarding the work as a “project,” something that requires her attention despite the discomfort. This perspective shift is both troubled and made profound by the fact that her current project is Fishhooks, the pet whose name makes the title of the film.
Fishhooks is Barnet’s pet rat who died a year before. We don’t find out how Fishhooks has stayed so fresh for the task. Perhaps this is a trade secret. It’s a small throwaway detail, this year since the rat’s death, but for the purposes of a narrative that reflects on loss and memory, it’s significant: Fishhooks could not be a project until time had passed, perhaps until grief had itself determined a little distance in perspective.
Core to this film then is what we imagine must be Barnet’s own grief and love for Fishhooks and the part of her that is compelled to make a project of that grief. This is something that Barnet is concerned with in her work in general, as she notes on her website that her artwork “explores why humans have the tendency to try to hold on to the fleeting corporeal.” Barnet is realistic about the limits of such a project, tells us and the camera “it’s really hard to capture the lifelikeness of a pet.” So it makes it perhaps even more profound that she has undertaken the work of preserving Fishhook’s physical form. What will be preserved will be a fetish object of the original pet, but she still undertakes and desires it as a project.
Cockrell’s visual treatment of his subject is playful and emphasizes the absurd, as though the folly of memory and nostalgia must be loved and represented that way. The dog rubbing his butt on the floor, the old photographs and museum staging of bones, skeletons, and taxidermied animals, all emphasize through humour and with affection the line between the living and the things we do to remember them when they are gone. If there is an archetypal moment here it is when Fishhooks, as a project in process with pins holding her posture, is juxtaposed with her sister Foxhunt, who nestles up to her, the dead and the living in close quarters. It is an uncanny and lovely moment.
Equally, Cockrell uses plenty of footage of Bruce, Barnet’s bull terrier, demonstrating his playfulness and essential aliveness and showing Cockrell’s love for her pet. As adorable as Bruce is, Cockrell’s intention is not to let the dog upstage the rat. Cockrell uses this footage of Bruce to stand in for footage of Fishhhooks. If this is how Cockrell loves Bruce, she must have loved Fishhooks similarly.
Cockrell is a South Carolina filmmaker and one part of the creative house Lunch and Recess. Below is a short interview with him talking about the making of the film and his approach to filmmaking.
— R. W. Gray
Numéro Cinq’s R. W. Gray Interviews Ryan Cockrell
NC: How did you this documentary idea occur to you?
RC: I’ve always been inspired/interested in Becca Barnet’s work at her fabrication shop which is now called Sisal & Tow. I’m no hunter but I like taxidermy when its done to things you don’t expect. Becca has a lot of interesting things in her shop. It’s pretty eclectic, as are her talents and interests. Making a mini doc about Becca had been on my mind for a year or so. At my production company, Lunch and Recess, we were looking to graduate from the DSLR world, and we needed to test a few cameras. The ikonoskop is a weird camera that we wanted to try. So we thought, why not test the camera by making this film about Becca? It worked out great and Becca was a real sport, because we told her that we hadn’t used this camera before and we were not sure if we would have anything cool to show from it in the end. Luckily, the test turned out pretty great. Even so, we decided not to buy that camera because it shoots such giant files, the memory requirements are ridonkulous which creates problems in transferring and editing.
NC: What does “Fishhooks” tell us about you?
RC: I hope “Fishhooks” shows people that I’m a listener. I hope it shows my willingness to hear another perspective on life, art, etc, and consider others’ opinion. I hope it shows that when I make a documentary, I don’t go in with an agenda and try to get someone to say what I want. Instead, I’m there to learn and observe.
NC: What other projects are you working on?
RC: We are working on a short which is about a kid who started making plush toys to give away to other kids in need. She’s pretty cool, and she calls her thing Plaze toys. I’m producing that piece, Brittany Paul is directing (she edited and produced Fishhooks). Ironically, the Plaze toys piece also shows animals being stuffed. We have a couple other projects in the works including a feature doc about bicycling and other things. I’m really excited about this one and we plan to spend about 2 years on it. It will be an ongoing process.
NC: Who inspires you as a filmmaker / storyteller?
RC: I wish I could tell stories as well as my uncles and grandparents. Sitting at the dinner table with them is humbling. Listening to the way they spin a yarn and craft their story is a treat. I’m also inspired by anyone doing something with a singular focus that they believe in no matter what anyone else says or thinks.
NC: The world is ending, you’re boarding the escape pod, and you can take one film with you, which one do you take?
RC: I’m going to defer to my go-to answer on “what’s your favorite movie?” This is the hardest question in the book, because I love so many movies. I always want to choose something obscure or classic that makes me look smart. But I decided long ago to always have one answer to this question and the answer is: Groundhog Day. Funny, but I can watch it over and over again.
NC: If you could taxidermy any person / creature, who / what would it be?
RC: Another one where I have a lot of answers but in lieu of a list, I’ll give two answers. I would love to have a T-rex, but I have for some time now been wanting an Ocean Sunfish aka Mola mola. I would never kill one for the purpose of art or taxidermy though.
—Ryan Cockrell & R. W. Gray
Stunning, hilarious, gruesome. Wonderful. Jacob and Jonah had two sets of pet rats. By the time they were done, they would have been too tatty for this kind of treatment. But, my goodness, the voice over and the juxtaposition of the live pets and the dead pet and the dead animals and the antique photo of a (dead) relative! I’d like to be stuffed. But, you know, not the way I look now. Maybe when I was 32.