Sunday, September 12, 2010


The Patterson/Gimlin film appears to show a large, broad-shouldered, hairy bipedal creature. The creature is walking away into the tree-line, back into the wilderness from which it has been disturbed. The walk is distinctive, a legend in its right: purposeful, but somehow unhurried, with feet straight and arms swinging; majestic, though at times redolent of Groucho Marx in ambling retreat. Like, as the man says, a big man in no hurry. Patterson's extraordinary good fortune held out one more time: the creature turns its head back to look directly at the camera for about a second or two. It doesn't appear at all as interested in us as we are in it.

Proponents of the movie claim that it captures a real mystery, a Great Unknown of the biological kingdom; critics avow that it is not only a hoax, but the corniest of all illusions: a guy in a monkey suit. No one can deny, however, that lightning of certain kind struck in Bluff Creek that day. The PG Bigfoot film became a pop culture icon, and probably the most thoroughly and obsessively analysed piece of amateur celluloid after the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination. (It is possible that in some distant future era, these strangely compulsive vignettes of recorded time will begin to bleed into one another, as old tales and legends were apt to assimilate and blend together with frequent re-telling. One day perhaps, Sasquatch will haunt Dealy Plaza, and look with brief, inhuman disinterest on the horror of the motorcade, her presence generating yet another vector in the already dense undergrowth of associations swirling around that mysterious event. The strange ritual of the Apollo moon landing might acquire an extra degree of eerie portent, an increased sense of man stepping cautiously onto the soil of another world, if Sasquatch were to glance briefly at the astronauts and their fragile craft, before receding and finally vanishing into the blackness of space. All significant events of twentieth century history may conceivably become contaminated by memories of the PG Bigfoot film; and our descendants, saddled with the world we have made for them, may well resolve that Bigfoot bailed out at exactly the right moment.)

The Cottingley Fairies.

The activity of the Enfield Poltergeist - David Soul looks on.

Viewed today, the film remains a strange artefact. For many of us, it is a potent reminder of childhood, and of the unusual fascination and idealism that young children seem to possess with regard to wild beasts and mythical creatures. Like so many anachronisms of paranormal pop culture, it feels both corny and numinous. This is an aesthetic quality I have discovered with many hoaxes; even as they aspire to the miraculous by the most threadbare and tawdry means, they cannot help but directly evoke the quality of the miraculous. Like the photographs of the Cottingley Fairies, they arrest that mysterious part of the mind that generates these archetypes in the first place, even while the rational mind rejects their imposture on the spot. In Diamonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld, Patrick Harpur writes: "We watch the famous film of Bigfoot. It is both impressive and absurd. It looks like a man dressed up, and yet it doesn't. Its strides are too long, its arms hang or move inhumanly. It pauses, turns, looks at the camera. It is a chilling moment. We imagine a penetrating, intelligent gaze, but its face is too distant to be sure. It ambles off. We are left not knowing what we have seen. We believe it is a Bigfoot, whatever that is; or we don't believe it. The film compounds, highlights, intensifies the mystery, but nothing is resolved. Cameras may not lie, but neither are they suitable for telling the truth. Photos can be blown up or analysed until we're blue in the face; but the process turns the image into something else."

Weirdly enough, Greg Long, the author of a massive hit-piece against both Patterson and Bigfoot believers in general, writes very eloquently on the appeal of the film: "But there is more that compels the viewer. The creature's motions project a strangely familiar, yet elusive and unachievable idea. The idea points to something that is like us, but not us, both man and ape but actually neither. The ambling, androgynous creature suggests a living, breathing being that is utterly untouchable and free of man and the tyranny of his cities and the prison of his mass communications that shape our perceptions of reality, free from the fear of sudden violence coming from the hands of strangers or from a hidden, unknowable terror, walking away calmly, completely fearless in the face of the two hunters who could shatter its skull in an instant with a well-placed bullet. In the film, the creature is escaping, quietly stepping back inside the woods from which it came. And because it is freely escaping, it is undiscovered, never to be found, catalogued, recorded, numbered, or named. It is a powerful, American image, I thought. It's out-sized. It's strong. It's daring. It's confidence has a touch of sublime arrogance."

I have relatively little to say here as to whether the film is genuine or not. The circumstances surrounding it certainly evince extreme unlikelihood - the good fortune of Patterson and Gimlin beggars belief. Personally, I believe that if people really do see Bigfoot they are experiencing something more akin to the Ultraterrestrial hypothesis of John Keel - a kind of puzzling flashpoint where the creatures of the unconscious briefly manifest themselves as solid objects, and then vanish back into the ether like hallucinations. Which they may very well be - we have yet to even begin to understand the stranger vagaries of perception. But the movie itself offers little of conclusive import on either side. Some scientists have argued that aspects of the creature's anatomy, physical proportions, and movement make the man in a suit hypothesis virtually impossible. A greater majority have convincingly rubbished these claims. If Patterson's footage is hoaxed, then it remains one of the finer examples of the hoax genre - though generally discredited, it has never been conclusively debunked.

What interests me about the PG film is the degree to which it illustrates a point I was discussing earlier in relation to the Moon Landing hoax theories. One of the great tenets of belief underlining the early modern period was the notion that as our technological methods of recording, representing, and transmitting information become ever more accomplished, we leave behind forever the fuzzy imprecisions of an oral or essentially mythological culture. If information is only transmitted by means of the human voice, a vast space is opened up in the margins of error wherein mythologies can flourish. But if the recording/representational techniques are precise, then it should be possible to establish an objective record of the facts. However, the swirling seas of analysis, interpretation, and argument that surround movies like Zapruder, Apollo, and the PG Bigfoot film suggest instead that this never became the case. The visionary imprecision of the oral culture persists into the technological era, in the very technologies that should ideally have vanquished it. There is a brilliant cycle of movies that explore the haunted, elusive quality of modern recording technologies: Antonioni's Blow-Up (pictured above), Cappola's The Conversation, and de Palma's Blow Out.

Over the years, many people have emerged out of the shadows claiming to have worn the Bigfoot costume in Roger Patterson's film. The most prominent of these was Bob Heironimus, a Pepsi cola bottler from Yakima, Washington. Many sceptics have accepted his story, though it is as riven with inconsistency and dubious motivation as that of the original encounter. For years, rumours swirled around Hollywood's small, closely knit make-up effects community that the great John Chambers ( Planet of the Apes, The Outer Limits) was involved in the construction of the suit, but Chambers himself denies it, and the lead goes pretty cold after that. Roger Patterson died of cancer in 1972, swearing on his deathbed that the footage was genuine. Patterson was a strange man who seemed to live according to the very American ideals of freedom that Greg Long saw in the movie's bold Sasquatch stride. He was a tough, wiry fighter who lived by his own laws, especially as regards business and money; like the creature he allegedly captured on film, Patterson stepped briefly out of the margins into the limelight, and retreated back just as quickly. The following is his legacy:

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