Misplacing Bigfoot: Turning a Great Quest into a Brainless Shouting Match

Todd Standing recently released a documentary on Netflix titled—informatively if not creatively—Bigfoot.  Taking these ninety minutes in conjunction with yet another season of Finding Bigfoot leads me irresistibly into a few reflections.

Standing is the real deal.  On his own weekly serial called Survivorman, Canadian naturalist and hiker-extraordinaire Les Stroud tramped through British Columbia with Standing for a couple of episodes two or three years back and was probably more than half persuaded by his host of the gigantic crypto-hominid’s existence.  Standing spends days and weeks at a time quietly fusing with some of the wildest terrain in the Northern Hemisphere.  He is the source of what must surely be the best close-up photos ever taken of a Sasquatch (on the assumption, of course, that the photos are genuine).  Yet he is no black belt when it comes to producing entertainment for the broadcast media.  Stroud, having logged years of experience filming his own series, integrated Standing into two riveting episodes.  Their well-edited pace preserved a flow sadly lacking in Todd’s just-released documentary.

Nevertheless, both Bigfoot and Survivorman share a potentially lethal liability, from the mainstream marketer’s perspective: they have no bells and whistles, no fireworks and hoopla.  Investigators of this caliber (and there aren’t many) examine unnaturally bent or snapped trees in highly artificial formations, they scrutinize indentations in the moss that might be enormous footprints, and they assess the tidy disappearance of apples and other goodies placed high on spindly branches that wouldn’t support a squirrel and would require a mangling assault from a bird.  All very CSI, very professional… just not likely to induce the consumer of reality shows to dribble potato chips and pizza from his dropped jaw.

Now, the FB Four Stooges, as I’ve grown fond of calling them, have their shtick down pat.  Entry scene in van cruising along an interstate, initial night exploration with hoots and hollers, “townhall” meeting, interviews of individual witnesses as one of the party camps out in a “likely spot”, then reunion for the final night’s grand finale of more hoots and hollers… which of course turn up nothing—“but we’ll be coming back here.”  No kidding.  As long as the cow gives milk, keep pulling on her udders.

I’m afraid I’ve taken a positive dislike to the Stooges.  They’ve milked their cash cow for too long.  Unless they are themselves representative of some less evolved primate species, they’re bound to realize that the routine isn’t going to produce close contact after… what is it?  Six or seven years?  A Sasquatch just might respond from a very great distance—if the moon is blue—to one of their yodels with a howl that no audio equipment can capture.  As soon as they repeat the cry in the wrong pitch or cadence, however, or fail to repeat it after the proper interval, the critter and his whole clan know for the remnant of this infrared media blitz to stay under cover.  Bigfoot doesn’t want to be seen, idiots—and you don’t know his language!

A good case could be made, I know, that we’re the idiots for watching.  I, for one, am watching no more—or perhaps fast-forwarding to the eye-witness accounts, which are much the most relevant information gathered by the series.  On the other hand, I think the hubris of this lot is very genuine.  The presumption that Bigfoot is a lumbering mega-gorilla without enough sense to invent clothes or leave trash in the open infuses the entire hour, year after year.  The high-handed digital imposition of a young King Kong in the bushes to animate every witness’s testimony is especially annoying.  These mock-ups look nothing like Standing’s photographs.  Have you noticed that the witnesses themselves are never invited to comment upon the accuracy of the cartoonish reconstructions?

The Stooges are now in full celebrity mode, trotting out family members, devoting episodes to their favorite reminiscences, traveling the country to do live gigs on campuses… laughing all the way to the bank, and posing all the way to Hollywood-class stardom.  Meanwhile, poor grunts like Todd Standing try to keep pace by piping in Heavy Metal from some old Rambo flick to cover transitions from one scene to another as an ATV crashes through the underbrush.  Todd, please take a tip from Les Stroud.  Just stay simple.  People who are receptive to this possibility are few and thoughtful, if popularly represented as weirdo wackos.  The multitude who mock and rail are tuning into Animal Planet because the prospect of several adults screaming wildly into the night turns them on.  Let the wheat and the chaff separate.

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Why Do I Continue to Watch the Four Stooges?

There they are above: Larry, Curly, Shemp, and Moe. The Four Stooges. They don’t trade slaps or poke each other’s eyes out—but they love to go stumbling through the woods at night in clownish costumes and black-and-white (or black-and-green) shades of color, making whoops and hollers as they go, stopping occasionally to smack inoffensive trees.

Now in its eighth season, Finding Bigfoot is a monument to the insanity of doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result. Of course, our stooges must be laughing all the way to the bank, like the original black-and-white buffoons. The real question, then, is why idiots like me continue to watch the routine. I grew out of taking delight in Curly’s “nyah nyah nyah” taunting when I was about seven years old. What’s my excuse now that I’m old enough to be the grandfather of the boy that I was then?

In my defense, I will quickly add that I don’t, in fact, sit through the whole routine any longer. I fast-forward through about half of it. Particularly annoying are the in-transit pow-wows as the “team” rockets along to a new site in a minivan, Matt Moneymaker’s wide-eyed soliloquies that feel like something you’d have heard in the Berlin Sports Palace during the Thirties, and the actual screeching and howling and wailing into dark nights across North America.

On the other hand, I do enjoy seeing different parts of the country. I also like hearing the eye-witness testimony of down-to-earth people—country folk, usually, who know a beaver from a muskrat, don’t live on their smartphones, and aren’t especially eager to be on camera. Unfortunately, their narratives are almost always marred by a digital artist’s “recreation” of the incident, featuring a creature that Godzilla’s daughter apparently bore to Yogi Bear.

I’ve lived around intellectuals all my life (for my sins), and I’m therefore always leery of propositions that excite a lot of academic scoffing. Academe is an echo chamber. There’s little true curiosity about anything there. It’s also a gas chamber, of the Auschwitz sort. Any conceptual echo that doesn’t harmonize with the surrounding chatter is quickly suffocated. So when simple people line up to say, “I saw it,” and academics guffaw, “You pathetic simpletons!”… I incline to the former side.

Anyone who has actually left the city on a drive or a flight knows that the hinterlands are increasingly depopulated. Mexican drug cartels have been peacefully growing weed in our national parks for at least a decade now. Even those stalwarts who still live on the farm have less and less direct contact with the land (you can buy air-conditioned tractors nowadays); and if they should indeed chance to see or hear something odd, they would be much less likely than their robust ancestors to register the oddity.

I could easily pass a lifetime in the East Texas Piney Woods or the North Georgia Appalachian foothills if only I had a few survival skills, and no one would ever know I was there.

Of course, the Stooges all assume that the Sasquatch—if it exists—must be a bipedal gorilla: a lingering descendant of Gigantopithecus. In other words, he can’t possibly be a smart as they are. Though his senses are vastly keener, and though he may even have more of them (such as night vision and a shark-like ability to detect electricity), he can’t possibly know how to employ these senses so as to evade their clever snares.

Were that so, then you’d think that maybe eight years would have sufficed to disprove his existence. Whatever the explanation of the “team’s” protracted failure for nearly a decade, it certainly can’t be that Bigfoot hears and smells humans when they’re still well out of sight, or that he instantly identifies a human caricature of his howl as a fraud. Or perhaps he is supposed to come running for a closer look, even after catching the smell or identifying the fraud: a behavior which, if legitimate, would completely justify the skeptical argument, “We would have seen them all over the place by now if they existed.” If Bigfoot does exist, he must want very much to escape detection by humans, and he must be amazingly proficient at doing so (perhaps to the point of burying his dead carefully); but if this is his m.o., then why do the Stooges, year after year, keep declaring their presence in “hot spots” as quickly and raucously as they can?

The first thing that most “educated” humans do when faced with the unknown is to assume their intelligence wholly adequate to plumbing the mystery. That’s why we so seldom make any real progress… and, as often as not, shift into reverse.

Bogeymen, Academics, and Truth

I’ve been fascinated by the popular response to UFO’s and Bigfoot for a long time—and also by the way a self-styled intelligentsia responds to the popular response. The case of the Little Grey Men and that of the Huge Hairy Man-Apes have a lot more in common than meets the eye at first glance.

The public visibility of both has mushroomed in the past half-century or so. This is surely because our mass media of entertainment picked up on their “spook” potential about midway through the twentieth century. Bogeymen are a great draw at the box office. Between the Greys and Sasquatch, we have the Other covered from the terrifying high-tech dystopia to the get-away-from-it-all rustic retreat.

As more and more people were introduced to these “phenomena” through popular media, reports of new encounters also burgeoned. These included honest instances of misidentification due to someone’s having “Bigfoot on the brain” or “saucer paranoia”; but the percentage of deliberate hoaxes, as well, also appears to have skyrocketed (if you’ll excuse a pun). Indeed, as photographic technology became both more affordable and more flexible, the ability to “document” a hoax in credible film footage escalated—and with it the possibility (especially in the past thirty years) of having one’s own camera artistry uplifted to the big screen as “evidence”. The process feeds upon itself: video testimony attracts more viewers, and the expanded viewership creates a motive for more videos, which are ever likelier to be apocryphal because the chances of achieving momentary fame have been multiplied.

The sightings of both phenomena include some very plausible testimony—but this grows ever leaner (about 5% and falling, according to Nick Pope) in the deluge of clever fakery. Seasoned pilots have actually seen craft which resemble nothing we are known to produce here on Earth and nothing we are known to be capable of producing. Seasoned woodsmen have seen and heard creatures that resemble neither a bear nor a boar nor an elk nor anything extant recognized by biology. There’s always the possibility that some old pilot with a lousy pension plan is seeking a sweet deal on a Barbara Walters interview, at that Daniel Boon’s great-great grandson was cozened by a guy in a gorilla suit who just happened to be hanging out in the middle of nowhere under a cold rain.

The “scientific establishment” plays the trump card of such possibility over and over. Frankly, I find it disheartening that ostensible professionals can proudly put such narrow-mindedness on display and be bursting with contentment at their performance. A true scientist should be able to distinguish between adventurous hoaxers and credible witnesses who have no reason to lie. The academic community’s sneering refusal to do so has a thoroughly self-serving look about it. I should like to pose such “experts” the question, “Are you more concerned about the truth or about keeping the bricks tidy and straight that undergird your brilliant career?”

For my own position on both cases is that there’s something at the bottom of the well not acknowledged in any of our textbooks. Having spoken to one of the hundreds of witnesses (a man with a government security clearance) to the 1997 Phoenix Lights, I cannot write off every UFO report as the bad dream of some physics-challenged hayseed; and the one person I know whose near relative saw a Sasquatch beyond the shadow of a doubt (as he swears) will quickly add that the witness refuses to discuss the incident. This is yet another commonality: reliable witnesses in both cases do not come forward, for fear of derision. Evidence that is noisily publicized, therefore, stands a good chance of being phony precisely because of its noise. As the Buddhist conundrum has it, those who say don’t know, and those who know don’t say.

To Sasquatch-scoffers, in particular, I would point out that their assuming the creature to be something of sub-human intelligence wins their argument without requiring them to listen to a conflicting analysis. We humans are not really all that smart, or all that hard to figure out, predict, and avoid. But we wear clothes! Yeah… and for the last seven decades, we’ve been one red button away from self-extermination. If a chimp could tell you what he thinks of homo sapiens, do you suppose he would extol our superior intelligence… or would he laugh at our puny physique and snort at our poisoning of the rivers?

Finally (for this short space), understanding both the UFO and the Sasquatch is set back light years by idiotic television serials that claim to track either phenomenon. A conspiracy theorist might conjecture that Unexplained: Alien Files was created by none other than a cabal of men in black who want to diffuse public interest by saturating genuine puzzles in an insipid brew of buffoonery. As for the Four Stooges of Finding Bigfoot, their relation to the supposed subject of their quest is approximates that of a weekend Thoreau to wild nature—an amateur hiker, I mean, who leaves behind energy-bar wrappers and scares away nesting bluebirds. With detectives like these on the case, we can expect the body to petrify before a suspect is arrested.