How The Mule Speaks

Previously the anthropomorphising through attribution of speech was noted with scepticism (see the ‘pompous’ mule) and discussion moved on quickly to the theme of ‘intelligence’. It seems that in film the mule is prone to assume human characteristics – even when it is a horse, it is the mule-like character of the horse that makes it thus prone. But in notable cases the fun and games cannot obliterate a mode of speaking proper to the mule-image, one that is as likely as not to be a kind of silence.

1. With remarkable ease the authors of The Walking Dead sacrifice the mule to save the man. It had only just been cast as the faithful and funny companion, its braying a demand for attention and then the canny voicing of suspicion. Petrol is in short supply, mule-transport the more practical option, thinks Rick Grimes as his attention is drawn to the paddock. “Easy now, easy. I’m not going to hurt you, nothing like that, more like a proposal. Atlanta’s just down the road a way, it’s safe there: shelter, people, other mules too I bet. How does that sound?”

With all of this, and with the resources subsequently asked of it, we had been led to identify with the mule. It’s been hard enough for Grimes to comprehend the world transformed; how can a mule understand the post-apocalypse? But down the mule goes and little more is seen of it, only a fragment of bloodied flank and the innards taken up, smeared on the hands and faces of the walking dead while Grimes gets to use the hapless creature once more – this time as his decoy. The mule is lost under a seething mass of animated human corpses. Perhaps we comprehend clearly that its obscuring is a mere contingency of the filming budget – it’s the mutilated human body image that must get this production’s resources because that’s where its profits lie. But going down with barely a whimper, buried by a ravenous hoard almost floral in its undulating frenzy, the hidden mule leaves a hole in the image that can only be resolved if we are prepared to tell ourselves that, after all, it was only a mule. We object. As we do so the mule speaks (although, perhaps it has to be admitted that it speaks now in the voice of the horse barely disguised by our tweaking.)

2. El Topo lies with his mule. The two would sleep together it seems. We’re an hour into Jodorowsky’s film and a new chapter entitled ‘The Prophets’ has just been opened with a still image and chapter title given. In keeping with his narrative form there is a level of disorientation. Threats are being issued by someone, by a character who speaks from outside the frame. It’s not clear which of the two woman following El Topo is issuing the instructions, nor to whom the instructions are being given, but most likely the dialogue superimposed over this shot takes place between the two characters remaining outside the frame. If so – and with the subtitle burned onto the image – license is found to treat this grab from the film’s continuum as a thing on its own.

El Topo and the mule, so exhausted that they cannot remain vigilant, take the risk that comes with sleep. “Don’t get near him.” Is it El Topo’s girl betraying jealousy on account of his intimacy with the animal? Or alternatively is he out of favour and is she bent on expressing revulsion, using the mule’s predisposition to be humanised as an inventive form of attack? “Why do you follow us? Get Lost!” Now the mule is her lover and El Topo the interloper. Or, irrationally, she has turned on the mule, and asks to cling to El Topo alone in the desert, to send the mule packing, so to speak, although to do so  surely puts their lives at risk.

Alternatively, forget for a moment the off-screen women and accept the incoherence of words and image. By the framing the mule is made to double the rider (an anthropomorphising achieved through image composition). If one of these two speaks which is it? By the clues in expression we must say the mule speaks. “Don’t get near him.” So the mule warns itself about the dangers of excessive intimacy with its master? But then again, the mule is the one most apparently dead-tired – El Topo at least has had the energy to make his place comfortable. No, the auto-address advocating movement must come from the one who can move: namely El Topo, in which case it is him, the eponymous mole, who cautions himself about excessive intimacy. (It almost escaped our notice but there is the doubling again: mole and mule.)

The account could go on but perhaps the point is made: pernicious and seemingly unavoidable mule-humanising is short-circuited by the image/text incoherence found in the stolen frame. The mule doesn’t speak but we hear it all the same in a strife of picture and words. And this strife, which appears through Jodorowsky’s narrative mode in other ways, is his achievement. We call it müle-speak.