Steam of Life (2010) is about various Finnish men depicted sweating in a sauna, thus trying to rid themselves of both physical and emotional fatigue. However, for me the most affect-laden sequence is not about these men pouring their hearts out. It is the sequence in which one of them speaks of his friendship with a grizzly bear named Juuso, who loves to break things and eat bath whisks made of birch twigs. Suspense is built up during the sequence: who or what is this mysterious ‘orphan’ who banged the sauna door and then barged in underneath it, only to flee the cabin even before ‘breaking into a sweat’? At last the mystery is revealed, as the bear emerges from below the frame with an emphatic growl, and then proceeds to smash up the garden furniture, while the man calmly comments on its destruction.
An obvious comparison can be drawn between this sequence and Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2005). Grizzly Man depicts some Deleuzian process of ‘becoming-animal’ gone terribly wrong. Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man does not count as an example of becoming-animal, because his desire to integrate with the world of bears is not borne out by a commitment to let go of standard power relations. Instead it is a futile attempt to escape his humanness and his inner turmoil. By contrast Steam of Life might best be characterized as an example of Levinasian ethics, insofar as it is based on an asymmetrical encounter of the human self with the animal other, without attempting to reduce the animal to human nature or vice versa.
Can animals be our friends? The novel Life of Pi (2001) answers this question with an unambiguous no, because animals' 'essence precedes their existence', as Sartre would have it, while for humans ‘existence precedes essence’, which is an insight ignored by Timothy Treadwell with devastating consequences. Steam of Life would seem to challenge this dichotomy though, not by giving any straightforward answers, but rather by asking questions about the ‘emotional rewards’ we seek to gain from our friendships with animals. To what extent are such friendships even possible, unless based on animal romanticization, projective identification or anthropocentric ventriloquism? But to deny such possibility altogether would seem to ignore the fact that animals too have affects, which we nevertheless are never able to grasp from the ‘inside’.