Sunday, September 26, 2010

Week Of The Dog

So I mentioned the other week that I wasn’t going to the film festival this year, largely because it coincided with the arrival of our new eight-week-old puppy Ozu. I’m not saying everyone should choose a puppy over the festival (if nothing else, such a policy would cause a problem on a cumulative basis) but it was certainly the right choice for me. Ozu, a Labrador retriever, burst into our lives with enormous determination and intuition, barely showing an iota of uncertainty about anything, deftly negotiating between our desires and his own, and of course looking startlingly cute at every stage. He grasped the geography of our home so effortlessly you might have thought it was embedded on his microchip, and in little more than a day was generally trotting off to the designated peeing spot (I just say generally); he also provides persuasive evidence that the perceived supremacy of lying on the owners’ bed is innate within the Labrador psyche (I’m not saying he’s a genius of course – he also spent a lot of time trotting off to stare at the other dog who lives in the mirror by the front door). After two days, we were already a family, in which if you’re doing anything of even vague interest, you’re no longer doing it alone. And when I work from home, as I do most of the time, I now often have a dog at my feet again (he’s there right now), although sometimes he’s biting my feet.

Hachi: A Dog’s Story

I wouldn’t have wanted to miss a moment of it more than I had to, so that’s how things had to be. Now of course I still watched movies. During the span of the festival I watched films by, among others, Spike Lee, Eric Rohmer, Akira Kurosawa, Robert Altman and Buster Keaton, so I don’t think I have too much to kick myself about. I stipulate this at the outset, to guard against the immediate credibility loss I might suffer when I say I also watched Hachi: A Dog’s Story. This was on Ozu’s first full day in our home, so it only made sense to watch a movie that might contribute to his spiritual development. No, who am I kidding, I would have watched it anyway.

Summarizing the plot inevitably entails spoilers, so this is my warning in that regard, although I don’t suppose it’s the same as giving away the ending of The Sixth Sense back in the day. It’s based on the real 1920’s story of Hachiko, an Akita dog who waited for his master at the railway station every day. When his master died suddenly at work, the dog was given away, but he kept escaping and returning to his old home, and then to his spot at the station. He kept it up for nine years, getting fed by people around the station, and becoming a national symbol of loyalty. When we were in Japan we saw the statue built in his memory. As a kid I knew of a similar story, of the Scottish terrier Greyfriars Bobby who guarded his master’s grave for some fourteen years. It doesn’t seem as cool a story of course because it’s (a) only Scotland and (b) only a terrier.

Richard Gere, Perfect Dog Owner!

The movie moves the story to small-town America in the recent past, but it’s still built around an Akita, called Hachi for short, who comes to the family in mysterious circumstances when he gets lost in transit. If you’re unfamiliar with the movie – and it was never really released in the US, although it’s readily available now on DVD and cable – it may come as a surprise that it has an Oscar-nominated director (Lasse Hallstrom, who made The Cider House Rules, Chocolat and the unconnected My Life As A Dog) and, as the music professor who takes him in, Richard Gere! And I will quite honestly say that Hallstrom, whose work has never meant much to me, does the best possible job of presenting Gere as the optimum dog owner, someone who might indeed inspire such devotion (on the other hand, the film presents the son in law, who along with the professor’s daughter takes the dog in after his death, as a pretty consistent boob, so maybe any half-competent ghost would have seemed superior.)

If the film is moving for people who don’t immediately succumb to its mega-dog content, it’s probably because of the glowing picture of small-town community. During the entirety of Hachi’s life, he crosses paths with the same stationmaster (Jason Alexander), the same station hog-dog vendor, the same friendly people at the nearby butcher, and so on. And despite some probably unintended hair-raising moments when I thought Hachi’s early insistence on heading off to the station every day might see him hit by a car (I know that didn’t happen to the real Hachi, but you never know how faithful they’re going to be to the original), it appears everyone in town observes a safe ten mile an hour speed limit. My wife, who watched it with me knowing nothing of the story, was wondering for a while whether Hachi might lose it and attack someone, which would have been a grimmer direction for sure.

Ultimate Loyalty

I mentioned that Gere plays a music professor, and his wife (played by Joan Allen – you see how classy this thing is?) is restoring the interior of an old movie theatre: that is, they’re people of culture. And so Hachi’s loyalty takes on the feel of a vigil not just for the professor, but for a way of life that’s essentially predictable, but also sustaining and sustainable. The movie pitches itself at too glossy a level for its depiction of community to be readily identifiable, which may be why it didn’t achieve anything commercially, and you could say the resort to mysticism, to a dog mysteriously imported from Japan, suggests a disillusionment with the capacity of America’s own resources. Maybe it’s just the wrong message at the wrong time.

Too much to read into a family-friendly dog story you say? You might be right. But since Ozu is our second dog, I realize much more this time how we’re not just “getting a dog,” we’re entering into a decade-plus story which will as rich and nurturing and as comic and tragic as all but the rarest of human relationships. So as I finish writing this, on his third day now, with him once again sleeping at (or really more on) my feet, you can’t blame me for being receptive to the higher possibilities of canine existence. Not that I intend ever not to come home, nor that I’d blame him for moving on if I didn’t. But if he had, say, just a trace of the Hachi stuff in him, that’d be pretty cool. And I guess he’d say it’d be pretty cool if I had a trace of it too.

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