Sunday, July 30, 2017

Dog film

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2001)

I don’t digress as much on these columns as I used to. Three or four years ago, the movie at hand would often be filtered through an anecdote about my wife or my dog or a passing comment on the political issue of the day: the intention was that the personal elaboration should serve to illuminate the film, but with hindsight I doubt how often it succeeded. Nowadays I’m a bit more disciplined about that much at least. But, for one week only, the new Mexican film Amores Perros will prompt a major regression, for this is one of the great dog movies of all time – and who could write about that impersonally?

About Pasolini

My dog is a two-and-a-half-year old Labrador retriever, and he wouldn’t do very well in the hard-edged canine world of Amores Perros, for he’s very sweet, without an aggressive bone in his body, and he’s a bit of a coward too. He’s named Pasolini, and yes, that is a reference to the corrosive Marxist homosexual poet and director Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was murdered under sordid circumstances in 1975 (I’m always a bit disappointed, in this culturally sophisticated city, how few people get the reference). Pasolini’s The Canterbury Tales is one of my favourite guilty pleasure type movies, and the perversity of saddling a little puppy with such a loaded name always appealed to my wayward side, but it’s been a great name for him apart from that – it has a playful air about it, and we generally call him Paso for short, which sounds properly mischievous.

Anyway, I’ve never made any secret about it that the dog was my wife’s idea, and I just sort of went along with it, and I thought I’d made a terrible mistake in the early days when the dog acted like a little terror and bonded solely with my wife – I was at best ignored and at worst snarled at. But we came through all that, and Paso and I are now real buddies. We must be real buddies, because the dog absorbs hours of my time, and yet I still provoke him so he can use up a bit more. If you’ve ever been downtown, especially in the St. Lawrence market neighborhood, and you saw an 83-pound lab pulling along a thin guy, that was probably us.

My wife and I both feel that our lives are much fuller for having Pasolini, that tending to him keeps us better-balanced, maybe tending off potential selfishness or self-absorption; and we’re both constantly moved by him, seeing something mystically fascinating about the depth of his happiness and goodwill. Sadly, we may learn something from him about lows as well as highs, for Paso isn’t in the best of shape – he has hip dysplasia affecting his hind legs, and degenerative arthritis in his front (this, I repeat, at the age of two and a half).

Dogs in film

My experience with Paso doesn’t mean I’ve become a sucker for every dog-related merchandising scam, although it’s the only thing that made me pay to see Dog Park (I would have seen Best in Show regardless, but I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much). But whenever I come across an essay or an article about the magical qualities of dogs I smile in recognition. And I certainly seem to remember a lot of movies primarily for their dog content. The dog wearing shoes in Bowfinger cracked me up, for instance, and it seems to me a major problem in the current documentary Dark Days that we never find out what happened to the four dogs that lived underground with their owner, once he was installed in an above-ground apartment.

Of course, dogs are normally used in movies for sentimental purposes, and I’m a sucker for that too. Amores Perros is notably free of sentimentality. On the contrary, the movie is so raw in depicting dog fighting and related abuse that it’s aroused some minor controversy.

It consists of three interlocking narratives. The dogfighting provides a backdrop to the first, in which a young unemployed man tries to earn enough money to run away with his brother’s wife by putting his Doberman to work in the fighting pits. In the third narrative, a former guerilla lives as a down-and-outer with a collection of mangy dogs, foraging for garbage and occasionally taking on hit-man assignments. These are gritty, hard-edged stories, roasted in the sweat and striving of the city’s back streets, with the threat of violence vivid in every breath the characters take.

Under the floorboards

The middle story is about a supermodel who moves in with a new boyfriend, injures her leg in a car accident, and spends long days in her sterile apartment as the relationship falls apart. The dog in this section is a fuzzy little thing who gets trapped under the floorboards, where his sad yapping haunts their days and nights: the plight of this pampered little thing, although real enough, seems potentially trivial against the savagery of the other two sections. This section of Amores Perros plays a role similar to the Catherine Zeta-Jones sequence in Traffic – it’s easier to shrug it off as a contrivance (I guess it’s always easier to shrug off the problems of the rich than those of the poor, especially if they don’t seem to deserve their money to begin with) but it provides different thematic territory and at least demonstrates the scope of the director’s talent.

I don’t think Amores Perros has any points of brilliance, but it has many of great interest. Sometimes too reminiscent of Pulp Fiction (the three interlocking narratives involving various shifts in time; a relish for the contours of low-life dealings), and with a visual style typical of so many recent Dogme-style movies, it ends up with its own identity, Much of this reflects its immersion in the currents of Mexico City, but it also speaks to how director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu keeps things intimate, never letting attitude and grand design overwhelm the characters.

Amores Perros was nominated for the foreign film Oscar this year, but lost to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which seems to me the right result. The first time I saw Ang Lee’s film I was dazzled by the choreography but it took a second viewing for me to appreciate the film’s philosophical elegance. I doubt whether a second viewing of Amores Perros would be as revealing. And with Pasolini’s demanding walk and play schedule, I’m lucky I get to see as many movies as I do even once.

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