Sunday, December 11, 2011

Dog movie!

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2006)

Taking my task here as seriously as I do, as I write these articles I regularly question my own reactions to movies, sometimes suppressing the truth of my experience if I feel it reflects my own quirks or neuroses more than the film’s inherent effect. In this, as in all things, I am of course fallible and inconsistent (and it’s an impossible and perhaps wrongheaded goal anyway). But in one respect at least I have been quite diligent. To offer merely the most recent piece of evidence, I soberly reviewed the Harrison Ford film Firewall, ensuring that any viewer bearing more than the most modest of expectations would be waved away. And the mark of my dedication is this: I said not a word about Rusty the dog, who livens up a fair sprinkling of scenes, and then seals his star status by playing a pivotal role in how Ford comes out on top. You see, as a dog movie, Firewall is eminently recommendable!

Pasolini (not that one)!

Yes, I have become an irrational aficionado of dogs in films. And for the mushiest of reasons – the effect of my own dog Pasolini, a now seven and a half year old yellow Labrador. Paso was my wife’s idea – I had never owned a dog, and had some misgivings about the prospect, all of which seemed to be borne out in the first few months as our energetic, headstrong puppy terrorized our home and demolished our schedules. But at some point it all fell into place, and it is now difficult to know whether the inviolable routine is primarily his or my own. Certainly I can’t imagine why I would want to spend a day without him –I guess I would gain a couple of extra hours, but then when would I listen to my ipod, and what about the exercise I’d lose, and the threat to my waistline if Paso were not here to claim twenty per cent or so of everything I eat?

Paso is hugely expressive – gentle-spirited and empathetic but also militant about his daily expectations and capable of exerting enormous moral pressure (it’s mainly in the eyes). I expect that on the average day my wife and I come out with at least ten or twelve observations on what he’s up to – how he’s hogging the bed, how peaceful he looks while sleeping, how miserable he looks as we leave the house, and so on. Of course, most of these observations barely change from one day to the next, and if we exhibited such repetitive banality in other areas of our life, we would have driven each other nuts years ago. This, of course, is the essence of being a dog person. And once you have immersed yourself into the dog-owning life to such an extent, you inevitably become susceptible to the entire global network of dogdom, to a potentially destabilizing degree.

Eight Below

All of which is to say that the new Disney movie Eight Below is completely terrific, and that you may comprehensively dismiss that assessment if the above self-portrait means nothing to you. The movie, apparently based (presumably quite loosely) on a true story, is about eight huskies in a remote Antarctica research outpost, who are accidentally left behind for the winter to fend for themselves. While their dedicated handler (played by Paul Walker, a limited actor who’s far more affecting here than he ever will be interacting with humans) torments himself and plots a way back to the camp, the dogs forage for food and nurture each other, exhibiting great intelligence and team spirit without being excessively anthropomorphized.

The film has great scenery, and although it’s quite long for a children’s film (yes, it’s notionally aimed at the kids!) it doesn’t dawdle at all – actually seeming to me overly condensed in certain respects (well, specifically, I would have cut out about twenty minutes of the human stuff and invested that extra time in the dogs). The main thing is this. Through Brokeback Mountain, for instance, although I was completely engaged and not unmoved in a certain sense, I can’t say I ever came close to crying. What can I say; I’m a low-key kind of person. But through Eight Below I spent at least half the movie in a state of looming teariness, breaking down completely in the end. Was this the scenario’s inherent evocative power, or was it all in my constant mental parallels with how Pasolini would possibly fend for himself, should he ever be abandoned in St James’ Park?

Non-Dog Movies

Maybe I should get back now to suppressing my quirks…

Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story tackles Laurence Sterne’s famously unfilmable novel Tristram Shandy in the same way that Karel Reisz and Harold Pinter dealt with the authorial voice in The French Lieutenant’s Woman – it depicts a film crew making a movie of Sterne’s book, using their intrigues and eccentricities to approximate Sterne’s tumbling authorial voice. I haven’t read the book (in common with virtually everyone on the fictional film crew) but it sure feels as if you’re getting some flavour of the experience here. Sterne’s personality though is less relevant than that of star Steve Coogan, who’s much better known in the UK than he is here – the film happily points this out, just as it anticipates just about every observation you might have on any aspect of it. Winterbottom’s amazing versatility has not often left me truly excited, but I can certainly admire the considerable resourcefulness and imagination at work in A Cock and Bull Story – it lasts a mere 91 minutes but crams in enough for a much longer film, without ever feeling merely frenetic. It’s often pretty funny, even if a lot of the comedy comes from straightforward sitcom stuff that – all the meta-intentions aside – just doesn’t feel very elevated.

A Good Woman is a mechanical version of Lady Windermere’s Fan, transposed to 1930’s Amalfi – Helen Hunt and Scarlett Johansson are both miscast, and the film doesn’t even achieve the basics of delivering Oscar Wilde’s surefire epigrams effectively. Only somewhat better is Freedomland, an adaptation of Richard Price’s novel - interesting racially charged material that never takes on much shape.

Heart of Gold, directed by Jonathan Demme, is a recording of a Nashville concert by Neil Young and his highly seasoned band, initially focusing on his new album Prairie Wind before serving up some of the old classics. Young has never seemed so comfortable in his own skin; the music is all great, and the movie is a mellow delight. I’m sure I had a smile on my face through at least half of it, which is better than being in tears. I could go on at greater length, but if you don’t like Neil Young nothing I say will matter a damn, and if you do like him you’ve probably seen the movie already. You know, it’s pretty much the same thing as with the dogs…

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