For my recent birthday I asked my daughters to get me as many as they could find of the 10 DVDs ranked in the Guardian by film critic Anne Billson as the top ten Dog Weepies. My Dog Skip (dir: Jay Russell, 2000, starring Frankie Muniz, Kevin Bacon, and wonderful Enzo – who played Eddie in Frasier – as Skip, see above) is pretty much my idea of a perfect dog movie, touching as it does on a number of themes (coming-of-age, the construction of masculinity) and having at its heart a warm, believable, unsentimental relationship between human (boy) and dog. In the Guardian it was ranked at 7. How would the other films compare?
Ismay and HoneyBee managed to track down DVDs of five of the films in the Guardian list. They certainly held some surprises.
In the order in which I watched them:
Marley & Me (dir: David Frankel; cast: Jennifer Aniston, Owen Wilson; 2008): ‘Laughter, tears & the naughtiest dog in the world,’ says someone on the DVD cover; I say: ‘Pass the sick-bag, please.’ Aniston plays an adorable little woman who gives up her career in journalism for husband and babies; Wilson plays her journalist husband with aspirations of seriousness whose success rests on his column ‘Marley & Me’; Marley is an overlarge undisciplined labrador whose appalling behaviour we are meant to find amusing (eg pooing on a crowded beach – oh ha ha!). You’d have to have a heart of stone not to shed a few tears at the sight of an old dog being given a terminal injection, but really those tears are totally unearned by the film. I found it distasteful and unpleasant.
Hachi: A Dog’s Tale (dir: Lasse Hallstrom; cast: Richard Gere, Joan Allen; 2009) is apparently based on a true Japanese story of a dog’s loyalty to a dead master that sounds very similar to that of our own closer-to-home Greyfriars Bobby. I thought you couldn’t sink much lower than Marley & Me, but perhaps you can. Joan Allen plays the Aniston wife-figure, reluctant at first to welcome the akita puppy into her home but then loving the dog for the sake of her man. Does Richard Gere sleepwalk through all the films he’s in? I don’t know. Nothing happens, except that he dies, and a long time later Hachi dies, after having a final vision of the two of them running carefree through sunny fields. Tears, yes, but as with Marley & Me, unearned.
Vittorio de Sica’s 1952 classic of neo-realist cinema, Umberto D, is an altogether different kettle of fish. After the Hollywood cynicism of the two above, it was great to watch a film about real people, real history, real emotions. Carlo Battisti plays a retired civil servant whose pension has vanished through pre-war inflation, and who is threatened with eviction by his stony-hearted landlady. I thought, however, that there was more life in his relationship with the landlady’s teenage servant-girl, trying to hide her pregnancy from her mistress, than in his relationship with Flike, his good-hearted and very obedient little terrier. Interesting, admirable, but, apart from a wonderful but brief scene where Flike becomes a street-beggar holding out his master’s hat, not so much a dog film, more a slice of life.
The world portrayed in Wendy and Lucy (dir: Kelly Reichardt; screenplay: Jon Raymond; cast: Michelle Williams, Wally Dalton; 2008) is curiously similar to that of de Sica’s Umberto D despite being set half a century later, and in America rather than in Europe: in both of them an individual has fallen so far into poverty that there’s only one way to go: further down. From those who have not … even their dogs shall be taken away. If Umberto D is the epitome of neo-realism, then perhaps you could call Wendy and Lucy neo-neo-realist: slow facial close-ups, a muted colour pallette, a world without hope for those who can’t navigate it.
Michelle Williams plays Wendy Carrol, a homeless young woman heading north to Alaska in the hope of finding employment in the fisheries. In a town in Oregon her clapped-out car claps out terminally. She is caught shoplifting a can of dog food for her companion, a golden-haired retriever called Lucy (played by Michelle Williams’ dog Lucy). In a shot characteristic of this subtle and understated film we catch a glimpse of the crucifix worn round the neck of the young shop assistant who vociferously insists that the manager call the police. When Wendy returns from custody, duly processed and even poorer than before, she finds that Lucy has vanished from where she had left her, tied up outside the shop.
The rest of the film follows Wendy as she searches for Lucy. She meets with some kindness – from an elderly security guard (Wally Dalton) and from the woman in charge of the dog pound – but the overall atmosphere is one of darkness and menace. Wendy is a young woman alone, with nowhere safe to sleep at night. She cannot afford, either literally or metaphorically, to show her vulnerability. Only behind the locked door of the public toilet where she washes her face and cleans her teeth can she display her fear and desperation. Michelle Williams plays Wendy with a marvellous control, and makes us utterly believe in her deep love for her lost dog.
The ending comes as a sudden surprise and is emotionally devastating. I’m crying as I write this. A wonderful, true film – a real film, unlike the shallow confections of Marley & Me or Hachi.
The fifth DVD Ismay and HoneyBee gave me was by mistake the Italian version rather than the English-language original of Dean Spanley – ranked no 5 by Anne Billson. I’ll try and get the original; from the rest of the list there are still four to track down. I shall report on them in due course, and shall also return to my touchstone My Dog Skip, now joined – in my ranking – by Wendy and Lucy as most excellent dog film.