Wednesday, May 9, 2012

These Dogs Won't Hunt

Much has been written about Seamus, the Romney family's Irish setter who was trapped in a crate on the roof of their station wagon during a 12-hour drive to Canada. Whenever Ann Romney talks about how much Seamus loved to get into his crate and go for a ride, I find myself thinking of Gary Larson's famous drawing:

Not all dogs are smart (I say this as someone who helped care for an Irish setter for three years). This basic truth was brought home to me with stunning clarity a few years ago.

I was watching some YouTube videos of dogs acting silly when I suddenly realized that, as a child, no one ever told me about people who spoke to their dogs in French, Japanese, Farsi, Mandarin, Urdu, and other languages. My uncle Irving, who had a black cocker spaniel named Timmy, was the only relative who had a  dog as a pet. Everyone spoke to Timmy in English (with varying results).

Whenever my grandfather took me for a walk, he always stopped to say hello to any dog that crossed our path. He said it lovingly and respectfully, which made a big impression on me during my childhood. In recent years, I've found myself doing the same thing. However, on one occasion, things did not go very well.

I was walking down 18th Street when I found myself nearing a young woman with a dog on a leash. The dog was walking slowly, had a lot of white hair on its snout and, as I passed, I said "Hi there, doggie. Getting a bit old, huh?"

The woman wheeled around and proceeded to give me a tongue lashing about how rude I had been to her dog, how insensitive it was of me to say something like that to an animal, and demanded an immediate apology. Not only did I think she was overreacting to the point of hysteria, I wondered if this woman actually thought that her dog was fluent enough in English to be offended by my remark.

Anyone who has taken care of a dog knows how much doting and tenderness a human can shower upon a pet. Sometimes people's devotion to their pets borders on the delusional, a point emphasized in two films recently shown at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

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Pema Tseden's film, Old Dog, takes place near a "frontier city" being built in the Tibetan region of China's Qinghai province. Although it may be heavy on political symbolism, this is the kind of film which is often oversold by publicists using such language as the following:
"Old Dog makes use of those horizon-lines-that-delimit-human-destinies in ways that might have wowed John Ford, even as its portrait of rural anomie amid astonishing scenery takes a completely modern approach to narrative, patiently accumulating detail by telling detail. Its single most 'dramatic' moment might just be a five-minute take depicting a sheep’s attempts to rejoin its flock after somehow slipping through a fence."
A clarification is in order. The single most dramatic moment in the film takes place when an old man, who has refused to let his son-in-law sell the Tibetan mastiff which has been the family pet for 12 years, strangles the dog by hanging it from a fence post.

In his review for Tibet Writes, Tsering Shakya (author of The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Tibet Since 1947) explains that:
"The film deals with the encroachment and destabilizing effect on Tibetan -- or perhaps any -- culture [not of the Cultural Revolution but] of China’s economic transformation. The film draws from contemporary history by situating the story in the sudden emergence of a feverish appetite among China’s nouveau riche for the mastiffs owned by Tibetan nomads, such that recently a mastiff named Hong Dong sold in China for $1.5 million." 
Tibetan mastiff Hong Dong (the most expensive dog in the world)
"In this film, the father draws on Tibetan tradition, according to which it is taboo to use dogs as a commodity or to allow them to be bought and sold. These dogs, used by the nomads to guard their tents and animals, have become an object of desire and a vulgar display of wealth in China. The craze for them has spurred social forces into interaction with remote nomad communities for the first time, through a lucrative trade in the dogs, as well as theft and kidnapping of them, that has forced Tibetan families into choosing between selling their dog before it is stolen or keeping the dog knowing that is most likely to be dognapped sooner or later."

The family in question includes the old man, his daughter (who has not produced any grandchildren), his son-in-law (who is apparently impotent), and an assortment of people offering money for the mastiff. If a viewer is not invested in clawing a path through the region's mud and poverty to find some symbolism, this film is a crashing bore (thank God for the sheep). Here's the trailer:

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Lawrence Kasdan's new film, Darling Companion, may rank as the shaggiest dog story to hit the screen in years. Based on a real event (Meg Kasdan's sister once rescued a dog stranded alongside a Detroit freeway), it had such appeal to its cast and crew that they all agreed to work for scale. In his director's statement, Kasdan writes:
"Darling Companion is a comedy about many varieties of companionship. At the center of the movie is a marriage that has gone on for a long time and become frayed. Surrounding that union are young people falling in love, a brand-new marriage and the surprise of mid-life romance. The film is also about the connection that sometimes happens between a human being and a pet -- the love, friendship, and solace that can pass between species. Anyone who’s ever had a dog knows they live in the moment. That fact of their behavior can have a revivifying effect on the people around them. While humans worry about the future and mull over the past, dogs bring us back to the present with the uncomplicated joy they take in the here and now -- getting outside with us for a walk, having their meal, being stroked.
The movie probably began the day my wife Meg and I rescued a mutt named Mac from a cacophonous dog shelter in Los Angeles. After taking that dog into our lives and affections, he was lost during an outing in the Rockies. We spent three weeks searching, calling his name up and down mountain trails, enlisting our friends and family. The whole town was on the lookout. Just at the moment we had given up hope, a stranger who had seen our flyers found Mac playing with her dogs by the river. Mac was dirty and thin, but uninjured. Friends and searchers around town and across the country celebrated his recovery. The characters in Darling Companion are fictional, but the sense of how our affection for these animals can bring people together is very true to this production."

Joseph (Kevin Kline) is a successful surgeon who
is tone deaf to his wife's needs and emotions

Despite an all-star cast, Darling Companion often feels sluggish and labored. While it is exceptionally well intentioned, I found it hard to believe that Diane Keaton could look out the window of a small commuter lane and see her lost dog on a mountain slope down below. The film's real drama lies in the tensions in human relationships that become amplified by the dog's presence and/or absence.

Beth Winter (Diane Keaton) and her husband, Joseph (Kevin Kline), have become empty nest parents. With their daughter, Grace (Elisabeth Moss), out of the house, a certain loneliness has crept into their relationship. When Beth spots a dog by the side of the road, she insists on stopping the car and rushing to its rescue. Although Joseph is adamant that he does not want a dog in the house, a year later Freeway has become the center of attention in their home.

Beth (Diane Keaton) falls in love with Freeway

Shortly after Beth and Grace rescued Freeway they made the acquaintance of a charming young veterinarian from India named Sam (Jay Ali), who proved to be far more interested in Grace than in her dog. A year later, as the family prepares for Sam and Grace's wedding, they are joined by Joseph's sister, Penny (Dianne Wiest), and her new boyfriend, Russell (Richard Jenkins).

Penny's son, Bryan (Mark Duplass), a surgeon who is in practice with his uncle Joseph, arrives without his girlfriend and quickly starts to fall for the charms of Carmen (Ayelet Zurer), the resident caretaker at the ski lodge who claims to have gypsy blood and an ability to "see" things.

Poster art for Darling Companion

With such a stellar cast (Sam Shepard makes a cameo appearance as a sheriff who would rather be fishing), it's interesting to see Anne Cullimore Decker nearly walk off with the film in a brief appearance as Grandma Muriel. Jay Ali is a refreshing new romantic lead while Dianne Wiest and Richard Jenkins glow and gloat while reveling in the joys of senior sex.

That leaves us with Kevin Kline and Diane Keaton, two supremely talented actors who are forced to make the most out of a bland relationship between Kline's self-absorbed surgeon and his emotionally needy wife. Getting lost in the local forest during a thunderstorm helps bring the couple back together (especially after Joseph trips and injures his shoulder) but, for all of Keaton's fussiness and the aloofness of Kline's character, they have less to work with than one might think.

Darling Companion will, nevertheless, be a comforting popcorn outing for families with dogs as well as a soothing diversion for people on airplanes who are separated from the devoted attention of their pets. Here's the trailer.

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