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Saturday Night at the Movies by Dennis Hartley review archive

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Hullabaloo


Saturday, November 13, 2010

 
Saturday Night At The Movies

Mad dogs and Englishmen


By Dennis Hartley














Love in the time of collaring: My Dog Tulip



In my 2009 review of The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke’s big “comeback” film, I wrote about how unexpectedly affected I was by the actor’s emotional acceptance speech at the Golden Globe awards, specifically when he paid homage to a dear and devoted friend:
…by the time Rourke proffered “Sometimes when you’re alone…all you got is your dog,” and then thanked all of his pooches (past and present) I was done for. I haven’t cried like that since the first time I saw Old Yeller .
What is it about the very thought of a wet nose, a pair of fluffy ears or a simple game of “fetch” that can make a grown man weep? Not only to weep; but at times to so sorely grieve-as the late British writer and literary magazine editor J.R. Ackerley once lamented:
“I would have immolated myself as a suttee when (my dog) Queenie died. For no human would I ever have done such a thing, but by my love for Queenie I would have been irresistibly compelled.”
Ackerley was in fact so smitten with this “Alsatian bitch” that he was inspired to write two books based on the 15-year long relationship he enjoyed with his beloved pet-a memoir called My Dog Tulip (1956) and a novel, We Think the World of You (1960). The latter book, a fictionalized, semi-autobiographical version of how Queenie came into his life, was adapted into a 1988 film featuring Alan Bates and Gary Oldman (an underrated gem that has yet to see the light of day on DVD; I lucked into a VHS copy when a local Hollywood Video liquidated its tape inventory). And now, the 1956 memoir has been adapted into a lovely new animated film directed by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger.

The Fierlingers utilize a simple, yet elegant style of animation that triggered memories of the soft and comforting pastel line drawings that adorned the Ludwig Bemelmans books I used to pore over as a child (yes, adorable Madeline was one of my earliest crushes). That being said, I must advise that in tone, My Dog Tulip is more Feiffer than Bemelmans. Nor can it be accused of being “adorable” in any way, shape or form (Marley and Me, this ain’t). Indeed, there is much ado about loose poops and “double anal glands”. There’s lots of estrus fixation and doggie sex. But the film also contains something you won’t find in most Hollywood fare, and that’s heart and soul. Again, sans the maudlin sentimentality; as the Ackerley quote which prefaces the film makes so abundantly clear:
“Unable to love each other, the English turn naturally to dogs”.
And so we are introduced the film’s protagonist, the author himself (wryly voiced by the ubiquitous Christopher Plummer), who describes himself as a middle-aged, “confirmed bachelor”. Every night, he leaps up from his desk at the BBC (where the real Ackerley edited the network’s literary magazine for several decades), rushes to the tube station, eager to get to his flat, throw open the door and tumble into a full body hug with Tulip, a rambunctious German Shepherd. If it wasn’t so obvious that one of these mammals had four legs and a tail, you could just as well assume that their body language conveyed that of two smitten lovers on a permanent honeymoon. Because you see, this is, at its heart, a love story. “Tulip offered me what I never found in my sexual life,” explains the narrator, “…constant, single-hearted, incorruptible, uncritical devotion, which is in the nature of dogs to offer.” (I think that pretty much sums up why we love the canines, n’est-ce pas?).

Flashbacks reveal that Ackerley initially “rescues” Tulip from some well-meaning but largely neglectful friends, when she is just over a year old. Being of an antsy and neurotic breed, she naturally developed some “behavioral issues” as the result of confinement to a tiny back yard with very little opportunity to run around, explore the bigger world outside the yard gate, and well, do as a dog does. Therefore, trying times lie ahead for both dog and new owner, including a long-running “feud” vying for Ackerley’s attention between his control-freak sister (wonderfully voiced by the late Lynn Redgrave) and the equally territorial Tulip. Then, when Tulip “comes of age”, there is the matter of how to deal with her need to breed. This episode takes up the middle third of the film; with the exasperated Ackerley displaying the patience of Job as he travels far and wide to find Tulip a suitable “husband”. This could prove to be the most trying segment for some viewers, who may or may not take offense at the idea of someone obsessing over his dog’s, erm, vulva and such (really, it’s not as weird as it sounds, taken in context with the tone of the narrative).

This is one of the more unique and intelligent films I’ve seen this year, set to a breezy jazz score by John Avarese. It is not so much a “man and his dog” tale, but rather a serious rumination on the nature of “love” itself-which as we know comes in all colors, sizes, shapes and guises. Is it a need-or is it a necessity? I suppose that’s a complex question. Then again, perhaps the answer is simple: Sometimes, “all you got is your dog”.



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