"A dog has no use for fancy cars or big homes or designer clothes. Status symbols mean nothing to him. A dog judges others not by their color or creed or class but by who they are inside. A dog doesn't care if you are rich or poor, educated or illiterate, clever or dull. Give him your heart and he will give you his. It was really quite simple, and yet we humans, so much wiser and more sophisticated, have always had trouble figuring out what really counts and what does not."
John Grogan, "Marley & Me"
That's just the sort of tripe that made me avoid reading "Marley & Me" by John Grogan (although I did give it to K., and she cried all the way through it, as, no doubt, would I, seeing how it's a "true story" by Hemingway's terms). See, Grogan can get all gooey about his dog (and I'm one to talk, anyone who knows me and my relationship with my dog knows I'm a big softie with him) but even I know that as much as I want to anthropomorphize my dog into seeming more like "my son the attorney," he's a dog—a pack animal, who craves being part of the pack. A dog doesn't know "privacy." A dog doesn't worry about "having space" (unless he's been shoved off the bed). A dog is hard-wired to be part of a group, his genetic-strings bunched to "family," which he interprets as anything that he can be a part of, and provides for him.
As much as I'd like to think my dog loves me, I think he merely respects the chain of command or the pack order, and knows where his next meal is coming from. I'm not going to call it "love."
Because the truth is he loves bacon. He may even consider it with religious fervor, like seeing the Madonna in a piece of toast--which he'd also eat, just as a warning. You mention the word "bacon" and my dog's head will tilt, his eyes brighten. If he smells bacon cooking, his eyes soften and get teary, and he'd lay patiently, rooted in that spot with bacon-potential until such a time as he can wolf it down, concentrating with all his doggy-will to "just eat the bacon, not the Master's fingers." When I read Grogan burble that a dog judges you by who you are inside, I think, "Yeah, meat...and gristle and sinew and marrow..." all things my dog "loves." My wife and I are never sure that if we would both spontaneously collapse in a heap, our dog wouldn't "love" us so much that we'd be missing limbs after being found five days later.
But what do I know? Grogan's a multi-millionaire now because of his shaggy dog story. I'm just content if I can bring home the bacon.
Safer that way.
So I avoid "dog movies" like I avoid rabies because I know they can't end well, be they Lassie or Lad: a dog, or Old Yeller or Cujo.
Because I always cry at them. Buckets. I get very sentimental towards dogs in dog movies, because they're portrayed as such noble creatures that if anything ever happens to them, I bawl at the injustice of the world. And because the doggy's so cute. Hell, I even cried when the dog had to be put down before it was turned into a "Red Bull Mutant" in I Am Legend.
Here are two quite different "dog movies" but they share one lesson: a dog is a relationship. A dog changes your life. A dog teaches responsibility. A dog is a commitment. A dog cannot be turned on and off, like the ones at Radio Shack. Dog ownership is not to be entered into lightly. The two movies come at this basic truth from different angles.
Wendy and Lucy is about a girl making her way from Illinois to Alaska in her beat-up '88 Honda Accord (with a bad serpentine belt), with dog as her co-pilot. Her funds are few, and so when she shop-lifts some cans of dog-food in small-town Oregon, she gets nabbed and sent to jail, leaving her dog tied up in front of the scene-of-the-crime. The movie does a good job of turning every kid's question during a sci-fi movie ("What happened to the monkey?") into a feature-length film. Writer-director Kelly Reichardt shows just how well you can make a film about just about nothing, and still pack it with drama—but drama to which we're well-accustomed: the balancing-the-budget, the making-ends-meet, the shock-of-the-car-repair-bill. Familiar ground. But for Wendy Carroll (Michelle Williams), runaway, this is an accumulation of a very-bad day, one which affects her path and alters her course, shattering dreams and teaching responsibility.
The film looks good. It was filmed in Portland, Oregon. The sound needs a bit of work, and the secondary characters seem to resonate better than the title bi-ped. Kudos to Michelle Williams for carrying the movie like a nap-sack on her back, but there's a few too many times when she seems aware that the camera is on her—when she seems to be thinking "this is a close-up," rather than "there's a guy looking at me suspiciously." Still, it's not a showy performance, and Williams keeps it internalized throughout most of the movie.
Where Wendy and Lucy is quiet and introverted, Marley & Me is all labrador retriever, extroverted and just a little dumb. Half-way through the movie, you begin to realize that it's not a movie about a dog, it's about John Grogan's marriage—the dog is the bait-and-switch, a co-star and a trial-run in responsibility for the two career-journalists before babies start rearing their ugly heads. The dog is the fool, the comic relief who inspires wisdom in the lead's. That's fine. Two hours of doggy-hi-jinks can sour any movie-going relationship.
Fortunately, the movie has Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston: Wilson is especially strong in the lead, doing nothing special but being extremely charming in a just-folks-Jimmy-Stewart kind of way, and Aniston—the only "Friend" who seems to understand what acting is all about, does wonders with her role, finding just the right touch to enliven a scene. Both she and Wilson play conflicted adults who see dreams fall by the way-side while life takes precedence: it's the version of Revolutionary Road that you might want to see. Plus, it's got Alan Arkin in it. I'll see any piece of crap featuring him, and he doesn't disappoint here. "Nah, this stuff cracks me up," he says without a hint of humor, reading one of Grogan's columns. "Really, this makes me laugh."*
Yes, Marley & Me is controversial: it was sold as a dog-comedy which the kids will loove and presents the entire life-cycle of a dog—the entire life-cycle. Which the kiddies won't. It is, after all, a "true" story, and, as Hemingway pointed out, every true story ends in death. Life's a bitch, and then you die. But Marley & Me is a better movie for adding the bitter with the sweet, the yelling and tears with the joys. It's more honest that way, and you know how much people hate honesty. And frankly, it's a cheaper way to teach your kids an easy lesson in death than buying them a goldfish or a hamster.
But still, it's a tough thing to sit through. No, I didn't cry...in either of these films. But, watching Marley & Me, it's just solidified in my mind that when the inevitable day comes, and I have to take my animal in for his final vet visit, he's not going to go out with mere platitudes and murmured words ringing in his ears. They aren't enough to convey my gratitude and depth of feeling for his life and companionship. He's going to know love when he goes. He'll have the taste of bacon in his mouth.
There. Dropped a tear. Happens every damn time.
Post Post Script (02/20/2009) Wendy and Lucy has stayed with me a bit longer, partly because it's a simpler film with issues closer to my heart (and it's pathos, after all), but also because I read all these other criticisms that lavish praise on it for telling the simplest of stories in the simplest of ways. This is so much "Dark Knight" back-lash, and lighting critical candles in a dark world of hyper-edited blockbusters. Reichert is to be commended for maximizing her meager budget to make her film (I'll bet she didn't have to steal dog-food to do it)
All well and good. But let's not go rabid here. Ever occur to you scribes that the film ultimately endorses the words of the most objectionable character (who just so happens to be doing the right thing for his employer, by the way?) And the "can't get a job without an address and you can't get an address without a job" Catch-22 is familiar to anyone who's tried to buy something large without credit. Can't do it. You have to prove you've had debt to prove you won't go South on a loan. Makes sense only to a banker. Can we extend the metaphor to "You can't be irresponsible if you're responsible?" That's a dictum that would well suit the title character...and bankers.
For me, the most intriguing question is: What has she learned? Does she go back in "Wendy 2" or not?
My answer is probably different than a lot of people's. But then, I take care of a dog.
Also, both of these dog titles are mis-leading. Wendy and Lucy are joined, but separated in the film, with two story-arcs. Marley & Me has the billing wrong.
Post-Post-Post script: My dog, Smokey, who I talked about in this writing, passed away Sunday after a very short illness that was, quite frankly, alarming in its speed and devastation. When returned from the hospital cured of a bad case of pnuemonia, it was apparent that he would only have a few more hours, not days, and, rather than take him to a vet, we had a vet come to the home, where he felt safe and secure and very territorial. He went out, feeling like he was defending his homestead, as any good cattle-dog would. He was exhausted after the hospital stay, but with some food (finally) that he was able to digest and a good night's sleep, he was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, which continued to wag, despite that his legs had given out due to a rapidly encroaching encephalitis caused by a lymphoma metasticized in his brain and spinal chord. He did not die like a dog. He died like a champion.
And yes, he had the taste of bacon in his mouth, true to my word as he was true to his deeds.
* The script is co-written by, of all people, Scott Frank, one of the better writers of mature films, having written Out of Sight, Get Shorty, Minority Report, and directed The Lookout. There's a veneer of truth to this film, as with a lot of his films. With the exception of the satiric Get Shorty, none of his characters seem like they've ever visited Hollywood.