Heather Huntington is an LA movie reviewer and an aspiring screenwriter.
Dog's Life: Humane
Is there more violence toward animals in today’s movies?
Over the past year or so, I’ve noticed an unsettling trend: Almost every time a dog appears in a movie, that dog dies. American Gangster, I Am Legend, No Country for Old Men, The Brave One, Funny Games, 30 Days of Night, Year of the Dog, and even the family movie The Martian Child all either show the dog being killed or lead you to believe that is the case.
Whatever happened, I wonder, to that unwritten rule about not killing dogs or kids in movies?
“It’s the inverse of the basic advertising law—that if you put a beautiful animal on the cover of a magazine, it’s more likely to sell,” says Dr. Alan Lipman, founder and director of the Center for the Study of Violence in Washington, D.C.
“It creates three experiences in a person,” he explains. “First, everyone’s a little bit afraid of getting hurt—everyone is protecting their vulnerability. When people see an animal, it gives them that experience of unprotected vulnerability. Second, all of us are instilled with the basic instinct for attachment, to attach to something else and to provide care for something else. An animal instantly evokes that feeling in us. The third is intense empathy, the experience of feeling what it must be like to be that helpless … little … cute.”
Thus, because we identify so strongly with an animal’s vulnerability—particularly when it comes to dogs, who are increasingly viewed as family members— we feel more devastated when we witness an act of violence against that animal.
John McKelvie, PsyD, a psychology resident at the Denver Health Medical Center, concurs. “Innocence and helplessness: Those are the two issues. It’s a value of this society that you don’t commit injury, or assault those who are not capable of defending themselves,”McKelvie says. “We have special laws to protect vulnerable populations, and dogs fall into that category.”
This phenomenon makes perfect sense, and also goes a long way toward explaining why the death of a vicious dog, as in No Country for Old Men or To Kill a Mockingbird, doesn’t usually elicit the same response. Those dogs play the role of the bad guy, so we don’t project feelings of love or vulnerability onto them, don’t imagine ourselves to be the same witless victim of violence, and don’t imagine that their loss would be as upsetting as the loss of our own beloved pet.
Elliot Kotek, editor-in-chief of Moving Pictures magazine, feels directors have very strong reasons to break the taboo. “There’s a trick called ‘petting the dog,’” he says. “In screenwriting, no matter how evil the character, the rule is that if you want to show that they’re redeemable, either have them pet a dog or show them being nice to some sort of animal. On the flip side, when they say, ‘Don’t kill a dog, don’t hurt a kid,’ they’re really saying, ‘unless you want to have a true villain,’” Kotek observes.
Peter Debruge, associate editor at Variety, agrees. “It’s certainly the case where the killing of a dog serves the purpose of illustrating how heartless these villains are,” he says. “[I Am Legend] is probably the highest-profile example. I found it almost unbearable getting to that point because if you’re someone who has seen enough movies, you’re able to see through the formula. And you realize that the dog is an emotional symbol, and the filmmakers are going to manipulate us in the worst possible way to get us to sympathize with the Will Smith character.”
But in this case, as Debruge points out, the filmmakers literally have no other choice. “The one excuse I would give the movie, although I was pretty upset by it, is that that same fate would meet a human character if the movie weren’t about the last human. So instead it’s transferred to a proxy,” he says.
According to Kotek, this trend might not be so new. Recall, for example, 1939’s Of Mice and Men, 1954’s Rear Window and even the seminal Old Yeller (1957). “I think it’s an old adage. When a protagonist in a film has a dog, more often than not, the dog will die,” he says. The difference, as Kotek explains it, might not be what happens, but how it happens.“ Movies have become more realistic,” he says. Debruge concurs, pointing out an across-the-board trend toward not turning the camera away from the gore of reality. “It becomes this symbol, and everything that goes forward is in tune with that unflinching style,” he says.
Lipman also agrees with the cinema verité theory. “Rather than there being an overall shift in movies toward depicting cruelty or violence to animals, what happens is you have a certain group of filmmakers … [who] want to depict realism— they want to depict what they would see as actual human emotions as opposed to clichéd human emotions.”
Regardless of whether we dog lovers are just hypersensitive or that the movement toward realism simply challenges us more, it doesn’t appear that the situation is going to change any time soon. “The fact that it’s happening means that there’s not been enough of a vocal reaction on the part of audiences to discourage it,” Debruge says.
So audiences beware: If you see a dog in a preview, you might very well be getting the bad with the good if you see the film. As for me, I’ll still be going to the movies—I’ll probably just start carrying more tissues.
Bruce Gordon with Derby, circa 1950, in front of the family home in Boston. Heather Gordon Huntington, who sent us this photo and the story behind it, says that she’d heard stories about Derby all her life—the Boxer had almost mythical status in her family.He followed her father to school, then broke into the cloakroom and ate everyone’s lunches before escaping; he was the happy recipient of her grandmother’s unpalatable cooking, which was discreetly slipped to him under the table by her father and aunt; he jumped out of a moving car (and survived). This photo surfaced a couple of years ago, offering Heather and other family members a chance to see the famous Derby in the flesh.
A new indie film focuses on the heart of the human-dog bond
In Hollywood, the holidays are reserved for mainstream blockbusters and last ditch-efforts at getting Oscar contenders in under the wire, and this year is no exception. The media blitz surrounding traditional studio fare, including the release of Marley & Me, makes it hard for a small film centered on the human-canine bond to be noticed. But those looking for a quieter, more reflective take on subject will find it in Wendy and Lucy, a new film by Kelly Reichardt, whose previous features include River of Grass and Old Joy. The story explores the marginalization of the American dream, and how easy it is for things to unravel when you’re already on the edge.
Starring Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain, I’m Not There) as Wendy, and Reichardt’s own mixed-breed Lucy as, well, Lucy, this is a story of a young woman of extremely limited means driving to Alaska in the hope of finding a job in the canneries. Lucy, her dog, is her only company on this spare but hopeful odyssey. When Wendy’s car breaks down in Oregon, her well-laid plans begin to come apart. And when she’s caught shoplifting dog food and taken to jail, Lucy—tied up outside the grocery store—is left behind. Then she disappears, and Wendy must try to find her before she can get back on the road.
Both directed and co-written by Reichardt, Wendy and Lucy is a foray into serious indie territory in content, style and budget. With the exception of Williams and a couple of supporting parts, such as the mechanic (played by Will Patton), there are virtually no familiar faces to be seen, and the movie’s grainy, faded tones add to its indie atmosphere. Williams carries the entire burden of the story on her shoulders, and she’s equal to the task, convincingly portraying a protagonist who holds her head up as she tries to make a better life, even though she doesn’t have so much as a place to sleep for the night.
Reichardt and co-writer Jonathan Raymond make a deliberate choice not to tell us what has gone in Wendy’s life to get her to this point, but since she appears to be a loving and conscientious person, we can only assume that the situation she left behind was a difficult one. As a result, we ache for her all the more as she works to keep it together while her plans disintegrate.
Wendy and Lucy is clearly aimed at the art-house crowd. Intensely personal and introspective, it is an example of what some have hailed as the “new American realism”—territory explored by Gus Van Sant, among others. In its subject matter and decidedly unsentimental approach, the movie calls to mind Vittoria De Sica’s Umberto D, the 1952 classic about an elderly pensioner who finds himself—as Roger Ebert so aptly described it—“falling from poverty into shame,” evicted and penniless, his dog his only companion.
As in Umberto D, there’s a quiet political undertow to Wendy and Lucy—the politics of poverty and lack of opportunity, touchingly conveyed in the few conversations that take place between Wendy and her one human ally, a store guard who first chases her out of a parking lot but then offers what help he can manage.
Wendy reserves most of her conversation for Lucy; when speaking to people, she is far more economical with her words. In a way, this trait reflects the character’s utter isolation; Lucy is her only comfort, her only true relationship. Which makes it all the more heartbreaking when Lucy goes missing.
Not surprisingly, Wendy and Lucy provoked some buzz on the film festival circuit, and Lucy took top-dog honors at Cannes, winning the unofficial Palm Dog award from a jury that included the likes of noted British film critics Derek Malcolm and Peter Bradshaw. Reichardt picked up Lucy’s prize, a diamante collar with “Palm Dog” stitched into it, but said she didn’t expect her thespian pooch to be wearing it too often around her Queens, N.Y., ’hood.
With this steam behind it, Wendy and Lucy makes its way into the crowded marketplace. If you’re looking for megaplex fare, a happy-go-lucky family film, then perhaps you’ll want to keep looking. But for alternative programming, Wendy and Lucy provides a fine, powerful and emotional experience.
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