Edward Guthmann
Culture: Reviews
The Cave of the Yellow Dog
The Bark editors' pick for must-see film paints an intimate story on a wide canvas.
Nansal and Zochor

Across the rolling grasslands of Mongolia, a young dog gambols and sniffs. His adoptive owner, six-year-old Nansal, follows the dog on her tiny horse. In the distant background, a curtain of luminous rain cleaves the face of a mountain. It seems illuminated from within, and suggests a weightless portal into a possible heaven.

The Cave of the Yellow Dog, a new quasi-documentary from Mongolia, is the second feature by Byambasuren Davaa. The Oscar-nominated director of The Story of the Weeping Camel (2003), Davaa has a knack for creating states of enchantment on film—or rather, for capturing those states with her careful regard for landscape, animals and the spiritual relationship between humans and the physical world.

Whereas The Story of the Weeping Camel focused on its titular species to the near-exclusion of Homo sapiens, The Cave of the Yellow Dog concentrates on a nomad family in the Altai region of northwest Mongolia—father, mother, three small children—and the impact made upon them by a stray puppy.

Little Zochor (Mongolian for “Spot”) is frisky, unfettered and troublesome. He’s not unlike Nansal (played beautifully by Nansalmaa Batchuluun), an uninhibited child who discovers him in a cave while collecting the dung piles her family uses for fuel. Zochor is mostly white, with black ears, and a black muzzle with a pencil-thin white stripe down the center. Mischievous and immature, he has a mind of his own, and is more than happy to follow Nansal home.

Her father (Urjindorj Batchuluun) distrusts the dog. He’s just lost two sheep, and worries that tiny Zochor could be attached to a pack of wolves who will find his scent and eliminate more of the family’s herd. Such is the cultural shift in the Mongolian steppes—when nomads abandon their lifestyle, selling their goats and sheep and yaks and moving the city, they leave their dogs behind. The dogs then mingle with wolves, losing the lessons of domestication.

Nansal can’t accept this. “It’s not about wanting him or not,” her mother tells her. To illustrate, the mother tells Nansal to bite the palm of her hand. She can’t, of course. “Although it seems so close,” Mother says, “It’s still too far away to bite.” Lesson for Nansal: “You can’t have everything that you see.” It’s a strong argument that her parents make, but when you’re six and besotted with a dog, as only child can be, any word against that beloved animal is unbearable.

The real scene-stealer in The Cave of the Yellow Dog is the remarkable Nansalmaa Batchuluun. Davaa must have spent weeks engendering the child’s trust, so great is the sense of spontaneity and unguardedness in her scenes. In her “Director’s Notes,” included in the film’s electronic press kit, Davaa says, “I am convinced that every person has his own—often undiscovered—creativity. My task as the director was to convince my protagonists of their own creativity.”

Equally key to her job, I’d surmise, was the miracle of luck, of simply waiting for the right moments and being there with the camera when they unfolded. When Nansal plays with Zochor, her fascination and delight are so genuine that we see them vibrate throughout her body. When Nansal’s father tells her she can’t keep the dog, or tries to make her leave it behind when it’s time to break camp, the child’s pouting and desperation are heartbreaking. Is there anything more dreadful to a child—especially one whose faith is still untested by pain and loss—than separating from a beloved animal?

It’s rare to witness a child whose screen presence feels so wholly natural. When it happens—as it did with Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet, or Mary Badham in her scenes with Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, or Victoire Thivisol, the four-year-old French child in Ponette, or Zhou Ren-ying, the scrappy waif in the Chinese film, The King of Masks—it feels miraculous. This is one of the great joys of the movie-lover: to see a soul revealed, to witness a blending of part and actor so complete that we can’t distinguish where one emerges and the other disappears.

The “actors” playing Nansal’s family in The Cave of the Yellow Dog are in fact a nomadic Mongolian family who allowed Davaa to film them in a mixture of real and semi-staged moments. Consequently, there’s a crunch of authenticity when Mother cuts a block of cheese, milks the goat or sits at her sewing machine to make a school outfit for Nansal; when the father skins a pair of sheep, hoists the skins onto his motorcycle and drives off to sell them in the nearest town.

There’s also an ease and rhythm that draws from built-in intimacy: the puppylike, unself-conscious interplay of younger sister and brother; the patient discipline of the young, industrious mother. There’s a gorgeous moment when Nansal and her sister lie flat on the moist grass of the treeless steppes. Looking upward to the clouds, they identify shapes of animals—an elephant, a giraffe. We all have these moments in our childhood, when the natural world seems abundant with surprise. Davaa captures such a moment, and makes it so immediate that we’re carried back to our pre-analytic, pre-grown-up way of seeing.

In the middle of Cave, Nansal mounts one of the tiny Mongolian horses, her legs barely reaching the stirrups. Unsupervised by either parent, she takes the family’s herds of goats and sheep out to graze. Zochor tags along, but when he wanders off and gets lost, Nansal follows him, neglecting the herds.

At this point, Davaa dips into a fairy-tale world: As night falls and the rain pours, Nansal, reunited with her dog, hears a voice across the plains. It’s an old woman, toothless and apparently blind, whose robust, melodic call seems a vindication of her survival—an appreciation to the gods for all she receives. The woman takes in Nansal, dries her clothes and covers her, and tells the legend of the yellow dog: of a rich man’s daughter, incurable with illness, who recovers only when an unlucky yellow dog is removed from her home.

Davaa’s pacing is sensitive and her camerawork, lucid and intimate. Some of the best moments in her film involve the customs and happenstance of nomadic life. There’s a great sequence recording the family’s slow dismantling of their ger (or yurt), a collapsible structure that travels with them when they break camp. First, they remove a series of fitted felt tarps, then the khana (wooden framework) and uni (support columns), then the carpets that covered the earth and shielded the family against the cold and moisture.

The tarps are folded and loaded onto a series of yak-driven carts. Dressers, kitchenware, sewing machine, children—everything becomes part of the nomadic family caravan. I won’t divulge whether Nansal’s beloved Zochor is part of the caravan, only that the dog, in a moment of peril, finds the opportunity to prove his value to the doubting father.

The yak team pulls the wobbling carts slowly away from the camp, and in the opposite direction, a jeep races by, blaring a political slogan from a bullhorn. Once the jeep has passed, Davaa fixes this image on the screen. She lets it play out, and allows us to wonder if Nansal’s family will resist the pull of modernity, or opt for the spiritual enrichment of their ancestral way of life.

Read Cameron Woo's interview with director Byambasuren Davaa here.

Culture: DogPatch
Still Life with Animated Dogs
An artist's life and the dogs who have shared it, is examined

When Paul Fierlinger was living in Prague in the 1960s, his dogs kept his spirit alive. Living under totalitarian rule, surrounded by suspicion and class hatred, Fierlinger might have perished had it not been for Roosevelt, a charmer who knew how to sneak into restaurants undetected, and Ike, a friend so vital, true and ultimately essential that in six years Fierlinger was never once separated from him.


Those are just two of the tales of dog love that Fierlinger, an animator who emigrated to the United States in 1968, shares in his autobiographical 26-minute documentary, Still Life with Animated Dogs. Kind in nature, but tempered by Fierlinger’s sardonic Eastern European humor, Still Life is a marvelous work that offers more emotion, poetry and reflective wisdom than the vast majority of feature-length, live-action films.


Narrated by Fierlinger, who draws and animates himself at various stages of his dog-loving existence, Still Life is broken into episodes, each one remembering a special dog and the lessons he left behind. The animation is deft and surprisingly expressive, and the original music by composer John Avarese underscores the film’s delicate, affectionate, never-sentimental tone.


I loved this film, pure and simple, and recommend it with unabashed enthusiasm to anyone who loves dogs--and even to those not lucky enough to include themselves in that category. I make a living as a movie critic, so I see upward of 200 films per year--the good, the dreadful, the instantly forgettable. I doubt if I’ll see much this year that speaks to me more deeply than Still Life with Animated Dogs.


At 64, Fierlinger has owned a series of dogs, watched them with an acute eye and in Still Life finds occasion to speculate on the mystery of dogs and our relationship to them. He opens with the story of Spinnaker, a terrier who was picked up on the roadside by a dog lover en route to a picnic for Animal Rescue Society volunteers. The dog found his way to the home that Fierlinger shares with his wife and collaborator, Sandra, and quickly became the filmmaker’s constant companion.


Taking his friend on a walk through the woods Fierlinger, overhears the fatuous conversation of other dog owners and contrasts it with Spinnaker’s avid engagement with the natural world. What’s the secret of his dog’s unfathomable levels of perception? When Spinnaker stretches and bows, Fierlinger reasons, “He’s really saying, ‘Follow me.’ We are both practicing anthropomorphism...My dog uses the same signals with me as he would use with any other dog.”


From here, Fierlinger drifts into reveries of the dogs he lived with in Czechoslovakia and named after American presidents. His great love, its seems, was Ike, a burly but gentle guy who, on the day they met, walked across the entire city of Prauge with Ferlinger.


That hike, he says, “created a stronger bond that any amount of treats would ever have accomplished.” Together, they formed “an intimacy that only occasionally transpires between separate species.”


It’s upsetting, therefore, to see what happens next, when Fierlinger get his chance to leave Czechoslovakia and has to decide what do with Ike.


After 40 years as an animator, with TV commercials, political ads and shorts for “Sesame Street” under his belt, Fierlinger has the gift of saying a lot with his fanciful, deceptively simple art. His rendering of his crowded attic in Prague, for example, is so rich with detail and atmosphere that we can imagine how the room smelled, and feel how the cold wind felt as it leaked through the windows.


But Still Life is most amazing is its ability to incite our emotions. When Fierlinger recreates the day one of his dogs was hit by a car, I found myself jumping forward and yelling “No!” at the TV screen--astonished by the realism, but also reminded of the day my Cocker Spaniel, Nicky, was injured.


Still Life with Animated Dogs has that kind of power: to startle us, remind us of dogs we’ve known and cherished and illustrate the puzzling, ultimately unknowable nature of our friends. “Dogs were put on earth to make us better people,” a friend of mine likes to say, and Fierlinger’s film, at its best, offers unimpeachable proof of that fact.

Culture: DogPatch
My Dog Tulip
J.R. Ackerley’s classic is adapted brilliantly to the screen
My Dog Tulip

Creating animated dogs is a delicate business, and few do it with distinction. Wallace and Gromit creator Nick Park does minimalist wonders with the puzzled furrowing of a canine brow, and French fi lmmaker Sylvain Chomet gave us the chunky, heroic Bruno in The Triplets of Belleville.

And then there’s Paul Fierlinger, the director/animator whose Still Life with Animated Dogs (2001) is a cinematic memoir of his relationship to his dogs, told with insight, tenderness and probity. No one is more observant, more loving toward dogs and at the same time less sentimental about them than Paul Fierlinger.

His newest feature, My Dog Tulip, is adapted from J.R. Ackerley’s 1956 memoir of the same name. A writer, poet and memoirist, Ackerley (1896–1967) was the literary editor of The Listener, a weekly BBC program, and the author of Hindoo Holiday. He never liked dogs until, in middle age, he adopted Queenie, a high-strung, overly barky, wildly possessive German Shepherd.

My Dog Tulip was shocking in 1956, primarily for its detailed descriptions of Queenie’s bodily functions and sex life, Ackerley’s frustrated efforts at mating her, and Queenie’s unfortunate habit of pooping at times and in places that embarrassed her owner. “Meaningless filth about a dog,” Dame Edith Sitwell called the book on its release. “Disgusting,” added Harold Nicholson.

“There is no doubt,” his biographer Peter Parker wrote, “that Ackerley thoroughly enjoyed shocking people.” To his friend, the poet Stephen Spender, Ackerley once said, “I am not anxious to spare the feelings of the philistines.”

But Tulip at the same time is an eloquent, carefully structured study in love and adaptation: Queenie’s slow process of domestication, and Ackerley’s simultaneous, latent awakening to joy. Queenie, he wrote, possessed “the art of life” and met each day “with the utmost eagerness and anticipation of pleasure.” Years later, when Queenie died, he said, “I would have immolated myself as a suttee. For no human would I ever have done such a thing.”

Ackerley was gay, openly so at a time when most homosexuals lived furtive lives and the simple expression of their love was still illegal in England (it was decriminalized in 1967). He spent his life seeking out his elusive “Ideal Friend,” but never found true companionship until he adopted a dog. Odd aside: Because Queenie’s name takes on a second meaning in gay culture, and was “likely to arouse titters among the literati,” said his friend Henry Reed, Ackerley renamed her Tulip for the book.

In his film, Paul Fierlinger, 74, repeats the long passages about poop, pee and doggie sex — and delivers them with the same thoroughness and matter-of-factness as Ackerley. He co-directed Tulip with his wife of 18 years, painter and landscaper Sandra Schuette Fierlinger, 56. Paul drew the illustrations and collaborated on the script with Ackerley biographer Peter Parker; Sandra colored the drawings and backgrounds. Christopher Plummer is the voice of Ackerley, Isabella Rossellini is a wise veterinarian and Lynn Redgrave is Ackerley’s meddlesome sister Nancy.

The son of Czechoslovakian diplomats, Paul was born in 1936 in Ashyia, Japan, and lived in foster homes in the United States between the ages of three and 10. The next 20 years were spent in Prague — at 12, he made his first animated film by shooting drawings from a flipbook with a 16 mm Bolex — and in 1968 he returned to the United States for good. In addition to Still Life with Animated Dogs, he directed the onehour animated autobiography, Drawn from Memory (1995) and a film about drug and alcohol abuse, And Then I’ll Stop … (1989).

I spoke with the Fierlingers by telephone at their home in Wynnewood, Pa., and they answered follow-up questions by email. Paul, who still speaks with a slight Czech accent, did most of the talking. They share their lives with Gracie, a Corgi/German Shepherd mix, and Oscar, a Jack Russell Terrier.

Bark: Were you familiar with J.R. Ackerley before you started the film?
Paul: Oh yeah, mostly with the book My Dog Tulip. Once we decided to make the film, I got in touch with Peter Parker, the British writer who wrote a very extensive biography of J.R. Ackerley [The Life of J.R. Ackerley, 1989]. And then I read everything Ackerley ever wrote, including his letters.

Bark: When you were reading My Dog Tulip did you see yourself in J.R. Ackerley and the way he related to and described his dog?
Paul: Not in the least. Ackerley typifies the most common dog owner on the hill — whom he himself learned to detest in due course — a man in complete adulation for his dog’s size, shape and breed and totally oblivious of the animal’s true nature and needs. Ackerley, on top of being vain, was at times very lonely — which were fortunate circumstances for Tulip. This set of circumstances, including her being rescued by Ackerley from the grips of a very abusive previous owner, led to this ideal relationship of mutual tolerance and neediness.

Bark: Ackerley’s book, I would guess, has a resonance with dog people, which is an intensity that non-dog people don’t understand. Were you able to appreciate Ackerley’s obsession because you feel the same about dogs?
Paul: I chose My Dog Tulip to become our movie exactly for the book’s endearing (to me) quirkiness. When you look at Amazon.com under My Dog Tulip you’ll see that half the readers who wrote reviews hate it and half of them love it. I assume the same thing will happen to the film. In hindsight, I think it might have been a mistake. We got ourselves into dangerous waters: If I had picked another book we could’ve perhaps had an easier time finding theatrical distribution.

Bark: What appealed to you about the way Ackerley describes his relationship with this dog?
Paul: What was appealing to me was that he didn’t know dogs at all [before Tulip]. And then I found out, reading his other material, he actually disliked dogs. He was annoyed by them. He was very intolerant of dogs barking in the neighborhood. And then here he got, in Tulip, the worst kind of neurotic barker.

Bark: Is there a large percentage of your script that’s taken verbatim from the book?
Paul: I would say 80 percent, actually.

Bark: What was there in Ackerley’s writing that made you want to make this film?
Paul: What appealed to me was his King’s English and the way he spoke it. You don’t have to actually listen to Ackerley speak it; you can hear it in his writing. It’s beautiful prose. And he’s talking about dog shit.

Bark: A lot!
Paul: Yes, and the contrast of the two I always found amusing. When you say “a lot,” I think I know what you mean by that. You probably wish there were less, right? You know how this happened to me? I was so fixated on getting everything right. I always believed that film directors should be faithful to the book. So I needed to know everything about Ackerley. That’s how it happened that I had too much of the scatological stuff.

Bark: I found it odd and a bit unnerving to see Ackerley walking Tulip without a leash.
Paul: Ackerley was very proud of her for that — he always carried a leash but used it only when he could expect trouble from authorities, though even in those cases it wasn’t really necessary. Our dogs are like that, too. Also, in those days, there weren’t any leash laws.

Bark: … and then often not picking up after Tulip when she “fouls the footway.” People had different standards in the 1950s, but I’m wondering if it was difficult for you to illustrate irresponsible dog-owner behaviors without commenting on them?
Paul: Poop-picking laws only began in the late 1970s here, and even later in Europe. But [Tulip] was out on the farm or the woods when she pooped without him picking it up. Not on the street. Back in the ’50s and ’60s in Europe responsible dog owners trained their dogs to poop on the street, next to the sidewalks, what was considered the gutter. Streets were swept early, every morning, even in Communist countries.

Bark: Christopher Plummer was close to 80 when he recorded the voice of Ackerley, even though Ackerley was in his fifties during his Tulip years.
Paul: I had a different type of personality in mind. Specifically, Jeremy Irons, because I had met him briefly in London, through a friend, many years ago. I spent the whole afternoon with him. He came with his dog and his wife; he’s a great dog lover. So I really wanted him, and when I read Ackerley I heard Jeremy’s voice, his delivery and personality — which is so different from Christopher Plummer’s. After we were told Jeremy Irons couldn’t do it, we decided on Christopher Plummer, which made things easier anyway because we didn’t have to go to London to record him. All the other British speaking parts then turned out to be available in New York — and very good ones, too. To tell you the truth, and you might find this hard to believe, I had no idea who Christopher Plummer was. I still haven’t seen The Sound of Music.

Bark: The way you portray dogs in your films is never sentimental, and yet there’s great affection and love. Where do you think that restraint comes from?
Paul: I love and am in awe of nature. So I understand nature, I understand that dogs don’t think like humans and are nothing like humans at all. And it’s what I respect in dogs. I think from a very early age I was in awe of the strangeness of the relationship between dogs and humans — that it can at all exist. It has been important to me throughout my career to portray nature accurately. From a very young age, I disliked Disney and loved The Little Prince because the fox explains to the boy [in The Little Prince] what he must do to tame him, the fox. If the fox would know this, wasn’t he already tame? But instinctively — I was seven or eight at the time — I understood that it shows Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s understanding of nature. He wasn’t violating any rules, whereas Disney violated all the rules of nature. That’s what I want our film to be: the opposite of 101 Dalmatians. So that people would not want to buy a dog after they saw Tulip. like too many people do who watch Disney movies.

Bark: This is your second animated dog movie, following the wonderful Still Life with Animated Dogs. Which dog behaviors and movements are the most difficult to draw and animate?
Paul: The subtle facial expressions — for instance when the ears drop down to signal submission; or fold back, signaling aggression; or somewhere in between those two, to signal fear. How do you get the precise shape and motion just right in a succession of 12 two-dimensional pen-and-ink drawings? And just think of what goes into the body and four legs of a lying-down dog when he suddenly stands up and turns 180° at the same time. Consider even the wagging of a tail, viewed in direct profile. Think of a Jack Russell’s stubby tail wagging left and right while watching it from the height of another dog, in profile. Many animators will avoid that view altogether, or end up drawing the tail pumping in and out of the dog’s rectum.
Sandra: The painting of their coats [is the most difficult]. I don’t use flat colors. Each frame is a small painting by itself and Tulip was made of six colors, painted with texture and blended together. The coat patterns and spots had to be kept, frame to frame, consistent with her body actions.

Bark: Did you spend a lot of time studying your dogs, Gracie or Oscar, while working on Tulip?
Paul: Both, but mostly Gracie. Sandra found her on the side of Highway 95 in the Carolinas. She was emaciated and still very young: a Corgi/German Shepherd mix with a big dog’s head on a small dog’s body. She looked like a Photoshop dog.

Bark: You seem to be an old-school traditionalist in your animation style. Do you use any current technology?
Paul: It’s all drawn within the computer. And Sandra paints that way, too. We do this through special software using the Wacom tablet. You draw on this tablet equipped with thousands of tiny pressure points using an electronic stylus, which is shaped like a pen so that the drawing appears on the computer screen in front of your face instead of the surface of your tablet. So you’re not looking at your drawing hand while drawing; you’re looking at the screen where the drawing is appearing, unobstructed by your hand. It’s called paperless 2-D animation, or computer-assisted drawing.

Bark: How long have you been using that?
Paul: Since the software came out in 1992 or ’93. It makes drawing much faster. It speeds up my production by fourfold at least. It took us two-and-a -half years to make the film. For a fully animated 80-minute film, it’s about the same that it takes the big studios to make their films with a staff of hundreds.

Bark: What are you working on now?
Paul: We’re working on the story of Joshua Slocum. He lived at the end of the 19th century. He was a New Englander and he was the first man to circumnavigate the globe solo in a sailboat. No one had ever done that before.
Sandra: Now we’re making six commercials for the Humane Society. It’s all dogs and a few cats, too.

Bark: Has your own relationship with dogs changed as a result of making these last two films?
Paul: No, not really. I’ve lived with dogs my entire life and I’m at home with them. But I also like to sail. Sandra sails, too, and up until recently we had a sailboat. I always believed animators and writers should draw and write about the things they know well. So the next natural thing was to do a sailing story. It’s just as difficult to animate large bodies of water as it is to draw bodies of dogs.