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.