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.
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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.