Sunday, January 19, 2014

Two Dead Dogs

People are strangely fascinated with dead dogs, which is probably the reason that a dead dog has turned up in many popular films.  These furry corpses most often serve as a harbinger of death and mayhem.  A dead dog with stab wounds or a snapped neck will make the protagonist aware that a homicidal maniac is on the loose and his life is in danger.  This was certainly the case in Rear Window (1954), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Halloween (1978), The Thing (1982) and, most recently, Evil Dead (2013).  Even when the dead dog isn't slaughtered by a homicidal maniac, it tends to portend death.  This thriller standard is evident in Of Mice and Men (1939), Cool Hand Luke (1967), Badlands (1973), Se7en (1995) and Cabin Fever (2002).  Dead dogs can sometimes be sad, as in Old Yeller (1957), and sometimes be funny, as in National Lampoon's Vacation (1983).  It is an example of the blackest of humor when Chevy Chase forgets he tied a dog to his car's bumper and drives off at high speed with the dog dragging behind him.  But, believe it or not, I have found two rare instances in which a dead dog allowed a filmmaker to blunt the harsh edges of a dark tale.

The first film up for discussion is Wonder Boys, arguably the most overrated movie of 2000.  A big problem for me was that the film reminded me of a much better French film that I had seen in the late seventies.  The French movie, which was released in 1978, was called La  tortue sur le dos, which translates into English as Like a Turtle on its Back.  It had the same basic plot.  A writer enjoyed acclaim for turning out a brilliant first novel, but he subsequently came down with writer's block and wasn't been able to produce a follow-up.  He had come down with a drastic case of sophomore slump.

The writer in Wonder Boys, played by Michael Douglas, doesn't seem to have it so bad despite his writer's block.  He's making a living as a college professor.  He's attending cocktail parties where people still tell him how great his book is and do their best to suck up to him.  His wife has left him (for reasons that the filmmakers never bother to explain), but he hardly seems to care as he is busy canoodling with the dean's wife.  In the writer's nice little world, his agent has somehow managed to remain best friends with him.  Why exactly?  The agent has every right to disown this unproductive client, especially as his failure has both damaged the agent's reputation and diminished his bank balance.  The reasons don't really matter in the end.  The bottom line is that none of this makes for an engrossing film.  Where's the crisis?  Where's the conflict?  Where's the drama?  Oh, I remember, the professor and one of his students get attacked by the dean's dog and end up shooting it.  They hide the dead dog in the trunk of the professor's car and panic at every contrived instance when someone asks to put something into the trunk or take something out of the trunk.  Toward the end of the film, people are noticing the odor of rotting flesh coming from the trunk.  This is supposed to be good for even more laughs.  Someone will mention the suspicious smell and this will give Douglas the opportunity to mug to the camera.  The movie wasn't much more sophisticated than Dude, Where's my Car?, which came out the same year.  But critics included the movie in their Top Ten lists at the end of the year and couldn't explain the reason that the general public had rejected it.  What did they expect? 

Let's compare this with that other film about writer's block, La  tortue sur le dos.  Paul (Jean-François Stévenin), the writer of the story, is having serious financial problems.  And that should be the main problem in a story about writer's block.  If writing is your livelihood and you're not writing, then it follows that your main problem will be money.  Paul has spent a generous advance, which doesn't make him popular with his publisher.  He might as well be dead as far as his agent is concerned.  His wife had to go back to work to support them and she has come to resent her useless partner.  She has found it best for her peace of mind to simply ignore him.  It has become so painful for him to sit idly at his typewriter that he usually spends his days wandering the streets.  This empty, ineffectual man feels like a bum on his best days and a ghost on his worst days.

One day, Paul drops into a movie theatre hoping a movie will take his mind off his troubles.  He meets a college girl, Nathalie (Virginie Thévenet).  She does more than the movie to take his mind off his troubles.  Nathalie makes him feel truly alive again.  But, then, he gets the young woman pregnant, which abruptly ends his romantic illusions about their relationship.  Nothing can be more real for a broke writer than having his gal pal tell him he's going to be a daddy.  Nathalie can tell Paul isn't happy to hear she's pregnant, which causes her to lose her temper and break up with him.  His wife finds out about Nathalie and kicks him out.  He's walking down a rainy street, homeless, penniless and friendless, when Nathalie's father catches up to him and punches him hard enough to knock him to the ground.  The father continues to beat him, leaving him off so badly that he has to be hospitalized.  This provides a lot more drama than a smelly dead dog in a car trunk.

What was the point of the dead dog in Wonder Boys?  I could be generous and say that the dead dog symbolized the writer's creative muse, which had sputtered, collapsed and died.  So, now, the writer is feeling burdened to drag this dead thing around and having nosy people threaten to expose the putrid thing.  In the end, though, the dead dog was a silly plot device that served to mitigate the bleakness in a story about a writer who can't write.

Now, let's look at another film that made dubious use of a dead dog.  Insomnia (2002) was the film that really made me wonder what happened to Al Pacino.  I couldn't imagine that a ham actor could stay alive sword-swallowing that much scenery.  The paint, the glue, the nails, the plasterboard… that stuff is bound to kill you.  The title Insomnia is appropriate as our star keeps shouting his lines to keep the viewer from nodding off.  Pacino has never been right since the race car drama Bobby Deerfield  (1977).  What did that film do to him exactly?  It is possible that he suffered brain damage sniffing the exhaust fumes or it could be that, by driving too fast, he rattled loose vital grey matter in his braincase.  All I know is that, ever since that film, Pacino has been permanently enrolled in the Hoo-Hah School of Overacting.

Pacino has been useful to filmmakers looking to avoid subtly.  Insomnia was a remake of a 1997 Norwegian movie of the same name.  The original version opens with a man walking off a plane.  You have an understanding of this man as soon as you see his grim and tired face.  This is a man who's seen too much and it's taken its toll on him.  Pacino, as the same character, has to bellow how he's seen too much and it's taken its toll on him.  He makes a speech about this in the airport.  He makes another speech when he arrives at his hotel.  And, for latecomers, he makes a third speech when he has dinner at a restaurant.  This tumult could not have been more different than the original Insomnia, praised by film critic Steve Rhodes for being "lean" and "economically directed."  The Norwegian original was effective for its stoic and ambiguous characters.  That's not to say the original was a classic.  For my tastes, the film could at times be too spare and subdued.  But, still, it towered head and shoulders over something as contrived and bloated as the remake.

When they made the original, the filmmakers didn't care if the audience liked their main character, Detective Engström (Stellan Skarsgård).  But, no, Hollywood producers weren't willing at the time to take that risk.  They would risk boring an audience, but they would never risk angering or alienating an audience.  So, scriptwriter Hillary Seitz made it a priority to develop and maintain sympathy for Pacino's detective character.

In the original, the story takes a turn when the detective accidentally shoots his partner while in pursuit of a murderer.  The incident unhinges the detective, whose reputation as an expert detective is his one accomplishment in life.  He slowly loses his grip on both morality and sanity.  He lies to his colleagues and goes about covering up his mistake.  His first task is to find a dog that he saw in an alley earlier that day.  He beckons the dog with a treat.  The lean and hungry mutt does not hesitate to approach him.  Engström lets the dog eat the treat out of his hand before he draws back his revolver and shoots the helpless creature.  The scene is not played for shock value.  The detective acts with a ruthless efficiency.  All he cares about is digging the spent bullet out of the dog and using it to replace the bullet that killed his partner.  In the meantime, he remains on the hunt for the murderer.  Later, he becomes frustrated while interrogating a cocky teenage girl.  To get her to provide vital information, he takes to intimidating her and goes as far as thrusting his hand up her skirt.  In the end, he is even willing to conspire with the murderer to protect his dark secret.

The detective ends the movie having in no way redeemed himself.  Another detective, Hilde Hagen (Gisken Armand), turns up evidence against him, but she hands him the evidence as he is packing to leave.  She doesn't say much, but you can tell from her face that she feels both disgust and pity for the man.  She thinks enough of his accomplishments as a detective not to arrest him, but she's disappointed in what he's done and just wants to see him leave town.  That was a lot more powerful than the maudlin way these characters resolve the same conflict in the Hollywood version.  Pacino, shot and dying, is cradled in the arms of Hillary Swank.  He has given his life to rescue her from a killer and he's expressing his regret as she drenches him in crocodile tears.  She promises, right before he dies, that she'll destroy the evidence of his cover-up.

But Pacino has had a bunch of halos piled on his head prior to the fatal climax.  The main reason Pacino talks so much about his career in the opening act is so he can let the audience know the great things he's done.  He talks about the murderers he's caught.  He tells how he arrested a man who tortured and murdered children.  You're ready to forgive this supercop almost anything.  But that's not all.  The point is made that, if something he's done wrong discredits him, there are corrupt lawyers willing to use that mistake to discredit his past cases and possibly free all those murderers.  So, now, you have to support his cover up unless you want more little kids tortured and murdered.

Even then, they won't let Pacino shoot a dog or molest a teenage girl.  It was laughable when a guilt-ridden Pacino stumbles blindly through an alley and conveniently finds a dead dog to shoot.  Think about this for a moment.  The filmmakers were willing to preserve sympathy for Pacino's character with a pre-dead dog.  Again, the dead dog was introduced to blunt the drama.

The Hollywood version even had to sanitize a minor character, a hotel desk clerk.  In the original, Engström's partner Erik Vik (Sverre Anker Ousdal) is an old lecher who can't help flirting with the pretty young lady checking him into his room.  The clerk doesn't like his flirting and she lets him know it.  "Don't flirt with me," she coldly demands.  Ouch!  The next day, the clerk tells Engström she heard of his partner's death and she was sorry she treated him so harshly.  In the remake, the partner doesn't flirt with the clerk and all that the clerk tells the man is "I hope you have a good stay."  When the man dies the next day, she remarks to Pacino that she can't believe he was standing in front of her the night before.  "I hope I was nice to him," she says.  Lame. 

I learned a lot about storytelling from these two films and I cannot think about the films without remembering those two dead dogs, who gave their lives for safe drama. 

Additional Note

Wonder Boys was mainly hampered in its efforts to generate dramatic tension because its lead character was healthy, happy and financially secure.  The need for money can motivate bold and desperate action in a film.  If a character in a film has more than enough money to provide for his needs, it is harder to justify him having a compelling need to take dramatic action.  Money is contentment.  Money is an antidote to drama.  This can make rich people boring protagonists.  The wealthy noblemen in Shakespeare's plays had lives that were much more complex than the lives of wealthy people today.  Petty power struggles and wanton adultery bore me. 

Let's take, for example, This Is 40 (2012).  The film shows a couple enjoying an opulent lifestyle and then expects us to take it seriously when the couple later complains about financial problems.  In between scenes in which they complain about financial problems, they sneak off to an upscale resort for the weekend.  This undercuts the film's efforts to create dramatic tension. 

I am also reminded of the 1963 comedy The Thrill of It All, which involves the marital problems that result when a housewife (Doris Day) sets aside her domestic duties to star in television commercials for The Happy Soap Company.  It is emphasized in the story that Day is lured into the job by a hefty paycheck.  However, Day's husband (James Garner) is a successful obstetrician and he is able to more adequately provide for his family.  The subject of the paycheck comes up in many conversations, but no plot point is introduced to make the money significant to the story.  It's not going to pay for surgery that will enable a crippled child to walk, or pay for a long overdue honeymoon, or allow the couple to buy their dream house.  It is as if the filmmakers believe that money is money and no one needs a reason to want it.  But storytelling requires specific motivations, especially when Day's job as a pitchman goes on to create so much turmoil in her life.

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