gall and gumption

Thursday, March 08, 2007

I Am So Glad...

... to find I'm not the only person who was bothered by the dog scenes in The Life Aquatic. When they sailed away and left the three-legged dog running along the beach I was so disgusted that I lost all further interest in the movie and didn't even finish it. That's the kind of smart-alecky too-clever-to-be-compassionate-or-loyal attitude that, in case you haven't noticed, I loathe as I loathe few things on this earth.

There is a real benefit to certain inhibitions: I mean, if you can't actually feel the distress of an abandoned animal then it's good at least to feel that it is something you should not enjoy or find amusement in. We do not suffer from a compassion glut in this world. And the costs of losing the inhibition against laughing at real unkindness is terrible -- a tolerance for cruelty, which will, in the end, make life even uglier.


At 11:55 PM, Anonymous paul k said...

As flies are to wanton boys, so are below-the-title characters to the gods of Hollywood. They kill them---animals or people---for sport, and of course for that anarcho-nihilist Taratinoid hipster cred that is de rigeur for any director on the make these days. If the victims are not human, so much the better: The "No Animal Was Harmed" end credit disclaimer will take care of most objections.

Most, but not all. A friend of mine who rescues greyhounds was likewise offended and made his displeasure known quite audibly during a screening at the local octoplex. He's the one who usually tells other noisy patrons to shut up. So clearly, as you note, it wasn't only your nerve that was touched by that scene.

Life Aquatic moves with all the grace of a stripper (either gender, thank you) in traction. That's deliberate on Wes Anderson's part, I think, since he's clearly way too cool to coddle the audience with the usual consolations of narrative structure and momentum. The film has a deliberately artificial, low-tech look that let's you know it's all just a fantasy, but then the tone starts to wobble when those realistic details like the machete in the guy’s shoulder and the dog abandoned on the beach. Did the poor mutt just wind up on the cutting room floor, or what? I doubt even the editor knows for sure. Why not try a variant of the old Burrogh’s cut-up/fold-in technique on the next one, using strips of film instead of scissored pages of prose? That’d be soooo cutting edge, dude.

Even though I’m gay, I did laugh when Murray deadpanned about that "slick faggot" Alistair and the "bulldyke" Jane because, well, it's Bill Murray. But come on, Wes: the ummm-naughty transgressive anti-PC shtick is getting old. "D+" on this one.

As I'm sure you're all too aware, this desensitization to the plight of our furry friends dovetails with the kind of desensitization you mentioned in your previous post. Having been part of the American health empire for over 20 years now (first as a medical reporter/editor, then off and on as a nurse), I can tell you that this boy isn't an isolated case and that it's getting worse out there by the minute. Back in 1970, Daniel Shore wrote a book called Don't Get Sick in America; that advice holds triply true 37years later. Our healthcare system is among the most inefficient, wasteful, and destructive in the industrialized world, and given the opposition that greets even modest proposals for reform, it's clear that nothing short of a revolution will ever change anything. Meanwhile those of us who work within the system try to make sure that most of our patients don't die of benign neglect or outright malfeasance. Needless to say, our work's never done.

P.S.: Of course, the great Hollywood tradition of mangling the classics didn’t start with Milton. The process of adaptation used to be called “licking,” on the analogy of the old folk belief that mother bears “licked” their new-born cubs into shape. But as Dwight Macdonald notes, the second sense of “licked”---i.e., “beaten”---also applies. The original material seldom survives its transition to the screen. A decade ago Shakespeare was a favorite source of prefab storylines, then Jane Austen, etc. Ever since Ben Hecht told a colleague that there was easy money to be made off the rubes here in La La Land, producers, directors, and writers have constantly been looking for ways to make it even easier, the lazy fucks. As Sonny and Cher used to say, the beat(ing) goes on.

Interestingly, John Collier, the Anglo-American writer best known for his short stories, also wrote an adaptation of the Milton epic titled Paradise Lost: Screenplay for Cinema of the Mind, published back in 1973. It's not awful, but it's hardly his best work either. I doubt he ever expected that it would actually get made into a movie. And this from the pen of a deeply cultivated guy whose prose style was formed under the influence of Joyce and the other modern masters. That’s how far we've come, or fallen.

At 6:18 AM, Blogger Kia said...

that anarcho-nihilist Taratinoid hipster cred that is de rigeur for any director on the make these days

... basically tired old decadent late-Romanticism recycled for the fifty gazillionth time. Late Romanticism meets late capitalism and you get the uberjerk.

Remember how after that movie "Arthur" all these guys started wearing those dreadful sweaters?

At 1:46 PM, Anonymous paul k said...

Remember how after that movie "Arthur" all these guys started wearing those dreadful sweaters?

Dear Gawd, I think you just depth-charged a repressed memory back to the surface. That's one trauma I did't particularly want to relive, but it could have been worse---say, those Saturday Night Fever white polyester suits, or Flashdance off-the-shoulder sweatshirts, both of which I was guilty of wearing, and often at the same time. Still, there's an instant barf-bagability about those sweaters that is definitely sui generis, the kind of fashion disaster that can only happen if you get caught between the moon and New York City. . .

At 12:22 AM, Blogger Chuckling said...

Poor chuckling is so shallow. I saw the movie twice with the family and we all liked it. Sadly, I don't even remember the dog scene, but given that both the Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum characters were extremely self-centered asses, is it not possilbe that their poor treatment of a three-legged animal was more telling characterization than throw away cruelty? I don't know. Next time we see it, I'll pay more attention

At 6:55 AM, Blogger Kia said...


I'm sure that the intent was, as you say, to indicate the self-absorption of the Murray and Goldblum characters. I'll be honest, I don't really like that character, which Bill Murray has been playing in some form since Saturday Night Live: a self-absorbed sarcastic boor who gets away with it most of the time. (I don't think Murray is this person in real life.) The narrative is almost always flirting with the idea of letting him get away with it all the time, because people keep being fascinated by the idea that this character represents: that all moral claims -- loyalty, compassion, candor, fairness -- are just retrograde hypocritical pieties for losers. And what are we supposed to infer about what is "real" and "authentic" in a character? Only their completely self-serving, selfish, bullying will to power? Says who?

It's not that you can never admire a bad character in literature. Don Giovanni in Mozart's opera is a totally amoral guy, full of energy, really possessed by his appetites, but one reason why you can stand to watch him (he's wonderful) is that he never actually gets away with anything. Whatever he might have been doing before you meet him, during the course of your acquaintance he will show his intent, but you will not see such intent rewarded with success. He commits one crime at the opening of the play and, challenged to repent, refuses. So then he goes to hell. He doesn't get away with it.

And when the Murray character leaves the dog on the island he does get away with it. That shocked and disgusted me. People do such things all the time and it's horrible to the animals, they suffer, dogs grieve terribly when they've been abandoned.

Personally, I find the idea of betraying an animal to such misery so awful that after the movie I had to keep saying to myself, "It's just a movie, the dog went home at the end of the day to his nice comfy life." Just so the horror would stop hitting me every time I thought of it.

And last of all, the disproportion between the suffering that the dog would experience and the laugh you were supposed to get at this bit of boundary-pushing: that's some dreadful terrain to go into, just to get a cheap laugh and make a point that's been made a thousand different ways already, a point that, in this instance, isn't even true. Compassion is not an empty piety.

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