By Matt Singer
[Photo: Molly Shannon in “Year of the Dog,” Paramount Vantage, 2007]
Year of the Dog
Mike White’s characters are all cut from the same swatch of alienated cloth: prone to obsession and often a little touched in the head, they struggle to live within the norms of adult society. Even the most innocuous of White’s characters like a Nacho Libre, or Dewey Finn from “School of Rock” are, at best, lovable eccentrics. Not for nothing was White a writer and supervising producer on the beloved television show “Freaks and Geeks.” He’s practically American film’s foremost authority on the subject.
His latest tour into personal peculiarity is also his directorial debut. “Year of the Dog” follows a particularly Whiteian heroine: a spinster named Peggy (Molly Shannon) who lives in perfect utopia with her darling beagle Pencil. But when her dog dies suddenly (of mysterious poisoning), Peggy’s life spirals into chaos. She tries to fill the void with a new dog (a much less cute, much meaner German Shepherd named Valentine) and with relationships with two diametrically opposed men: a schlubby part-time hunter named Al (John C. Reilly) and an animal shelter employee and vegan named Newt (Peter Sarsgaard). We can relate to Peggy’s pain Pencil’s every glance is like a dagger to the heart of unadulterated cuteness but at a certain point grief gives way to scary, even dangerous behavior.
White’s produced more mainstream films, like his Jack Black collaborations, but “Year of the Dog” is a lot closer in tone to his breakthrough screenplay, 2000’s “Chuck & Buck,” in which an emotionally immature man reconnects with a childhood friend with stalkerish results. Both films begin with the sudden death of character that upends the apple cart that is the hero’s existence (in “Chuck & Buck,” it’s Buck’s mom that croaks) and both films start with humor that gives way to more uncomfortable chuckles until you’re fidgeting in your seat. Though “Year of the Dog”‘s trailer sells the film as a sweet romantic comedy, be forewarned: this film goes to some dark places.
That’s not a criticism, mind you, merely an observation. Grief can do terrible things to people, and it certainly does to Peggy. That’s not to discount the obvious affection White has for her, and really all of his characters, which never wavers, even when the audience begins to: he loves them for their flaws, not in spite of them. As “Year of the Dog” progresses, it becomes more clear that Pencil’s death didn’t cause the problems in Peggy’s life, it merely uncovered them. When she becomes a vegan in response to her growing obsession with protecting animals, Peggy tells her sister-in-law (Laura Dern), “It’s nice to have a word that describes you. I’ve never had that before.”
As a first-time director, White’s technique is relaxed and assured, and he pulls good, understated performances from Shannon and Reilly (and an appropriately exaggerated one from Sarsgaard). I particularly liked his use of close-ups in dialogue scenes that aren’t as close as they should or would typically be. As a result, Peggy is put at a distance, not only from the audience but from the other characters in the film. She is always at a remove from people, who, she remarks on more than one occasion, always let her down in ways that animals don’t. Once Pencil is gone, no one can get close to her.
The movie has a few good laughs (particularly from Peggy’s excitable co-worker Layla, who announces her engagement with the line, “I guess all my whining paid off and I’m not even pregnant!”) but this is White undiluted by collaborators who might want to push him more towards the mainstream. Here, he’s allowed to be as prone to obsession and as touched in the head as he wants.
“Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis”
“Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis,” also opening this week, is another portrait of obsession. Smith was a member of the New York avant-garde art scene in the 1960s and 1970s who became infamous when his film “Flaming Creatures,” an orgy of glitter, chiffon and orgies, was deemed so obscene that public screenings were raided and prints confiscated by the police. Smith hated the notoriety and what he considered the monetary exploitation that followed in its wake, when cinephiles like Jonas Mekas started hosting screenings of “Flaming Creatures” without consent or compensation. As a result, he never truly finished another project for the rest of his career.
Most artists have their share of quirks, but Smith was a flat-out iconoclast, a rabid anti-capitalist with a fervid love of trash (literally one friend recalls a story where the pair were walking down the street and Smith stopped to rearrange garbage in the gutter to make it more aesthetically pleasing). Throughout the 70s and 80s, Smith held endless improvisational plays in his loft; as the story goes, one night no one showed up and Smith went on and performed all night anyway (don’t ask me how they know that if no one showed up). In the years after “Flaming Creatures,” Smith kept his work in a constant state of flux. At the only public showing of one of his later films, he was editing the raw footage in the projection booth in the middle of the screening. “I want to be uncommercial film personified,” Smith said, and he meant it.
Mary Jordan’s doc includes tons of great Smith material, which, per the artist’s nature, has been difficult to see for years, even before his death from AIDS in 1989. Still, at 95 minutes, without any discussion of his life outside of his art, “Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis” is a little thin on material, and by the second hour it falls into a bit of a sour grapes rut. (For someone who was so uninterested in ownership, Smith was sure obsessed with other people’s money). I felt like I learned a great deal about Smith the artist, and only a little about Smith the man. Perhaps Jordan’s point is that to Smith, the two aspects were one and the same.