A few of us saw "Year of the Dog" last night. It's a story about a woman who after losing her beloved dog, becomes a vegan and an animal activist. Below I've posted reviews of the film from DawnWatch and An Animal-Friendly Life (http://ananimalfriendlylife.com/)
. I'm glad I saw it but it wasn't quite what I was expecting and while it may plant seeds of awareness about animal exploitation in the minds of the general audience, it does so at the expense of making vegans and animal rights activists look quirky and maybe even (cringe) downright crazy. If you haven't yet seen "Year of the Dog," and prefer to see it with an "open mind" you can skip these reviews until after you see the film.
DawnWatch: "Year of the Dog" has opened this weekend -- 4/13/07
A few weeks ago I wholeheartedly recommended Amazing Grace as powerful
feel-good movie bound to appeal to anybody involved in social justice
movements, including animal rights. On Thursday I saw another animal
friendly film, the Sundance festival hit, "Year of the Dog."
While I also recommend this film, I do so with a couple of caveats: It
is quirky. If you love Mike White films, you will love it, if you
generally hate them, you will probably have some problems with this one. I
think, however, all animal advocates will be glad they saw it. I saw it
at a screening full of animal people who generally adored it. I had
somewhat mixed but mostly positive feelings about it, and find that days
later it is still on my mind -- an unusual film feat.
My mixed feelings came from my discomfort at seeing animal rights
activists portrayed as utter dweebs, and even worse, as crazy. This is what
Manohla Dargis's New York Times review says about the film and its
"'Year of the Dog' is exactly the kind of story you would expect Mr.
White to make for his directing debut. It's funny ha-ha but firmly in
touch with its downer side, which means it's also funny in a kind of
existential way. It stars the comic Molly Shannon as a woman who discovers
her true self through a love of animals, though, not that kind of love.
She?s not Catherine the Great, just Peggy the Good. It?s a film
about what it means to devote yourself to something other than your fears
and desires, to shed that hard, durable shell called selfishness. It
is, rather remarkably, an inquiry into empathy as a state of grace. And
if that sounds too rarefied for laughs, rest assured, it's also about a
stone-cold beautiful freak."
I wouldn't call Peggy a "freak" -- in fact one delightful aspect of the
film is the way it reminds us that most people are odd in some way or
other. But Peggy, the animal rights activist, seems odder than most,
which brought about my discomfort. Yet I think Manohla Dargis later sums
up that issue perfectly with the lines:
"In its broad outline, 'Year of the Dog' is the story of a woman who
goes slightly bonkers and becomes an animal-rights advocate, not because
she?s bonkers, but because the love of animals is where she finally
finds her peace of mind, sense of self, grace."
Dargis continues: "It's also about the creation of conscience, about
what makes us human and why, a surprisingly little-told story in
contemporary American cinema."
Dargis's whole review is positive and smart and well worth reading, but
if I were planning on seeing the film I would wait till afterwards to
read her review as she gives so much of the plot away. Once you have
seen the film, or now if you don't mind having crucial scenes foretold in
advance, you can read the Times review on line athttp://movies2.nytimes.com/2007/04/13/movies/13dog.html
Saturday Night Live's Molly Shannon is backed by a great comedy cast
including Laura Dern, Regina King , Thomas McCarthy, Josh Pais, Peter
Sarsgaard and John C. Reilly.
As I have noted before, the best way to encourage animal friendly films
is to go see them. The box office the opening weekend is closely
monitored, so if you are thinking of seeing a flick tonight or tomorrow, I
would recommend checking out "Year of the Dog."
Once you have seen it, don't forget that reviews or mentions of the
film in celebrity interviews in your local paper present a perfect
opportunity for letters to the editor about animal adoption, or any aspect of
Always include your full name, address, and daytime phone number when
sending a letter to the editor.
Yours and the animals',
(DawnWatch is an animal advocacy media watch that looks at animal
issues in the media and facilitates one-click responses to the relevant
media outlets. You can learn more about it, and sign up for alerts athttp://www.DawnWatch.com
. You may forward or reprint DawnWatch alerts
if you do so unedited -- leave DawnWatch in the title and include this
parenthesized tag line. If somebody forwards DawnWatch alerts to you,
which you enjoy, please help the list grow by signing up. It is free.)
An Animal-friendly Life (http://ananimalfriendlylife.com/
Review: "Year of the Dog"
I came home moments ago from seeing Mike White's Year of the Dog, and wanted to get my thoughts down while they were fairly fresh. Be warned that some of you may consider a few things I write below to be "spoilers." Also bear in mind that the film is currently only playing in Los Angeles and New York. The studio division, Paramount Vantage, actually asked audience members to fill out surveys that may perhaps be used to help market an expansion of the film.
Year of the Dog portrays the transformation--the self-realization, really--of Peggy (Molly Shannon), a woman whose beloved canine companion, Pencil, dies unexpectedly. The writer/director, Mike White, has had a rather successful run as a screenwriter (Nacho Libre, The School of Rock, The Good Girl, Orange County), and this film marks his first time directing one of his own scripts.
White is (evidently a sometime-)vegan, transformed similarly by his own experience with a cat, but he knows that movies are, first and foremost, entertainment. Of course, this means that a story needs to be told, and it has to go somewhere, typically climaxing at some previously inconceivable point that has major ramifications for the protagonist. Unfortunately, in this and many other movies, such a necessity often leads to story points late in the film that some viewers find objectionable for whatever reason.
I wish I could recommend Year of the Dog unreservedly, but I did have some concerns I'd like to share with you. Before I get in to those, I do want to say that some vegans and animal rights activists are likely to enjoy the film (despite the fact that it couldn't be made without actually using animals). There is much for such audiences to relate to in the film--this is Peggy's "vegan story," after all--and it is a refreshing to see entertainment that speaks to how we see the world. When can you say that? (I think I smell a Genesis Award in the coming...)
While I can potentially see some positive outcomes for animals and their advocates as this film is seen by more people, there are also some potential negatives that concern me. As a vegan animal rights activist, it's hard to say how much these concerns are warranted. It would have been helpful many times during the screening if I could have read the minds of those around me. I wanted to know how the general public perceived certain lines, plot points, or character choices that held great meaning for someone like myself.
To knock down one of the more obvious potential negatives, it is possible that the obvious links to PETA--certainly one of the most recognized animal protection groups on the planet--will discredit certain aspects of the film in some people's minds. I can understand adding the "brand value" of the organization, but there is a possibility that negative associations with PETA may cause the information incorporated into the storyline to be suspect for some audience members.
All the same, White sends Peggy on a journey that he clearly wants the audience to share. He doesn't shrink from showing close-ups of hens captive in battery cage egg operations, birds crammed in cages as they are transported by truck, a cow with mastitis, and so on. Peggy does, in fact, go vegan.
On the flip side, this choice is driven by an interesting relationship with Newt (Peter Sarsgaard), who works at the local SPCA where Peggy takes Pencil for medical treatment before he dies. Newt gets in touch with her to suggest she adopt Valentine, an abused dog with special needs, and he offers to help her train him. They end up spending time together and, in addition to turning her on to a plant-based diet, she develops feelings for the sexually ambiguous vegan. While many people have been drawn toward veganism by someone they cared about, there are some problems with this arrangement, at least to my mind.
It's not that this set-up doesn't make the characters more interesting. It's just that we see her filling a rather large hole in her life with another animal lover who can't return her affections. Also, Newt is seen as effeminate, which perhaps plays into the "soy makes you gay" contingent. Everything is so representative in art, it seems. There's numerous other little brushstrokes that, while they make for richer characters, don't do vegans any favors. I love that White doesn't make anyone perfect in his movies, but it's hard not to think about how people watching this movie will perceive vegans after they come out of it, especially since most people may not be aware it was written and directed by a vegan.
Most of the strengths of this piece, and much of White's writing, is in the details, the flourishes that generate insight, reveal character, and make everything seem more real yet quirky at the same time. After all, doesn't everyone have their own quirks? Through these grace notes, White captures a lot of key moments that reminded me of incidents in my own life. Perhaps that biases me, but it seemed that these knowing details were perhaps the most effective in getting audience members to empathize with Peggy, or at least to understand how she sees the world differently from most people now.
Many animal rights activists and vegans will nod with familiarity, roll their eyes, or perhaps even laugh and smile as they hear protestations of certain characters when they say they eat free range and organic. We will recognize her look of disgust when she sees her friend's fiance tearing flesh from the barbecued ribs of a cow. This last moment in particular seemed highly effective in conveying Peggy's state of mind to the audience with whom I saw the film.
But grace notes don't add up enough to really help the audience identify with Peggy and understand how she ends up doing the things she does, like forging her boss's signature to donate hundreds of dollars to animal sanctuaries or sign petitions. I mean, it would never occur to me that someone would do this, and it compromises her character quite seriously, which is to some extent necessitated by the dramatic storytelling conventions, I suppose. Still, I can only just understand her desperation to help animals enough that I see how it's possible for her to go there, even though I can't fathom doing it myself. I can only wonder what someone who isn't an animal advocate would think.
What I wanted to see was a way in to Peggy that everyone could relate to. After all, many people have lost pets, but it sure hasn't made everyone become a vegan animal rights activist. If so, we would certainly be living in a much different world! I imagine my expectations were rather unrealistic. Even if Mike White could figure out how to get everyone inside Peggy's head and truly experience her transformation for themselves, it's possible they may not have allowed themselves to connect. If there's one thing I've learned as an animal advocate, there's no one approach that affects everyone, and some people seem like they will never get it, or allow themselves to, anyway. I just worry that Peggy is as much of an outsider to the audience at the end of the movie as she was at the beginning, if not more so.
Peggy's niece gives me one more reason to hope this isn't the case. She was the one other human character that validated her to some meaningful degree, children being more sensitive to animal suffering in general. But even this gets dicey. At one point in the film, Peggy takes her niece to an animal sanctuary without permission, and then tries to take her to a "poultry" processing plant, though that mission is aborted at the front gates of the facility. There's some humor in there, but there is also discomfort in the way she sort of hijacks this child's understanding of what is real, considering the way her parents keep her in a little bubble. In the end, though, it seems her niece is the one person that gets what it means to be kind to animals, and she upsets her mother quite a bit when she tells her she doesn't want a ham sandwich!
Despite White's gift for nuance, there is rather a lot of astonishingly frank dialogue between the characters, much of which seemingly does little to move the story forward. While these plainspoken passages about animal exploitation do speak to Peggy's own journey in understanding the horrors of animal abuse, including fur and animal testing, it all felt almost too direct or "on-the-nose" to me, and I wonder whether might have come off preachy to the average person. I just don't know. It certainly is unusual, if not refreshing, to see these issues broached so openly in a narrative film. Again, I wished I could have read the minds of those around me during this film so I could better evaluate the impact of this approach.
I did like that my fellow viewers were exposed to so many horrors during the film (not graphically so), as well as the joy of rescued animals at a sanctuary, but I can't help wishing it had been portrayed more subtly and artfully. I think a lot of this directness would have been more engaging if the audience was brought into a state of understanding that drew them in to Peggy's point of view, whereas the effect may have actually been more distancing. This is one of those complaints that would probably be less of an issue had Peggy been someone that audience members could find themselves caring about and relating to more.
Instead, as both a realistic portrayal of some people, and a dramatic way to move the story forward, even the sweet Newt "lets her down" and she becomes even more withdrawn when it comes to other people. Of course, animals aren't perfect either, as the abused dog she adopted at Newt's suggestion bites her hand. Despite this experience, she rescues 15 more dogs from being killed, ultimately becoming a mini-hoarder as her life spirals out of control and her place is destroyed by all the dogs. Yes, we are getting close to reaching the climax here. You have to raise the stakes, right? True enough, but this also makes her look crazy to everyone in the film, and likely to most of the people watching it.
Peggy reinforces the notion that "animal people" are not "people people." While I have certainly met my share of those people in the animal protection movement and could be accused of the same personality at various points in my life, I worry that this is a stereotype, and serves to further distance the audience from relating to Peggy or otherwise connecting with the idea that being more compassionate to animals or being vegan could be right for them. Instead, she's one of "those people." The only time she feels like she gets other people--the only time she seems to feel entirely comfortable in her own skin--is when she is surrounded by other activists headed to a demonstration against testing cosmetics on rabbits.
Unfortunately, the nature of movies is that character development is necessarily compressed (and often engaging in a heightened portrayal of reality), further enhancing this somewhat crazy characterization. Fortunately, no one in a Mike White film is portrayed as 100% right or perfect. Everyone in Peggy's life has some fault and, just like animals, is an individual. While Peggy might have the wide-eyed finger-wagging touch of the newly-converted, her sister-in-law declaims that no, she's not wearing mink; it's rabbit. Certainly many audience members will side with Peggy on this one, and the crowd with whom I watched the movie tonight did for the most part seem to get her exasperation.
I would like to say that Mike White has made a film that will help all non-vegans understand vegans, much less animal rights activists, and that would inspire people to go vegan, but I can't say that this is such a film. While veganism and animal protection are very much the fabric of Year of the Dog, White never seemed to find a way to put the audience in Peggy's shoes. We certainly see her progression from distraught pet owner to animal testing protester but, at the end of the day, she's still an outsider.
So I don't know if I would recommend this to friends or family, necessarily. Thinking about my own friends and family, I don't see this being a portrayal of transformation that I'm entirely comfortable sharing with them. The film doesn't adequately explain to them who I've become and what I'm about, and could well send the wrong message, honestly.
I state this despite a moving scene at the end of the film that does seem to capture the essence of a life transformed. As Peggy rides the bus to the rabbit testing demonstration, surrounded by kind and warm-looking activists, she shares in voiceover the contents of a mass email to all her friends, colleagues and family. She acknowledges that she has transformed into someone she knows they may not understand--may even think is crazy--but who has never felt more comfortable with who she is. It's a fine sentiment--and I related to it so powerfully that I was moved to tears--but I have to wonder whether the general public will have a similar response. Perhaps we can be optimistic and hope that, like Peggy's boss, they may find themselves mysteriously touched, not as transformed as Peggy, but pushed ever-so-slightly toward a more animal-friendly life.
I am very interested to know what kind of impact this movie does have on non-vegans and non-animal advocates. Hopefully I'm wrong about some of my assessments. Please share any experiences you have with the film and any friends and/or family of yours that see the film if it plays in your area, or when it comes out on video or cable. Maybe this is one of those movies that will do more than simply entertain.