Man’s Greatest Friend
Published on August 26th, 2010 | by Louis Hamwey1
The dog: man’s best friend. The statement is as old as the relationship itself. For thousands of years man has been domesticating dogs out of the need of their services in hunting and stalking, but only recently has that domestication come to serve a new purpose. With our food now conveniently located at corner markets, the dog now fills a void rather than job.
Her ability to love unconditionally and for us to give the same affection in return—despite the angst the animal can bring to the ordered home—is the focus of the J.R. Ackerley novel My Dog Tulip. Recently reissued in the U.S. by the New York Review of Books, it has become an instant bestseller and caught the attention of acclaimed animator Paul Fierlinger (“Still Life with Animated Dogs”). Along with his wife Sandra, Fierlinger brings the novel beautifully to the big screen as his impressionistic caricatures examine not only the relationship between man and dog, but man in general.
“My Dog Tulip” does not stray far from the novel with the main character being the bitter and mutually repugnant J.R. Ackerley (voiced by Christopher Plummer who also lent his voice for last year’s animation hit “Up”), himself narrating his own story (which he is writing for his novel—yes, it feels very “Adaptation” at times). From the opening moments we are greeted by the formality of detail (or as much detail as you could ever expect from Fierlinger) and an isolated Ackerley walking the gridlocked streets of London when a slate comes across the screen displaying:
“’Unable to love each other, the English naturally turn to dogs.”
And in typical movie magic, Ackerley—quite spontaneously—adopts a kind-eyed Alsatian pup named Tulip from a poor working family who could no longer shelter her.
From the onset, Tulip and Ackerley formed an inseparable bond, where each is dependent on one another for strength, encouragement, and wisdom. For Ackerley, she is the “ideal friend” he has been seeking in life; for Tulip he is the caring master who she can protect, as is her nature. (This pleasant union gets temporarily interrupted by Ackerley’s sister, Nancy (Lynn Redgrave); whose arrival, though a marvelous treat, becomes more burdensome than helpful in aiding her brother with taking care of Tulip). She is also very much the newborn equivalent for Ackerley—this being underscored by his studious examinations of Tulip’s bowel movements throughout the film’s onset.
In such scenes as these, Fierlinger employs his playful fantastical inserts which aid to reflect Ackerley’s attempt to make sense out of Tulip’s actions. These inserts are drawn more free-hand, with a yellow background appropriately bordered on the left with two parallel red lines and evenly spaced dark lines running horizontally across the screen to make these scenes appear to be sketches on a notepad. Just as Ackerley muses to himself about his ideas for his book (as most writers do), Fierlinger does the same, but in a physical notepad as most animators do. It is a striking moment where we are reminded that even though we are hearing the story of a writer we are watching the story of an animator.
From here the movie takes a new road, one that would parallel the rite of passage into adulthood for Tulip. Almost methodical about it, Ackerley focuses on attempting to give Tulip the pleasure of sex and childbirth by finding her mate after mate which she in turn rejects for no reason other than the pure fact that she does not need one.
On paper, this may seem all a bit odd (and a heavy dose of an Electra Complex for dear Tulip); however it’s presented with kindness and understanding—equivalent of the teenage daughter too interested in school and her home life to be interested in dating which her parents encourage.
Take for instance, when Ackerley brings Tulip to the south shore to mate with the German Shepherd Max (an aristocratic dog replete with nobility garb from the sixteenth century). (Max’s owners, straight out of Christopher Guest’s “Best in Show,” appear to be more stuck on the fact that their dog’s ancestry can be traced further back than their own). During the actual attempt at mating between the ill-paired dogs, Max’s owners sit by and sip tea as if at a cricket match, while Tulip rebuffs the advances of this exceptionally snobby animal. Revealingly, Ackerley begins to wonder if his desire for Tulip to have pups is no more than his natural human tendency to pity that which he does not understand and to impose his own belief of what is right onto others.
Fierlinger has crafted a masterpiece of the animated world out of Ackerley’s examination of his own relationship with his dog. But the true heart of the film is not revealed until the end when Fierlinger combines his absurdist’s caricature ideas—which are usually reserved for the sketchpad—with the realistic and detailed world in which the actual characters exist. The scene is populated with the colorful characters we’ve met throughout the film as they wander around the park either with collars around their necks or leading another human with a leash in hand. It’s part Buñuel, part Orwell. And it works stunningly. Among the menagerie, Tulip is the only creature drawn in a realistic, recognizable form. She does not have the embellished chin or exaggerated torso of her two legged fellow cast members. And it is no mistake that Fierlinger decided to draw her as such, as it’s hard to satirize unconditional devotion.
The relationship Ackerley has with Tulip could never be replicated with another human. We’re simply too selfish, critical, hopeful, pessimistic, etc. to be loved as conditionally as a dog will. For all the different moods and levels of affection Ackerley shows for Tulip, she in turn only offers him one, as he reflects: “She offered me what I have never found in my life with humans: constant, single-hearted, incorruptible, uncritical devotion as it is in the nature of dogs to offer.”