adventures of milo and otis, amores perros, beijing, best in show, border collies, cala my dog, chinese dogs, christopher guest, dog movies, errol morris, german shepherds, huskies, inu no eiga, journey of natty gann, jr ackerley, my dog tulip, nanook of the north, peanuts comics, pugs, robert flaherty, shiba inu, sled dogs, snoopy, snoopy come home
How about a list to end the new year? If you’ve got the luxury of vegging out over the winter holidays as I do, you may have been holing up with a stack of films to plug through. Might I suggest some dog movies to liven things up?
In chronological order, here is my list of most highly recommended dog movies. This list is geared mostly towards adult viewers. I’m skipping over the more saccharine, family-oriented fare of the 1930s through 1960s, as I don’t have much to say on the predictable titles that most immediately come to mind. The films below are not necessarily my “favorite” per se, but they’re the ones that left a deep impression, for reasons that I try to explain below. I didn’t include full summaries for everything, because you can easily read them elsewhere — clicking on any of the titles will take you to an IMDB link, for starters. Trailers and favorite excerpts are embedded here and there.
Nanook of the North (1921). Dir. Robert Flaherty.
Okay, so the dogs aren’t central to this one, but rather a symbol that is alternately shoved to the center of the frame as some of the most fierce actors in this survivalist drama, or relegated to the periphery — left outside in the cold, while the family and puppies huddle in the sheltered igloo. The closing scene of poor huskies slowly becoming snow-puppies in the oncoming blizzard is such a haunting, indelible image, perhaps one of the most devastating that I can think of in film history. In an instant, it presents the melding of nature and creature, the elemental and the organic more effectively than any other early film that I know. No wonder audiences at the time were inspired to praise the power of a well-plotted image; the dogs of Nanook don’t get much screen time, but they are significant, and they really make the film cohere for me.
Flaherty’s documentary techniques would come under fire for staging “reality” as he wished to see it presented, but that matters little to me in this context. There’s a lot here about the dogs that remains up to the viewer’s imagination in the oldest sense of the word, which is often as it should be when it comes to film.
Snoopy Come Home (1972). Dir. Bill Melendez.
The Golden Age of Snoopy feature-length films was short-lived, but it was nice while it lasted. I’m a huge fan of the world’s favorite bulbous-nosed beagle and his human gang. For me, the pre-1980s cartoons (ending with Bon Voyage Charlie Brown) are the cream of the crop. The plots usually enhanced the Peanuts universe in some meaningful way, while the dialogue was peppered with classic quips from the daily strips.
Aside from the stunning revelation that Snoopy had a previous owner (*faint*) who happened to love him very much (so why did they give him up??), what makes this film a childhood favorite is its jaunty soundtrack. What the songs lack in lyrical finesse, they make up for in catchiness — no surprise, since they were composed by the masters of musical kitsch, Richard and Robert Sherman.
Charlie Brown: “I never thought of myself as being a dog owner. Snoopy was more like a friend.”
Linus: “Friends get bored too, Charlie Brown.”
Gates of Heaven (1978). Dir. Errol Morris.
This is an early feature by now-famed documentary director, Errol Morris, on the relocation and final resettlement of a pet cemetery in California. While there was potential for the documentary to turn hokey (as indeed parts of the film cannot help but be), I thought Morris remained respectful of his human subjects. He is extremely adept at teasing out personalities and showing how they’re influenced by time, event, and place. This film is more about people than pets, about California Valley culture in the 1970s than pet cemeteries more broadly, but make no mistake that dogs factored into shaping their particular communities.
My only criticism, or at least question, is — why aren’t the interviewees ever featured with their own living pets? We’re not told if they currently have pets, how they themselves see pets as part of their own, daily lives, names, breeds, types, or anything. Aside from one little random lapdog, we are not shown any live animals throughout the entire documentary. It’s very strange and definitely skews the documentary balance in favor of the humans, whom are ultimately Morris’ focus, but this nevertheless robs the documentary of some potential for greater warmth and vivacity.
Journey of Natty Gann (1985). Dir. Jeremy Paul Kagan.
For the sake of narrowing down this list, I eliminated wolf movies (as much as I wanted to include titles like Never Cry Wolf  and Mononoke hime ). However, I’m keeping this story of a teenaged runaway accompanied by a wolf-dog, because I think it’s fair to say he’s not portrayed as a pure wolf in the story, but a hybrid – an uncanny creature that’s not all that he appears to be, much like Natty Gann herself.
This movie will always be close to my heart. Having rewatched it recently, I realized how much it must have influenced me as a kid. Things I learned from the world of Natty Gann:
- Adults are not to be trusted.
- If you are kind to animals, they will be kind to you. Similarly, if you whip an animal and encourage it to fight, watch out that one day that violence you unleashed won’t turn against you. The same goes for humans.
- Girls can be tough without being conventionally pretty. And girls with badass wolf-dogs are the apex of awesomeness.
- Sometimes you gotta eat out of dumpsters just to survive.
- Work sucks, but there are times when you’ve gotta be thankful to have it, even when it could kill you.
The Adventures of Milo and Otis (1986). Dir. Masanori Hata.
Of all the “incredible journey” type animal films out there, I consider Milo and Otis one of the more creative and endearing. It’s narrated mostly from the perspective of animals, with nary a human to be seen throughout the whole show (I don’t count the omniscient narrator). I do wish I could see the original version, presumably dubbed in Japanese. While Dudley Moore’s voice acting was sufficient for children, it is silly and downright grating on my adult ears now. I do, however, have to give him props for his most inspired performance of expectant pugs and cats. Truly one of the highlights of his career, I’m sure.
Best in Show (2000). Dir. Christopher Guest.
I think Christopher Guest does smart, genre-defying work. It’s a coincidence that he plays my favorite character in this pseudo-documentary spoof on the US dog fancy. He takes the role of a down-to-earth Bloodhound handler. I’m quite familiar with his cast of regulars, and they keep impressing me with the personality reinventions and fresh performances each time. I consider this to be Guest’s most balanced film yet, where he most successfully treads the fine line between playful satire and mean-spirited laughs at the expense of small town America, which some of his other films are more merciless about lampooning.
What I love about this film is that it shows that the purebred dog fancy is just as much about the people in each breed as it is about the dogs. No matter any inaccuracies of portrayal, we can probably agree that very different type of people are drawn to each very different breed of dog. Guest’s film does make you speculate as to why, even if it’s based on pure fancy (pun intended).
Anyway, here’s a trailer:
Amores Perros [Love’s a Bitch] (2000). Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu.
This might be the most difficult film of any on my list. It’s violent, it’s sexy, it’s loud, it’s complicated, it’s hard to stomach. It’s incredibly wrought with cruelty, driven by the emotional charge of all the shitty things that people do to each other, and the way cruelty is perpetuated by the thirst for revenge and redemption. Dogs are the vehicle through which people express their various social inadequacies. Even dog fighting is glamorized to a point, which made many scenes really hard to watch (despite being assured that no animals were harmed in the making of this film).
If you find it difficult to be emotionally or intellectually challenged, this film is not for you. After my first viewing, I wanted to exhort dog lovers not to watch it — not because I think it should be censored, but because it wreaked havoc on my cinephile senses. I am not accustomed to watching films that make me feel so physically wretched. But I’ve since come around to it, though I recommend it with some strong caution. If you’ve ever shared your heart with a dog, you will get a lot more out of this film, but you’ll also react a lot more viscerally.
I’m actually not very satisfied with the HQ English-language trailer for this film, but I haven’t found an acceptable substitute, so here are some screenshots of more pleasant moments instead:
Kala shi tiao gou 卡拉是条狗 [Cala, My Dog!] (2003). Dir. LU Xuechang.
This is probably the most least-known film on my list, but it’s truly undeserving of its obscurity amongst English-reading/speaking audiences. As of yet, there is no US domestic release, although you can purchase a region-3 DVD with English subtitles through Yesasia.com (no idea of the quality of subs).
When an outbreak of rabies prompts the cops to actually enforce the local dog-licensing ordinance for once, a family dog named Cala is impounded. Since there’s no way that the family can afford to purchase a dog registration on the father’s limited income, they resort to all sorts of methods in a frantic attempt to spring their pet before her deadline to be destroyed. This film typifies modern Beijing to me, as laid out by its rules, and its Rules with a capital C-C-P.
It is rather inadequately classified as a comedy. I don’t know… maybe in a Coen Brothers sense. But it pushes reality to the point of absurdity and total aggravation, such that the very ending is rendered unbelievable and dreamlike — I’m really not sure if it’s a happy ending! You will have to see and judge for yourself.
And though I’ve seen it in person before, a couple scenes were still a bit of a culture shock to me — namely, a short shot of a meat truck supplying freshly butchered dogs, and a scene of a back-alley pet market, where peddlers sell small caged animals and animals that shouldn’t be in such tiny cages.
Inu no eiga 犬の映画 [All About My Dog] (2005). Dir. Atsushi Sanada (“Marimo” segment), et. al.
The Japanese make great dog movies (refer to Milo and Otis, for example), but I can’t say I’ve found many examples where they do justice to Nihon ken. There’s a reason that Hachiko monogatari, the 1987 feature-length about the famous loyal Akita, or its recent American remake, and Mari to koinu no monogatari, the 2007 film about the Shiba Inu that helped her puppies survive the 2004 Niigata earthquake, did not make my list. I think they’re terrible movies, for reasons that I might detail later.
Inu no eiga, on the other hand, is one that I would recommend for general audiences with no reservations. Again, it might take some hunting to track down a copy with English subtitles, since it has not been released in the US, but there was at least a Region 3 DVD released at some time in Hong Kong, with English subtitles.
Several directors collaborated on this portmanteau film that bounces kinetically from animation to musical to infomercial to anthropomorphic romance to straight-up, serious drama. The main story arc is about a modern-day adman who recalls his boyhood pet, a Shiba Inu named Pochi, whom he lost when an asthma attack sent him to the emergency hospital. Pochi sets off in search of his boy, and has a series of adventures with an assorted cast of strange people along the way. I can’t even begin to summarize it, but suffice to say, the scenarios were conceived by true dog enthusiasts who allow their poochies to perform, as often as possible.
The last segment, a standalone piece about a border collie named Marimo and the girl she spent her lifetime with, had the Doggy Daddy and me openly weeping in a Taiwanese movie theater even after we thought we couldn’t cry anymore at the end of the film. As much as it tears my heart out every time, it’s still the most potent 10 minutes that I’ve ever seen to describe a lifetime of love between any dog and her human.
My Dog, Tulip (2009). Dir. Paul and Sandra Fierlinger.
Nope, I couldn’t quite make it to 2010 with my list, though I did see this in the theater within the last year. This animated memoir recounts British writer J.R. Ackerley’s German Shepherd bitch. I don’t know much about the Fierlingers, the filmmakers, but they definitely put together something to be proud of. They have an eye for form (loose sketches and contour drawings), and the human traces of production are insistently foregrounded in their style. Their idiosyncratic aesthetics succeed on their own merits, where whimsically hand-drawn computer renderings of a not-too-old world wiggle with life and substance — a refreshing difference from the typical CGI fare that currently dominates the big screen, and which I’m still slow to accept.
This is not a sappy little animal story for kids. Ackerley, voiced by Christopher Plummer, is candid, explicit, unabashedly sentimental, and eloquent about his canine companion, such that you wonder at points if there might be something wrong with him… until you find yourself unable to withhold your laughter at some of the most ridiculous moments of the film because he does, after all, speak a recognizable truth.
A good half of the film is devoted to Ackerley’s efforts to “marry” his unspayed Alsatian — that is, to find her a mate and breed her in order to satisfy his own sense of responsibility towards her anthropomorphized sexual needs. We call them backyard breeders around here, but for Ackerley, it’s more like terrace breeder, living as he does in a small, urban flat. As politically incorrect as such a practice is amongst contemporary viewers, particularly American ones I think, I appreciated the film’s fidelity to its source. It does also give gentle voice to some of the unintended emotional consequences that come with haphazard breeding.
I think where I might agree with Ackerley is that dogs do teach us how to be in the world and how to interact with other people in ways that may force us out of our own element, but they do not teach us to like other people as unconditionally as our own dogs love us. We’re overreaching if we say that love for dogs can be broadly applied, just because most dogs themselves are gregarious by nature. The love we have for dogs might not even make us better individuals!
But I think it might still make us better people, in a more abstract, generalized sense.
I am intrigued by the work of V.W.F. Collier, writing in 1921 on the significance of dogs in Far Eastern culture. I have found no information on his (?) biography, who he was and why he was in a position to write a book on Dogs of China and Japan in Nature and Art. Was he some kind of statesman or envoy in China, based primarily in Beijing, as were most of his native informants? What kind of person was he in the UK? What dogs of his own did he keep? What was the extent of his relationship to the fancy?
At any rate, this is one of his speculations as to why no such thing as a dog fancy or a more rationalized system of breeding emerged in China:
To the Western observer, the Chinese appear to have been far more successful in modifying the colour and form of canine breeds than in improving the powers of scent and sporting qualities of their dogs. This is no doubt largely due to the fact that for the last hundred years China has, from the point of view of sport, gone backwards. The Imperial hunts have been given up, preservation of the Imperial hunting-parks and game protection have ceased throughout China. The shot-gun, known to the Emperor Ch’ien Lung — to whom a specimen now to be seen in the National museum in Peking was sent by George III of England — though made in China is used for commercial rather than sporting purposes. When shot with it the game is more often sitting than on the wing. Powder and shot are too expensive, and their supply to a mis-ruled people under a weak Government [sic] is not encouraged. Consequently, it is not surprising to find in China but little of that care and skill which are devoted to the training of sports dogs in Europe. (58-9)
This excerpt comes from the chapter “Sporting and Guard Dogs” (Dogs of China and Japan in Nature and Art. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1921).
It seems arbitrary that Collier singled out the presence (or absence) of firearms as a factor that should lead to the refinement of dog breeding. Never having owned or fired a gun and never having been privy to the world of hunters, I’m not clear on the logic that derives sport hunting from a developed gun culture, though I can see how you would get from game sports to game dogs. There must certainly be other ways to get to sport hunting without widespread fervor for firearms. A pack of hunting hounds is just one of many tools that enter into play. Though the functionality of Chinese hunting dogs was documented in the Book of Rites centuries before even the Romans (51), contemporary specimen lacked some demonstration of finely-honed skill that elevated hounding from the level of brute necessity to artistry, in Collier’s assessment.
The thing is that Collier did not step away from Han and Manchu Chinese or elite (imperial) Chinese dogs to uncover the practices of real hunters. Had he been able to roam more ethnically muddled areas of the Southwestern borderlands or the mountains of Formosa, for example, he would have seen minorities and aborigines exercising a close working relationship with their hounds. But at the time of Collier’s writing, Formosa had already been a Japanese colony for a couple decades, and the colonial administration was far more invested in the violent suppression of aboriginal uprisings than any anthrozoological studies of native human-dog relationships.
This book is not trivial work, but what is documented herein is still confined to elite, official history. It’s the story of dogs traded as state presents, and breeds that traveled along channels of political power and contested trade routes. The Japanese Chin, for example, is deserving of mention only insofar as it can be traced back to Chinese origins. None of those which would be later enshrined as THE native, nationally-treasured Nihon Ken are even mentioned. And collectively, they are all interesting as portable possessions, objects and “toys” whose value is legitimized from afar, in the laps of foreign (European) dignitaries.
So it might be said that guns did nothing for Chinese dogs, but caused them to be brought to the rest of the world!
To be fair, Collier does introduce his book by pointing out that canine cultural and genetic influence is bidirectional:
It is hoped that even to those who take no interest in dogs, the following pages may be attractive because of the sidelights thrown on Chinese history, together with Eastern palace life, and the inter-State relations of the long line of Emperors who have dominated the world’s oldest ruling race. Modern research tends to prove that more of the East than was generally imagined is akin to the West. On the other hand, not a little of Western canine life owes its origin and distinctive peculiarities to the East. (ix)
While I can’t help but be skeptical as to the quality and intentions of the “modern research” to which Collier alludes, his own research is generally presented without grossly Orientalist gestures as one might anticipate from a book of its era. Collier would probably be the first to agree that there’s much more going on than his limited sources will reveal. As of yet, few have taken up his calls to make serious study of the historical significance of Asian dogs.
NOTE: The book, having been published in 1921, is now in the public domain. The text is freely available online if you search for the title. After pulling an original edition from my university library, I made an impulsive decision to purchase what I thought was a reprint edition on Amazon.com, listed as having been put out by Nabu Press in 2010. As it turns out, it’s a low-quality black and white facsimile, printed on cheap photocopy paper, priced at an exorbitant rate. And it’s the very book that I’ve already checked out from my library, which means if I wanted a cheap photocopy for my collection, I could have made one for myself. I confirmed it was the same copy because of the penciled margin notations and perforated library stamps, all of which were reproduced.
I e-mailed Amazon as to my dissatisfaction, and they offered to take back my order for a full refund. Hopefully they’ll also update the description to note that they are selling a PRINT ON DEMAND copy, since this was not at all mentioned in the title’s product description when I ordered.
I’d previously mentioned that fish is Bowpi’s speediest meal.
Strike that. She has since learned to savor her sardines.
First she licks the side of each fish, pausing to get a good whiff and to gauge its temperature or whatever she’s doing. Then she’ll start munching, head first. She’ll pull it out of the bowl and onto the towel, which I’ve laid down precisely to keep things “clean” (Bowdu drags his fish and raw meaty bones out to the backyard and Bowpi is fed in another room with the door shut). Sometimes she’ll give the fish a little shake as she’s chewing. Her meal must be monitored, just in case she decides to fling the fish across the room.
By the time she’s done, it’s a bit of a crime scene all over the towel.
It occurs to me that we’ve had Bowpi now for about as long as her previous owner kept her — nine months. If fate is on our side, we’ll have at least nine more years with this little Basenji gal we’ve come to love.
It took us about a year and a half to find her. Around the summer of 2008 was when the Doggy Daddy and I started to talk in earnest about adding another dog to the family. We started with local Shiba rescue listings, but since we weren’t set on another Shiba, we fanned out searching Craigslist, Petfinder, purebred rescues for a short list of breeds we liked, and so forth. I bookmarked local rescue groups that had regularly updated listings and a track record of good communication with their adopters. We didn’t take any action until encountering a dog that really moved both my partner and me. So in the end, we only had a couple face-to-face meetings with potential adoptees, though I do feel that I got a good impression of the active rescues in my area.
We had standing applications on file with a few rescues, but we were warned that it might take some time to find a dog that fit our list of “desired” traits to match our finicky Shiba.
Then around this time last year, I started fixating on Craigslist, checking every day for our perfect second dog and watching aghast at the parade of backyard breeders and casual pet owners who were looking to dump their summer and Christmas puppies with the flimsiest of excuses. During this time, I formulated some strong opinions about the role of Craigslist and, more generally, free online classifieds, in rehoming pets. I’ll detail my thoughts about that some other time.
This entry is about Bowpi.
She was not the first Basenji I saw on Craigslist, but they certainly didn’t come up often. We held firm to our policy of mature adults only, so we didn’t consider any dog that was less than four years old. I saw a couple “teenaged” Basenjis being rehomed, with descriptions that caused me to flash back to the horrors of Bowdu’s rebellious adolescence. I watched a local backyard breeder drop the price of his Basenji puppies from $675 to $475 to $275 over the course of a month when they weren’t selling quickly enough. It helped that the ads got flagged off each time he reposted, in accordance with Craigslist policies.
And then in March of 2010, Bowpi’s listing appeared. It was a simple, two sentence, pictureless post. I e-mailed about 20 minutes after the posting went up, and didn’t receive a response until the next day.
According to my experiences with Craigslist, responses that take longer than two hours are atypical. The answer I finally received was terse, almost cagey. I regarded this optimistically; the owner was in no hurry to “get rid” of her dog, and was going to take the time to ask questions and allow questions to be asked.
We established that her Basenji was about five years old, already spayed, of mellow/more submissive temperament, and got along well with other dogs. Her previous owner, B–, was at least the second owner, not including the original breeder, of whom no records were available. I offered a few paragraphs about the Doggy Daddy and myself, and how we lived with Bowdu. Further details could await until we met in person and established that the two dogs wouldn’t hate each other right off the bat.
It was much easier to communicate when we met up, a week later. B– seemed a different person from the neutral tones conveyed in her brief e-mails. The circumstances that compelled her to rehome her Basenji seemed more sympathetic when there was a face behind the words. She told us how she was working late shifts, crating Bowpi for about 10 hours at night. Because B– worked at night, she slept during the day; daily dog park runs were out of the question with that kind of lifestyle. There had been another dog to keep her company, but then that dog died of old age, so there wasn’t much to keep her occupied around the house. B–‘s steady boyfriend was of the opinion that dogs should be kept off all furniture and sleep outdoors — clearly not the best option for an already-neglected Basenji. I don’t know whether or not B– lived with her boyfriend, and it was not my business to ask, though his dislike for dogs still had an impact on Bowpi’s quality of life. And in the queue of frequent family visitors was a young nephew with ADD, whose hyperactivity and boisterousness we witnessed for ourselves, as he came along for the first meeting. His effusive displays of affection towards dogs was, unfortunately, not reciprocated.
Clearly, there was a lot going on in B–‘s life, such that rehoming Bowpi was the best thing she could do for all involved. I wouldn’t say we rushed the decision, but meeting that one day basically sealed the deal. After seeing how well they got along on neutral territory, we invited them all back to our house, where the two dogs were allowed their first visit together on Bowdu’s turf. When an hour or so passed without major snarking or bloodshed, we were satisfied that we could make it work.
B– did ask for a rehoming fee, a standard and necessary precaution particularly with Craigslist. It was not a figure that suggested she was making money off the back of her dog ($100). We also got a plastic crate, a Flexi-leash, a coupler, a bag of dog food, and recent veterinary records (we ended up having no use for any of that except the last). B– also insisted that she would take her back if for any reason it didn’t work out. This all went to demonstrate that she truly cared about finding the best home. If we hadn’t taken Bowpi, she would have kept her longer to find the right home, or possibly surrendered her to a rescue (though she had never heard of BRAT). Thus, I am confident that we were not supporting someone’s irresponsible decision to rehome a dog because they didn’t like her personality or didn’t have the time to train her or were moving and made a bone-headed decision to rent an apartment that didn’t allow pets, like so many lame excuses I’ve seen on Craigslist.
And so I think it’s possible to use Craigslist productively when rehoming pets, though its very nature as free online classifieds makes pets vulnerable to exploitation. Craigslist can be a complement to regular rescues, but the burden of responsibility is compounded, in a sense. I would hate to make things easy and guilt-free for backyard breeders or anyone who regards pet rehoming as lightly as reselling a bookshelf or couch. So the onus was on us, as adopters, to screen the previous owner just as much as it was her right to screen us, to ask us dozens of questions, and to enter our home and make sure we could provide a good home for Bowpi.
In this case, I think we all got lucky.
Bowdu is not into the Christmas cheer.
It’s better than the year we got the singing, jumping, 2-foot-tall snowman plush though.
Haven’t found any great examples of vintage Nihon Ken in the British Pathe archives yet. The Japanese Chin was well-known and identifiable before the war, but there didn’t seem to be any interest in the XXX Inus until much, much later — basically, beyond the span of the public archive. Still, I was hoping for random glimpses in newsreels or other informational vids.
All I’ve found so far is the following (click each picture for a link to the source clip):
This snub-nosed guy, identified in the preceding title card as “The Waltzer — Champion Chitto from Japan.” Not sure what a ‘Chitto’ is. A Japanese Chin?
Japanese Chin do flash on the screen every once in a while in some of the many early dog fancy videos, along with the Pekingese. This was one of the clearest shots.
[Source: “Toys,” silent reel from 06/11/1930]
A Tosa Inu (?) pulling a boy in a cart, from a clip about a Japanese child “prodigy” painter.
[Source: “The Junior Artist,” sound reel from 10/04/1939]
A happy looking dog and the soldier who is obviously fond of him. Is this a Hokkaido Inu? Or more generically, just a dog from Hokkaido? I wonder if the soldier was in any position to bring that guy home.
[Source: “U.S. Troops Leave Hokkaido”, silent reel from sometime between 1950 and 1959]
The British Pathe archive is extremely well indexed, but even they don’t have labels for everything. One can only imagine what remains to be uncovered in other, uncatalogued international archives… (And I’m assuming it’s fair use to use their screenshots for commentary purposes, as ugly as it is with the giant orange watermark, since I’m linking back to the original source.)