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Film: The Wonderful World of Dogs
Director: Mark Lewis
Performers: Bruce Marquette, Lyn Lynam, Su Cruickshank, Ross Nichols, Maggie Blinco, Mandy Gwinn, Margaret Morrison.
Production Information: Radio Pictures, 1990 (Australia)
Breed(s) featured: German Short-haired Pointer, Chihuahua, Australian Cattle Dog, Miniature Poodle, Pekingese, Jack Russell Terrier, Bulldog, etc.

Shortly before I quit Netflix, I exhausted their catalog of everything from Australian director Mark Lewis. Lewis is known for his quirky animal documentaries with brilliantly staged re-enactments. The last scene featuring Liza the Japanese Silkie Bantam in The Natural History of the Chicken ranks among the most sublime cinematic sequences of which I know. Other currently available works include his PBS series The Standard of Perfection and The Pursuit of Excellence, which examine the competitive drive in various unlikely avenues such as synchronized swimming, hair design, and cat, cattle, and ferret shows. But one older title most relevant to this blog eluded me until just recently.

The Wonderful World of Dogs stands apart from the rest of Lewis’ filmography for its iconic late 1980’s fashion and makeup, jaunty music, and wildly idiosyncratic sketch of suburban Australian dog ownership. Lewis goes to the United States for the bulk of his later work, reining in his near-satirical portrayals with a bemused outsider’s perspective. But he seems to have no regard for moderation here on home turf in Mosman, New South Wales. A few interviewees perform with such gusto (most notably, Bruce Marquette, a celebrity dog breeder and judge featured with his Pekingese), they are indistinguishable from the professional actors who have been planted to tell tall tales about life with dogs.

One of the most absurd segments involves actress Su Cruickshank and her pet Chihuahua, Pebbles, who almost became a pelican’s lunch. This episode is humorously re-enacted with B-grade effects and an appropriately blase canine actor.

Citizen Lyn Lynam’s ongoing war against the dogs that defecate on her front lawn is also worth a chuckle, if not a modicum of sympathy, because her weary litany of complaints sounds familiar even now. Gone are the days of free-roaming neighborhood dogs who regard all of suburbia as their toilet, which is one mode of dog-keeping flaunted here. Yet you’ll always have pet owners who would rather sidestep their dog’s poop rather than deal with this necessary nuisance, same back then as in now.

This friction between dogs as pleasure/pest is most elaborately spelled out in the case of Fugly, a German short-haired pointer who has the distinction of being Australia’s most frequently impounded dog, picked up dozens of times when found unattended in public. Though I was initially skeptical, Fugly is apparently a real character. And what a character he is! Fugly’s friendly disposition has won him many friends in his wanderings, despite the illegal circumstances of their meetings. As a town mascot and public figure, in a sense, everyone wants to bend the rules for him, though they know it’d be unfair.

Evidently, dogs are supremely adept at manipulating our emotions, a quality that Mark Lewis is all too happy to exploit. For even when we get the sense that we’re not exactly watching a real-life documentary, but actors putting on a show, we’re still willing to suspend disbelief just to enjoy their stories for what they are — charming vignettes about how dogs delight, provoke, and entertain. What’s most wonderful about dogs is how they can create a sense of wonder in your world. You want to believe these beautiful fictions. You want to believe in these magical moments. And in the end, it’s a spell that works.

Bonus points for a super brief Basenji sighting.

Some dogs just want to be dogs.
Some people want dogs to be people.
But dogs will be dogs…
and people will be people.
We all live together.

It’s as simple as that.

Availability: My copy came from Direct Cinema Limited, which releases DVD-R copies of select, hard-to-find films. The image quality was very poor (as shown in screen caps), the video hopped a bit between chapters, and there are absolutely no features or even a functional menu to speak of. I do not recommend purchasing the title at their listed price, but if you can find a cheap copy like I did, it’s worth checking out.

Edit: You can also order direct from Mark Lewis’ Radio Pictures. Sadly, at $34.95 Australian dollars + $10 shipping, the titles are prohibitively priced for general viewing. Not saying that they’re not worth his asking price, but I doubt most people would have that kind of cash on hand for a sixty minute film… So here’s hoping that The Wonderful World of Dogs, as well as the rest of his back catalog, becomes available for wider distribution.

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Looking for more dog films? I keep a running index of movies I have blurbed, annotated by breed. Click the link or the tab on the top menu.