Film: The Accidental Tourist
Director: Lawrence Kasdan
Performers: William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Geena Davis, Bud (Edward the Dog)
Breed featured: Cardigan Welsh Corgi, Wire Fox Terrier (briefly)
Production Information: Warner Brothers, 1988 (USA).
The accolades piled upon this crummy film is indicative of just how bad the eighties were for Hollywood drama. I’m not going to bother to summarize it, because you can easily find that info online. Like the marriage between Macon (William Hurt) and Sarah Leary (Kathleen Turner), the film drags on much longer than it needed to. Stiff and slack-jawed performances by a lackluster cast left me feeling woefully underwhelmed. The film’s primary redeeming feature is the adorable Cardigan Welsh Corgi named Edward.
For a non-speaking role, Edward the Corgi is rather versatile, serving as a ballast for some characters, and propeller for others. He’s the most emotionally expressive character in the entire household, straightforward as only a dog can be about his joys, his fears, and his preferences. For Macon, he’s also a haunting reminder of his son, who was killed in a strong-arm robbery gone wrong. Despite his dog’s mounting behavioral issues, Macon just can’t abandon Edward, in part because of his crippling inability to either respond to his own personal tragedies or move on in the present. This dour, withered husk of a man seems an unlikely partner for Muriel Prichett (Geena Davis), a vet tech/animal trainer who inexplicably takes a shine to him and seizes the opportunity to insert herself into his life.
Muriel swoops into Macon’s life by teaching him to control his dog. This could have been a potent way to develop this odd couple’s relationship, but something’s lost in the execution. Instead of appearing skillful, Muriel comes across as a clumsy hack. Instead of revealing a more “nurturing” side that would counterbalance and give depth to her synthetic, flashy exterior, I find her domineering and insensitive, revealing her to be as blind to the dog’s not-so-subtle physical cues as Macon is emotionally passive.
Let’s consider the the initial encounter between Edward the Dog and Muriel. Macon has just informed her that his dog was rejected from his previous boarding place because he bit a caretaker there. So seeing a dog in obvious distress, anxious about being at the animal hospital, and actively trying to avoid eye contact, what does Muriel do?
She bends down and grabs the dog by the face. I’m assuming that even a rank amateur dog trainer, no matter what their background, would have known better than to start off that way with an unfamiliar dog, especially one that supposedly bites. However, Edward just pins his ears back and goes stiff and licks his lips, sparing all audiences the ugly truth. This seems to be his default posture in many of his scenes, from when he’s being lifted off his stubby little feet by choke chain pops (several yanks punctuated by pathetic whimpering added to the soundtrack for deliberate effect), to when he’s left loose and unattended on the sidewalk in an extended sit-stay — all while strangers pass and pet the miserable-looking pup.
Nowadays, if you know your dog has a history of biting and aggression, you’d be incredibly irresponsible to establish this scenario as an immediate training goal. Even if your dog was totally friendly, it’s kind of an odd risk to take… considering this is supposed to be downtown Baltimore!
Times sure have changed. I guess such scenes are a reminder that this was considered by general audiences to be an acceptable standard of training and dog socialization back in the 80s, no matter how implausible a scene it would seem to us now. What further irritates me about Muriel’s character is that her methods are ultimately excused because hey, she’s Geena Davis! Praise for her performance even includes an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
short clip from the film uploaded by YouTube user pershingavenue
What could be potentially damaging or even disastrous in real life is presented as awesome and “quirky” here. I find that problematic not because I’m afraid others will emulate her methods (nobody is going to watch this to learn how to train a dog), but because her methods are enfolded into a more complex construction of character that makes it okay to ignore how your dog feels in favor of what you want him to do. And in this film, that certainly has repercussions for how people treat other people.
I realize I’m probably reading this film anachronistically, looking for more “positive” training methods when such distinctions hadn’t even registered as a problem. Even now, these debates have yet to enter the mainstream, though I witness frequent skirmishes over training methods in my dog-centric circles. At any rate, since this is how Hollywood depicted dog trainers on screen, I wonder what was routine on the set!
To offset these more egregious training scenes, at least there are moments where Edward appears genuinely comfortable and at ease, a reminder of the tender domesticity that a dog can provide, especially in the absence of any other kind of familial warmth.
Edward adequately expresses all the charms of his breed, but a cute Corgi alone cannot redeem this movie. Happily, I tick this one off the list… so I won’t have to watch it (or listen to its awful soundtrack) ever again.