The Dogs of Art Cinema

By  · Published on March 25th, 2015

Warner Bros.

Last week, Warner Bros. unveiled the trailer for Max, a tale of a US marine-trained dog that has everything in the box of predictability but the words “inspiring true story,” continuing a tradition of representing dogs in Hollywood evident from Lassie to Marley that represent “man’s best friend” as anything from a darling companion to a hometown hero. In Hollywood, dogs (when not talking) are available largely for punchlines and heartstrings – cute bundles of joy, empathy, and inspiration readily available to bestow to humans life’s greatest lessons.

But several recent arthouse imports have given us different visions of the often complex relationships developed between people and canines. They offer dogs as a political cause célèbre, as an enduring metaphor for subjugation and resistance, and as a means of access into something more authentic and less self-conscious than our everyday, mediated reality.

Between Kornél Mundruczó’s White God, Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language, and Jafar Panahi’s Closed Curtain, the dogs of art cinema bestow cinematic lessons far beyond the well-worn trail of received notions of heroism or life lessons of love and loss while coming of age. In fact, what’s remarkable about these films is how little their representations of dogs resides within human stories or conforms to human needs, and instead open up to a new way of looking at the world from the perspective of canine life.

White God

Margnolia Pictures

In a Slate interview during this year’s Sundance film festival, Mundruczó explained that White God – which chronicles the uprising of a city of mutts in response to a strict imposition of “mongrel” fines – is, as its conceit suggests, a potent metaphor about oppression by a majority against minorities in general, and functions specifically as a work of Hungarian national cinema that critiques a culture of intolerance and chauvinism that he sees as deeply embedded in Hungary’s treatment of perceived “outsiders.”

But Mundruczó also suggests that the film can be viewed more literally, as a broader assessment of where humans draw the line between who deserves the benefit of the doubt of possessing humanity. Depicting a cast of supporting characters that profit from the systemic subjugation and even torture of dogs (or are belligerently dismissive of the prospect of coexisting with them), White God does little to dispossess audiences of the notion that humans don’t deserve the result – or even, by the end, that there exists a clear path to peaceful coexistence.

At the film’s center is a warm, loving relationship of equality and respect between young Lili (Zsófia Psotta) and her dog Hagen (who justifiably receives near-top billing), but White God positions this as the exception, not the rule. Oppression is not only the product of select “bad people,” but something broader, more systemic, and intrinsic to a way of life. The film suggests two pathways of response in such a context – violent revolt or empathetic diplomacy on the assumption of equality.

Despite its seemingly high-concept premise, White God is not didactic in terms of answering this conundrum, but it does suggest that an expansive understanding of humanity can come from looking through the eyes and experiences of beings not like oneself. Keeping his camera close to dog-eye-level for much of its running time, White God does just that.

Goodbye to Language

Kino Lorber

Amidst the at-times overwhelming sensory cacophony that is Goodbye to Language, Godard’s own dog, Roxy, shared with longtime partner Anne-Marie Miéville, elegantly emerges as the film’s ostensible protagonist in sequences of the film that, with some exceptions, provide a relief from Godard’s assault on the senses and deconstruction of the strange liminal space in which contemporary cinema lies.

Much has been written about Roxy’s role in the film based in assumptions that the dog may provide the key that unlocks Godard’s exploration of the ends of cinematic language. As Ty Burr observes, “For a film obsessed with language, these scenes are an island of respite, honoring the simple dogness of being.” Burr’s observations help align Roxy’s performance within the larger intents of the film – one that shouldn’t be viewed towards a cogent or throughline statement by Godard about cinema, language, and their correspondence, but rather as a uniquely cinematic experience unlike any other in an age in which cinema seems a more elusive, amorphous object than it has ever been

In this context, Roxy represents something impenetrable for humans, something beyond the lexicon (in images or words) that we’ve developed to identify and make sense of the world. Roxy is pre-semiotic, a being of pure, spontaneous experience unburdened by overlaps between events and representations that make life in the human simulacrum so bereft of any direct connection with nature. What’s important about Roxy, and what makes this dog’s scenes so memorable, is that Roxy is not a trained “movie dog” that has been rigorously enculturated to fit within our existing cinematic language – in other words, not a Max. Instead, Godard’s camera follows Roxy wherever the dog’s will leads, and for Roxy (unlike any human in front of the lens) there is no knowledge of being represented, no difference in behavior that results from the mandate of performance.

Roxy, in these brief moments, is a vessel for indexical cinematic truth amidst a sea of mere representations.

Closed Curtain

Variance Films

Closed Curtain is Panahi’s second film made during his house arrest and state ban from filmmaking. Although it acquired less acclaim and coverage in the US than his first film after being charged with “propaganda against the Iranian government,” This is Not a Film, the masterful Closed Curtain finds Panahi exercising even more play between the supposed boundaries of reality and filmmaking, nonfiction and narrative.

Despite this playful approach to form, the stakes are no less dire. Evincing an intersection between the dog-affiliated concerns of White God and Goodbye to Language, Closed Curtain portrays a national canine dystopia in which dogs are hunted down by bureaucratic bodies and Panahi uses this portrayal of government-inspired seclusion to stage an examination of the blurry line between fact and fiction, between political metaphor and its topical referent.

A writer (Kambuzia Partovi) secludes himself with his dog in order to protect the dog from the outside world which, as the film demonstrates, has a way of moving in regardless of the cautionary procedures one takes. For Panahi, this false division between inside and outside (a theme explored throughout this creative renaissance that has emerged from imposed governmental restraints), goes both ways – insurgent work will find a way to get “outside” just as rigid state doctrines have proven capable of shaping even the most secluded actions and modes of thinking.

Like the supposed line between fiction and nonfiction, the division between inside and out is a fundamental misrecognition of how the individual operates within a society. The fact that Panahi explores these ideas not through his own seclusion, but that of a dog’s in the protection of its master, allows the filmmaker to frame these ideas by portraying a being that knows not of governments nor the difference between being in front of a camera and behind.

Seeing through the eyes of these dogs exposes the unjust structures, rules, and means of thinking built by man.

White God opens in limited release from Magnolia Pictures this Friday.