Some of my friends know that I have been threatening to write a lengthy book about dogs on film for quite some time. The idea originally came to me when I was writing my earlier book about film nihilism and belief. When I reflected on films, or specific moments in films, that had deeply affected me over the years, I realised that many of them involved dogs. I recalled my childhood obsession with the Lassie movies through to my deep love in later years for the anthropomorphized dogs in the remarkable sequel to Babe, Babe: Pig in the City (a criminally underrated film in my view!). Beautifully strange sequences haunt my memory like the dreamlike vision of the dog from Tarkovsky’s Stalker
Or the bizarre hallucinogenic sequence from Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain where the running dog takes the spirits of those seeking the holy mountain for a wonderfully frenetic trip, or the near death experience of Flealick the crippled Jack Russell in Babe: Pig in the City.
These are scenes that linger in my mind as some of the most powerful and haunting things in cinema. Whenever I say things like this some of my friends think I am joking – but I’m not. I had originally wanted to write about how such scenes dealing with our deep kinship with dogs are often full of sincerity and hope, and this would form a separate chapter in my earlier book. However, on reflection I decided it deserved to be treated in a book all of its own. In a longer book I would be able to reflect upon our deep historical kinship with dogs, the way we have co-evolved alongside these canine companions, and how many different filmmakers have been obsessed with exploring different aspects of our relationships to them. In recent years I have often joked about how this book might be one that people would actually read and enjoy. But, we’ll see about that. For the time being I thought I’d start by sketching out this book as a series of blog posts, the first of which deals with dogs and violence, so here goes.
Dogs and the Betrayal of Violence
There are many films which deal either directly or indirectly with cruelty and violence towards dogs, from Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, Innaritu’s Amores Perros, Teague’s Cujo, to the recent Coen Brothers film No Country for Old Men. However, there are many film which depict violence and cruelty by exploring the effect upon dogs. The sensitivity of dogs is counterposed with acts of extreme violence, betraying and undermining the sincrere simplicity of the dog’s unquestioning kinship. Bresson’s final film L’Argent (1983), based on Tolstoy’s short story ‘The Counterfeit Note’, contains a notable example of this. The film tells the story of a chain of evil set into motion by the passing off of a counterfeit banknote. A wholly innocent character, Yvon, is completely destroyed by this remorseless process of evil, and as a result of this destruction he descends into a life of crime, imprisonment, despair (his young daughter dies when he is in prison and his wife abandons him), and eventually, murder. Bresson creates a harrowing, caustic and socially relevant indictment of nihilistic materialism and amorality consonant with his own bleak worldview – ‘I think in the whole world things are going very badly. People are becoming more materialist and cruel…Cruel by laziness, by indifference, egotism, because they only think about themselves and not at all about what is happening around them, so they let everything grow ugly and stupid. They are all interested in money alone. Money is becoming their God. God doesn’t exist for many. Money is becoming something you must live for.’ (From an interview with Robert Bresson, 1983)
In one of the final sequences in L’Argent, the character of Yvon, initially shown kindness by a woman and her family, breaks into their home at night and slaughters them all with an axe. The way Bresson shoots this scene is really extraordinary, with the murders precisely choreographed through the desperate movements and sounds made by the family’s dog.
The dog protectively barks as he breaks into their home and then mournfully whines and cries as it helplessly follows Yvon from room to room as he systematically kills the entire family. The violence of each murder never appears directly on screen, but its horrific intensity is conveyed through the dog’s lament which Bresson’s camera captures. The mournful cries of the dog render this scene almost unbearable for us to watch. It is as if the dog becomes the sole carrier of love and care amidst the inhuman horror of Yvon’s murderous nihilism. Yvon, a man reduced to the status of an angry and wounded animal, carries out an unspeakable crime for ‘money’. The fellowship between men, repeatedly shown to have become fatally unraveled throughout the events of this film, is left in ruins by this sequence, and the only fellowship remaining being that between man and dog. The dog’s distress signals the breaking of even this final link, and seems to express our own desperate cries of despair as we watch Yvon descend into mindless slaughter. When asked about the way he shot this particular sequence, particularly his concentration upon the dog, Bresson replied – ‘Many animals are exquisitely sensitive and we show very little interest in this. I wish I had used this more often. It is like another facet of our own sensitivity, an extension of our own joys and sorrows.’ (Interview in 1983 with Michel Ciment on L’Argent)
This heightened sensitivity was something explored at length in Bresson’s earlier 1966 film Au Hazard Balthazar, where the animal pact is one between a girl and a donkey. As the girl grows up they become separated but both live parallel lives, continually taking abuse of all forms from the people they encounter. The donkey is repeatedly exploited, often cruelly so, yet he bears his suffering with nobility and wisdom, eventualy becoming a saint. However, earlier filmmakers had also noticed and exploited this ‘exquisite’ sensitivity of animals, particularly dogs, and had used them in ways very close to Bresson. For example, the following scene from David Lean’s 1948 masterful adaptation of Dickens’ Oliver Twist where Sikes murders poor Nancy.
After he has blocked the door with a table to stop her escaping and knocked her to the floor, Sikes proceeds to club Nancy to death. Instead of explicitly depicting this violence Lean shows the desperation of the terrified bull terrier as it whimpers and tries to frantically scrabble under the door. It is a truly horrific scene, conveying all of the inescapable and fatal violence being meted out to Nancy through the ‘exquisite’ terror of the dog and its frantic efforts to escape. In what follows, as Sikes reflects upon what he has done, staring down at the lifeless body of Nancy on the floor, the bull terrier cowers in the corner on the opposite side of the room. Lean cuts twice to a shot of the dog as it remains resolutely focused on Sikes, trembling in a state of hysterical fear. As Sikes eventually pulls the table back and opens the door the terrified dog literally leaps from the room before Sikes can stop it. Again, as in Bresson’s own murder sequence, the pitiful devotion of the dog to its owner is betrayed and completely undone through violence. The dog knows and cares nothing for the apparent motivation for either of these murders, in its world such things are unimportant. For the dog the simple kinship of love and faithful devotion are enough. And as that kinship is violently undone we are forced to feel it through the simple affective responses of the dog. The dog is put into a state of terror, mourning and immobility. In both filmic moments the motivations and justifications for the violent actions fall away into meaninglessness, and we are confronted with the naked nihilism and horror of violence.
Consider a different form of violence involving, and conveyed with, a dog – de Sica’s 1952 Neo-realist masterpiece Umberto D, a homage to Chaplin’s 1918 silent film A Dog’s Life.
In the final heartbreaking five minutes of the film, the desperately impoverished and lonely old man Umberto D. Ferrari has finally reached a point of utter desperation trying to survive in post-war Rome, and decides to kill himself by throwing himself beneath a train. However, he cannot bear to do so with his only friend, his faithful dog Flike. After unsuccessfully trying to give Fike away to a child in the park, he decides to distract Flike with some children and creep away and hide. However, the ever faithful Flike finds him hiding behind a bush. So Umberto D scoops Flike up into his arms and decides to kill himself with Flike. As the train approaches de Sica cuts to Flike desperately scrabbling to escape from Umberto D’s grip, as if he realises the old man’s suicidal intentions. The dog’s brief struggle for survival is horrifically intense and conveys the sense of Flike’s ‘exquisite’ feeling of betrayal at the hands of his human feiend. The dog’s sense of betrayal is heightened as Flike retreats and tries to hide from Umberto D, refusing to respond to his remorseful cries. De Sica renders the dog’s sorrow almost painfully palpable. However, Flike finally relents and quickly forgives Umberto’s attempts to kill him in his attempted act of suicide, and he begins to faithfully play with the lonely old man again. The film ends on an almost unbearable sense of melancholic kinship, as Umberto and Flike are shown retreating into the distance playing happily together. In de Sica’s film the threat to the kinship between the two, figured through the desire for self destruction, is overcome through a simple act of remorseful restoration. The companionship between man and dog brings into relief the terrifying absence of all other forms of sincere human relation, yet it is shown to be enough. The love between man and dog can be sustaining despite the complete absence of all other forms of love and material support. It is a beautiful testament to the endurance of the human soul, and the faithful loving companionship offered by the dog.
In the opening moments of a much more recent film, Paddy Considine’s directorial feature debut Tyrannosaur (2012), the central protagonist, a violent unemployed widower Joseph is shown kicking his dog Bluey to death in a fit of self destructive rage. It is evident that Bluey is his only friend.
This fatal attack on the dog initiates a terrible reckoning for Joseph as he is forced to confront the toxic violence that inhabits his soul. The absolute betrayal of the simple kinship with his dog Bluey lays bare the utterly catastrophic emptiness of his life and pulls the nihilism of this landscape down upon him as if he had become a singular point of moral anti-matter. In the aftermath of the dog’s death he is shown gently stroking the dog’s lifeless body, but it’s too late. Here the dog is no longer the ‘exquisitely’ affective medium for acts of violence, but has itself become the target of the betrayal of violence. This deeply powerful and nihilistic film ends with another act of violence upon a dog. Joseph recounts how his new best friend, a six year old boy who lives next door to him, has been savaged by the boy’s mother’s boyfriend’s dog. The dog has finally turned on man. In an act of mindless revenge Joseph has killed the dog with a machete.
In each of these sequences the limit point of the pacific pact between man and dog is tested through violent betrayal. Each filmmaker composes sequences which powerfully and affectively convey the erosion of that pact, producing anxiety, fear, terror and ultimately the death of the dog. The affects expressed by these simple friends of ours, the dogs, ultimately mirror our own, the deep and fragile strata of our moral sentiments beneath everything else. These films transport us into a simple and straightforward animal altruism by displaying its annihilation. The erosion of our moral pact to each other is heightened by the presence of the dog and its ‘exquisite’ sensitivity to that betrayal, producing some of the most memorable scenes in the history of cinema.