Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Plague Dogs

Plague Dogs (1982)
Dir. Martin Rosen
Starring (voices) John Hurt, Christopher Benjamin, Nigel Hawthorne, and Patrick Stewart has a small role at the end.  

PLAGUE DOGS begins with one of the most unnerving and disturbing sequences I’ve ever seen put to film. Things are murky and claustrophobic, out of focus. You’re disoriented and off-balance, looking for any point of reference. Casting about frantically, you can make out the surface of the water above. Breaching the surface, you’re confronted with the masked visages of doctors in lab coats, staring down from beneath a blinding light. To your horror, they offer no help but instead chit chat back and forth about how long you’ll last. Frantically scratching at the glass walls around you, you discover your feet can find no purchase there, that you’re doomed to struggle in the water until you drown. Finally, with no strength left, you give in and sink to your death, only to be plucked out of the water and shocked back to life, to face it again the next day.

The victim of this hellish living nightmare is a large animated black lab mix named Rowf, who awakens in his cage the next day hardly able to distinguish the nightmare of his reality from the nightmares which plague his sleep. That’s a fuck of a way to start an animated movie about talking dogs, but this one ain’t playing gentle.

I would have had an idea of what I was getting into if I had known that director Martin Rosen had previously adapted another of Richard Adams’ books into a fucking disturbing animated film about anthropomorphized cuddly critters: 1978’s nightmarish WATERSHIP DOWN. Watching the fluffy bunnies with celebrity voices rip each other to bloody shreds with their horrible Nosferatu teeth was up there with my most defining childhood traumas, and probably has something to do with my cautious relationship with NIGHT OF THE LEPUS. But it’s not really the frank depiction of violence which makes Rosen’s adaptations of Adams’ stories so affecting to me – it’s his bleak style and straightforward portrayal of the darkness and crushingly high stakes of the animal world.

PLAGUE DOGS is not as much about narrative as WATERSHIP DOWN. Rowf (voiced with resolute dignity Christopher Benjamin) and his friend Snitter (voiced with a heartbreaking mix of fragile optimism and deep melancholy by John Hurt) are living a surreal existence of unending and (to them) inexplicable torment in a laboratory, when a chance circumstance allows them a shot at escape. Through the incinerator, past the stiff bodies and gray ashes of their deceased friends (and Tim Robbins thought he had it bad!), they’re able to make it to the outside. But once out, they have no idea what to do. Snitter, who feels personally responsible for the death of his former master which led to his incarceration, thinks they need to look for a new master. Rowf is less sure. But neither of them knows what to do, where to go, or anything about living in the outside world. So the rest of the film is about them aimlessly wandering the Scottish countryside, trying to stay alive while the noose grows inexorably tighter around them.

In some ways, it’s not so much a traditional narrative as it is a darkly absurdist play, kind of a ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dogs.’ Rowf and Snitter speak with human voices and can reason and make plans, but the movie carefully keeps reminding us that they’re dogs, with the perspective that implies. They have no concept of why they were being held captive, or what the outside world is like (“Why is this happening? I’m a good dog!” Rowf implores). They never quite comprehend why eating the local sheep evokes violent reactions from the local farmers, nor do they have any idea that the local media has learned that they may have become contaminated with Bubonic Plague during their escape, resulting in an all-out hunt for their heads. Their bafflement at their predicament and their existential angst as they struggle to find direction defines the absurd tragedy of their existence, and the quiet dread the lightly impressionistic animation and direction summons suits it well. Just like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, it’s clear to these dogs that powerful forces are moving all around them, but they’re just as unknowable and arbitrary.

To further drive home this point, Snitter has recently undergone a brain operation which confuses his already meager ability to distinguish between past and present. He begins the film with an unshakable energy and optimism, pulling Rowf along with his plan to escape the lab. As things go on, however, the “flies and spider webs’’ in his head gradually become inseparable from reality, trapping him in a twilight zone of bad memories and worse reality and making him an unstable liability to his companion. We occasionally catch a glimpse of his reality, as objects and events from the past intrude on the present in ghostly high-contrast black and white. It’s genuinely chilling.

I am a great believer in the medium of animation, and constantly frustrated that modern filmmakers seem to consider it a childish tool. Here, expert animators create the exact proper balance of surrealism and literal representations, carefully making the dogs’ movements expressive and authentic but allowing for moments of seamless abstraction. The landscapes always have a kind of expressionistic quality, with strong brush strokes and a perpetually dreamy gray sky, but when the occasion calls for it the animation can turn to wild stylizations to represent extreme emotional states. This fluid stylistic quality perfectly captures the subjective reality of the unusual protagonists, while the hand-drawn animation means that every movement the dogs make is rife with meaning and personality, but still completely believable in the context of this world. It’s stubbornly unflashy, but a perfect example of how to use animation to tell an adult story more effectively than live-action possibly could.

(I should note, I watched the 85-minute version available on Netflix, but apparently there’s a longer 103 minute cut out there in Australia or some fool place which includes a few more explicit bits [Wikipedia says you get to see a dismembered human corpse which the dogs have eaten, wow. But the version I saw implies it strongly enough and that’s probably even weightier than actually seeing it]. Hardcore fans on the internet swear by the longer version, but I can’t really imagine it much improving the experience, which in the 85-minute version seems to fully develop its atmosphere, characters and themes and in no way feels truncated or incomplete)

As in WATERSHIP DOWN, director Rosen has created something truly unique and memorable, exploring deep-running existential fears from a startlingly distinct perspective. He’s not at all afraid to delve into the darkness of his scenario, but also deftly avoids exploiting it for shock value – instead he trusts the power of his images and the slow, desperate build of the story to work its way into your head and stick there. Netflix calls it a “compelling case for animal rights,” but fortunately it’s much more interesting than that. In the hands of Rosen, it becomes a film about the fragility of existence in a hard and incomprehensible world. Rosen only directed one other film besides his two Adams adaptations, an out-of-distribution live action film about rural Montana humans called STACKING. But even if that one is as tepid as the trailer makes it look, I think he can rightfully claim a place among the all-time animation greats based on the remarkable power and unique vision of his work in PLAGUE DOGS.

06/29/2011 PLAGUE DOGS Update! It turns out a very young Brad Bird worked on this film as an animator, which is cool enough that it deserves a mention.

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