Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Maggie 2010: Maggie Likes Things, Too! Part 4 of 4

#76. Animal Love

When I discovered Werner Herzog had said of this film, "I have never looked so directly into hell in the cinema," I knew I was on the trail of something wonderful. Ulrich Siegl's 1995 documentary about Austrian pet owners who have, shall we say, precious little in their lives save their woe-begotten furry friends is a humanizing glimpse into loneliness, alienation, and the bizarre machinations of human bonding.

Siegl's documentary style should be old-hat to anyone familiar with Errol Morris' breakout documentary, Gates of Heaven; and indeed, I found myself thinking a lot about that piece, also about animal lovers, in relation to Siegl's particular scope of inquiry almost two decades later.

Siegl follows a wide range of people with very different back-stories of animal engagement, but does not once dwell on the nature of those back-stories: this is, indeed, the act of estrangement that allows us to look at what is happening in the present, right before the camera, from such a haunting, alien light.

We don't know, for instance, what has led two old bachelors to live together in an apartment, or even if they're in actuality celibate partners: all we see of them is how they handle the act of acquiring a dog from the pound, how they fight over him, and how they cope with the consequences of their poor training of the creature when he's out in the world. Likewise, we don't know what circumstances have caused one old, divorced couple to reach the stage they have with one another, but we do see the surfeit of desperate affection they each show the dog in their shared custody. We get a hint of the back-story for another couple falling apart in part because of the wife's fixation on taking in pets, particularly because the (ex?)husband goes into a long tirade on camera about the peculiar mythologies of their long-term relationship, but truly, their lives outside of the interactions we see on screen seem to belong to an entirely different plane of existence.

A similar question mark hangs over the two homeless persons who take in stray animals--is it just to improve their begging yields, as certain scenes suggest, or do they actually feel the need for companionship so desperately that they're willing to bind these animals to their own fluctuating lots in life? And then there are the lonely women, old and young alike, who read and are unsettlingly affectionate with their dogs. And the happily married couple that roughhouses just as intimately with their tremendous mutt. And the old, frail invalids at an Austrian hospice who take tremendous comfort in the proximity of little bunnies roving about their beds. And the happy couple who place their greyhounds on special treadmills to keep them in top competition form. And the couple who themselves seem so bizarrely animalistic that Siegl elects to show almost nothing of another animal presence in the house: from the way he shoots them it's clear the man almost sees his female partner as the pet, the hobby, the collection piece. Just, you know, with benefits.

Reviewers have pointed to the characters in this piece as "bizarre" specimens of the human race, but I find that to be a poor approximation of Siegl's object lesson--namely, that we are all very, very bizarre people when the lens of estrangement is put upon us. Of course, I can't help but feel exceptionally uncomfortable about the way so many of the creatures in this film are treated by their owners, but I do take small comfort in the fact that, dogs and dog owners being the focus of this calm and deliberative piece, cat owners like myself can momentarily excuse ourselves from the usual cultural stereotypes, and lay the crown elsewhere for a spell.

No comments: