Thursday, 19 May 2016

Good Movie: My Life as a Dog

"It could have been worse."

So says the young protagonist of Mitt liv som hund ("My Life as a Dog"). For him, every misfortune is an opening to Kuan Yin.

That the speaker is twelve; that his life is crap; and that there's no reason to suspect it's going to get any better, tells you this is no ordinary kid.

My Life as a Dog was made in the Eighties, when my parents' generation came into their "power years" – the moment just before retirement when a peer group finds itself running things. Movie-wise, the result was a slew of barely-fictionalised memoirs of childhoods spent negotiating World War II and its aftermath.

A festival of these films – all of them superb – might include Le Grand Chemin, Empire of the Sun, Hope and Glory, Au Revoir Les Enfants, Stand By Me, Europa Europa, and De aanslag.

But this one is my favourite.

In Dog we shadow Ingemar – a Swedish kid deserted by luck and most of his family – as he strives not to upset anyone. The fact that he takes Laïka, first Earthling in space, as his role model, is just the first instance of his rare insight.

He needs it. His mom is dying. His family is destitute; his dad abandoned them long ago. Ingemar and his older brother are trapped between the need to placate and care for their increasingly erratic mother and keeping the social workers at bay.

His only friend is his dog Sickan. As long as they're together, he believes, everything's OK. (Nor is he the first human to conclude that dogs are better company than people.)

Canine loyalty is a godsend for Ingemar, because notwithstanding his unfailing goodwill, he's a lightning rod for disaster. Other kids take advantage of him; adults project their fears and disappointments on him. And he just doesn't fit in. He's too happy, too game, too prone to pluck the straight laces of Cold War Stockholm. Everywhere he's told he's one too many: unsuitable, unwelcome, a jonah. Like his cosmonaut hero, he's a defenceless alien, suspended far from home in an airless hell.

And then he's blasted off to an uncle he's never met, in a rural wasteland known to cartographers as Småland. (Literally: "Small Land".)

Nevertheless, to take a page from our young friend: "it could be worse". Småland is green. The sun is soft. And the first words he hears on touching down are, "You've brought the nice weather with you!"

One would be tempted to dismiss the little village he ends up in as urban romanticism: a stable, supple community where generations live in harmony. But director Lasse Hallström seems to be pointing out that there are two ways to raise children. In Småland it's for grown-ups to take care of kids, not the other way 'round. And as the old saw would have it, the whole village is actively engaged in just that.

Better still: Uncle Gunnar turns out to share the same quirky DNA as his nephew. Under his roof, Ingemar gets the adult direction he's been missing: loving, understanding, respectful of his nature.

Not that there isn't friction; this is, after all, 1958. A ringing Brigitte Bardot lookalike signals Sweden's impending sexual liberation. Girls muscle into sports. Boys mock the Church. Immigrants crowd in. TV mesmerises a neighbourhood. Tempers flare.

But then they flare out again. Nothing is that important in Småland.

Young Anton Glanzelius received a mountain of justified praise for his bodhisattva-league performance as young Ingemar. Now a television producer, he says, "I just played myself." And though actor Tomas von Brömssen caught a little criticism for his Stockholm accent, one would be hard-pressed to find a closer reading of rustic Uncle Gunnar: a carefully-measured jumble of eccentricity and responsibility.

But what truly makes Dog is Hallström's palpable affection for children. His instinctive grasp of their perspective and mannerisms recalls François Truffaut's own kindergeist masterpiece, Argent de Poche. You'll want to hug every one of these kids. (Even Ingemar's damaged brother.)

A few critics took issue with what they perceived to be a surfeit of treacle in Hallström's vision, but the well-researched trauma symptoms subtly insinuated into Ingemar's personality attest to significant, if unspoken, darkness. (His "drinking problem", for one, is a documented neurosis of emotionally disturbed children.)

It's just that not quite everybody in his life is unreachable. Also, Ingemar has this theory about dukkha – one he's backed up with hard data:
In fact, I've been kinda lucky. I mean, compared to others. You have to compare, so you can get a little distance from things.
Like Laïka. She really must have seen things in perspective. It's important to keep a certain distance.
I think about that guy who tried to set a world record for jumping over buses with a motorcycle. He lined up 31 buses.
If he'd left it at 30, maybe he would have survived.

Until next time: keep a tight rope, droogies.

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