My Life As A Dog (Lasse Hallstrom, 1985)
I’d like to give a shoutout to one of the great HR representatives of our times, and a friend of the blog, Patty Hunt, for suggesting this movie and lending me the DVD. Thanks, Patty!
Category: Sad film about human beings who are transformed into dogs. A deep, bizarre subject today on Taste My... wait what’s that? I’m sorry, I’m told this is NOT, in fact, a prequel to the 2006 Tim Allen film The Shaggy Dog. Apparently, the title of this film is not to be taken literally.
This is, however, a sad coming-of-age film (much like Simon Birch and My Girl), as well as a sad Swedish film. These goddamn liberals who control the media are always talking about how America should be more like Scandinavia. Sure, it seems great, with their nice-looking blondes, high life expectancy and low infant mortality rate. Indeed, Forbes magazine (a notorious socialist rag) ranks Sweden as the sixth-happiest country in the world. But take a look at Sweden’s cultural output, and you’ll find that maybe things aren’t so great over there after all. (I for one blame the high tax rates. It’s a good thing we extended those Bush tax cuts; otherwise, all of our rich people would be sad!) From Ingmar Bergman and his films about death, marital problems and stressful chess matches, to Stieg Larsson and his Millennium trilogy of novels about a heavily-pierced rape victim, the Swedes have produced some pretty heavy stuff. (And ABBA. But some would argue that ABBA causes its share of depression, too.)
Few of you are aware that the “Sad” in “Taste My Sad” is actually an acronym for Seasonal Affective Disorder. And no, this isn’t just some random coincidence that I mention expressly for the purpose of introducing a dumb segue. But while we’re on the topic, it’s pretty cold in Sweden, isn’t it? That can’t help.
My familiarity with this issue: I’ve never been to Sweden. (I’ve been cold many times, though. Not fun.) There’s a lot of cool Swedish stuff out there: The Hives, Robyn, Swedish Fish, etc. This also never fails to bring a tear to my eye:
My Life as a Dog is about a child who is sent away by his parents to live with relatives, a fate I happily avoided when I was young. Not because I have bad relatives or anything (they’re all very nice), it just seems like a traumatic thing for a child to go through. I’m especially glad that I didn’t grow up in an era where sickly children were sent off to the sanatorium, especially if it in any way resembled the one in Shutter Island. Oof.
I don’t think I remember my childhood vividly enough to be able to tell a melancholy coming-of-age story about it, as I expect this film does. (To be fair, I lived on Long Island, where the closest people get to melancholy is when the beach is too crowded.) In a way, this speaks to my pet peeve about some (not all) coming-of-age movies (like Simon Birch or The Sandlot or any number of other things): everything’s too neat and tidy. I cannot pinpoint specific events or experiences that changed my life, or molded me into the person I am today, or anything like that. I struggle to remember attending my first baseball game, having my first piano recital, being rejected by the first girl I liked (a not-uncommon occurrence). They’re events that I know happened and were important to me at the time, but I cannot connect with them now on anything other than an abstract level. I suspect most people have the same difficulty (although of course I can’t be sure of that). But far too often, movies overstate the incidence of distinct, profound events that generate distinct, profound memories from which adult versions of kids played by annoying child actors can construct meaning. It’s a problem. But I suspect this movie, what with its Swedishness, will be more realistic.
Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “Ingemar lives with his brother and his terminally ill mother. He may have a rough time, but not as bad as Laika - the Russian dog sent into space... [Editor’s Note: It remains to be seen if this is a reference to something in the movie or a non sequitur. I’m really hoping it’s the latter. Also, I would have replaced the ellipsis that this writer uses with the word “Amirite?”] He gets sent away to stay with relations for the summer. While there, he meets various strange characters, giving him experiences that will affect him for the rest of his life.”
What I thought of the movie: I liked it! It had to surmount a major, recurring issue for me, that being the “annoying child actor” factor. The main character, Ingemar, is a mischievous kid, and mischievous is almost always annoying (the main exception being Home Alone). But the blank-faced actor playing Ingemar, Anton Glanzelius, was no Macaulay Culkin. (This is almost too good to be true: after I wrote that sentence, I clicked on Anton Glanzelius’s Wikipedia page. It’s quite short, but it features this sentence at the end, which I swear I did not make up: “He is also known for being a friend of Michael Jackson, who contacted him in 1987 after being impressed with his performance in My Life as a Dog.” I don’t even know what to say. Maybe he was the original choice to do the rap in "Black or White"!) The beginning of the film was particularly galling to me, as Ingemar causes so much mischief that he is sent away from his terminally ill mother because it is feared that his behavior will actually accelerate her death. Which is generally something you try to avoid, as a son. These scenes were very difficult for me to watch.
But remember how I said that I liked it? I did! It gets a lot better once the kid is sent away to live with his cool curly-haired uncle in a rural village. Then the movie is all nice and warm and nostalgic, much like Woody Allen’s Radio Days. And this happy section really does make us forget about the fact that the mother is sick and we know she’s going to die. Which makes it all the more sad when she does. The movie isn’t really about the mom dying, it’s more about the kid and how he deals with that in addition to all the other issues that growing up entails (having a dog, being different than the other kids, having crushes on girls, etc). Ingemar’s voice-over constantly reminds the audience that things could be worse, and compares his plight to those of others, including known spacedog Laika (there’s the reference). In the end the movie has a good balance between the sad and the hopeful, and if it had had a less annoying kid actor, I would have totally loved it.
How I, John Krizel, related to the movie: A main reason why I enjoyed the scenes set in the rural village so much was the village’s high population of eccentrics. Webster’s defines the noun form of eccentric as “a person who behaves in odd or unusual ways.” By that broad definition, we certainly have our share of eccentrics: Charlie Sheen, Donald Trump, Glenn Beck, etc. But the kind of eccentric I’m talking about is increasingly rare in this day and age, for various reasons. These eccentrics are harmless, but just have very strange personal habits that don’t really affect other people that much. In My Life as a Dog, there’s a guy who is always fixing his roof, another guy who rides his unicycle on a tightrope, and an old bedridden guy who makes Ingemar read him the words from ladies’ underwear ads. How delightful! (Except the old guy. He’s almost certainly a pedophile.) You don’t see that in this country very much, I think, because (a) Europeans are weird, and (b) people are more easily weirded out by weird people in America. If there were some guy constantly fixing his roof on my block when I was a kid, one of the neighbors would have figured out a way to have him arrested by Day 3. Tops. Be less judgmental, AMERICA. Learn to embrace your inner harmless eccentric, and stop going to see Charlie Sheen perform live. He was fun for a week. It’s over now.
I did very much like the ending of the movie, which features all the Swedish folks listening to the radio broadcast of Ingemar Johansson (the boxer and namesake of the kid in the movie; it’s probably a very common name in Sweden, like John Smith or what have you) defeat Floyd Patterson for the heavyweight championship in 1959. Everyone runs outside and celebrates afterward. It made me think about the USA’s victory over Algeria in last year’s World Cup, and how I would have totally run outside and celebrated with everyone if I wasn’t in my secluded doublewide trailer in the middle of the woods, alone. Fun fact: when Landon Donovan scored his famous goal, I ran around the house screaming and injured my finger on our ceiling fan. It was worth it.
How I felt after the movie ended: Sadly warm/fuzzy. The thing is that the mom death comes like a half hour before the movie ends. A lot of other stuff happens afterward. And while the death is kind of like a sad blanket that lies on top of the whole movie, muffling it with sadness, the post-film sadness factor (PFSF) is decreased due to this fact. Still, despite an annoying child lead actor and a low PFSF, it’s a high-quality TMS selection. Maybe these Swedes are on to something after all.