Wednesday, April 27, 2011

My Life As A Dog (1985)

Lasse Hallström’s Mitt liv som hund (aka: My Life As A Dog) (1985) was a major success in Scandinavia when released in 1985, and it continued to find success in the U.S. art house market, when finally released in 1987. By 1988, the U.S. nominated the film for two Oscars for best director and writers, and the film won a Golden Globe for best Foreign Film. Through the popularity of My Life As A Dog, the director Lasse Hallström launched a career in America finding much success with films like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), The Cider House Rules (1999), and Chocolat (2000). Yet, none of the following films were as personal as My Life As A Dog, nor did they speak as intimately about Swedish cultural values and sexual politics. At the time of its release, the film nostalgically appealed to Swedes who were children during the late 50s and early 60s. My Life As A Dog’s basic premise is about growing up within family difficulties, and this universal topic appealed to American audiences as well, who were looking for insight into Swedish culture within the confines of the cinema art house.

Before Scandinavia would be recognized internationally for its late 80s heritage films like Babettes gæstebud (aka: Babette’s Feast) (1987) and Pelle erobreren (aka: Pelle the Conqueror) (1987), two important films came out that reflected the misguided youth of the late 50s and early 60s, Tro, håb og kærlighed (aka: Twist and Shout) (1984) and My Life As A Dog. Where the Heritage films told stories that strengthened Scandinavian pride or appealed to a sense of cultural history, both Twist and Shout and My Life As A Dog reveled in unsentimental nostalgia, while simultaneously illustrating the darker and colder aspects of Scandinavian family life. Both films deal with children handling a sexual rite of passage while dealing with difficulties within the familial structure and the sickness of a maternal figure. Though similar in their time placement and themes, Hallström’s film encapsulates a real sense of the Scandinavian identity, where Twist and Shout’s protagonist is merely a general reflection of youth (his penchant for The Beatles’ music can be seen as emblematic of a universal trait). Where Twist and Shout was sneakily exported and sold to American theaters and video stores as a possible U.S. product, My Life As A Dog embellishes the quirkiness of its culture and reflects its society’s values concerning sexuality, gender roles, sporting interests (soccer and boxing), art, and animal (pet) treatment.

My Life As A Dog concerns 12-year-old misfit Ingemar (wonderfully acted by Anton Glanzelius) who has problems assimilating to his surroundings and a mother dying of tuberculosis. Plagued with nervous ticks like bed-wetting and an inability to drink in front of people (he constantly spills his milk), Ingemar is often bullied by his brother Erik and is uncared for by his ailing mother who would rather read books all day. Yet, Ingemar manages to find some short-lived happiness with his dog Sickan and his blonde girlfriend Lilla, (Little Frog) who enact a blood-bound relationship of a married couple. After numerous incidents between Ingemar and Erik (who usually brings out the worst in his brother), they are split up to live with different family members, so that their mother can get some rest. It must be noted that Ingemar causes a lot of trouble around him, for he accidentally sets fire at a dumpsite, gets caught on top of Lilla by her father, and makes a mess in the kitchen fighting with his brother; Ingemar is definitely a handful for even the healthiest of parents. Yet, Hallström’s film makes Ingemar out to be a victim of circumstance, whose childlike naiveté is comically endearing in such seriously sad surroundings.

If Hallström’s presents Ingemar as a metaphor of a newer and more sensitive Swedish value system, then his brother Erik represents the older and colder sensibility of the past. Erik points a gun at Ingemar’s dog, foreshadowing the pet’s fate. Erik also sexually exploits his brother (by having him put his penis in a bottle in front of many children) and constantly emotionally abuses him by telling him he is to blame for everything. His mother’s illness has turned her intolerant, angry and irrational, leaving Ingemar little room to be a kid. In Hallström’s world, family members have a consistently cold view towards Ingemar, who tries desperately to hold on to happier memories of his mother enjoying a sunny day on the beach or photographing him and Sickan.

Throughout everything, Ingemar constantly compares his life to that of Laika, a dog Russia sent into space without enough food or oxygen to survive. Laika’s fate is thus juxtaposed with the situation of Ingemar’s own dog Sickan, who is callously put to death after Ingmar leaves to live in Småland with his uncle. Hallström depicts a time when humans were less sympathetic towards the fate of a dog, or (in Ingemar’s case) a child. In an atomic age where Russia uses a dog as a guinea pig for scientific advancement, Hallström prefers the less advanced Småland mentality.

After Ingmar settles in Småland to live with his Uncle Gunnar, Aunt Ulla and family, the film’s tone shifts dramatically to that of lightheartedness, sentimentality and whimsy. Ingemar’s uncle is obsessed with soccer and building his summerhouse (even though it’s on a rented property). Both Gunnar and Ulla greet Ingemar with a positive attitude even stating that he brought the nice weather with him (suggesting that he’s good luck). The new village embraces Ingemar’s quirkiness, and his two new best friends are Manne (a boy with green hair) and Saga (a girl who is forced to disguise herself as a boy to stay on the all male soccer team).

What is most surprising is that Hallström illustrates Småland to be a very sexually curious and progressive area. For example, their house neighbor Mr. Arvidsson has Ingemar read to him from brassiere advertisements, and Ingemar constantly views his Uncle Gunnar gawking at the town’s busty blonde beauty Berit (who asks Ingemar to go with her when she poses nude for the town artist); Hallström seems to be suggesting that the rural village’s attitude about sexual identity is far more liberal than the more urbanized areas of Sweden. Emily E. LeBeff writes:

“A significant concern in the film is the sex role learning shown in Ingemar’s interactions with his uncle and other men at the glass factory as they model traditional masculine behavior. “

The director sees this liberal attitude to be a more progressive and a healthier perspective. When the uncle gets on all four chasing after Ulla like a dog in heat, Ingemar reads this as a familial connection of play and joins in, barking and crawling like a dog. The uncle becomes the father (dog) leading Ingemar (the pup) into a sexual initiation of which Ingemar is unaware (all while the mother-in-law just sits by knitting). The door shuts on Ingemar, leaving him confused and sexually innocent. Yet as Ingemar stays in Småland, his sexual desires and confidence grow (through the mentoring of Gunnar) to the point where he slaps Berit on the butt and even climbs on top of the roof, risking life and limb to see her nude.

My Life As A Dog seems to be influenced by Swedish childhood films of the 70s as well as by writer Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking films. Though the tone is far more complex its perspective on village dynamics is similar. Coincidentally author Lindgren grew up in Småland, and one can’t help but feel this influenced Hallström’s location. Tytti Soila writes,

“The later Lindgren films in particular portray a world that is possible even more idyllic and designed to please than the first films made in the 1940s. The events take place in a small town or in the countryside in an idyllic community at the turn of the century, usually in a middle class environment. People live in peaceful communities where illness, hunger and war have no place.” (pg 230).

In this pastoral landscape, Ingemar has not to worry about his ailing mother or his sadistic brother; instead, he is free to express himself and explore his natural sexual desires that are concomitant with the coming of age journey. Hallström uses this village setting to explore a utopian environment, for the community constantly displays a sympathetic attitude towards it inhabitants. For instance, when the village oddball is bathing in ice-cold water, the town rushes to bring him to the glass factory to warm him up. A sense of unity permeates throughout, and when Ingemar’s friends witness his tearful breakdown they look upon him with sympathy yet with an almost curious look as if they rarely see such expressions of grief. Not only is hunger and illness non-existent in this community, but neither is sadness. Though the film never brings up politics per-se, the village in Småland is presented (by Hallström) as encompassing a socialist-like political structure.

My Life As A Dog is a meaningful coming of age story that reflects Scandinavian society in the late 50s as well as reflecting elements of Astrid Lindgren’s childhood tales. Lasse Hallström manages to hit just the right balance of a child’s dramatic journey without suffering the weight of over-sentimentality. Though childhood nostalgia is often skewed by time, Hallström keeps the emotional drama realistic and never falls into sugarcoating Ingemar’s experience. With the 50s paving the way for scientific advancement, the film suggests that simplicity equals a far more harmonious lifestyle, the future in science is for the dogs.

LeBeff, Emily E. “My Life As A Dog.” Teaching Sociology, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Jan. 1989), pp. 139-140.
Soila, Tytti. “Sweden: The Societal Mirror.” Nordic National Cinemas. New York, Routledge, 1998.

Vampyr (1932)

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) works like a fever dream that mixes fragmented moments of surrealism and German expressionism to create a unique vampire tale. The story concerns a young traveler who investigates a remote castle, where the lord of the manor and his two daughters have been plagued by a vampire. The film opens with the following introduction message: “This is a tale of the strange adventures of young Allan Gray who immersed himself in the study of devil worship and vampires. Preoccupied with superstitions of centuries past he became a dreamer for whom the line between the real and the supernatural became blurred.” As Allan Gray walks through the uncanny surroundings, he follows eerie mumbling voices and elongated shadows, which seem to belong to evil apparitions. The surrounding and shifting phantasmagoria has a haunting effect on the viewer, adding to a sense of uneasiness. Though released one year after Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), Vampyr is different from its predecessor and is more connected to the earlier silent horror films that emerged from Germany in the 1920s. The gothic spirit of Vampyr is closer to the vampire tale of Nosferatu (1922), while its dreamlike elements recall The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) (without its abstract set designs).

Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer had previously helmed the fatally foreboding The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), which delved into the persecution of an individual by a superstitious and religious society. In Dreyer’s follow-up film Vampyr, the inhabited village is made up of haunted superstitious townspeople, who seem trapped in a trance or ghost-like state. Dreyer is cinematically interested in the disconnection of the individual from that of his surroundings, or that of dream and reality. When lead protagonist Allan Gray sleeps, he is awoken in the middle of the night by an old man who unlocks his door and cryptically proclaims that “she mustn’t die” and leaves a note on a package that should be opened upon his death. Important information appears in his sleep state, while the waking day appears to look like a dream.

Dreyer creates an unclear world of logic with constant camera probing and unsettled movements. The inhabitants are made up of the elderly who are unable to protect their young. As Allan Gray investigates the castle, he witnesses a crippled one-legged guardsman, and the dream-like shadows of days past when the townspeople laughed and danced joyously, only to be silenced by an elderly witch lady with a cane. The Lord of the Manor’s daughter, Gisèle, looks after her sister Léone, who is ill and is slowly turning into a vampire. Allan only seems to witness things in fractions, and when the Lord is murdered, Allan can only see a shadowy figure with a rifle. Unable to discern the voices and noises that he hears, he is in a constant state of incomprehensibility. After the Lord of the Manor is murdered, Allan opens the package, which turns out to be a book about vampires. In one of Dreyer’s more effective and atmospheric moments in the film, Léone is discovered lying unconscious (with a neck bite by Allan and Gisèle) outdoors, where the landscape is shot in a hazy dream-like quality. Other surreal moments include Allan’s outer-body dream of his own death and funeral, which gives the film a poetic Poe quality. The film in some ways can be seen as a forerunner to some of the Avant-Garde films that were released during this time, such as the dream-like short of Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943).

Dreyer seems more concerned with atmosphere than logic. The haunting film seems to be about the religious conflicts between the town and the Satanic old lady with a cane. The village doctor appears to be a servant of evil and is murdered in a flour-mill (though by whom is unclear). Yet, the scene of the doctor suffocating under the weight of the flour that pours down upon him, juxtaposed with Allan and Gisèle searching through the fog on a boat, is chilling and hypnotic. Though slower paced than Dracula, Frankentstein (1931), The Wolf Man (1941) and all the other Universal horror films at the time, Vampyr gets under one’s skin and into the subconscious more effectively. Unlike the typical vampire film that includes bats, fangs, coffins, crosses and holy-water, Dreyer’s film creates a foreboding mood of paranoia, dread, and sadness. Interestingly, the character Allan Gray is never shown to exist in a world outside the confines of the village and castle. The viewer never sees Allan interact in normal surroundings; he just appears on the landscape like the beginning of a dream. This dreamscape quality stays with the film until the very end, where Allan and Gisèle reach a heavenly spot in a forest, the final fantasy state.

Though filmmaker Dreyer is Danish, Vampyr draws its inspiration from various European sources. A German production, Vampyr was shot in Abbaye de Braye, France (near Paris). Vampyr is loosely based on In A Glass Darkly by Irish, gothic writer Sheridan Le Fanu, who also penned the female vampire novella Carmilla. The film was cheaply financed by Dutch Baron Nicholas De Gunzberg who also happened to be an amateur actor and used the film as a vehicle to jumpstart an acting career. The Baron westernized his name to Julian West and played the leading role of Allan Gray. A considerable amount of credit should be given to Polish cinematographer Rudolph Maté for the expressionistic look of the film. Rudolph Maté previously worked with Dreyer on The Passion of Joan of Arc, and his camera work lent itself well with film noir masterpieces like Foreign Correspondent (1940), Gilda (1946), and The Lady From Shanghai (1947). Maté eventually turned his hand at directing and delivered two film noir gems himself with The Dark Past (1948) and D.O.A. (1950). According to Bergman and Karney, Maté was instructed by Dreyer to create the eerie mood of Vampyr by “reflecting light off gauze.” (Faber 675)

Due to its experimental nature, Vampyr was a financial disaster when released. According to Thompson and Bordwell, “Vampyr was so different from other films of the period that it was greeted with incomprehension. It marked the end of Dreyer’s international wanderings. He returned to Denmark and, unable to find backing for another project, to life as a journalist.” (Film History, pg. 158) Dreyer did eventually make his way back into making films, but it would be in ten years.

Vampyr may have been different from films of that time, but many years later it can be seen as an undeniable influence on future European filmmakers dealing with the vampire genre. French filmmaker Jean Rollin owes a cinematic debt to Dreyer’s vision, as does Spanish cult icon Jesus Franco. Rollin’s minimal setting and atmospheric approach to the vampire genre is much closer to Dreyer’s than Browning’s Dracula. Also, Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1971) disposes of genre expectations in the same way as Dreyer, creating a similar pace in terms of narrative development. Often a form of hypnosis is integrated into the vampire genre, with Dracula usually using this on his intended victim. Dreyer uses different techniques as cinematic hypnosis on the viewer, as a means to inhabit this psychological space. The cinematic approach is similar in style to director Jacques Tourneur and his films like I Walked with a Zombie (1943) or Curse of the Demon (1957). Unlike most vampire films, Vampyr works on a cerebral level that begs for a patient and closer examination.

Not only is Vampyr one of the most original adaptations of the vampire genre, its artistically challenging and moody. Though not successful at the time it has developed a strong and influential reputation, enough so to warrant a Criterion Collection release. Not concerned with typical genre specifics, the film realizes the artistic and atmospheric possibilities of a horror film.