Saturday, May 08, 2010

Special Screenings: A Boy and his Dog

A Boy and his Dog poster and Amazon linkEvery so often I’ll see a film in circumstances that are, themselves, worth writing about. Hence, the new category.

One of these was a few weeks ago at Kansas City’s annual Filmfest, wherein veteran actor and brief director L. Q. Jones was on hand to host a special screening of his film of Harlan Ellison’s A BOY AND HIS DOG, originally released in 1975. It’s a wonderfully weird little picture- of a piece with the grim futures of 70s sci-fi (it's a fine term, Mr. Ellison, so shut up), but unpretentious and possessed of a wickedly dark comic sensibility. Jones was happy to answer questions about the process of adapting Ellison’s work (though the interviewer, on behalf of the Creative Screenwriting podcast, seemed a lot more interested in his days working for Sam Peckinpah), and provided some great insights into this movie.

The film takes place in 2024, some time after World War IV, the great nuclear exchange which turned the Earth into a blasted wasteland in a little under 15 minutes. Vic (Don Johnson, several years before he was lookin’ for a heartbeat) is a boy paired up with Blood, a sentient dog who communicates with Vic telepathically (in the voice of Tim McIntire). Since Vic is a virile male, his main priority is finding a woman to have sex with, and fertile women are vanishingly rare in the apocalypse. Blood helps with searching in exchange for food, and acts as the brains of the outfit. One night he picks up the scent of a female, the lovely Quilla June Holmes (Susanne Benton), who turns out to be from the underground colony of Topeka. After being menaced by local gangs and unseen mutants, Vic decides to head with Quilla to her underground colony, with Blood staying behind. But underground, he finds that her paradise is not quite what he wanted.

The first thing I noticed, seeing this film in a theater (I’d seen it before on video), is that this is one very loud movie. From the opening sequence of atom bombs going off, to various firefights and carousal, to the Topeka parades, the film almost never has a quiet moment. It grabs for our attention early and doesn’t let us drift away at any point. Since we’re dealing with a post-apocalypse story originally written by Harlan Ellison, this kind of raw, crude atmosphere feels fitting.

(I should perhaps observe here that, though I have read some of Ellison’s work, I have not yet come across A BOY AND HIS DOG. Hunting down the man’s short material can be tough, since it gets only sporadically reprinted.)

The film depends on its two leads, and it’s quite amazing how convincing they are from the outset. McIntire’s voice is distinctive, paternal, authoritative, and Jones described Tiger as giving one of the best animal performances in film- rarely needing to look at his trainer, and capable of performing as many of six distinct actions in one take without prompting. He’s got the right look for the dog too, almost wizened with his long hair but not too fancy. Johnson plays off his animal companion remarkably well- when Vic argues with Blood, the actor buries deep any awareness that he is a grown man getting into a heated discussion with a dog. Benton is wholesomely beautiful, and Jason Robards, as one of the head Topekans, is also memorable.

Though Jones is proud of the film he’s made- proclaiming it one you will remember whether you like it or not, which is pretty much right- he has never directed another. The process was, from all accounts, exhausting, and it didn’t help that it took around four years to complete the project. A BOY AND HIS DOG was both independently financed and independently distributed, a sort of slow roadshow rollout which actually ended up being quite profitable. (He bragged that it’s one of the few movies to actually make money for the people who made it.) Surprisingly enough, a sequel was considered, to be titled “A Girl and Her Dog”, but it never got off the ground; it was to have examined the story and setting’s weird sexual politics from the distaff angle. Now, Jones is involved in an attempt to bring the story to the screen again, this time through animation.

So, the sexual politics. Hoo boy. This is a very heavy male-gaze picture, being, at its core, about a guy who wants to get laid and how this gets in the way of his friendship. The post-apocalypse stuff is set dressing, but it adds an unpleasant tinge- Vic takes a pretty explicitly objectifying view of the females he’s looking for, as things to be used to fulfill his mission. Of course, this falls apart when he actually meets a live one; Quilla talks him into something like a relationship, though she’s got her own agenda.

Some of the details of the postapocalyptic setting are actually kind of brilliant. We have the never-seen “screamers”, poor souls so riddled with radiation that they glow green and kill whomever they touch. All we ever get is a bright green light and their howls of pain, but it’s a nicely chilling detail (another group of bandits looks like something out of Fellini.) Meanwhile, the Topekans, having lived underground for so many years, all wear heavy facepaint to simulate the rosy complexion they’ve lost, making it look like a colony of mimes. (Hal Baylor is hilarious as Michael, a perpetually-grinning enforcer who exists only to crush heads.) A lot of things have been thought out that aren’t talked about on screen, and I think that’s one of the marks of a good genre movie.

But then, it feels almost wrong to describe A BOY AND HIS DOG as a genre film- I’m the last person to find genre labels demeaning, but somehow it just doesn’t seem appropriate to lump this in with other postapocalyptic sci-fi even though that’s just what it is. The film’s wit, aggression, and deliberate crudeness give it a quality unlike other science fiction films of the period; the end of the world here is not an excuse to talk about the problems ailing the present day, but a backdrop for a more eternal story about how sex can make us do stupid things, and how valuable some friendships can be.

Based on the novella by Harlan Ellison
Written for the screen and directed by L.Q. Jones

Grade: A-

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