Sochi-Malaparte

February 6, 2014

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In the paper today, there was an article about the race to save stray dogs in Sochi, before the opening of the Winter Olympics. “Get the strays off the streets, or we will shoot them,” is the word from the officials.  This follows articles during the past week about security concerns for the games:  they are being held near a war zone, and terrorism in the region is common.  Putin, Chechnya, mega-waste-projects…a great day for sport!

The article brought to mind a passage in, Kaputt, the harrowing account of WWII on the eastern front written by Curzio Malaparte.  He is with German SS troops somewhere near the Soviet border, deep in winter snow.  The Germans are preparing for a battle in a location favorable to them when suddenly the place is filled with the sound of barking dogs.  The Germans go crazy with fear, the officers ordering the men to shoot every dog immediately as they run towards their lines.

The Russians have starved the dogs so that when released, they will run furiously towards the German soldiers, looking for food.  Some of them have explosives strapped to their backs with wires attached that stick straight up.  When the dogs with explosives run beneath a tank or truck, the wire brushes the metal, triggering the bomb.  Vehicles start exploding all over the place.


A Boy and His Dog

September 14, 2011

1970s post-nuclear apocalypse, bad sound quality, low budget, grainy images, cult status: that’s A Boy and His Dog, based on stories by Harlan Ellison.  Don Johnson plays Vic, who traipses across the desert with his highly educated, cynical, and telepathic dog, Blood.  The dog calls him Albert to annoy him.   If you hadn’t read the story (or the Wiki article) you might think Vic is hallucinating and talking to himself, but it seems that before The End, civilization got into some pretty advanced biological experiments.

Vic is trapped, lured underground by a piece of ‘cheese’, a beautiful girl (Susanne Benton), to a surviving community where things look nice, but society is ruled by a committee of three and Christian pap is pumped over loudspeakers endlessly.  Vic is needed for his sperm – he’s a good, healthy specimen of a male.  When he learns the reason for his abduction, he’s all for it!  He doesn’t realize that the process will be rather mechanical. 

This movie is pretty slow, and it’s hard to watch because of the quality and low budget…but there’s something to it.  Especially in the second half, it’s so crazy and darkly satirical, that it comes together.  Of course, there’s that ending after Vic and the girl escape back to retrieve Blood, left topside in the desert.  I won’t spoil it for you.


Stray Dog

July 24, 2011

A stray dog becomes a mad dog.  A mad dog sees only straight paths, and can’t shoot very well either.  This we learn from Stray Dog, a 1949 Kurosawa film starring Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura.  The two actors would later become world famous as samurai, but in this film, they navigate a decrepit, post-war Tokyo during a heat wave, patiently going through the steps of a police procedural.  Shimura has a full head of hair and constantly wipes sweat from his face with rag:  in The Seven Samurai, he’s bald, and does his signature gesture of absent mindedly scratching his chest.

The film is usually classed as a film noir in style, but it seems more like a straight procedural.  Of course, the entire opening credit sequence treats us to the image of a panting dog – that tips us off that things are not the norm.  Mifune plays Murakami,  a complete greenhorn homicide detective who’s gun is stolen from his pocket on a crowded bus.  He’s mortified, and offers to resign, but the seasoned detectives tell him to cut the crap, “This isn’t the army!”  and they assign Sato (Shimura) to help him on the case and show him the ropes.  Sato is a zhlubby family man who dispenses philosophical wisdom and police tips with world-weary authority.

The action takes us through the seamy precincts of the city, a city without air conditioning – everyone sweats buckets.  As Murakami’s gun is implicated in one crime after another, he is consumed with anxiety, foreboding, and guilt over his stupid carelessness.  Sato tells him, if it wasn’t your Colt, it would be another Browning.

Murkami tails a showgirl who knows something and visits her home.  He won’t leave until she talks.  She blames the world for the crimes of Yusa, her boyfriend, it’s so unfair.  Some people have everything while they have to scrounge for scraps.  Yusa had his knapsack stolen on the way home from the army – that’s what set him off into crime:  who would do such a lousy thing!  Murakami tells her that he too had his knapsack stolen the same way:  two paths, a crossroads.  One became a stray dog and chose crime, one the straight and narrow.  That fate thing again.

 

From here the film takes off into another realm, of brilliant poetry, that only someone like Kurosawa can create.  A cleansing rain breaks the heatwave as the climax comes -Sato is shot trying to capture Yusa.  Murakami and the girl hear it happen over the phone.

Sato will live, and Murakami catches up with Yusa.  Murakami has no gun, he left it with Sato, but Yusa has his!  The chase leaves the town, and continues into the woods as they blunder and crash through lush, flowering meadows and undergrowth.  Beautiful flowers everywhere!

 

Murakami catches up with the mad dog who is shaking with fear in this standoff which could be, or will be, right out of Sergio Leone.

Murakami’s shot with his own gun, but Yusa is so scared, he just wings him.

It all happens on the lot of a suburban residence where a woman is playing the piano.  What was that noise?  Who are those men?  Nothing going on – she goes back to her piano.

We get an almost hyper-real set of images of Murakami’s suffering as the standoff continues

The blood drips slowly from his hand onto the pretty flowers at his feet.  Time is standing still…

Yusa is out of bullets:  a little more running through the flowers, and he’s caught and handcuffed.  The hunter and the mad dog lie in the foliage,  out of breath, while children walk by in the background, singing.  The juxtaposition is marvelous, and we know from earlier scenes that Murakami has developed a sympathy, almost sentimental, for his prey.

Yusa, looks at the sky, the flowers, and like a captured dog, begins to howl horribly.  It’s all over for him, he’s finished.  Why did it have to happen this way?

The film is elevated beyond procedural, beyond noir, into the realm of tragic humanism.  Sato tells his young protegé that he’ll stop sympathizing with the poor creeps who turn to crime after he’s arrested a few more of them.


Faithful Ruslan – a dog story?

June 17, 2011

Despite my immersion in the three volumes of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag, the novels of Vassily Grossman, and other Stalin-era material, I had never heard of Faithful Ruslan, by Georgi Vladmiov.  Many thanks to the author of the anonymous comment at this dog-oriented post who pointed me to it!  Vadlimov is not well-known here, but he should be.

The plot takes place over a year or two at the time of the great political thaw in the USSR, when Khrushchev made his secret speech denouncing Stalin’s great crimes (he did not refer to his own deep complicity in those crimes, of course) and many prisoners of the slave labor system, The Gulag Archipelago, were released.  Ruslan is a guard dog, born and bred to the role, who is let go after his master cannot bear to shoot him down.  He struggles to find a role in the world after his entire universe is upturned, except that he doesn’t really understand how completely it has been ended.  The camp is gone, the prisoners have not escaped: they were released, and they are not returning.

The story is told from a ominiscient (human) point of view, but the portrayal of dog-consciousness is absolutely wonderful.  Inherent in the structure of the tale are many levels of dramatic irony: we, the human readers know things that the hero, a dog, could never know in his time, or ever;  we know things simply by virtue of being readers, many years after the events related; the human characters know things the dogs do not know; and the dogs know, or seem to know, some things the humans do not and could not know.  The fractured points of view which comment on one another give the tale tremendous power.

On another level, the story is an allegory of Stalin’s USSR, and of human subservience to authority in general.  The allegory is not subtle – is subtlety called for in a discussion of Stalin’s rule?  Ruslan regards his hard master as a godlike being, and he lives simply to serve him and love him.  At one point, he dreams of a world in which everyplace is within the barbed wire of a great prison camp – wouldn’t that be wonderful! – but of course, there must be an inside and an outside, or where would you place the malefactors who would not follow the rules?

Through Ruslan’s memories and the conversations of the humans around him, we get vignettes of camp life that are harrowing in their brutality.  This relatively simple tale is very deep, sad, and upsetting.  My copy of this book is an old library edition – I’m not sure if it has been republished lately.  I was aware reading the blurbs and introduction that the great troika of 20th century horrors – Hitler’s genocide, Stalin’s gulag, Mao’s mass-murder by purge and policy – are fading away into history.  Do young people today feel them with the immediacy that I did as a student, though even then it was old news?


Doggone it!

May 29, 2011

I don’t think it’s a joke:  the Nazis believed all sorts of outlandish things.  Now it comes out (why now?) that they had a project to train dogs to speak and perform military tasks.  They wanted to create an army of Nazi dogs!

In 1998, I read The Lives of the Monster Dogs, a novel that takes place in Manhattan in 2008 when a bunch of walking, talking dogs, with Prussian accents, become celebrities.  They escaped from a remote town founded by a Prussian officer hoping to do exactly what the Nazis wanted to do.  I guess the author, Kirstin Bakis, scooped the news long ago.

And on the topic of talking dogs, Jim Thompson’s novel, The Golden Gizmo, a macabrely comic tale, features a deadly Doberman that talks and sings along with hymns.


Four Seasons

February 26, 2010

I grew up in southern California, but I never liked the weather.


Moscow – 1920s

February 6, 2010


“The more I learn of men, the more I like my dog.”

Frederick the Great

Heart of a Dog was written in 1925 by Bulgakov, author of The Master and Margarita, but wasn’t published in Russia until the 1980s.  No wonder – if it had been, that would have been the end of Mikhail!  The main problem with this book is that it is so short!  Yes, short and and with a terrific punch, but a little longer would have been so much fun!  The satire is furious and ferocious!

The first part of the story is mostly told from the point of view of the dog, Sharik (a dog’s name, like Spot), a street mangy mutt.  Dogs are smarter than we know – he can read a bit, understands Russian, and has his own limited philosophy of life.  He’s taken in by a famous medical doctor who has been doing some shady experiments rejuvenating people’s sexual powers with unusual operations.

While growing fat and healthy away from the perils of the street, Sharik regards the good doctor as the Godhead from whom all good tasting things come.  He is fitted with a collar and taken for walks, resenting the implications of servitude at first, but quickly noting that to be collared by such fine people is a mark of status.  “Why, a collar is the same as a briefcase,” he quips to himself.  Good dog!

The doctor’s coup is to transform Sharik into a man by transplanting the pituatary gland and testicles of a dead criminal into his body.  The transformation happens pretty quickly – does the man who results have the heart of a dog, or are men really dogs at heart? – and it inflicts on the bourgeois doctor his own version of Frankenstein’s torment.  What has he created?  A vile, swearing, brutish, partisan of the proletariat who rants about Lenin and Engels at him over dinner.  The dog is more radical than they are:  “Just count everything and divide it up!”  The doctor orders his maid to burn the copy of Engels that Sharik brought into his house – a dangerous move in those days.

This is the USSR c. 1925 – peoples’ cooperatives are everywhere.  The doctor is not a sympathizer.  His “social origins” are not of the best. What of Sharik’s?  However would one explain them?  There is the constant problem of proper documents.  Sharik adopts the name of Polygraph Polygraphovitch Sharik, and wants to get dutifully registered with the authorities.  The governing committee of the apartment block has questions for the doctor:  Why does he live alone in seven rooms?  Who is this Sharik person – an illegitimate son?  Awful rumours fly, the doctor’s practice is disrupted, his life becomes a living hell.  Sharik gains a livelihood as the head of the unit that catches and destroys stray cats in Moscow, and he seems to fit right in.  The new Soviet man?  He smells abominably.  The dog must go!

There is a very good film adaptation of the novel, discussed briefly here.


Diamond’s View

January 31, 2008

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Such a changed France have we; and a changed Louis. Changed, truly; and further than thou yet seest!–To the eye of History many things, in that sick-room of Louis, are now visible, which to the Courtiers there present were invisible. For indeed it is well said, ‘in every object there is inexhaustible meaning; the eye sees in it what the eye brings means of seeing.’ To Newton and to Newton’s dog Diamond, what a different pair of Universes; while the painting on the optical retina of both was, most likely, the same! Let the Reader here, in this sick-room of Louis, endeavour to look with the mind too.

from A History of the French Revolution by Thomas Carlyle

Diamond was, according to legend, Sir Isaac Newton’s favorite dog, which, by upsetting a candle, set fire to manuscripts containing his notes on experiments conducted over the course of twenty years. According to one account, Newton is said to have exclaimed: “O Diamond, Diamond, thou little knowest the mischief thou hast done.”

from Wikipedia


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