Monday, August 30, 2010

The Fierlingers' MY DOG TULIP brings J.R. Ackerley to the screen -- and some new-fangled touches to old-fashioned animation

The Queen and her Corgis, Churchill and his bulldog, J.R. Ackerley and Tulip.  If that last one doesn't ring the bell, no matter: a gong may sound in perpetuity, once you've seen the new animated film MY DOG TULIP.  A gift  from the husband-wife filmmaking team of Paul and Sandra Fierlinger (the pair is pictured below), the movie is about to have its world theatrical premiere here at Film Forum. Mr. Ackerley, a British literary editor and writer, had his book of the same title (a reminiscence about the relationship between him and his dog) published in 1956 in England and later here in America. Reissued by New York Review Books in its Classic Series, "Tulip" is currently that series' best-seller.

While all this may sound a bit like the Brit version of Marley and Me, be assured that it is not.  For one thing, "Tulip" is not a film for children. One of the first things to greet us on-screen are Mr. Ackerley's words: "Unable to love each other, the English turn to dogs."  Sad, ironic, rather nastily funny -- and definitely not for kids. The story that unfolds thereafter tells of a quiet, highly intelligent and lonely man who has never had a committed relationship with another person.  Into his life comes the dog Tulip.

Much of what we see hereafter could easily be interpreted as the usual dog-bonds-with-owner shtick. It is, and yet it isn't. Being a British story, by an intelligent man given to self-analysis and a keen consideration of the world around him, each event casts its own odd spell: the visit to an old military buddy, the trip(s) to the vet, dealing with the dog's urge to mate, procreate and -- the more oft-encountered necessity to defecate.

This last gives the film its oddest cast.  There were no "pooper-scoopers" a half century ago, let alone any "laws" demanding the clean-up of animal excrement, so all must rely on the the British sense of propriety and reserve. English "class" distinctions also present themselves in one scene involving Ackerley, Tulip poop, and a pair of angry shopkeepers.  The lengthy scenes given to finding an acceptable mate for Tulip provide some of the funnier, sadder and darker segments of the film, as Ackerley faces handling a situation for his pet that he has never (it would seem, at least) managed to do for himself.

The choice of using animation to bring Tulips's story to life was a wise one on several counts. The sexual and excremental aspects of the tale can be -- and are -- told candidly but with flair and a humor that never seems gross.  The animation itself is hand-drawn and relatively simple-looking by companion to most of the animation we see these days.  (I don't imply that this was "simple" work, by any means.  According to the filmmakers, some 60,000 drawings make up the 83-minute movie.)

The Fierlingers use several styles, as well --  the most graphic and colorful of which seems to stand for the "realistic" moments. (Even these are not so terribly graphic and colorful: Instead they fit nicely into the sense of "British reserve.") At other times -- memories and imaginings, for instance -- the palette is drained of most color. But the oddest and, in their way, most endearing are the sort of doodling drawings that, for me, represent Ackerley's imaginings concerning subjects such as sex and other, perhaps troubling, matters. Within this seemingly simple, hand-drawn movie, there's a wealth of thought and originality.

Particularly funny and pointed is Ackerley's comparison of Tulip's canine suitors to the paparazzi that buzz about celebrities  (Having recently viewed that Ron Gallela movie, I find the comparison most apt.) At the finale, the Fierlingers quote generously from Mr. Ackerley, and hearing such intelligent, vibrant and profound thoughts (beautifully spoken by Christopher Plummer) is such a treat that I should think this splendid little film will send many viewers back to the source. After seeing so many films that attempt either far too little, or whose objectives are nowhere matched by the necessary skills of execution, what a pleasure it is to view a movie whose reach and grasp are firmly at one.

My Dog Tulip, the first release from the newly reanimated New Yorker Films (Welcome back, oh venerated one!) opens Wednesday, September 1, in New York City at Film Forum for a two-week run. Attention, animation aficionados: The filmmaking team, Paul and Sandra Fierlinger, will appear at Film Forum in-person, at the 8 pm shows on Wednesday, September 1 & Thursday, September 2. Click here for Film Forum showtimes and ticket information, and click here to see where else the film will be playing throughout the upcoming fall season.

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