Thursday 5 May 2011

Pedigree: "My Dog Tulip"

Paul and Sandra Fierlinger's idiosyncratic animation My Dog Tulip is a mass of straggly lines that somehow knit together into the thinking person's Marley and Me. As narrated by Christopher Plummer, this is a very different tale of one man and his dog: sometime BBC journalist J. R. Ackerley (who wrote the titular memoir) and the Alsatian bitch who - for much of the middle part of the last century - was Ackerley's companion, housemate and, in a strange, touching way, his muse. Where Marley brushed everything under a broad, life-changing canvas - its every scene a major event, charged with triumph or despair - Tulip's quiet charm lies in Ackerley's ability to evoke very specific aspects of the dog-owning experience, from tiny triumphs (wooing Tulip back from the influence of a bossyboots sister) to recurring problems (Tulip's reluctance to - in every sense - go outside, once domesticated). Those without canines in their lives will learn more than they ever needed to know about the dog's anal glands.

Content, in this instance, is matched by the hand-drawn form. My Dog Tulip often manifests itself as basic pencil sketches on unevenly lined paper, with none of the conventional in-between or clean-up work to smooth these characters' way: it takes them as it finds them, often pulsing and shimmering with the deranged energy of those old Bob Godfrey cartoons. Far from evidence of sloppiness on the filmmakers' part, the technique becomes instead essential to Tulip's unvarnished appeal: while often scrappy and dishevelled in appearance, there's a humanity to these figures that the clean lines and curves of computer-generated 3D animation more often than not fail to get near, and the Fierlingers observe Tulip's movements - such as her head or ears pricking up at the mention of a particular name - with the close affection of seasoned dog-lovers.

Strange this should be an American production, as the eccentricity of the storytelling is unmistakably English. (Or maybe we're no longer as distinct in our eccentricities as we like to think we are; that'll be globalisation for you, driving us all mad in the exact same ways.) Ackerley pays a visit to an ex-army friend who's installed a sofa in even the smallest room in his farmhouse, so as to better facilitate napping; the author writes of the sincere joy he feels when Tulip, after a lifetime of rolling in other creatures' muck, takes a shine to his own urine while peeing in the park.

The middle section is effectively a pooch romcom with traces of farce, detailing the misadventures Ackerley endured, pot of Vaseline in hand, while trying to find his girl an appropriate mate. The worldview here is so English that even dog sex becomes awkward and comical - the pay-off's an X-rated version of Lady and the Tramp, or something truly deserving of the title Dogging: a Love Story - yet the gentle humour Ackerley evokes never obscures the very real poignancy of an old man hoping to see the creature he loves fulfilled before either he or his companion passes on. Compared to what's on at the multiplex, this isn't a starry voice cast, but the film benefits hugely from the gravity and genial, worldly befuddlement Plummer lends to Ackerley's observations: rarely can the phrase "plop, plop, plop" have sounded so, well, Shakespearian.

My Dog Tulip opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

No comments:

Post a Comment