The feast of Saint Valentine has come and gone for another year. My colleague Julia Rhodes commemorated this most polarizing of days by snuggling up to the romantic nuance of the Dirty Vegas music video “Days Go By.” Unusual expressions of sweetness and love are hopefully the way of the future. Anti-Valentine’s parties are so late-twentieth-century, but it does wear on the soul, even just one night of the year, to find every bar and restaurant in a major city transformed into a kitschy, cover-charging Tunnel Of Love disco which discriminates inexcusably against the casual date. Someone a million years ago wrote some line about shutting down a bar for Memorial Day, leaving a thirsty one-legged soldier standing out in the rain. That idea figures in here somewhere. Plain old greeting-card romance has become such a parody of itself that perhaps the best measure for the earnest romantic is to sidestep it altogether. Fortunately, underground animation saved the day this Valentine’s weekend. The Houston Museum of Fine Art held screenings of Paul Fierlinger’s My Dog Tulip, a most unusual animated tale of soulmates.
Christopher Plummer provides the narration, supported by Isabella Rossellini and the late Lynn Redgrave, who made her final appearance in this film. Based on J. R. Ackerley’s memoir of the same name, the movie recounts the author’s adoption of and life with a high-spirited German Shepherd (“Alsatian” in British parlance) dog. The movie is nearly two years old, but New Yorker Films acquired distribution rights only last year, and it is still touring on a small scale in the States, presumably thriving on word of mouth. Those prepared for a whimsical riff on Marley & Me may get more than they bargained for. The story does focus chiefly on the mutual devotion between Tulip and narrator Joe. However, the frank details of caring for the rambunctious dog, especially once she reaches sexual maturity, put a very adult perspective on things.
The film will stir ambivalent feelings in any viewer who has looked after a dog (and cleaned up after one). The exuberance and loyalty of the dog are matched only by her ability to destroy and befoul. Joe’s meditations on themes of friendship, love, sex, freedom, companionship, control, and so on take the form of eccentric and playfully scatalogical animated tangents. The movie’s style makes no clear separation between the reality of his life with Tulip and the workings of his imagination. The freewheeling, roughly hewn animation calls to mind another offbeat love story, John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig And The Angry Inch. Recall “The Origin Of Love” sequence, a tender rock and roll anthem which lavishly describes the ideal of Platonic love – a concept, by the way, which has been completely lost in translation and now means almost the opposite of what it used to – accompanied by stylized hand drawings of the mythology in question.
My Dog Tulip is a beautiful film which not only celebrates the life of a beloved pet, but also draws a number of analogies between the relationships people build with one another and with animals. Which is the more sensible and fufilling depends entirely on the individuals involved, it seems. At times, the depth of love between Joe and Tulip boldly blurs the border between soulmates and lovers, without ever crossing lines into the unsavory or unhealthy. More importantly, their relationship lends crucial perspective to the way Joe relates to the rest of the world. His various epiphanies about the many forms a perfect companion may take leave the question open for broad interpretation.
It is difficult to describe the feeling that My Dog Tulip leaves in one’s heart once the lights come up. The best answer is that you will probably feel several, which may contradict one another. That, and not really the questionable content, is what makes it a love story for grown-ups. In the absence of concrete resolutions or morals, all you can say is, “that’s life,” and embrace it for being just that.
To quote Marge Simpson, “Happy Love Day, everyone!”