Mad dogs and Englishman: My Dog Tulip ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 13, 2010)

Love in the time of collaring: My Dog Tulip

In my 2009 review of The Wrestler, I wrote about how unexpectedly affected I was by Mickey Rourke’s emotional acceptance speech at the Golden Globe awards, specifically when he paid homage to a dear and devoted friend:

…by the time Rourke proffered “Sometimes when you’re alone…all you got is your dog,” and then thanked all of his pooches (past and present) I was done for. I haven’t cried like that since the first time I saw Old Yeller.

What is it about the very thought of a wet nose, a pair of fluffy ears or a simple game of fetch that can make a grown man weep? Not only to weep; but at times to so sorely grieve-as the late British writer and literary magazine editor J.R. Ackerley once lamented:

I would have immolated myself as a suttee when (my dog) Queenie died. For no human would I ever have done such a thing, but by my love for Queenie I would have been irresistibly compelled.

In fact, Ackerley was so smitten with this “Alsatian bitch” that he was inspired to write two books based on the 15-year long relationship he enjoyed with his beloved pet-a memoir called My Dog Tulip (1956) and a novel, We Think the World of You (1960). The latter book, a fictionalized, semi-autobiographical version of how Queenie came into his life, was adapted into a 1988 film featuring Alan Bates and Gary Oldman (an underrated gem that has yet to see the light of day on DVD). And now, the 1956 memoir has been adapted into a lovely new animated film directed by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger.

The Fierlingers utilize a simple, elegant style of animation that triggered memories of the soft, comforting pastel line drawings that adorned the Ludwig Bemelmans “Madeline” books I pored over as a child. That being said, be advised My Dog Tulip is more Feiffer than Bemelmans. Nor can it be labelled as “adorable” in any way, shape or form (Marley & Me, this ain’t).

Indeed, there is much ado about loose poops and “double anal glands”. There’s lots of estrus fixation and doggie sex. But the film also contains something you won’t find in most Hollywood fare, and that’s heart and soul. Again, sans the maudlin sentimentality; as the Ackerley quote which prefaces the film makes so abundantly clear:

“Unable to love each other, the English turn naturally to dogs”.

And so we are introduced the protagonist, the author himself (wryly voiced by Christopher Plummer), who describes himself as a middle-aged, “confirmed bachelor”. Every night, he leaps up from his desk at the BBC, rushes to the tube station, eager to get to his flat, throw open the door and tumble into a full body hug with Tulip, a rambunctious German Shepherd.

If it wasn’t so obvious that one of these mammals had four legs and a tail, you could just as well assume that their body language telegraphs smitten lovers on a permanent honeymoon. This is, at its heart, a love story. “Tulip offered me what I never found in my sexual life,” explains the narrator, “…constant, single-hearted, incorruptible, uncritical devotion, which is in the nature of dogs to offer.”

Ackerley rescues the young Tulip from well-meaning but neglectful friends. Being of a neurotic breed, she developed “behavioral issues” as the result of confinement to a tiny back yard with little opportunity to run around, explore the world, and do as a dog does.

Trying times lie ahead for both dog and new owner, including a running “feud” vying for Ackerley’s attention between his control-freak sister (the late Lynn Redgrave) and the territorial Tulip. When Tulip comes of age, there is the matter of dealing with her need to breed. This takes up the middle third of the tale; with an exasperated Ackerley displaying the patience of Job as he journeys far and wide to find Tulip a suitable “husband”.

This is one of the more unique films I’ve seen this year, set to a breezy jazz score by John Avarese. It is not so much a “man and his dog” tale, but  a  rumination on the nature of “love” itself, which as we know comes in all colors, sizes, shapes and guises. Is it a need-or a necessity? I suppose that’s a complex question. Then again, perhaps the answer is simple: Sometimes, “all you got is your dog”.

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