Saturday, April 21, 2007

Grief Work

(In which are strangely mingled some thoughts on the massacre at Virginia Tech and Mike White’s new film, Year of the Dog.)

(Photo Credit: New York Times, Candlelight Vigil, Virgina Tech, 4/17/07)
There is a pain -- so utter –
It swallows substance up –
Then covers the Abyss with Trance –
--Emily Dickinson
From the Department of Inter-Species Communication:

Roxie: Gosh, you humans have had a rough week.

Moose: Tell me about it, Rox.

Roxie: Turns out you can do something a whole lot worse than calling someone a “nappy-headed ho.”

Moose: Yep, you sure can. It’s apparently just a matter of finding a vest with enough storage space for your ammo.

Roxie: Can you explain to me why dogs, who rarely if ever kill people, are kept on leashes, while people with guns, who easily and regularly kill people, are allowed to roam free?

Moose: Nope. That’s one of the quirks of my species, particularly in its American incarnation, that defies explanation.

Roxie: Okay, well, look, I want you to go to the movies.

Moose: Movies?

Roxie: Yes, Goose is out of town, down there in Durham, without even a “Duck Fuke” tee-shirt to protect her, and if you don’t get out of the house you and I will start brooding on the subject of mass murder. Next thing you know we’ll be trolling the internets for images and commentary, greedily taking in every word of David Maraniss' achingly detailed account of the tragedy, and you’ll find yourself staring at that photo of a young killer with his arms outstretched and his two guns poised for action. You’ll start thinking about the psychology of response to such shocking violence, patterns of identification and disidentification. Identification: All young men, and perhaps all people, harbor violent thoughts, fantasies, dreams. It’s in the genes, the hormones, the dark, chaotic depths of the unconscious. What is the difference between the guy who goes off on a murderous rampage and that angry boy in the lecture class who asks the off-kilter questions and sends the vaguely creepy e-mails to the TA? It’s really just a matter of impulse control. Disidentification: “Thirty-two people and the gunman died,” says the newscaster, because it is reassuring to imagine that the killer is not even human, not like us at all. He is a monster – not a Diva Citizen but a Devil Citizen, who startles the public with demonic multimedia testimony of his imperiled citizenship. We watch but in this case refuse to identify with the tale of his suffering. He says we have his blood on our hands. No, no, no, we insist. His guns, his hands, not ours. Not us.

And while you are doing that, I will lie on the couch feeling that my leaky old heart might just break for love of you sweet, sad humans and all your stunning contradictions. I will close my eyes and imagine you and Goose and all the English profs I know and love standing at the front of your unlocked classrooms talking about Virginia Woolf or Tennyson or queer theory or Toni Morrison, and I will try not to imagine a gunman entering into that space on an ordinary morning. Five teachers died on Monday, and so now I must hope and pray that you are never called upon to take a bullet for your students. I implore the universe to send you plagiarists and stupid questions, anything but guns and blood and bodies in a heap on the classroom floor.

Moose: Stop it, Rox. You’re scaring me.

Roxie: I know. That’s why I want you to go to the movies. My legions of loyal fans are hurting enough. I don’t want to subject them to any more impossible questions and nightmares made real. Roxie’s World is a dog blog, dammit. I want to get back to dog stuff. I want to lick my readers’ stricken faces and remind them that Dog is Love. Get dressed and go see that new dog movie with Molly Shannon, and we can tell my readers all about it. Have some popcorn, with extra butter. You know that always makes you feel better.

Moose: Well. . . .

Roxie: Go on, get out of here! It's time for my nap.

[Several hours later.]

(Photo Credit: Suzanne Tenner, Paramount Vantage)

Roxie: So, how was the popcorn?

Moose: Very buttery, and it was nice not to have to share it, though by the end of the movie I worried that my popcorn-hogging might be a sign of a deep flaw in my character.

Roxie: Huh? Does this anxiety have anything to do with Year of the Dog?

Moose: Yeah. Molly Shannon plays a character named Peggy Spade who is, shall we say, relationally impaired. She lives in a small, carefully arranged world, and she gets by in a pinched, on-the-edge kind of way, until something happens that disrupts her fragile peace. At which point she falls apart and becomes an animal rights activist.

Roxie: But what about the dog? Doesn’t the dog help her cope?

Moose: That’s the problem. The dog dies ten minutes into the film. That’s the event that completely disorders Peggy’s universe.

Roxie: I thought this was a comedy! With a beagle!

Moose: It is, though the humor is kind of dark, and the beagle, as I said, dies ten minutes into the film. This is not a movie I would recommend for our good friend Dudley the Beagle, by the way, or his human. I think they would find it upsetting.

Roxie: What about you? Did you like it?

Moose: “Like” is a funny word. Molly Shannon is great. She plays a quirky character who is in many ways difficult to understand or like, and she plays her with a lot of subtlety and nuance. You see the pain of every disappointment in the sharp lines of Peggy’s face and watch helplessly as the façade she has built up to keep hysteria and loneliness at bay slowly crumbles. It’s a powerful performance, but there’s also something hollow about it and the film as far as I’m concerned. The reviewer for the New York Times saw Year of the Dog as offering “an inquiry into empathy as a state of grace,” but it seemed sadder than that to me. In the end, Peggy walks away from the remains of her diminished world, apparently to devote herself solely to the cause of animal rights. We last see her on a bus headed to a protest in Dallas. In a voiceover that runs over the ending, Peggy explains her choice by saying it is motivated by a love for animals that for her is equivalent to the love others might have for spouses, partners, or children. There may be grace in that kind of selfless devotion to a cause, but what’s sad to me is that in the end Peggy has given up on relationality even with animals, not just with people. She is alone on the bus, though a woman across the aisle from her has a cute little tea-cup dog in a bag on the seat beside her. By contrast, Peggy’s relationship to animals at this point is wholly abstract. In withdrawing from any living connection with the companion species, Peggy sacrifices something of her own humanity. Her cause may be just, but you get the sense her devotion to it is fueled in large part by her determination to protect herself from the unbearable risks of love, whether human or animal. Threatened by the personal, Peggy takes refuge in the political. That seems a pretty narrow, pathetic view of activists and activism.

Roxie: Oh, dear. I don’t think Year of the Dog did much to cheer you up.

Moose: It’s not a bad film, and certainly it’s better to channel one’s anomie into activism than mass murder. Still, I wish she’d left room in her life and her heart for a dog.

Roxie: Come here, you sentimental human. Let me lick your face.

Moose: Aw, Rox, you know I don’t go in for face licks. That’s your other mother.

Roxie: Well, she’s not here and you need a kiss, so give me a cheek, or I’ll tell Goose you ate a whole bag of popcorn.

Update: Another apparent casualty to add to the week's grim toll: Sunday-morning pond inspection indicates that our plump orange koi, Paul, has gone missing. Moose and I don't see any animal tracks around the area, so we suspect one of the herons who hang out down by the creek might have swung by last night for an evening snack. Perhaps we project, but John and George-Ringo seem a little down today. They're sticking close together and keep circling the pond, as if searching for their lost comrade. Moose and I are bereft. We'd probably have a breakdown and become fish-rights activists if Goose weren't on her way home. As it is, perhaps we'll plan a candlelight vigil out by the pond for tonight. Or maybe we'll race out to Petsmart and get a couple of replacement fish. Rest in peace, Paul. We're sorry you didn't make it to sixty-four, but we sure liked having you in our pack, er, school.

Oh, and here's another review of Year of the Dog that expresses some of the same reservations about the film that Moose did, only at greater length and with a deeper understanding of film than Moose has. It's from Nick's Flick Picks, a blog belonging to Nick Davis, an Assistant Professor of English and Gender Studies at Northwestern University.


  1. Dear Sweet Roxie & Moose -- This is your Goose, writing from Durham, where I've attended a fabulous conference (HASTAC) and visited with Your Boys (Thannie, Evan, and Joe) and Priscilla. I am packed and when I sign off, will check out, get the car, and drive home. I want to be licked the minute I walk into the door.

    Thank you for interviewing Moose, Rox. Your posts of late have been very insightful, and, as always, your musings are testaments to the fact that humor really is a very serious thing: I think all humans should address your question about the leash. Why dogs and not us?

    I LOVE YOU, and will see you soon.
    --Your Goose

    PS - My friend Tara should probably highlight your work in VECTORS. . .

  2. Anonymous7:49 PM EDT

    Thanks for the heads up, Roxie! I will make sure the human gives "Year of the Dog" a miss, for sure. I was surfing the net, checking out the stills, and frankly I thought the actress who played Pencil was pretty cute. Of course, when you're a beagle, cute is part of the job description, but still, I'd have been interested in seeing how she handled her death scene. However, I'm quite sure the human can't manage this one.

    Funny, isn't it? If "Kill Bill" had been "Kick Bill's Beagle," I'm quite sure the human would refuse to watch it, and strongly worded letters would be written to Mr. Tarantino and the theaters and everyone else involved. But as it is,... well, not only do we watch "Kill Bill," but the other night, the human watched with perfect sang-froid while a guy named Eugene Onegin shot a guy named Lensky (both singing the whole time) and all she had to say about it was, "Wow, can that Hvorostovky sing!" (and something else about "if [she] were twenty years younger" that I didn't catch). It was very strange, because after he killed Lensky, servants came out and helped Onegin dress for a party, because apparently this had been a duel, and it's OK to kill someone in a duel, even an illegal duel, even one conducted not according to the rules of duelling. But Onegin was an aristocrat, which apparently helps.

    Also, the human said that Onegin probably had lots of beagles, because he was an aristocrat, but Lensky probably didn't, because he was a poor poet. Which seemed to suggest that I should prefer Onegin to Lensky because, hey, beagles! But I suspect that if Lensky had had just one little dog who went over to his body and sat sadly, it would have made the scene very much more poignant for at least some humans.

    I'm glad you understand humans, Roxie because I don't!


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