Attack of the Dogs

Image: Ermelindo Nardin
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By YVES SÃO PAULO*

Commentary on the new film by Jane Campion

Attack of the Dogs was the winner in the categories of best drama film and director in the silent edition of the Golden Globes of 2022. Jane Campion, the celebrated director of the piano, travels to the state of Montana, in the USA, to set up the set for his new drama. Despite the location, the viewer should not be fooled; this is not a traditional western. We don't have firearms, and the plot is already set in the 1920th century. It's the crazy XNUMXs, but it seems that madness didn't get that far.

The film opens with a voice over off who we later discover is Peter, the son of the local diner owner. He says he will do anything to protect his mother. The first contact we have with Peter in person is in his room, cutting paper out of books and creating flowers to decorate the house and bring a smile to his mother, the only person he has in the world; some of the flowers he keeps to place on his father's grave.

Peter is not the character you would expect to find in such an environment. Tall, skinny, very pale as if he rarely left the house and spent more time inside his room with books. He is not very good at the heavy and rough work that is natural to that space, being inclined to delicate works, as his craft with paper demonstrates.

The opposite of the delicate Peter will be Phil. Unlike the restaurant owner's young son, Phil runs the family farm. He is a tough guy, talks thick, tames not only the farm animals but also his employees who respect him and listen to stories of his past. And Phil is very fond of telling stories from his past, especially related to Bronco Henry, a recurring character in the film, despite not being embodied by any actor. Bronco Henry died, but his presence lingers in Phil's memory who sees him everywhere and in everything he does.

This will be the main thrust of the film. The delicacy of the new times reaching the rural scene against the ancient rudimentary of the already established. This search for the delicacy of the new times is also found in Phil's brother, always well dressed, who prefers to ride a car than a horse, and who marries the owner of the restaurant because she seems to bring him a bit of that world of sophistication. which he was denied.

In a conversation between Phil and George, his brother, we learn that rude Phil had the opportunity to go to University, while George failed the entrance exam. In everyday gestures, the sophistication of higher education is far from Phil's past, a student of philology and classical languages ​​such as Latin. George, in a suit, seeks to transpose the personality of someone he couldn't be through appearances. His romance with Rose is also part of this.

He buys a grand piano and asks his wife to learn some songs to play at the governor's party. Rose has long played as an accompanist for silent films in the cinema. She no longer manages to play and increasingly seems to feel sheltered by the suffocating environment that surrounds her. She feels oppressed by Phil's rusticity, and begins to drink, as Peter's father had already done - and it is revealed to us that he died of alcoholism.

From this quartet, Jane Campion reveals the theme of her film. Social relations between people are guided by the superficiality of what we see. Phil acts like a macho man and his sexuality is never questioned by his employees. Meanwhile, Peter only needs to leave the house where the farm's bosses (Phil and George) live to be insulted with terms that suggest his homosexuality. George, by dressing like a city man, like a well-established bourgeois, nurtures yearnings for social ascendancy. Rose, on the other hand, ensconced in the environment where Phil is the mainspring, is drawn to the lowness to which her dead husband has been driven.

In the appearance game, Phil gains prominence. Making comments on everyone's behavior, casting judgments against everyone, Campion takes a sharper look at it to see what not everyone sees. It takes wit to see the silhouettes of a dog on the mountain rocks that surround the brothers' farm. His way of expressing is not common, Phil uses beautiful linguistic games, bending English in his favor composing unusual images for someone with little study, justified by his higher education.

On his brother's first wedding night to Rose, hearing the moans of love through the walls, Phil goes down to the stable to clean the cell that once belonged to Bronco Henry. The saddle is on a kind of altar dedicated to someone who was very important in the lives of the brothers. Phil doesn't get tired of talking about all the things he's learned and the debt he and his brother owe Bronco Henry. But this scene is different. Campion captures the blatant eroticism of Phil's hand movement as he cleans Bronco Henry's cell.

It is in these small gestures that the true “I” of the characters is shown behind the presented crust. No words are needed for the spectator to understand what the characters are trying to hide from the other characters, and this can only be done with Campion's careful recording of the simplest things. On one side, the delicate eroticism of Phil weaving a leather rope for Peter. On the other, the crude investigation of Peter opening a hare to remove its organs and study them.

In small gestures, Campion reveals Phil's homoeroticism, his persistent passion for Bronco Henry, his curiosity for Peter. Here is a character who is forced to confine herself to a character far from who she really is. Endowed with deep sensitivity still present in his vocabulary, Phil has to wear the mask of the macho to survive in an environment harsh to sensitivity. His fatal outcome, however, is unfavorable to the work. We won't go into details, but Phil's death at the end sounds like a conservative persistence of cinema that makes it to the big prizes.

For years, Hollywood was governed by a code that prevented films from portraying certain characters or certain behaviors. Extremely conservative, the Hays code prevented, for example, an interracial couple from being portrayed in a film by a major Hollywood studio. Only in the 1960s did films begin to feature a black man and a white woman, for example, as a romantic couple. Jane Campion makes her film far away from the Hollywood studio system, but the industrial mentality of this cinema dictates certain ways of how to weave the plots.

The same code that barred interracial couples from movies barred “effeminate” men. With the progressive breaking of the barrier that was the code, homosexual characters began to appear in cinema, but often still under the light of negativity shed by the code. When it's not about villains (the masculine vixen of Cardigan, by Hitchcock), we have homosexuals affected by diseases or taken to death at the end. Anyway, in a film that reaches the big awards and that thinks according to the big industry, being gay is a problem. To whom it may concern, this topic is very well treated in the documentary The celluloid closet, by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, which deals with Hollywood's portrayal of homosexuality.

We can, then, remember the movies that were popular at the Golden Globes and Oscars: philadelphia treats a man with AIDS, As hours we have a man with AIDS who dies, Brokeback Mountain's Secret one of the gay protagonists dies (those who don't die are because they don't openly identify as gay), The Dallas Buyers Club treats gays with AIDS, the imitation game the gay is chemically castrated. Moonlight is the healthy exception on this list.

The portrayal made by award-winning cinema is that there is something wrong with being gay, even in its most advanced attempts at progressive discourse. For a film starring homosexuals to reach the big awards, it needs a kind of cosmic punishment that makes it sick or leads to death. And here's my problem with Attack of the Dogs. Despite its beauty in registering Phil's restrained homoeroticism, we find yet another homosexual character enclosed in a teleological universe. If Phil openly identifies as gay, his rudimentary milieu will find its way to swallow him. Continuing on his facade, Phil is lured into a trap and killed. Whatever you do, Phil's homosexuality is a death sentence.

Attack of the Dogs demonstrates how we carry certain moral judgments inadvertently. I have my doubts that Jane Campion's intention was to make a film marked by teleology. Hollywood cinema has exported ways of telling history to everyone, it has exported ways of filming these stories. There are ways of right and wrong that are taught in many film courses and filmmaking manuals.

Together with these films, they are also loaded with a moral that is swallowed up along with the commotion of the happy ending. Accustomed to witnessing many deaths in the movies that matter little, we need to rethink our mentality to see deaths with a new look: they present a way for those who create the work to look at the world, sometimes an imposed view, sometimes a purposeful view.

Yves Sao Paulo is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at UFBA. Book author The metaphysics of cinephilia (Publisher Fi).

 

Reference


Attack of the Dogs (The power of the dog)
UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, USA, 125 minutes
Direction and screenplay: Jane Campion
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons.

 

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