A Dog of Flanders

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:18

    Mellow Nello The dog in A Dog of Flanders isn't really the scruffy black Bouvier, but the motherless boy Nello (Jeremy James Kissner), raised by his poor, ailing grandfather. Delivering milk to his neighbors with a cart pulled by the abused mutt he rescued, nursed back to health and renamed Patrasche, Nello struggles innocently, selflessly. He is at the mercy of the business, religious and art institutions in 19th-century Belgium. This waif, who desires to be a painter?like his late mother and her hero the great Peter Paul Rubens?has little access to fulfilling his dreams. His society, thus depicted, seems very much like our own. I make this emphasis to clarify A Dog of Flanders' emotional acuity. What might easily be dismissed for a mawkish children's movie is actually something special?a portrait of the human as a young artist. Although this is the era of teen movies, hardly any of them attend to characters' inner lives?what A Dog of Flanders unabashedly presents as Nello's spiritual sojourn. This isn't merely a boy-and-his-dog story, but a simplified tale of society's least-empowered member being treated as a mongrel, then transcending his plight by discovering his true, spiritual worth. It's a moral tale meant to instruct children, but it combines spiritual richness with genuine political force.

    This kind of sincerity doesn't suit the current filmgoing/filmmaking climate?note how insensitive the reviews have been (see below)?but A Dog of Flanders is satisfying in ways Hollywood movies rarely are anymore. The more Hollywood courts sensation-hungry teens, the more it continues to drive adults away. (The new Outside Providence is actually a fairly serious tale about father-son empathy, though the ads distort its sensitivity to look like another American Pie gross-out.) Movies' current emphasis on physical gratification and financial reward obviously isn't satisfying enough. Yet the atmosphere may be too cynical to accept how naturally A Dog of Flanders expresses Nello's aspirations. He meets Michel LaGrande (Jon Voight), an art instructor whose encouragement sees Nello through clashes with a cruel landlord, the corrupt art council sponsoring a Junior Rubens competition and the harried, quick-to-blame farmer who banishes him from seeing his daughter Aloise (Madyline Sweeten), Nello's only friend. Observing the bitter, exploitative habits in the grown-up, professional worlds of 19th-century labor, the church and high culture amounts to a revelation. Yes, jaded adults more than children could learn a lot from this movie.

    A Dog of Flanders' source is an 1872 novel by the Flemish writer Ouida (Marie Louise de la Ramee). It was last filmed in 1959 by producer Robert B. Radnitz, who specialized in intelligent, morally grounded family stories that transcended their genres just as the child protagonists rose above their impoverished circumstances?most notably in the Appalachian Party of Five prototype Where the Lilies Bloom and Martin Ritt's Sounder. While A Dog of Flanders isn't quite in Sounder's class?the actors' accents are wonky, director Kevin Brodie makes clunky transitions, devaluing the high quality of Walther van den Ende's tactile photography?it does so much right that you forgive its flaws. Brodie doesn't hold an image of Aloise following a funeral cortege long enough for its impact to sink in, and a vision of morning light also flashes by. Imagine how a more felicitous, emotion-based director like Ritt, Spielberg or Peter Chelsom (The Mighty) might have turned Nello's experiences into a tapestry. Yet Brodie invests the movie with something uncommon?care. He gets the grandfather's death scene right: Jack Warden's splotchy-faced anguish against a windowsill gets next to you; the texture and lighting suggest Flemish painting made real.

    Sticking to the issues of social survival and personal communication, Brodie displays rare ethical boldness. It starts out with a scene of struggle and misery (Nello's mother carrying him through a snow storm) that intentionally evokes the opening of David Lean's Oliver Twist and sets the stage for some of Dickens' reformist empathy. Yet there's a lot of God talk among the characters, which might seem pious except that it is a consistent part of the film's Christian behavioral scheme. Nello isn't simply a sacrificial lamb, he's part of a wider view of human yearning and hardship. His example informs our understanding of the farmer's preoccupied middle-class indifference ("You are not my responsibility!" he shouts at Nello); the blacksmith's (Bruce McGill) endured loneliness and kindness; LaGrande's lofty compassion; and the film's eventual father and son reunion.

    Eschewing secular humanism, the film concludes with a series of events that can be understood as simultaneously social and spiritual critiques. Nello finally enters the church where a great Rubens hangs away from public view and its eventual unveiling reveals him to himself. It's an epiphany. Rubens' art speaks to him?it is the filmmakers' proposition that art must have a moral purpose; it's what staves off oblivion. Nello learns from the painting of Christ being deposed from the cross that a society without compassion is lost, that true happiness comes not from possessions or positions but what is within. When Nello regrets never knowing his mother, he is told, "Know yourself, you'll know her"?as profound a line as any in recent cinema. These insights come as part of the instinctive humanity Nello showed to the abandoned pup, but also from his grandfather's moral teachings ("Never hate!") and the expediency of art.

    Because all that's easy to forget these days, A Dog of Flanders is a refreshing reminder. Out of step with fashion, A Dog of Flanders' serious conviction has genuine strength and surprise. Its combination of spirituality and politics recalls the paradoxical motto on the Housemartin's tough and lovely first album: "Take Jesus. Take Marx. Take Hope."


    Teaching Mrs. Tingle directed by Kevin Williamson Teaching Mrs. Tingle Teaching Mrs. Tingle might not be a hit, but it's still a blight on the culture. Everything writer-director Kevin Williamson refuses to face about the state of teenagers today?their inner thirst, their outward hunger?is part of what's insidious about his films and tv shows. No less pernicious than teen movies by his Hollywood peers, Williamson's films set the phony standard. From Scream to Cruel Intentions, American Pie to Mrs. Tingle, the view of adolescence is brazenly dishonest, yet these films create the mythos that sells. In 1960 Nagisha Oshima made a movie that seriously examined teen passion and anxiety (then newly indulged), but his instructively titled Cruel Story of Youth vanished from Film Forum after a recent two-week reissue engagement. It should have been a turning point, rescuing the current youth-cult cinema, but hope for the pop audience's intelligence disappeared with it. What separates Mrs. Tingle from Cruel Story (and A Dog of Flanders) shames us. So what if few actually endorse it with their money? Its existence already pollutes the air by justifying a high school trio's barbarity toward a super-mean history teacher (invading her home, attacking her, tying her to her bed, then getting her fired). The selfish, mindless trio (Katie Holmes as studious Leigh Ann, Marisa Coughlan as her clownish best friend and Barry Watson as the hunk in the middle) are improbably celebrated as heroes at graduation. It's part of the ridiculous carnival premise (part soap opera, part horror story) that Williamson has "invented" to gain industry clout. (Don't be fooled: The Blair Witch Project is part of this same dumb movement, passing off inane scare tactics as authentic youth expression.)

    Williamson's formula has profitably flattered teen narcissism and gullibility, but in Teaching Mrs. Tingle he goes in for satirical jibes at recent moral decrepitude. "What's right anymore?" Leigh Ann asks the homicidal hunk. When someone suggests telling the truth, Leigh Ann knows "It won't work!" This Clintonian cynicism is William Bennett's worst nightmare complete with a whiny white-girl music track that makes it everyone's. Williamson's plot recycles Nine to Five's revenge comedy as a high school fantasy on sex and scholarship, but like all exploitation movies (and unlike Nine to Five) it's a distraction from genuine social crisis. The real social problem is not that teachers are mean but that they (and our education system) are not teaching. So Williamson uses a pandering, shifting moral tone?Lesley Ann Warren enacts Leigh Ann's mother as if playing high tragedy, while Helen Mirren gives Mrs. Tingle icy cruelty often backed by a delirious Mrs. Gulch music theme. In postmodernism's confusion, any gimmick can be used to sucker and divert youth audiences.

    Revenge served cold-blooded loses its moral justification. Leigh Ann and Mrs. Tingle's face-to-face confrontation is bogus. Student swings with Jealousy, but Teacher lays her out with Fear. Mrs. Tingle threatens Leigh Ann with a working-class future like her mother's ("You'll wear that [waitress] tag so well"). Capitalizing on teens' terror of social ignominy, Williamson takes it all the way to life failure, class fear. Another student (son to one of Mrs. Tingle's own high school classmates) is told his father also "had the words 'no future' chiseled on his forehead." But though Mrs. Tingle speaks with Brit affectation, no sense of the punk idea No Future is suggested by that insult?that's ancient history to today's teen audience, anyway. Instead, there are running gags on Alanis Morissette's malapropisms in "Ironic"?as if teachers only taught grammar.

    Teaching Mrs. Tingle neglects the social resonance that distinguishes A Dog of Flanders or the credible sense of absurdity remembered from My So-Called Life's believably frightening handcuffed-to-the-bed episode. Williamson's craft (no one's eyes are lit well) is as gummy as his morality. He falsifies the perils of youth worship and the confusion of youth narcissism that makes Oshima's almost 40-year-old film still relevant.

    Made in response to Rebel Without a Cause (the primal teen angst film), Cruel Story of Youth's self-consciousness about pop thrills and generational alienation shows in its lurid, widescreen sensuality. But it's mainly a political inquiry into Japan's postwar malaise, including student activism and apathy. The key scene plays Makoto and Kiyoshi's abortion clinic sentimentality against the overheard pathos of Makoto's elder sister and Dr. Akimoto, former lovers representing the previous generation. Oshima compares passion to regret, tragic history to tragic naivete. "We vented our rage against society by demonstrating, but what we did got as twisted as the world," the doctor says. Then he rues, "Your sister and her kind, by contrast, indulge every desire to express their rage against the world. Maybe they'll win. Eventually failures like this abortion racket, if accumulated, will destroy them and their relation with one another."

    Oshima's moral and political good sense doesn't pander. He sees no generation as better off than another and wisely views the dilemmas of youth through the complexes of a world they didn't make. A Dog of Flanders is equally farsighted; even without the sexual urgency that made Cruel Story influential (see Purple Rain), its connection between youthful yearning and social opportunity is important to understand and uphold. Williamson doesn't bother to. Whether out of ignorance or evil makes no difference; he has made youth movies crude and?next to A Dog of Flanders?soulless.

    Clipped Holden in the Dog House. Every critic has the right to walk out of movies, but it's unprofessional to write a dismissive review of a film having missed the final, crucial scenes. The New York Times' Stephen Holden dumps on A Dog of Flanders with: "Falsely accused of setting a fire, [Nello] becomes something of a town pariah until one dark and snowy night. This is when Patrasche saves the day." The dog has little role in Nello's enlightenment; during and after the fire Patrasche in no way "saves the day." The film climaxes with Nello's confrontation with the spirit of Rubens?that was the point at which I saw the Times reviewer walk out. He missed Rubens asking Nello about an art competition: "You didn't just want to win, did you?" Not witnessing that line misses the film's daring questioning of materialist values?a crucial ethical conundrum in a children's or adult's movie, demonstrating a far different intention than the mere sentimentality that the Times reviewer imputes. Such a principled perspective would make A Dog of Flanders boring only to an imperialist 90s sensibility?or a dishonest journalist.