Written and directed by Mark Mills, with outstanding performances by Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, and Melanie Laurent, the 2010 film Beginners has been called Blogworthy by Cavemen Go author Justin Tiemeyer. The following is an essay inspired by the film.
In the 2010 film Beginners, Oliver Fields (Ewan McGregor) inherits a Jack Russel terrier named Arthur (Cosmo) and, rather than simply ignoring the dog half of the time like most people would do, Oliver decides to recount to the needy dog the story of his life in detail. One finds oneself asking: Does Oliver simply begin waxing about the tragedies and joys of his existence to anyone who will listen? Has he told the same story to his ear, nose and throat doctor or the woman who feeds the pigeons at the park? Yet there is a kind of sincerity and urgency that tells the audience that Oliver is going out on a limb here, recounting his story for the first and potentially last time, that this is a necessary exercise for the sake of his mental health.
In summary, contrary to public opinion, it is for the sake of mental health that Oliver Fields tells long and intricate stories to his dog.
I'm sure that nobody reading this article is a stranger to the idea of talking with dogs. My mind drifts effortlessly to the 1996 Bush's baked beans commercial in which Jay Bush addresses the public need to know "what makes Bush's baked beans taste so darned good." After addressing what ingredients some think bring about such a delectable taste, Jay explains that "the real reason... is the Bush secret family recipe" which he's only ever shared with his dog. And he's not talking. A moment later, Jay's dog turns his head and enunciates the words, "Roll that beautiful bean footage," to the frightened "Uh oh" of his master.
Consider also the case of David Richard Berkowitz in the late 1970s. For several years, Berkowitz had harmless conversations with his neighbor's dog. Of course, Berkowitz is not as benign as I have just made him out to be. Beginning in July 1976, Berkowitz went on a killing spree in New York City shooting young women with a .44 Caliber Charter Arms Bulldog revolver and the media called him the Son of Sam. Berkowitz claimed that the neighbor's dog was given the power to speak as a result of it being possessed by a demon. And with the gift of elocution, the dog demanded the blood of young pretty girls. Berkowitz, who claimed to be a victim of the demonic dog's influence, also claimed that he once attempted to kill this satanic canine but was stopped by supernatural forces. Berkowitz claimed that there were others like him out there. And therein lies further reason for Jay Bush to say "uh oh" when his beloved confidant and "best friend" first spoke.
While researching for this article, I also stumbled upon (though not using StumbleUpon) a message board at a community pet web site called Dogster titled, "Are there any good talking dog movies out there?" I assume that this is a common question in dog-owner circles, and I also assume that the common answer is an exclamatory negative. But the web site listed several films: Babe (whose main character is actually a pig, but the film does feature several talking dogs), The Incredible Journey, Cats and Dogs, Good Boy, the Air Bud films and Benji (although I seem to remember that Benji was simple narration, not dog-speak...), Milo and Otis, a few William Wegman movies featuring his weimaraners, 101 Dalmatians, Lady and the Tramp, Lady and the Tramp 2: Scamp's Adventure and Fluke. And this was just on the first of three pages.
I can't attribute my love for the film Beginners to the presence of a talking dog, because Arthur didn't talk. And I can't claim that the film was great because Arthur reminded me of the dog on Frasier. The most insightful fact I gleaned from Beginners is the fact that you can be honest with a dog in ways that you can't be with anyone else.
Most people I know have watched enough movies and sat through enough hours of television drama to know that there is a certain chain of honesty. When you are going through some sort of trouble and need to reveal some vital truth to somebody, there is a natural progression of people that you confide in, and as you progress from first to last you progress also from artifice to honesty.
1. Friends and family
3. Priest/Rabbi/Religious Expert
4. Stranger/Black Woman/Celebrity/Gay Man (Deus Ex Machina)
When one confides in ones friends and family, it is always done with a shield raised. This is because facts are like an epidemic with those who are close to you. When your mother is bored and on the telephone with your aunt, these are the things they discuss in order to pass the time. What you said to your best friend, he shares with his girlfriend at the end of the day and they decide which of your actions are foolish and which are noble. And on a rare occasion, your second cousin twice-removed decides that she needs to intervene on your behalf and steer you away from some imagined evil. When you share your feelings with one beloved friend or family member, you share them with the entire community, and after the advent of the Internet, said community has grown intolerably large.
Therapists and religious leaders have a responsibility to keep your secrets. Perhaps they discuss how ridiculous you seem, but only with colleagues who will never meet you and have only an academic interest in your case and only in vague terms. When a priest calls another priest to discuss the woes of a sinner, you can be assured, at least to some degree, that your name, address, social security number and driver's license number will not be the topic of conversation. This allows you to lower the shield a little bit. But you're always ready to raise the shield, and there are a couple of good reasons to do so. If you are deemed a threat to yourself or others according to the whims of your psychiatrist or rabbi's opinion, then they are duty-bound to report you to the local authorities. And I'm not talking about mental or spiritual authorities (that's the second phone call...). I'm talking about people with guns and handcuffs and broken prison systems. But even if your actions aren't quite so drastic as the Son of Sam, therapists and religious leaders are the individuals who prescribe the tools for defeating your problems, so any revelation that comes about is merely a means of pointing you toward Wellbutrin, lithium, hail Marys or some sort of act of contrition.
Strangers on the edge of society (who, in the ancient poems, are almost always gods) don't seem to have any of these powers over you. Psychologically, they are little more than an extension of yourself. The consequences of announcing something to an utter stranger are mostly the same as announcing it to yourself. There's judgment, but it's judgment that you're well-practiced at blocking out. And it's relieving, so you can dump more and more of it from yourself. You can feel the weight on your shoulders simply disappear. Of course, this is only temporary. Because you purged more information than you would normally feel comfortable purging, your ego begins to feel damaged - and rightly so: your ego is built on a firm ground of lies, sustaining lies, some might say. And you're left with two options: Make a big change and stick with it, or drown out your conscience with drugs, alcohol, Call of Duty, Law and Order or something similar. Despite their boldest dreams, nobody ever chooses "big change."
Isn't the same true for telling your life story to a dog?
In the words of a famous Scandinavian god who has, of late, become popular in the theaters: "I say thee nay."
When Oliver Fields tells his life story to a dog named Arthur, something magical seems to happen. Rather than holding himself accountable and requiring some sort of correction, Oliver finds himself organizing his thoughts regarding the confusing data of a Jewish mother, a gay father, and a really weird childhood. It seems possible that Oliver has bamboozled his own ego, bypassing it by abstraction. The story he tells the dog seems far too literary and interesting to be a confession, its progression both logical and organic. But I think that the one thing that is different between Oliver's biography as recounted to the dog Arthur and any of these other memoirs is that fear never gets a chance to creep in. Unlike Jay Bush, Oliver has no fear that Arthur will get on his gossip call list and recount what he has heard. Unlike the demon dog, the therapist, the priest and the rabbi, Arthur cannot tell Oliver what to do. In a strange way, I think Oliver becomes the dog and experiences his own life as a novel or daytime drama. He is able to glean understanding, to cry when such feelings are required and to laugh at other times, and all because his own life story is held at a distance and he's allowed to see himself as foreign.
It is said that pet owners actually live longer than other individuals. I don't know exactly why that is true, but it seems like the statistics support this conclusion. Many of us have heard the stories of dogs and cats saving their human counterparts from fires, home invasion, and accidents in the house either by intervening or getting help Lassie style (if only Lassie knew how to talk - imagine how much better the world would be; she was the Mother Theresa/Superman of dogs). Of course, it is much more likely that pet owners live longer because they never feel alone, because they always have a purpose, and, according to my own personal theory, because pets and owners groom one another in much the same way that apes groom fellow apes, which is proven to increase life span.
Maybe during those long hours where there is only a man and his cat or a woman and her dog or a hermaphrodite and his/her cat-dog (Was that disrespectful? I was aiming at "cute.") people tell their stories to their pets and they achieve a type of catharsis that they've never encountered before. I know that in my darkest times as a child I would confide in my brother's cat Smokey. I would feel sorrow welling up inside of me and before a tear could roll from my eye, the cat would be right beside me. As I've gotten older and experienced the phantom feeling of the cat jumping onto my bed in the middle of the night - Smokey passed on a few years ago after twenty years of life - I have begun to wonder if the cat was some sort of supernatural guardian or angel, a being of great power who lowered himself in order to guide me through my life. I want to believe, but in the end I think that our pets simply give us something that we can't explain. And because we can't explain it, we either dismiss it or we ponder the impossible.
In conclusion, I feel that I must apologize for this article. I feel like I really gave it my best, but I can't help but to feel that were it dictated to a very thoughtful dog it would have been much better. Maybe if a major publication decides to pick up an edited version of this article, they'll provide me with a canine secretary. Until then, enjoy this half-truth.