Thursday, 28 July 2016

Levi's Wives (1998) - Prosaic Polygamist

Levis "Wives" from joe zizzo on Vimeo.

Here's another example from Levi's baffling "expect the unexpected" phase, before their Sta-Prest campaign with punk puppet Flat Eric put them back in favour with the young and hip crowd they were targeting a lot more tentatively here.

When they weren't traumatising children with morbid tales of terminally bored pets, Levi's were celebrating originality in more benign forms, in this case by examining the ostensibly dull life of a nondescript 1950s office worker as he gives us a tour of his ostensibly dull house and all its contents.  The obvious "What The Fuck?" moment comes when he casually reveals, in the midst of all this mid-century modern blandness, that he's married to a total of six different women, but even prior to this there's a definite sense of things being off-kilter in his bromidic, flatly materialistic world.  For a start, none of the the doors we see are actually connected to walls, the trees look distinctively out of space, and his food supply consists of an uninspiring collection of identical bottles and cans.  It's a lifestyle which radiates a curious mixture of artificiality, monotony and unreality.  Except for his six wives, of course.  They're clearly all real, and each of them very distinctive.

As Levi's "originality" campaign went, "Wives" is considerably less mean-spirited than "Kevin", although its particular method of oddness, while quizzical enough, does seem a lot more nondescript.  The potentially unsettling qualities of black and white aesthetics had already been well-mined by numerous Guinness ads at this stage in the decade, and Irn-Bru had a somewhat similar campaign a little later on down the road which likewise centred upon the casual subversion of more conservative family values (and not without attracting its share of controversy, as at least one of those ads was perceived as being at the expense of transsexuals - we'll touch more upon that one, along with Irn-Bru's infamous cow billboard ad, at a later date).  As noted in my reflections on "Kevin", for a number of years I'd falsely remembered this ad as being part of said Irn-Bru campaign, which does highlight one of the key issues with Levi's entire "originality" campaign - it was so all over the place, and only connected to the product itself in the vaguest, most abstract of senses, that there's a definite air of interchangeability throughout.

The closing images of "Wives" also betray a lack confidence in its own weirdness, by showing a question mark followed by a close-up of an eye blinking in apparent astonishment, as if the ad is at pains to point out to the viewer that this has all been a deliberate exercise in confoundment.  Still, I'm almost embarrassed to admit that, as a young teenager, I took that question mark to indicate that there was a riddle here to be solved, meaning that I probably thought longer and harder about this ad than most other people at the time (the fact that I forgot the specific product being advertised notwithstanding).  In trying to think of someone famed for having six wives and a ship, Henry VIII was honestly all that came to mind - however, unless something particularly cryptic was happening with the more modern amenities like the car and the refrigerator, it was blatantly never going to be a reference to him.  If nothing else, then Bartle Bogle Hegarty at least succeeded in trolling my impressionable, logic-seeking teenage brain for a day or two.

"Wives" was directed by Doug Nichol, who also helmed the Kevin ad.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Levi's Hamster (1998) - Alas, Poor Kevin

Hey, remember that weird period Levi's went through in the summer of 98 where they thought they could sell jeans using a dead hamster?  What a time it was to be alive.

Back in the late 1990s, jeans were undergoing something of an image problem, with young people widely dismissing them as clothing for their parents' generation.  Denim sales were in decline, and the rising popularity of own-brand clothing lines over designer labels wasn't helping any.  Levi's urgently needed to win back the youth market by demonstrating that they were radical, hip and cutting edge.  And what could be more radical, hip and cutting edge than an advert featuring a dead hamster?

As it turned out, the general public didn't exactly share Levi's somewhat idiosyncratic manner of thinking, and their "Kevin the Hamster" ad went on to become one of the most controversial in UK advertising history when it was played extensively over a select weekend in August 1998.  The Independent Television Commission received 544 complaints, then a record, regarding the ad, which depicts a hamster losing his zest for life after his beloved exercise wheel malfunctions and succumbing to a fatal boredom.  Many of these complaints were made on behalf of children who were upset by Kevin's odd and disturbing demise, while others simply couldn't see what the death of a small, fluffy and totally innocuous animal had to do with the product in question and considered it little more than exercise in bad taste.

Contrary to popular belief, the Kevin ad was never officially "banned", although ITC did rule that future airings of the advert should not take place before watershed hours.  Levi's marketing director Amanda Le Roux claimed that this was all moot anyway, as the advert had only ever been slated to air over that one weekend.  She also claimed that the campaign had been extensively researched and that test audiences had absolutely adored the hamster ad.  Kevin the hamster himself was even trotted out publicly, with owner Trevor Smith confirming that he was "alive and well and very loved", and that he was now being heavily-sought after for appearances in future advertising campaigns and TV shows.  I doubt that many of the 544 who complained did so because they thought that Kevin had actually perished in the making of the ad, but I presume that the idea was to give peace of mind to the children who'd been brought to tears by his apparent demise.  (Of course, hamster lifespans being as short as they are, Kevin would certainly be long-passed by the time of writing.  I'd be curious to know if he did make any further media appearances within his lifetime.)

The clue to understanding this rather baffling and unsettling ad is in the "original" part of the brand name that appears at the end.  It was part of a wider campaign, devised by advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, built around deliberately weird and surreal situations, which hinted toward a vague kind of theme about originality and the importance of thinking outside of the box.  In some cases the theme was cleverly applied and executed - notably, an ad directed by Gore Verbinski featuring a small boy beating a shape sorter, literally and figuratively, by hammering a square peg through a round slot.  In other cases the originality link seemed far more tenuous - one featured a man, naked from the waist down, riding up a mall escalator, while another centred upon a man who's claim to originality was through his polygamy (he had six wives).  Kevin, by contrast, appears to be a far more cautionary example - he dies precisely because he fails to think outside of the box and to adapt to life without his wheel (although in his defence, he is a hamster living in an otherwise barren cage - what else is he supposed to do for entertainment?).  Or maybe the whole "original" thing was just an excuse to throw some random nonsense together in a deliberate effort to catch the viewer off guard.  Everybody in the late 90s was doing it - Guinness churned out a few real oddities with their "not everything in black and white makes sense" campaign and until I started researching for this article, I had falsely remembered the "six wives" ad as hailing from a similarly peculiar campaign for Irn-Bru (an inevitable risk whenever the precise content of your advertisement isn't clearly linked to the product that you're selling).

One thing that I can definitely say in favour of "Kevin" is that I never forgot it, and ever since that fateful summer of 1998 (like many a young person at that time, a highlight of my Friday night was sneaking into the spare room to watch South Park, then enjoying its first UK terrestrial TV run on Channel 4, without my parents' knowing) the fate of poor Kevin the Hamster remained permanently etched into my brain and continued to haunt me for long after.  It was strange and unpredictable and, certainly, I had never seen anything quite like it before.  Still, contrary to the ethos of this entire campaign, mere originality isn't everything, and in my opinion it's easy to see how Levi's were setting themselves up with this one.

If we're to assess the advert purely in terms of its weirdness factor, then "Kevin" does strike a number of highly effective notes.  There are multiple unsettling elements at play here, from the eerie flatness of the voice-over narration to the off-screen presence controlling the pencil movements at the end, coupled with the gruesome rigor mortis exhibited by the hamster corpse (yes, I know that's really a stuffed specimen) as it topples over.  No question that it's an extremely quirky and eye-popping piece of advertising, but unfortunately it's not a particularly likeable one on top of that.  It's sufficiently unorthodox, but also rather mean-spirited, and the overall vibe seems to be one of attention-seeking via shock tactics than anything else.  As a statement in encouraging consumers to view their brand differently, Levi's August 1998 campaign was a bold curiosity, but ultimately a little too loosely-defined in its weirdness to cement much of a fresh identity, and the "originality" concept far too abstract to translate into a particularly resonant message about why wearing this specific brand of jeans was cool.  Even if the story of a hamster who perishes from lack of stimulation had somehow been more clearly linked to Levi's product, it seems unlikely that such an ad would have gone down a treat with all tastes regardless.

Kevin the Hamster proved to be something of a misstep for Levi's, but they rebounded the following year after teaming up with an odd yellow puppet named Flat Eric, and a classic campaign (not to mention a hit single) was born.  As for Kevin, his legacy in having inspired the biggest number of complaints made to ITC over a television advertisement was finally usurped in 2003 by an advert for chewing gum in which a man is seen to vomit up a live mongrel.  The little guy lives on, however, in that every time I pass the Levi's at my local shopping outlet, my train of thought inevitably seems to wander back to him.  I still find it rather baffling to think that a dead hamster was ever expected to translate into increased jeans sales, but if Levi's really wanted to be the designer brand that I associated with a dead hamster, then mission accomplished.

Monday, 25 July 2016

The Jeffrey Dahmer Files (2012) - The Deleted Scenes

An element of The Jeffrey Dahmer Files which was evidently downplayed within the finished cut of the film but still survives in the deleted scenes included in the Region 1 DVD release has to do with the wider community that surrounded Dahmer, and the perfectly banal, everyday situations in which their individual lives would intersect with his, as both parties went about their respective businesses.

I was quite intrigued when I saw that this release came packaged with a few deleted scenes, hoping that there might be additional or extended interview footage with any of the film's three interviewees, but alas, no.  Not that I wasn't still fascinated in seeing what didn't make the final cut.  There are five deleted scenes in total, all of which depict further episodes from the life of Andrew Swant's Jeffrey Dahmer as he wanders around Milwaukee in his typically nonchalant manner, although for the most part these centre far less on Dahmer than they do upon the people around him, giving us inklings of the lives that ran parallel to his own, casually rubbing shoulders with Jeffrey without ever suspecting that they were in the company of a habitual killer.  Presumably, the idea here is to give a sense of how Dahmer appeared to other people, of the miscellaneous connecting points in any urban environment which enable all varieties of lives to unwittingly intermingle, and to convey something of the disconnect which the highly introverted and secretive Dahmer felt from the community in which he lived (his terse verbal interactions with others tend to be mostly functional, and there's a definite sense of nobody with whom he comes into contact being in any way close to him).  Here's a rundown of what we get in the deleted scenes:

Foul Odor: This sequence is particularly interesting in that it contains a "cameo" appearance from Apt. 213 (which was Dahmer's apartment number in real life, although for some reason that I cannot quite fathom Thompson's film has had him move next door to 214).  Here, it belongs to a neighbour who's seen making her way down North 25th Street on a mobility scooter, returning to the Oxford Apartments and proceeding to knock on Jeffrey's door to complain about the highly unpleasant odor leaking from his apartment.  Dahmer politely insists that he has no idea what's causing the smell but promises to contact the landlord about it tomorrow.  She responds by warning him that, “Neighbours are talking also, and they may not be as nice as I am trying to be.”

Glasses: Dahmer goes to the opticians to pick up a new pair of glasses, while another customer reluctantly tries on a pair of frames at the insistence of the woman behind the counter.  He casually asks for Dahmer's opinion on the frames and is told that they look good.  Dahmer pays for his glasses by cheque, as he is seen to do for just about every onscreen purchase he makes throughout the film.

Painting: Two graffiti artists spraying an abandoned warehouse are startled and run away when they hear Dahmer approaching.  Observing him from a distance, neither of them recognises him or has the foggiest idea who he is, but finally decide that he is harmless when they see him pull out a can of beer and start drinking.  At this point, they feel safe to ignore him and return to their art, which they conclude is "not bad at all."

Smoking: A scene between Andy and Brian from Eye In The Sky, seen smoking together in their van before calling at Dahmer's apartment to discuss home security.  One of them (Andy) tells an anecdote about how he dealt with a noisy snorer in the adjacent room while staying at a hotel in Iowa by giving him a sneaky midnight telephone call.  "I hear him answer it - hello, hello, hello - like he got startled and just woke up.  So I just hang up the phone right away.  He’s stopped snoring, and I fall asleep.  Pretty fucking hilarious.")  This story has nothing to do with Dahmer and is a total tangent, so it's not too surprising that they wound up jettisoning it.  I'll keep that tip in mind though, Andy.

Suitcase:  This is the one deleted scene where the focus is firmly upon Jeffrey himself, and deals with his hasty purchase of a large suitcase in order to smuggle the body of Steven Tuomi out of the hotel room where Dahmer killed him while heavily intoxicated.  We see a blatantly flustered Dahmer run into a bag store and immediately snap up their biggest and cheapest.  The sales assistant who's approached him comments upon his quick decision and asks if he is going on a trip somewhere, but gets only the most monosyllabic of responses.  “Yeah”.  “Sounds like fun.”  Dahmer pays by writing a cheque (of course) and then makes a speedy exit.

Of all the deleted scenes, this is the one whose excision from the finished film I find the most regrettable.  Perhaps Thompson figured that there were enough sequences revolving around the Tuomi incident and how it would have appeared from the exterior for viewers to already get the idea, and that to show Dahmer hastily singling out the suitcase for purchase would just be superfluous.  All the same, it is interesting to see a situation in which the cracks in Dahmer's demeanor are vaguely visible, and another individual is able to pick up that something isn't quite right (albeit not to the extent where they come anywhere close to figuring out the truth).  I also really dig the mise-en-scène with that "All Sales Final" sign, with its implicit warning of there being no turning back (this, fortunately, can still be glimpsed in the final cut).

Finally, if you do want to hear some supplementary material from Pat Kennedy on the case, then this interview with shock jocks Opie and Anthony might be of interest (Thompson's there too, apparently, although he barely seems to get a word in edgeways; they also both exit around the 33:10 mark, at which point you're okay to tune out).  Kennedy talks at great length about his experiences with Jeffrey Dahmer, and while much of this is just repeating information given in the film, he expands upon what was said there quite substantially, and also touches upon a couple of issues which he doesn't get to cover in the film itself - namely, his reaction to Dahmer's death in 1994 and his perspective on the two police officers who infamously returned an injured victim to Dahmer's apartment.  Kennedy also mentions a book he'd written about his personal experiences in working on the Dahmer case which he was then in the process of shopping around to various publishers - is there any possibility of this being published posthumously?

Friday, 22 July 2016

The Jeffrey Dahmer Files (2012) - Where were you 22nd July 1991?

Personally, I was very taken with Chris James Thompson's feature documentary The Jeffrey Dahmer Files, although reaction as a whole seems to have been somewhat mixed.  The film, which was originally screened at the 2012 South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas under the less precise title Jeff (Thompson was persuaded to change it after people showed up expecting a film about DJ Jazzy Jeff, among other famous Jeffreys), offers a glimpse into the hidden activities of the blond, bespectacled serial killer, who had been butchering young men in his apartment home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for a number of years and building up a morbid collection of preserved body parts, and how it all came to be unraveled when he was finally arrested in 1991.  Dahmer's reputation was quickly cemented as one of the most notorious killers in US history (in no small part due to the harrowing intimacy he was compelled to assume with his victims' flesh after death, which included all manner of behaviours from necrophilia to cannibalism), so you can bet that numerous television documentaries, of varying degrees of worth, have been made about his macabre habits.  Thompson's film takes a rather unique approach in choosing to centre upon some of the individuals whose lives were affected in the aftermath of his arrest, and whose personal stories have often been muted or brushed over in earlier representations of the Dahmer story.  The Jeffrey Dahmer Files adopts a talking heads approach in allowing three individuals to recollect extensively upon their own personal connection to Jeffrey and what his arrest meant for them; a line-up consisting of medical examiner Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen, homicide detective Patrick Kennedy and neighbour Pamela Bass, each of whom has their own unique layer of perspective to add in trying to make sense of the kind of person that Jeffrey was, and of the complicated skid marks he left on their lives.

Straight off the bat, one criticism I've seen come up a few times is that the film does not actually tell us who any of these individuals are until right before the end-credits.  Well, I immediately think, surely any Jeffrey Dahmer buff worth their salt would already know who each of these people are?  After all, all three of them have been featured in previous documentaries about Dahmer, albeit in smaller, more heavily truncated chunks.  On the other hand, what Jeffrey Dahmer buff worth their salt isn't going to flip out at the film's depiction of his having resided in apartment 214?  Actually, I wouldn't even say that you'd have to be a "buff" to have known that Jeffrey's apartment number, while living at the Oxford Apartments on North 25th Street, was 213 - it's arguably one of the most well-known pieces of trivia about him.  It's such a glaring error, in fact, that I can only assume that it must have been deliberate - although I can't for the life of me think what would have motivated it. (Is it possible that someone in Thompson's crew was just really triskaidekaphobic and couldn't stand all that exposure to anything containing the number 13?)

Vexing errors aside, The Jeffrey Dahmer Files is clearly intended for those who've already done their homework on Dahmer and are looking to broaden their understanding of the story they already know.  If you're new to the Dahmer story and want a comprehensive overview of his life, misdeeds and eventual death behind bars, then you're going to have to look elsewhere.  The Jeffrey Dahmer Files focuses almost entirely on the events surrounding his arrest on 22nd July 1991 and the immediate and longer-term fall-out, both for the three featured individuals, all of whom were involved and impacted in some way (Detective Pat Kennedy interrogated Dahmer and managed to wangle a remarkably candid confession out of him, Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen had the unenviable task of having to go through the hidden boneyard at Apt. 213, while Pamela Bass overheard the confrontation between Dahmer and the arresting officers and later bore witness to the local community going to pieces as his secret activities became public knowledge), and in terms of the media frenzy that ensued when the sheer magnitude of the murders in question was revealed and tapped into the horror, disgust and lurid fascinations of a transfixed world.  Very little is revealed of Jeffrey's early life (eg: the acrimony between his parents, his childhood roadkill fixation), his family are referenced only in passing by Kennedy, and for the most part the film does not delve into the individual stories of his victims and how each of them fit into his drawn-out killing spree (although some attention is given to perhaps the most infamous of them all, fourteen-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone, who managed to escape from Apt. 213 in a semi-conscious state, only to be returned there by a pair of Milwaukee police officers who accepted Dahmer's version of events over that of a group of eye-witnesses).  Also not included is any detailed explanation as to what the police who finally arrested Dahmer were doing at his apartment in the first place (and it was a total fluke, as Tracy Edwards, who led them there, had merely been seeking the keys to the handcuffs that Dahmer had put on him).  Likewise, there's very little speculation on the psychology behind Dahmer's crimes and what might have compelled him to murder so incessantly.  Truthfully, this is much less a documentary about Jeffrey himself than it is about the people around him and how, following the events of that fateful night on 22nd July 1991, their lives were never quite the same again.

Another common criticism I've seen leveled at Thompson's film is that if you are already well-versed in the story of Jeffrey Dahmer (as the film assumes that you are) then Thompson doesn't really bring anything radically new to the table.  And true, you're not going to learn of any particularly shocking or amazing new twists - as stated, the objective is concerned more with fleshing out what you already know, and providing a glimpse into what is was like to be present during the early uncovering of the case before it had the chance to make sensationalist headlines.  Certainly, I'd rate Thompson's film as being a good cut above your average television documentary on Dahmer, which will typically milk the horror factor for all its worth, often at the expense of the humanity of just about everyone involved (for one, I've never been terribly fond of the unsettling horror flick music a lot of them tend to feature non-stop, as if Dahmer actually emitted the danged music wherever he went).  The Jeffrey Dahmer Files, by contrast, endeavors to always keep a very restrained and decidedly human face upon the story - indeed, the entire purpose of the documentary, according to Thompson, was to give representation to the various human exchanges and experiences which were filtered out when the media began reporting the story to their own sensationalist ends.  Of particular interest in this regard is Kennedy's story, for he clearly enjoyed a rapport with Jeffrey which few others experienced, and which goes some way toward blurring the popular depiction of Dahmer as an inhuman monster as touted by various news media outlets.  Kennedy admits that the empathy he felt for Dahmer did not always sit easily with him, in part because of the incessant ribbing he endured from his work colleagues, but also because it prompted some serious soul-searching on his part as to what it was about his own life that enabled him to connect with Dahmer's.  It's also evident that the stresses of the case, particularly with all the public and media interest it garnered, took its toll upon Kennedy's personal life, bringing an end to what he admits was an already troubled marriage.  At the back of Kennedy's monologues is an understated parallel story regarding the disintegration of his home life, which sees him initially returning home to boast about his accomplishment to his horrified wife, and ends with him living in a one-room efficiency apartment downtown with no furniture and no phone line installed, unable even to contact his kids on his birthday.

Detective Patrick Kennedy

Kennedy (who sadly passed away in 2013 at age 59) has a very strong and likeable presence throughout the film - unflinching and assertive but also affable, earnest and down-to-earth, and very articulate in his descriptions of the initial crime scene (which he arrived at to find Jeffrey already subdued and a disheveled-looking police officer reeling from having taken a peak inside the suspect's refrigerator) and of the intricate interrogation process he went through with Dahmer.  Indeed, it's not hard to envision how that charisma might have seemed like a safe and welcoming haven for someone with all magnitude of sins weighing on their shoulders.  It took Dahmer a number of hours to begin to open up about his crimes (which Kennedy informs us is quite typical for a homicide interrogation), during which he and Kennedy spoke at great length about a number of other topics under the sun, including religion (Kennedy was a devout Catholic, while Dahmer came from a Lutheran background), alcoholism and Dahmer's job at the chocolate factory, and Dahmer would intermittently break down as the reality of his situation began to sink in.  Notably, throughout this time Kennedy did not have reason to believe that Dahmer was responsible for the deaths of any more than one victim (the head in the refrigerator, which belonged to Oliver Lacy), so when Dahmer began spilling his figurative guts on the long list of murders to his name, Kennedy was understandably overwhelmed and not sure quite how seriously he should be taking him.  Only when he had the opportunity to confer with a colleague and was brought up to speed with what had since been uncovered at Apt. 213 did Kennedy realise what he had just witnessed were not the ravings of an attention-seeking fantasist, but an intensely private individual coming clean for the very first time about a horrifying secret life which spanned back as far as thirteen years.

The first thing we hear out of Kennedy are musings upon the nature of courage, how everybody who joins the police force has dreams of acting heroically when faced with a dangerous situation, and an adage he recalls from his Catholic upbringing that "courage is simply fear that's said its prayers."  Noteworthy is that Kennedy was never, at any point, under any kind of threat from Dahmer, who was already handcuffed when he arrived at Apt. 213, although he does admit that the sight of the severed head in his refrigerator filled him with the overwhelming urge to bolt.  Doubtlessly, the Dahmer case would have been an unpleasant and trying experience to have to pour all of one's energies into, yet what's striking is that the specific courage displayed by Kennedy in his handling of the investigation is marked not by dramatic heroism of any kind, but by a more genial (albeit unconventional) kind of human connection, steadfast commitment and a willingness to withhold judgement.  He was capable of treating Dahmer with humanity, no matter how appalling the trail of murders he had to deal with.

At times the amiable nature of his relationship of Dahmer seems to contrast with the flurry of blaring, hysterical news reports which begin creeping their way in around the second half of the film, as this lifelong loner suddenly found himself at the centre of worldwide media attention (that the story would spiral into a media sensation is something that Dahmer himself appears to have anticipated all too well; immediately before launching into his confession, he advised Kennedy that his involvement in the case would make him famous).  Among the wealth of smaller, more subdued tidbits of information that surface throughout the film is one concerning the origin of the distinctive striped shirt worn by Dahmer at his initial court appearance, which was given to him by Kennedy, and had actually started life as an unwanted Xmas gift for Kennedy's son.  A bemused Kennedy recalls how onlookers pounced upon Dahmer's apparent choice of attire and made all kinds of speculation about his character on the basis of that shirt, which in actuality had been plucked from his son's wardrobe.

Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen

Not that there wasn't plenty of genuine horror for the media to sink its teeth into.  Jentzen's monologues frequently stand in a stark contrast to Kennedy's, as he reflects upon what was like to deal less with the man himself than with his gruesome handiwork.  Compared to Kennedy, he's more reserved and methodological in his recollections, considerably less animated and less prone to personal musings and anecdotes (although he does provide a pretty fascinating description of how decomposing bear paws are often mistaken for human hands).  Jentzen comments upon how unique it was, during the forensic investigation, to be able to feedback findings directly to the killer and get immediate confirmation on what had happened, but otherwise he has precious little to say about Jeffrey per se.  Instead, he focuses upon what was pulled out of various boxes and containers at Dahmer's apartment, the increasingly dour mood of the forensic examiners as they went about dismantling what Jentzen likens, soberly, to somebody's private museum, and the some of the hair-raising details that continued to surface as they trod deeper into the investigation (namely, Dahmer's deranged experimentation with drilling holes into the brains of some of his victims in an effort to zombify them).

Essentially, Jentzen's there to represent the cold facts of Dahmer's crimes, in as sensitive and non-sensational a way as possible, and to ensure that Kennedy's recollections over the man he connected with during the six week investigation period remain framed within that context.  One thing that Thompson's film does not go in for, for the most part, is onscreen gore - it manages to be extremely restrained in terms of how it handles the gruesome subject matter at the centre of the Dahmer case, and while Jentzen's testimony in particular leaves no doubt as to the grotesqueness of what was unearthed at Apt. 213, the gore itself is kept at a tasteful distance throughout.  The nastiest images that appear onscreen actually have nothing to do with Dahmer's crimes, but derive from a gratuitous snippet of footage showing a badly-bitten goldfish being used as live food for a tank of piranhas in a pet shop (which serves, one assumes, as an allegory for Dahmer's own insatiable predatory desires).  The camera doesn't linger on this footage for terribly long, but what we do see of that chewed-up goldfish more than oversteps the boundaries of comfortable viewing.

Pamela Bass

Finally there's Pamela Bass, the only interviewee who knew Dahmer prior to the events of 22nd July 1991, and as such had the difficult task of having to consolidate the "kindhearted" neighbour she had always known with the shocking stories that began pouring out in the aftermath of his arrest.  Bass describes how she went from initially assuming that Jeffrey had been set-up to freaking out about the possible contents of a sandwich she recalled having taken from him.  Bass's sandwich rant is another aspect of the film that I've seen reviewers picket at, chiefly because it seems like the kind of lurid, baseless gossip that would have filled more sensationalist coverage of the case.  Certainly, there is no evidence that Dahmer ever sought to have anyone else engage in his cannibalistic experiments, unwittingly or otherwise, but then I never got the impression that Thompson's film is looking to suggest anything to the contrary.  Given the context, I'm also not convinced that Bass herself truly believes it, or if she's just reeling off a list of thoughts and anxieties that played through her head when the full extent of Dahmer's activities began to sink in (and, to be fair to Bass, if I were to discover that my neighbour, from whom I'd accepted food in the past, was a cannibalistic serial killer, I suspect that my mind might wander a little in that direction too).  Largely, Bass describes how Dahmer's arrest affected her at the community-level, including the plethora of unwanted attention she subsequently received, both from the families of victims who saw her as culpable in Dahmer's activities (and whom Bass accepts as just wanting somebody to vent their rage upon) and from morbidly fascinated tourists who offered her money in exchange for being able to touch items which had previously been handled by Dahmer.  Bass also speaks about the emptiness of the newfound "celebrity" status that came with being the one-time neighbour of a convicted serial killer, and how Dahmer's notoriety continued to trail her no matter where she tried to go in life.  When, finally, the decision was made to tear down the apartment building (against the wishes of at least one tenant, as related in one of the film's more farcical anecdotes) and Bass had the opportunity to start again elsewhere, she recounts how quickly she found herself beleaguered by people wanting to talk to her solely in the hopes of gaining their own lurid Dahmer-related story to tell.  Whether or not you buy that Bass resented this attention half as much as she claims, there's a definite sense of irrevocability to her tales, of a world pondering if it can ever feel normal again having brushed up against the unthinkable.

Andrew Swant as Jeffrey Dahmer

As for Dahmer himself, he appears a few times in archival news footage (and also that family home movie where he talks about McDonalds cuisine which seems to show up in every documentary about him), but he's largely represented throughout the film in a series of dramatised sequences where he's played by actor Andrew Swant (actually one of Thompson's film-making buddies, and one of the guys responsible for this YouTube video you might have heard of).  We see Jeffrey, an avid aquarist, visit a pet shop, ride the Milwaukee buses, see his ophthalmologist, chow down on French fries and soak up can upon can of beer.  We also see him carry out ostensibly mundane activities which anyone already familiar with the story will recognise as having a more sinister purpose, including visiting a hardware store for the large blue barrel in which he used to store and liquefy the bodies of victims, purchasing ridiculous amounts of household bleach and talking to a pair of representatives from Eye In The Sky about getting a home security system installed.   You'll certainly require some background knowledge on Dahmer's life in order to make sense of a number of these - notably, his theft of a shop window mannequin, which is depicted here without context.  Other featured episodes include Jeffrey racing to a store to buy the large suitcase into which he stuffed the body of Steven Tuomi, and returning by Greyhound bus from a visit to Chicago with a prospective victim at his side.

This is another aspect of the film which I've seen draw criticism, perhaps because the presumed purpose of these sequences - to show that Dahmer was able to give the impression of living an entirely mundane existence while the reality was anything but - isn't that much of a revelation.  All the same, I think that giving Dahmer a corporeal presence throughout the film in his regular, pre-infamy habitat serves a useful purpose in providing a sense of the sheer everyday banality into which his grisly activities were inevitably interwoven, and the resulting portrait, of a solitary individual living among a community to which he felt no connection, is undeniably haunting.  My only real criticism is that Thompson doesn't appear to have been particularly stringent in ensuring that these sequences look authentic to the time period from which they supposedly hail.  I'm not quite obsessive enough to have (yet) trawled through all of the brands and logos featured during Jeffrey's shopping expedition to see how period-accurate they are, but there is a bit in which Jeffrey is seen prowling the Chicago gay pride parade where he picked up Matt Turner and you can clearly see someone snap the passing float on their smartphone (in 1991, you say?).

As noted, Jentzen does not describe having any real kind of personal relationship with Dahmer, but the other two interviewees round off their monologues by reflecting on the complicated, lingering emotions they were left with once they and Dahmer had gone their separate ways.  Kennedy recalls that Dahmer, having been sentenced to 957 years in prison, shook his hand as he was being led away and how, as he returned to his one-bedroom apartment later that evening, finding himself completely alone and with no furniture, he was suddenly overwhelmed by the finality of it all.  Although Dahmer's prediction that Kennedy's involvement in the case would bring him public recognition turned out to be entirely accurate (Kennedy recalls how random strangers were coming up to him and calling him "that Dahmer dude", and how staggering it was) there's a strange kind of irony in that Kennedy appears to have exited the story in much the same way that Dahmer came in - as a secluded figure shut off from the rest of the world in his efficiency apartment.  Despite Bass's understandable anger toward Dahmer, and her feelings that she, too, was a victim of his depravity, she reveals at the end of the film that she always retained some degree of humanity toward him.  She was upset by the news of his death in November 1994 (which came while Pamela was serving time in prison herself), and angered by the people around her who were openly rejoicing at the news.  Whereas most of the world only ever knew of Jeffrey Dahmer the monster, she could remember him as a human being, and her indignant insistence that "that was a life" serves as a reminder that a cold indifference toward life, however selectively, is not a trait simply limited to the killers among us.

The film ends with Jentzen (who's disclosed far less about how the case affected him on a personal level than the two other interviewees) revealing that his line of work has left him with no appetite for horror movies and that the last one he saw was The Exorcist (oh, the irony!) many years ago.  The last image we see, before the postscript, is of Swant's Dahmer perched upon a stone wall with a can of beer in hand, at once a deceivingly ordinary-looking man and the most deeply harrowing of figures; a total loner, cut off and adrift from the rest of society, his bland exterior merely accentuating the acutely haunting mystery as to what was lurking beneath those still and troubled waters.

To close off, here are a couple of great articles about the late Patrick Kennedy.  First, his obituary in the Journal Sentinel:

Secondly, an interview he gave regarding The Jeffrey Dahmer Files:

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Confessions of a Family Dog Viewer: "Enemy Dog"

Original air date: 7th July 1993

Oh boy, is this ever an interesting slice of Family Dog.  Unlike "Doggone Girl Is Mine", which I find myself liking entirely sincerely for the sweet and amiable story it manages to tell, "Enemy Dog" is roughly twenty-two minutes of pure, utter, total fucked-uppery.  It's a HORRIBLE episode, and yet it's so horrible, and so emblematic of everything that's deeply, wretchedly, intrinsically wrong with this series that I find myself rather liking it, albeit in a greatly more ironic sense than "Doggone Girl Is Mine."  I have an extremely screwy love/hate relationship with this particular episode that in many respects helped to solidify my becoming a Family Dog "fan", so buckle up tight for one hell of a loving dissection.

Before we go into this episode, let's say something about the representation of gender roles in Family Dog.  In terms of family dynamics, the Binfords live in a world that barely seems to have progressed beyond the 1970s, with men being the sole breadwinners of the household and the women strictly regulated to homemaking responsibilities - a depiction which I suspect was already looking hopelessly outdated back when the series debuted in 1993.  At home, the oafish Skip is most in his element when he's lounging around watching TV, and he'll only accept household tasks (very grudgingly) when angrily ordered to do so by Bev.  For her part, Bev clearly feels unappreciated and dissatisfied with her lot in life, although there's nothing to suggest that she has any genuine aspirations beyond tending to her family's needs and owning a whole bunch of stuff.  The Simpsons, of course, was reliant upon much the same gender archetypes with Homer and Marge, although they were at least fleshed out a lot better as characters (not to mention, that Marge was a bright and talented woman who might have gone a lot further in life if she hadn't got saddled with Homer was kinda the point).  It's somewhat impossible for me not to touch upon this issue here, because "Enemy Dog" contains a nighttime sequence in which we visit the dreams of numerous characters, and the gender stereotyping is at its most flagrant and inescapable.  Hey boys, don't you know that the only things that should matter to you in life are size and TV?  And girls, if you can't cook up a decent meatloaf, then what the hell are you living for?

"Enemy Dog" sees the return of the Binfords' insufferably perfect neighbours, the Mahoneys, last seen winning Best of Breed with their dog Buster in "Show Dog".  Here, they've just gotten back from a local police auction, where they've acquired a brand new dog (it seems that Buster had to go after he messily disemboweled a postal worker - turns out that winning Best of Breed four years in a row isn't everything), a former K-9 which Martin Mahoney has saddled with the odious moniker K-10, on the grounds that he's a cut above your average dog.  The Binfords are observing the scene from their front window, and it does amuse how shocked and awed they apparently are at the mere sight of K-10, given that he's a total carbon copy of Buster design-wise (this could be an intentional joke within itself, but something tells me that it's not).  There's a really annoying bit of interaction between Billy and Buffy which reminds me of why I hate their characters so much - Buffy keeps on insisting, "It's not a doggy, it's a horsey!" while Billy retorts that, "It's not a horse, butt breath!"  Whatever their failings, I give the Mahoneys points for at least raising tolerable children.  The Mahoney twins' sole defining character trait is that they're super-swotty when it comes to their command of the French language, which I would happy take over the straight-up repulsiveness of the Binford children.  On that note, this is the episode in which we observe Billy's descent from hyperactive brat to fully-fledged sociopath, while Buffy continues to have all the charm of a worn-out toilet brush.

Buffy asks if the Mahoneys' new dog is going to eat their dog, to which Billy tauntingly responds that a far more likely scenario would be for it to steal all of their dog's bones.  This is enough to send our dog into a paranoid tizzy (again, there's the implication that the dog can understand exactly what the humans are saying, which I really don't like), in which he's compelled to start burying his treasured bones deep within the garden where the new dog hopefully can't reach them.  Billy then strolls over, sticks him on a leash and drags him all the way over to the Mahoney's front yard for seemingly no other reason than to taunt the dog with the likelihood that the new dog will bite him in half.  It's clear that K-10 isn't taking very kindly to our dog, who realises what deep shit Billy is pulling him into and desperately wants out.  The Mahoneys recognise that the Binfords' dog is not at ease but seem painfully oblivious to just how terrified he is, not to mention the aggression exhibited by their own hulking, salivating beast of a pet.  They even encourage K-10 to walk right up to our dog, as if they're consciously looking to provoke an all-out bloodbath, but then Skip shows up with Bev and Buffy in tow, and rescues our dog from a certain mauling by lifting him off the ground.  Buffy then asks, "Can our doggy kiss the new doggy?"  Ugh, Buffy, maybe you should just keep quiet.  Bev, surprisingly, seems to think that the suggestion is adorable, but Skip at least has the good sense to see that it's a bad idea.  At Martin's insistence, they attempt it anyway but, rather than allow himself to be lowered into the jaws of a salivating monster, our dog manages to squirm free of Skip's hold, and we get an odd, slow motion sequence in which he makes a bolt for it to the safety of his own backyard.  I guess that the purpose of the slow motion is to emphasise the intensity of the dog's fear, in making every moment of his escape seem painful and drawn-out.  My main criticism of this sequence is that there's a moment in which the dog nearly gets run down by a kid on a tricycle that's very weakly executed, in that we never get any sense of the tricycle being anywhere near the dog.

Martin then announces that he'd like to invite the Binfords to a special dinner he's hosting tomorrow night in honour of K-10.  The Binfords can't come up with a convincing excuse to get out of it in time so they're stuck with the obligation.  As the Binfords retreat back to their house, Skip and Bev bicker over which of them was ultimately responsible for coming up with an excuse on the spot, prompting Billy to ask if the two of them are about to fight.  They both bluntly tell him to shut up.  It's scenes like this which I presume are supposed to make the Binfords seem relatable, as they actually have petty family squabbles, unlike the impossibly perfect Mahoneys, but the tone of it is completely misjudged.

We then move onto the centrepiece of the episode - the aforementioned succession of dream sequences in which we get a little taster of how each adult human character operates on a subconscious level.  Skip and Bev are both dreading being shown up by the Mahoney of their respective gender, while the Mahoneys themselves are anticipating a perfect evening of getting their arses kissed.  As flagrantly sexist, shallow and materialistic as these sequences are, they do at least offer the opportunity for some interesting material from a visual and stylistic perspective.  There's a running gag where the humans all envision the upcoming dinner at the Mahoneys' as playing out through the lens of an imaginary TV series, in Skip's case a reality show called "Lifestyles of the Vapid and Ostentatious", in which Martin invites him to watch some TV before dinner (because that's what men do, right?) purely to intimidate him with the size of his set.  While Skip is reeling in horror at the overwhelming wall of static, Martin tells him that it only cost all the money in the world, holding up a giant phallic price tag which proceeds to engulf Skip.  While I do enjoy the authentically nightmarish quality of this sequence, in making the banal look totally monstrous, it ultimately plays into that obnoxious idea that male feelings of inadequacy invariably stem from not having the biggest of any given item.  Oh, but Bev's dream manages to be several times more odious on that front - she envisions herself as a guest on a glamorous evening show, in which Trish Mahoney is exalted as the paragon of married womanwood, because, in the exact words of her imaginary show's announcer, "She looks perfect" and "makes a perfect luau meatloaf."  Holy fuck, you guys.

Time now for a glimpse into the enemy's mindset, as we cross over into the Mahoney household to see what Trish and Martin are dreaming about.  In a contrast to Skip and Bev, Trish and Martin are snuggled close together and so perfectly in sync with one another that they're apparently having the same dream, in which they envision themselves as the stars of a black and white 1950s sitcom.  I think the gag here is supposed to be that the Mahoneys are such a painfully squeaky-clean bunch that they identify with the idyllic, ridiculously antiquated family values exalted by the TV of another era - the problem being, of course, that the "modern" ideals exalted by the Binfords' dream sequences are every bit as painfully antiquated.

I'd probably be a lot more dismissive of this sequence if not for the fact that I have a very genuine fear of sitcom laugh tracks (no lie, the sounds of disembodied laughter mocking the pain and humiliation of everybody onscreen is something that's always struck me as inherently nightmarish), and this adds a thick layer of unabashed creepiness to the proceedings.  That the laughter here is prompted by the most banal and purposely gag-free of statements almost makes me want to compare it to David Lynch's Rabbits (Lynch was one of the few directors to recognise the intrinsic gruesomeness of the sitcom laugh track as a concept and to utilise it to its full horror potential - we'll certainly be talking about Rabbits at a later date, because it taps into that fear of mine so perfectly).  Really, I could dissect this sequence and pull out a whole level of subtext about what that laugh track reveals about the state of the Mahoneys' collective subconscious.  Why, for example, does Skip and Bev praising Trish's meatloaf elicit laughs from the "audience"?  Or Billy telling the Mahoney twins that he loves them?  The most likely answer, at least from the writers' perspective, is that it represents just how bland and humorless the Mahoneys are, but a darker, more defiant reading might have it that as indicative of cracks in their facade of over confidence.  Surely the Mahoneys aren't naive enough not to realise that the Binfords hate and resent their well-scrubbed guts?  On some internal level, they're aware of just how ridiculous this entire scenario is (about as ridiculous as two dogs growing opposable thumbs and holding up their dinner plates for luau meatloaf), causing their subconscious to react by erupting into total mockery.

Finally, we head out to Binfords' backyard to join the dog, who's having by far the most palatable dream of the lot.  Personally I always like it whenever the show dips into the dog's fantasy world, as it allows for some more experimental storytelling, with offbeat, surreal and entirely non-verbal sequences conveying the dog's hopes, fears and aspirations in a manner that's by turns affecting and haunting.  It's in moments like this that we get some semblance of the show taking on its own identity and feeling like more than just an ersatz Simpsons.  Here, the dog is frantically burying every bone he has deep within the garden (in a neat visual gag, he appears to be taking his cues on where to bury them from a bone-shaped constellation he perceives in the stars).  He keeps on digging until finally he passes out from exhaustion, and dreams about being able to float up into the night sky and run with the dog-shaped constellations - or rather, to run after them, as they do not seem to notice him here.  Compared to the all-out horrors we've just witnessed within the heads of the Binfords and the Mahoney, this dream seems like such a charming and fanciful breath of fresh air, although it takes a somewhat more pitiful turn when our dog fails to leap over Saturn and comes crashing back down to Earth.  I guess this is how you indicate canine feelings of inadequacy.

Story-wise, "Enemy Dog" isn't as tightly-structured as "Doggone Girl Is Mine" - like "Hot Dog at the Zoo", it contains a couple of drawn-out sequences which add little to the overall episode and feel like they were thrown in purely to kill time.  Everything that happens between the dream sequences and the Binfords actually getting to the Mahoneys' house ends up being entirely disposable, serving only to add more fuel to the dog's already well-established feelings of fear and paranoia that his life, territory and stash of marrowbone are all on the line.  There's a sequence in which the dog faces off against a toy robot dog that Billy has left lying around the house, which feels totally superfluous, as does a subsequent scene in which Billy steals one of the dog's bones and then taunts the dog as to its whereabouts.  Finally, there's a downright deplorable scene in which Billy and Buffy are teasing the dog by holding a bone out of his reach and goading him to jump for it, and Bev (who's usually the most gracious of the family toward the dog) reacts by bitterly suggesting that the dog is learning a valuable lesson in not always being able to get what he wants.  Actually, Bev, it's a safe bet that with a family as shitty and thoroughly unpleasant as yours the dog is already well-accustomed to that particular lesson.  Again, one gets the impression that this is the show's idea of how "normal" families behave, but the tone, once again, is just so unspeakably wrong.

After that array of filler, we finally see the Binfords setting out to the Mahoneys', beckoning the dog has he hangs about cautiously on the Binfords' driveway.  I have to say, I don't get why there's this expectation that their dog should even accompany them to the Mahoneys' dinner in the first place.  I grew up in a cat-owning household so I can't speak from experience, but how many families out there would actually bring along their dog if they were invited to dinner at someone else's house?  Does neither family appreciate that bringing an outside dog onto another dog's territory might be asking for a confrontation?  Then again I find that this episode makes a lot more sense if you interpret Martin and Trish Mahoney as consciously conspiring to murder the Binfords' dog - more on that in a moment.  For now, the Binfords seem resigned to leave the dog standing on their driveway (with Skip, for once, crediting him as a "smart dog...he knows how to avoid heartburn"), only then he suddenly has a change of heart and decides to follow.  This part of the episode frankly confuses me, because the dog's motivation for deciding to walk up to the Mahoneys' out of his own free will is never accounted for.  He knows full well that K-10 is lurking inside the house, and the Binfords were all poised to let him off the hook anyway, so why on earth does he momentarily choose to cast those fears aside?  Oh, and for some reason he brings a bone along too.  This will become an important plot point later on, but it strikes me as every bit as inexplicable that, following his bout of paranoia that K-10 is conspiring to steal his bones, he willingly brings one into the Mahoneys' house, right where K-10 can see it.

(Oh, and a small side-note, but I can't help but notice that as the Binfords leave their driveway and cross the street to the Mahoneys' house, they actually leave Buffy, their youngest child, to cross the street all by herself.  Nice to see that they're about as attentive to their children's well-being as they are to their dog's.)

Predictably, it turns out that staying in the driveway would have been the more sensible option, as no sooner do the two families sit down to their luau meatloaf dinner when K-10 begins prowling around the other side of the table and making inhospitable gestures at our dog.  The Binfords and the Mahoneys seem totally oblivious to this fact, and when K-10 disrupts the dinner by lunging aggressively at our dog, Trish and Martin's response is to shut both dogs up in the laundry room together.  Again, this only makes sense if you read the Mahoneys as intentionally conspiring to have the Binfords' dog killed, which frankly would be no less stupid than anything else in this episode.  Naturally, the two dogs don't just sit there and survey each other peacefully, with K-10 attempting to sink his razor-sharp jaws into our dog's hide the instant the door is closed on them.  Listening to the ensuing raucous from the dining room, Trish Mahoney happily declares that "K-10 has found a new best friend!" while Billy delights in the thought that, "They're killing each other!"  God, what is it about this particular neighbourhood that makes it such a hot-spot for sociopaths?

At Skip's insistence, they go to check on the dogs.  Finding K-10 ostensibly alone, Billy cheerfully declares that their dog has been devoured, only to discover him hiding in one of Martin's shirts.  The dog has managed to keep a tight hold upon his bone the whole time, but lets his guard down and drops it while trying to bark defensively at K-10, who promptly seizes it, much to our dog's horror.  With that, the Binfords decide to leave, with K-10 visibly gloating about his conquest of our dog's bone.  We then cut to nighttime at the Binfords' house, where Skip has apparently forced himself to regurgitate Trish's luau meatloaf, and then, more than a little incongruously, tries to hit on Bev (actually, I find that downright odd, as "Doggone Girl Is Mine" had previously hinted that the two of them typically don't have much of a sex life).  Meanwhile, our dog is restless because he's really feeling the absence of that bone which was unceremoniously taken from him.

For all of its shortcomings, "Enemy Dog" does have one hell of a satisfying ending sequence.  Not wishing to let K-10 get the better of him but knowing full well that he would tear him to pieces were they to have it out directly, our dog decides to sneak back to the Mahoneys' house in the middle of the night and to take back the bone while K-10 is sleeping.  Conveniently, the Mahoneys have neglected to fasten one of their windows, so our dog is able to scramble inside, pull the bone away from the sleeping giant and leg it back successfully to his own backyard.  Unfortunately, it seems that K-10 has cottoned on quickly and stalked him all the way back.  He proceeds to chase our dog into the Binfords' house, up the stairs and down the hallway, and finally into Skip and Bev's bedroom, where our dog is able to leap nimbly over the sleeping couple, but K-10 misjudges his own movements and collapses in an ungainly heap upon Skip and Bev.  As they awake with a start, and K-10 is left having to take the heat for the disturbance, our dog races back into the backyard, where he realises that he's in the clear and settles down happily to sleep.  The episode ends on a wholly triumphant note, with the dog revisiting his earlier dream about running with Canis Major, Canis Minor and Lupus, who now acknowledge him as one of their own.

In the end, the only genuinely positive things I have to say about "Enemy Dog" are that the dog's dream sequences are pretty charming and that it bows out triumphantly enough, with our dog one-upping K-10 in a highly satisfactory manner that also causes Skip and Bev some much-deserved aggro.  Again, there are some lingering dour undertones, in that the dog ultimately remains stuck with this appalling family who seem at best oblivious to his sufferings and at worst actually seem to enjoy making his life miserable (meanwhile, there's another family across the street who apparently want to bump him off for some unknown reason), but for now I think we're best off taking the dog's cue and simply enjoying the moment while it lasts.

Otherwise, "Enemy Dog" is one nasty, nasty piece of astonishingly misjudged would-be comedy.  It exemplifies pretty much everything that I identified as being wrong with the series in my introductory post - notably, its representation of an all-out suburban hell from the perspective of a character who'll always be squarely at the bottom of the pile.  I hate it, I hate it, I hate it - and yet I find that, for all its failings, I inexplicably love this episode a whole lot too.  The whole thing plays out like such a dreadful, grotesque little nightmare that I'm half-inclined to call it a masterpiece of sheer monstrosity - a nauseating trip into the horrors of the modern suburban family (or what this series wants us to think is a modern suburban family, at any rate) and through the ugly, wretched bowels of banality, where all manner of bitterness and casual cruelty are rife.  A world where genuine redemption is utterly impossible, but where, if one lives by one's wits and relies upon nobody but oneself, then a small, momentary victory from time to time is the best that one can reasonably hope for.  It might not be quite up there with Rabbits in the peculiarity stakes, but it does make for amazingly unsettling viewing.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Confessions of a Family Dog Viewer: "Doggone Girl Is Mine"

Original air date: 30 June 1993 

If you really want to establish that your animated situation comedy is intended primarily for adult consumption and not for children - despite, you know, being a cartoon and therefore automatically at risk of being pigeonholed as innocuous entertainment for the under 10s - then the obvious route is to include a scene in which you make it blatantly obvious (at least to anyone over the age of 10) that two of your characters are having sex.  Hence, we have a whole episode dedicated to the family dog losing his virginity, with something else going on in the background involving Skip and Bev trying to jump start their own sex life.  It's nothing too edgy, but it is as risque as Family Dog gets.

"Doggone Girl Is Mine" (named for the Michael Jackson/Paul McCartney collaboration on the former's 1982 album Thriller) is one of the better episodes of Family Dog, which makes for a welcome change of pace given how much difficulty I've had obscuring my boredom and frustration in reviewing the two episodes which came before it.  It never succeeds in being laugh-out-loud funny (as this show rarely ever does), but the story, which involves our dog falling for the dog of a recently-divorced neighbour, is surprisingly sweet in tone and moves at a much gentler pace than either of its predecessors.  It also works better as a cohesive whole, with less of the disjointed filler which made "Show Dog" and "Hot Dog at the Zoo" such a slog - whereas those episodes clearly struggled to fill out their respective scenarios to a full twenty-two minutes, "Doggone Girl Is Mine" flows quite smoothly from begging to end.  It also helps that the Binfords themselves are fairly sidelined this time around, meaning that there are fewer opportunities for them to behave idiotically and that the casual pet abuse is kept to a minimum.  There's a parallel story with Skip and Bev that does occasionally intersect with the main story, but on the whole they're not too heavily involved with the dog's antics here.  That Billy and Buffy are hardly in it is also a plus point - in fact, they stop appearing completely past the eleven minute mark, which is an absolute blessing.

The episode opens with the dog working his predatory skills upon a rubber ball while pop psychologist Dr. Friendly plays on the television (which none of the humans are watching, incidentally, since they're later revealed to all be in the kitchen).  He's here "to heal and to coddle" as he states, and while taking a call from Vina, who's recently divorced and relieved to be free of her ex, he drowns her out in some self-indulgent spiel about the remedial power of love.  Family Dog's attempts at media satire were certainly never as sharp as those of The Simpsons, but the trite hollowness of Dr. Friendly's words is underscored effectively enough by making it mere background noise to the utterly indifferent dog as he indulges in his own preoccupations, first with the rubber ball and then with the female, in-heat chihuahua passing by the house.

I do enjoy the realism in how the doggy romance between the titular character and Katie gets started, with the attraction at first being purely chemical - Katie gives off a long trail of pink pheromonal whiff which snakes its way into the Binfords' home and up our dog's nostrils, at which point he goes absolutely berserk and needs to escape the house.  After failing to get past the garden fence, the dog races to the kitchen to beg the humans to take him out for walk.  Billy and Buffy are being their usual unbearable selves, with Buffy believing that the raisins in her oatmeal are prizes and Billy reveling in any semblance of disorder.  Correctly deducing that the dog needs to answer a call of nature but wrongly deducing the nature of that call, Bev instructs Skip to take him outside, a task which he accepts very grudgingly.  We get further evidence that Skip would be one heck of an unpleasant guy to have to share your neighbourhood with - he instructs the dog to "hold it in until we get to someone else's yard".

The dog's first instinct is to bolt straight in the direction of the female chihuahua - much to the chagrin of Skip, who has little patience for the chihuahua's owner, Al, a recently-divorced bore who'll shortly be moving to start a doughnut shop in South Dakota.  Al is certainly one of the show's least appealing creations visually, with his gangling design and wide mouth translating particularly awkwardly into the crude animation.  Like most of the humans in this show, he's also fairly one-dimensional, his sole defining character trait being that he's clearly reeling from his divorce (he name-checks his ex as "Vina", so it's a pretty safe bet that she's supposed to be the same Vina who called into Dr. Friendly earlier) and hides what an all-out emotional wreck he is behind a thin facade of incessant cheerfulness.  His comments about taking Vina for granted are enough to sow the seeds of fear in Skip, who realises that he's been treating Bev in a similar manner, right down to complaining to her about having to walk the dog.  Meanwhile, both humans are totally oblivious to the tender display canine courtship unfolding at their ankles.  Our dog and Katie have hit it off straight away, and are none too happy when their owners proceed to abruptly drag them away in opposite directions.  Once they get back to the house, our dog is compelled to sit and wait at the window for hours on end in the hope that Katie will pass by once again, while Skip attempts to appease Bev by suddenly being as nice and considerate to her as possible, which automatically makes Bev suspicious that Skip must being trying to cover up for some misdeed. 

Essentially, the subplot with Skip fearing that Bev might divorce him after watching a neighbour's marriage fall apart is very similar to a story The Simpsons would eventually tackle in the Season 8 episode "A Milhouse Divided", where Homer fears that Marge's thoughts might be turning toward divorce after watching the Van Houten's marriage fall apart.  In both cases the fear is probably irrational, although Bev does apparently harbour a grudge against Skip for what she perceives as past flirtations with Vina, and gives him a cold shoulder that evening as the two of them retire to the bedroom.  The dog's tactic of assuming a sedentary position and waiting for his love to return likewise does not pay off, with only the unwelcome sights of a skunk and a savage-looking bull terrier passing by before the day is through.

The next morning proves a lot more prosperous, with Al and Katie passing by again and the dog managing to escape through a gap in the garden fence.  He comes nose to nose with Katie shortly before being retrieved and dragged back into the house by Skip.  This sequence is kind of short, its purpose presumably being to establish the gap in the fence so that the dog can move freely in and out of the house later on.  The second breakfast scene is also the last we see of Billy and Buffy for this episode, so I'm happy about that.

Cut to the following night, where Bev is in a better mood and Skip is even more determined to prove to her what a magnificent catch he is.  We briefly catch the beginnings of an implied sex scene between the two humans (Bev has weakness for farming allusions, it seems), as the dog wanders outside, to be greeted by a very Disney-esque sequence in which various animal couples are seen cosying up together - the joke being, I guess, that these animals are fundamentally quite gross in that the males are wooing the females with dead mice, discarded fishbones and...whatever it is that the male ladybug gives the female.  This initially has the dog feeling all the more miserable and alone, but it also inspires him to retrieve a bone which he has buried in the backyard and carry it to Katie's house, which he's able to locate by tracking Katie's scent through the street.

He finds Katie resting amid a heap of moving boxes, and it's here that we get our implied doggy sex scene.  It plays out as airy fantasy sequence, but we know what the dogs are really up to because of all the tell-tale visual metaphors we're suddenly bombarded with.  The look on our dog's face as Katie begins licking away at the bone is suggestive enough in itself, but then the sequence completely explodes into a surreal array of phallic/orgasmic imagery, complete with the arrow on one of the moving boxes assuming the role of a rocket ship blasting off into the atmosphere, and the two dogs whizzing through space upon a giant bone which erupts into fireworks, before hurtling giddily back down to earth.  Canine reproductive biology never looked so astronomical.

As our dog and Katie part ways in the early hours of the morning, it's clear that they plan upon spending a lot more time with one another in the days to come.  Unfortunately, this doesn't fit in with Al's plan of throwing Katie in the backseat of his car and heading to the airport to fly off to South Dakota that very morning, which is exactly what happens.  Meanwhile, our dog heads into the kitchen with a self-satisfied spring in his step; mannerisms mirrored by Skip, who's come downstairs for a post-intercourse snack.  Both are so exhausted from their respective nights of action that they pass out almost immediately (noteworthy is that as Skip slams down upon the table the animation momentarily looks a lot better than usual), but the dog's peace is abruptly shattered by the sounds of Katie wailing.  He rushes outside to find her gone, her house cleared of all its contents, the sole remaining item being the bone they shared the night before (which Katie had dropped as Al was putting her in the car).  Determined not to lose Katie forever, our dog picks up the bone and once again calls upon his superior tracking skills to find her.  Naturally, it's a bit of a stretch to think that he'd be able to trail her all the way to the airport, but by an extraordinary stroke of luck he winds up inside the handbag of a woman boarding an airport shuttle bus, so everything works out.

At the airport, we get a quaint gag about airport security which unmistakably hails from a pre-9/11 world.  Al complains about the procedures being too stringent, then finds himself surrounded by zealous security officers when he sets off a metal detector with a framed picture of himself and Vina which he has concealed within his shirt.  The intended gag seems to be that the officers come on ridiculously strongly with Al (to the extent that one of them even calls him "Saddam"), and yet from a modern perspective they seem almost too lax in how readily they ease off once he produces the picture (if this episode were made today then I'm sure that Al would at least be subjected to some humiliating frisking before they let him go).  Then again, competence does not exactly seem to be these officers' strong point - they allow the dog to get past them and all the way onto the plane (once again, the writers go to the scatology well in enabling the dog to escape the officers, in using his weak bladder as a defensive weapon, but it's pulled off super-tamely), where he shares a tender reunion with Katie and it's only thanks to an air hostess that he's thwarted.  She thinks that the dogs make an adorable couple but proceeds to throw our dog off on the grounds that the flight's already overbooked.

He manages to escape the arms of the security guards one last time (apparently he still had a little more liquid to spare in that bladder of his), and races down the runway to see the plane taking off and Katie jetting out of his life, seemingly forever.

Dejected, our dog trudges all the way back home, the only remnant of his brief relationship with Katie being their bone, which he still clings to in his mouth.  Given that it's already nightfall by the time he makes it back the house, I am left with some lingering questions about how the Binfords reacted to their dog being absent all day, and if they even noticed that he was gone at all?  Bev is heard calling to her "Old MacDonald" through the bedroom window, but it's clear that Skip is much too exhausted from the previous night to be up for anything tonight - that, or his fear that Bev might up and divorce him has evaporated as quickly as it came.  "Doggone Girl Is Mine" ends with the last word going to Bev, who muses that, "It was fun while it lasted."  Our dog suddenly seems a little more uplifted at this point, as if the very same thought has occurred to him.

Obviously, fate has not been kind to our dog or Katie (at least in the short-term - mild spoilers ahead, but this isn't the last that we'll be seeing of Katie or Al in the series), but I appreciate that this episode manages to wrap things up on a gentle, bittersweet note, with our dog seeking solace in his memories of Katie and finding a renewed ability to face another day.  Certainly, it's head and shoulders above the muddled, if not outright mean-spirited vibes of its two predecessors, the lesson appearing to be that life isn't perfect and nothing lasts forever, but we need to appreciate the good things for the fact that they happen at all.  This conclusion perhaps comes off as slightly less sweet when applied to Bev, who seems resigned to the likelihood that the sudden, self-serving wealth of attention lavished upon her by her oafish and unappreciative husband was but a five minute wonder.  Or maybe we're meant to read Bev as being so secure in her relationship with Skip, despite her earlier grumblings, that from her perspective that one night of tender passion was never anything more than a delightful bonus anyway.  Regardless, the human relations in this episode certainly come across as being considerably more messy and superficial when compared to the sweet sincerity of our dog's bond with Katie, which is possibly the whole point.  "Doggone Girl is Mine" might not be perfect, but structurally and tonally it's a marked improvement over the two episodes prior, and it is the first episode of Family Dog where I think the overall likeability factor is more than enough to override whatever faults it has.  So kudos to that.

Be warned, though, that this sudden turn of amiability is not destined to last.  The NEXT episode...well, we'll certainly have a fun time pouring over that.  Let's just say it's where the series' depiction of the horrors, bitterness and ugliness of suburban living really kicked into full gear.  A pretty sight it isn't.

Monday, 4 July 2016

The Animals of Farthing Wood Do America: Part 5

Happy 4th of July to all of my readers in the US!  I can think of no better way to mark the occasion than by posting the concluding chapter to my five-part analysis of Journey Home, the American direct-to-video feature edit of Europe's much-loved series The Animals of Farthing Wood.

We're now into the final twenty minutes of Journey Home, and the film still has five episodes' worth of story to cram in, so...expect an awful lot to have been excised.  As it turns out, very little of Episode 9 makes it into Journey Home, beyond the very necessary task of introducing Whistler to the main cast (although so little of what he does in those remaining few episodes has been preserved in Journey Home that viewers possibly questioned why he was added at all), the events of Episode 11 (in which the animals travel through pesticide-heavy farmland) get skipped over entirely, and hardly any of Episode 13 survives beyond the concluding scene.  As for Episodes 10 and 12, they've been rearranged in order, so that the hi-jinks at the church precede the tragedy on the motorway.

As we rejoin the animals we find them making their way toward the quarry, where they will shortly encounter Whistler the heron.

1.00.58 - Toad remarks that, "My instinct's pulling me to White Deer Park now, instead of home to Farthing Wood.  I'm over the hump, I am. [Laughs] I'll not have any trouble getting us to White Deer Park now."

This is another statement which isn't given any context in Journey Home, where Toad's issues with temporarily forgetting the way to White Deer Park (which took place during the portion of the journey in which Badger had stepped up as the animals' leader) were entirely omitted.  In Journey Home, Toad triumphantly indicates that he's overcome a crisis of self-doubt which, as far as the viewer is concerned, he'd never experienced in the first place.

1.01.05 - In the original series, the larger animals had some difficulty getting through the fence surrounding the quarry and had to tunnel under, but Journey Home bypasses this and immediately fades into scenes of the animals unwinding at the quarry.

1.01.18 - We meet Whistler, who introduces himself to the Farthing animals, and explains the origin of his peculiar moniker - namely, the gunshot-inflicted hole in his wing that "whistles" whenever he flies.  We then cut straight to Badger introducing "Live and let live" as the motto of the Farthing animals, which Whistler admits "makes a change", before adding that he finds them rather intriguing.  Journey Home has just skipped over a number of key scenes from this episode, so naturally the proper context of this particular exchange is no longer there.  In the original series, it was in reference to Toad's unexpected display of compassion toward a carp which mere moments ago had been attempting to devour him.  To me, this was one of the defining moments of the series, as it demonstrated just how deeply the animals had been affected by the Oath, so I'm sorry to see it skipped altogether, but obviously they were really determined to keep this cut down to around 80 minutes.

As Whistler begins to muse over joining the Farthing animals, Adder insists that "it'sss nice here", in reference his present home at the quarry.  In Journey Home this comes across as an entirely sincere statement, but in the original series was part of a running gag based upon the implication that Adder is somewhat afraid of Whistler (who, in fairness, has a tendency to crash-land on her) and isn't overly keen on having him along.

Whistler indicates that he's interested in going to White Deer Park in the hope that he might meet a female heron there.  Toad confirms that there are herons at White Deer Park but admits that he can't tell the difference between a male and a female, prompting laughter from the Farthing animals, at which point in Journey Home the scene fades out.  In the original series, the actual punchline to that scene comes from an exasperated Adder, who remarks, "And he's guiding ussss?  Ridiculoussss."  Also missing from Journey Home is a scene with Whistler and Vixen being formally initiated into the Farthing band by taking the Oath, and Fox and Vixen stressing to Toad how important it is that he not put himself at further risk (in reference to the carp attack).

1.02.46 - We fade back in and find the animals on the move once again.  Adder announces that she is exhausted and wants to stop, but Fox insists that they are safer moving.  Journey Home removes Adder's churlish response - that the sounds of Whistler flying will inevitably attract unwanted attention.

Baby Rabbit's death has been excised from Journey Home (as we established with the Field-Mice, this edit blatantly isn't keen on having the infants die) and after leaving the quarry, the animals head directly to the town, where they end up spending the night in a church and get locked in.  One of the odder editing decisions made by Journey Home was to rearrange the order of events toward the end of the animals' journey, so that the motorway crossing occurs AFTER the incident in which the animals inadvertently crash a wedding.   My guess would be that this was so as to have more of a dramatic final obstacle immediately before the animals reach White Deer Park.  Also, as noted, Episode 11 has been skipped over entirely.  In fairness, Episode 11 was easily the most "fillerish" of the first series - nothing much happens that directly impacts on events in subsequent episodes, other than the animals expressly deciding to go through the town in order to avoid the poisoned fields.  It's quite easy to accept the town as just another obstacle that stands in their way, however, so its absence doesn't hurt the overall story too much.

1.03.04 - Cut to the opening scene of Episode 12, with the animals arriving outside the town at nightfall.  Their trek through the town is disrupted by heavy rainfall, prompting the animals to seek shelter at a nearby church.  Journey Home removes a number of scenes of the animals struggling to traverse the streets in the rain, along with Fox's reason for thinking that the church would be a good bet (he assumed there would be a porch, but it transpires that this church is in rather a derelict state and has had its porch taken out).  We instead cut directly to Mole finding a hole in the wall, which enables the animals access.

1.06.09 - After the animals awake to find themselves trapped inside the church, Journey Home cuts directly to the humans entering, whereas the original series includes additional scenes with Owl and Kestrel looking for another exit and Toad keeping the other animals occupied by telling them more about White Deer Park.

1.07.51 - As some of the animals begin to panic and blow their cover, Owl remarks that humans have a proverb: "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."  Fox takes her point and orders all of the animals to make a bolt for it.  And with that we move into Journey Home's third song, "Animal Power", a very jaunty, hoedown-y number which really hams up the sequence's comedic elements for all they're worth.  Some of the lyrics:

We can do it, yes we can, we will never cower!
We can do most anything, we've got animal power!

All for one and one for all, now's our finest hour!
We're the team that can't be beat, we've got animal power!

Animals squeeze, animals slide, humans better step aside!
In the air, on patrol, ready get set, here we go!

True, one never senses that the animals are in that much danger with this particular bunch of humans, who presumably want to get them out of the church as much as the animals themselves want to leave.  This sequence also contains some of the silliest sight gags in all the series (namely, Weasel catching the bride's bouquet, which with hindsight neatly foreshadows her impending union with Measly).  All the same, sticking that frothy, ultra-lighthearted song on top does make the entire incident seem like one big exhilarating lark for the animals, when the fall-out in the original series was quite disastrous, at least in the short-term.

Side-note, but I never really got why Owl steals the bride's veil, other than to be a total arse.

1.10.32 - Adder's line, "I don't know what all the fusssss is about", becomes the final punchline of the sequence in Journey Home, which fades things out with her slithering off down the churchyard path.  In the original series, Adder actually lingers around the churchyard for long enough to observe the humans resuming the wedding, making the Shakespearean quip that "Allssss well that endsss well, I sssuppossse."

Despite the confusion, the animals appear to have had no difficulty staying together in Journey Home.  In the original series, the animals wound up getting separated into various splinter groups upon fleeing the church, and Episode 13 dealt with the task of getting everyone back together before they completed the last leg of their journey to White Deer Park.  Overall, it was quite a subdued, reflective episode, short on any really major drama, and as noted, I suspect that Journey Home favoured using the motorway crossing from Episode 10 as the final obstacle in order to provide a dramatic climax that would better suit the needs of a feature film.

1.10.41 - Fade in with Kestrel announcing that a big road lies ahead, whereupon the animals come face to face with the motorway.  In the original series this sparked an outpouring of anger among the party, as Toad had not warned them that such a gargantuan obstacle lay ahead (the road was still under construction when he had crossed it previously), and many of them wanted now to abandon the journey and turn back the way they'd come.  Upon hearing the ominous sound of the hunters' horn in the distance, Fox insisted that the only way was forward.  Some of the other animals accused him of being selfish, but Badger fiercely defended Fox, pointing out how fantastically loyal he had always been to the other Farthing animals.  Realising that the hunt was on their scent, the animals then all fled together in the direction of the motorway.  All of this is skipped in Journey Home.

1.11.15 - Vixen notes that the cars on one side of the motorway have come to a total standstill, and so the animals begin to cross while they have the chance.  Journey Home trims down this sequence so that the emphasis is very much on The Hedgehogs, along with Mr. Field-Mouse getting his tail caught under one of the wheels.  Omitted are bits with the Squirrels jumping across the car bonnets and Weasel tricking Mole into thinking that she's been crushed by one of the moving vehicles.

1.11.57 - Sharp-eyed Journey Home viewers might have noticed that Mr Rabbit has a visibly red paw all of a sudden, and perhaps wondered why.  This is originated in an earlier scene from Episode 10, not featured in Journey Home, in which Mr. Rabbit sprained his paw while fleeing from the hunt.
1.13.49 - Once the Hedgehogs have made it across the first side of the motorway, we cut directly to them crossing the other side, and then that whole terrible tragedy plays out.  Journey Home does not focus upon any of the other animals' efforts to make it across.  Here, Whistler is not called upon to carry the smaller creatures (as stated, his character is rendered a bit pointless in Journey Home's version of events), and all of the other animals apparently make it across without difficulty or incident.

The Hedgehogs' onscreen death under the wheels of a lorry occurs exactly as it did in the original series, as is every bit as shocking and nasty in Journey Home as it was there.  Bravo.  Journey Home retains the scene with the surviving animals mourning the Hedgehogs, along with Toad remarking that, "Instinct can be very strong.  I should know."  This is another reference to Toad's homing instinct causing him to forget the route to White Deer Park, which in Journey Home is orphaned of its context.

Also, something quite peculiar happens here:

Mr. Hare: What happened?

Mrs. Hare: Why didn't they run?

In Journey Home we get an audio error, in that both hares are heard speaking with the exact same voice (Rupert Farley, who ordinarily would only voice Mr. Hare).  No such error occurs in the original series, making me wonder if this was spotted and fixed before the UK broadcast, but the Journey Home team were sent an older copy of the episode.  Hmm.

1.14.43 - Cut to Fox stating that the Hedgehogs didn't stand a chance, and feeling that he let them down as a leader.  Vixen points out that the Hedgehogs would certainly not have survived if they had remained in Farthing Wood and that it was far better that they tried.  Badger's remark, "I'll second that," is a deliberate echo of Mr. Hedgehog's long-running catchphrase, although Journey Home had edited out every single instance in which the recently deceased critter had actually used it, so it doesn't have quite the same impact here.

1.15.09 - Badger points out how remarkable it was that the other animals all made it across the motorway safely, which he states was all thanks to Fox's leadership, and the other animals agree that they are all behind him.  At this, we get a reprise of the song "Follow Your Heart", with most of the clips from the accompanying montage being from scenes previously featured in Journey Home.

In the original series, Badger's assurance that the other animals were all behind Fox served as a reaffirmation of their trust in him following the near-mutiny that occurred earlier on the episode.  That scene didn't make it into Journey Home, of course, but I think that it still serves an important purpose here, acting both as a culmination of Fox's character arc in having to prove himself a worthy leader, and also as a small reflective moment before we move on to the final scene.  In a sense it has to substitute for the penultimate scene of Episode 13, in which the animals reflect upon how much the Oath has changed them and we get a particularly - and surprisingly - eloquent speech on the matter from Mrs. Vole.  Badger's words here don't have quite the same effect (for one, Journey Home never addresses the matter of whether or not the animals will continue to live by the Oath once they reach their destination), but it is nevertheless a poignant observation upon how far the animals were able to come by sticking together.

1.15.51 - The scene with Toad triumphantly crying, "Not far now!" was taken from the end of Episode 12 when, unbeknownst to him, a huge number of the party were no longer following.  As Fox and Vixen race along beside him, Kestrel can be heard saying, "Slow down!", which, originally, was alerting Fox to the fact that so many of the animals had become separated.

1.16.03 - We're at the final scene!  Toad jumps through the fence and into White Deer Park, to be greeted by the silhouette of the Great White Stag emerging from the distance. Overall, this scene isn't radically different to how it plays out in the original series, but when the animals all wander over to the edge of the hilltop to gaze upon the splendor of White Deer Park, the subsequent shot of them all standing upon a hill together comes not from this sequence, but from Episode 10, when the animals were looking upon the motorway, of all things (notice that the Hedgehogs are suddenly back from the dead).

There's also this final piece of voice-over narration from Fox: "So at last our journey was over, and our new adventure was about to begin.  At last, we were home."

By "new adventure", Fox is, presumably, referring to the events of Series 2, in which the animals had Scarface, winter and the poachers to contend with, although none of this received the Journey Home treatment.  For US viewers in the late 1990s, the Farthing Wood adventure would indeed have ended here, although you could always have checked out the books if you were really eager to know what happened next.