17 March 2022
Man Bites Dog
by J.R. Thomas
It is not just in American politics that politeness and self-restraint has been thrown to the wolves. The luvvied-up world of Hollywood finds various participants at each other’s throats, the latest being a spat over the fashionable and very politically correct film of “The Power of The Dog”. This is the latest film work of Jane Campion, the distinguished New Zealand born director of such great works as The Piano, Bright Star, and the TV series, Top of the Lake. (The New Zealand bit is relevant, bear with us.)
Ms Campion is of an artistic bent; her films tend to be moody, convey complex messages, have deep themes, and use specially composed music. They may not always be big audience draws, but they are very much in favour with critics writing for the more refined type of publication. Somewhat surprisingly they have never done terribly well in awards ceremonies though usually lavishly nominated, and Ms Campion has never won an Academy Award for Best Director, for which she has seemed a strong contender on many occasions.
The Power of the Dog is a Western, a genre frequently pronounced dead, but which always manages to roll over in the dust, stagger back to its feet, and ride off for yet another tale of the heart of American mythology. It is from the 1967 book by Thomas Savage, one of the new generation of western novels focussing on the spartan lives and complex psyches of those living in the West. Like many, it is set in the C20th rather than the C19th, with the old West adapting to new technologies and lifestyles – or not. Cynics have suggested that Campion chose this genre and this book to make a pointed and deliberate attempt to win some leading awards; her being a woman director in a traditional man’s world setting additional challenges, but making any victory doubly sweet. Will it work? Probably. At the BAFTA’s on Sunday night Ms Campion came out, as it were top dog, with Best Director and Best Film, though nothing else. None of that though guarantees success in Hollywood a week on Sunday – and that’s the ceremony that really matters.
But does the film deserve to win? Practically every professional critic loves it. Your unprofessional critic, who (a) admires Ms Campion’s work, and (b) is a devotee of Westerns, must here cough nervously and spit, or more appropriately maybe, hitch up his gun holster and spin his spurs. The photography is pretty good, the music is pretty good, the acting is pretty good. But when it comes to it, this is a pretty boring film. It is a movie from which much of the audience emerge thinking “what on earth was that all about?” (many have said such). Want to see a really powerful film dealing with the modern West, with great acting, tremendous music, astonishing photography, and a moving tale that will leave you brooding for years? Then Paris,Texas is your film. Or Once Upon a Time in the West. Or The Searchers (not modern West admittedly), or True Grit if you like a little humour with your reflections on the legend of the West.
Paris, Texas is a far far better film than Dog; it has the same moral uncertainty, the same slow walk to tragedy, the same homage to one of the pillars of the American Dream. But it is a much better movie. As with Dog, not an awful lot happens, but the heartbreak and tension as nothing much happens is utterly gripping, and the pain at the end inconsolable. The Power of the Dog could have been and should have been shorter and tighter; then it might just have worked. As it is, it is a highly competent arthouse film, but a dull one. The Piano, for you Campion fans, it is not.
But Ms Campion may yet triumph as the golden statuettes are handed out in ten days time. Because politics, of a sort, have reared their head, in the unlikely person of the veteran Hollywood actor Sam Elliott. Mr Elliott, a traditionalist (seems to best describe him) says the film is “a piece of shxx”, and in particular (plot spoiler approaching) does not like the homosexual components. He did not like them in Brokeback Mountain and he likes them even less here. Mr Elliott thinks the film is too long and too dull and generally offensive to the Western as a genre. In particular, he objects to a New Zealand director making the film and making it in New Zealand when it could and should have been made in Montana (we suspect tax and government support may have something to do with that Sam; anyway, wasn’t Once Upon a Time in the West made in Spain?) You get the idea. Benedict Cumberbatch, who is the big name of the movie and surprisingly convincing as a cowboy, made polite remonstrance as to the need for change and diversity and moving on. As he used many long words and strange sentence constructions, probably for Guardian readers’ benefit, we doubt Mr Elliott understood much of that. Ms Campion initially said nothing, perhaps calming herself, but did not succeed; interviewed on a red carpet somewhere she said “he [Sam] was being a little bit of a B-I-T-C-H. He’s not a cowboy; he’s an actor”. That sounds as though Jane and Sam will not be working on any sequel. But what Mr Elliott may have done of course, and for which director Campion may be eternally grateful, is to make certain that The Dog sweeps the board at the forthcoming award ceremony.
Hollywood does not like Donald Trump, remember, and it does not like old actors who sound like Trump supporters (we have no idea whether Sam is or not); and Ms Campion is likely to gain the golden benefit. Maybe there is a movie in that tale too.