Dogs, Dialectics, and Academy Awards

by Thomas Britt

24 February 2017

Controversies involving A Dog's Purpose, The Birth of a Nation, and Last Tango in Paris reveal that access to more offscreen information can lead to greater accountability.
A Dog's Purpose (2017) 
cover art

A Dog's Purpose

Director: Lasse Hallström
Cast: Dennis Quaid

2016

cover art

The Birth of a Nation

Director: Nate Parker
Cast: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller

2016

cover art

Last Tango in Paris

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Cast: Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider, Maria Michi

1972

For moviegoers in America, February traditionally offers the interesting prospect of the “best” of films and the “worst” of films competing for their box office attention at the same time. Those movies nominated for Academy Awards are expanding into more theaters, enjoying an uptick in business, or receiving an awards-season re-release. Whereas many new movies that bow are perceived as diminished properties having lost the faith of their studios/distributors, promoting genres not celebrated by taste-making critics, and/or being otherwise not likely to succeed elsewhere in the release calendar.

The box office picture of early 2017 is no exception. As of this writing, the top five movies in the American box office daily chart comprise two thriller/horror films (the well-reviewed Split and the universally panned Rings), two Best Picture Oscar nominees (Hidden Figures and La La Land) and another new release with middling reviews and no aspirations of movie awards (A Dog’s Purpose). This is business as usual.

Lately, however, new dialectics have joined the interplay of so-called good and bad movies, a kind of conversation that’s both more timely and consequential than the critical opinions that influence the money and accolades earned by studio products. I write about the interaction between onscreen and offscreen events, which had a less immediate effect on movies’ reputations in the years before Internet coverage and criticism, before social media, before seemingly tangential information could become contemporary overriding narratives. These days, offscreen scandals surrounding (sometimes otherwise non-controversial) movies can spread so quickly and to such an extent that public reaction to, and critical reception of, the works become inextricably linked to things outside the frame.

A Dog’s Purpose is emblematic of this relatively new reality. Directed by Lasse Hallström (My Life as a Dog) and based on W. Bruce Cameron’s book, the movie about dog reincarnation received a PG rating from the MPAA, indicating that the content was considered innocuous by industry standards. But the cycle of controversy caused by a behind-the-scenes video shot during the film’s production and released many months later, directly before the film’s release, dominated coverage of the theatrical rollout.

On 18 January TMZ released a video with the headline “‘A Dog’s Purpose’ Video Shows Terrified German Shepherd Forced to Film”, explaining that “TMZ obtained this video of a scene shot in a pool outside Winnipeg, Canada in November 2015”. The article describes what sounds like cruel treatment of an animal under a filmmaker’s supervision. The featured video, which has a running time of just less than a minute of footage, includes two shots. The first shows an individual trying to push an uncooperative and apparently frightened dog into roiling water as someone provides jokey commentary off camera. The second shot, shorter than the first, shows the dog in that water. But then the dog goes fully underwater and stays there. We hear “cut” but see no resolution.

Multiple media outlets reported on the video released by TMZ, often times in a way that openly criticized the production for mistreatment of the dog. The thousands of comments on those sites as well as throughout social media indicated a sizable public disapproval of A Dog’s Purpose in advance of the film’s release. Many declared that they would now avoid the movie, set for release on January 27, because of what they now knew about the circumstances of its production. The official premiere, scheduled for 21 January, was cancelled. While all of these events amounted to traffic for the reporting sites, none of this was good for the movie business.

But all of these mechanisms allowed something approaching equal and opposite reactions to play out just as rapidly. On 23 January, A Dog’s Purpose producer Gavin Polone appeared in The Hollywood Reporter to declare his love for animals, admit his accountability, and to some degree blame the American Humane Association for not intervening during the events depicted on the video obtained and released by TMZ. These are the statements one might expect from a producer involved in such an incident, to control the damage and try to save his movie.

Yet Polone follows these statements with a breakdown of the footage and the media’s reaction. His analysis points out the differences between the dog’s demeanor in the rehearsal footage and the TMZ-released footage preceding an actual take, which Polone says involved a change of position that “spooked” the dog. He also distinguishes between the two different points of production featured in the two clips of the TMZ video, which are misleadingly truncated and also edited together, creating the appearance of a single continuous event.

Polone asks, “Why did the person who edited it to seem like the two clips were connected and not let you see the dog was alright and never in mortal danger? Also, why did the person who shot it hold on to the video for a year and three months before releasing it?” Additionally, he responds to PETA’s call for a boycott of the film by pointing out that organization’s “misleading” use of a clip from the movie’s trailer in combination with the tabloid video; a clip in which a fully computer generated dog jumps into dangerous water, yet not identified by PETA as CGI.

A Dog’s Purpose occupied the number two spot on the weekend box office chart in its first weekend of release, earning $18.2 million. It’s not possible to represent in dollar amounts the specific positive and negative effects of the whirlwind of unexpected publicity in the days before the film’s release. It is remarkable, however, that so many voices involved the situation were able to thoroughly release their competing opinions and evidence for public consumption.

As the film entered its second week in theaters, American Humane published findings from an “independent investigative report” stating that “An independent, third-party investigation conducted by a respected animal cruelty expert … concluded that an edited video given to the gossip site TMZ mischaracterized the events on the set.” American Humane echoes Polone’s concerns about the edits that appear in the video and the timing of the video’s release, saying that these aspects “raise serious questions about [the] motives and ethics” of those responsible for the video. Is this the conclusion of the story? Will those who boycotted the film now support it? Will another behind-the-scenes video emerge to upset the concluded narrative? We’ll wait and see.

Reviewing the Dog’s Purpose imbroglio reveals some benefits of the freedom and ability to state and disseminate various points of view amid a movie scandal. The TMZ/PETA accusation, Polone’s rebuttal, and American Humane’s conclusion do not form a tidy thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. But they do allow observers and potential moviegoers to examine the facts of the case and to determine whether the movie is deserving of their support. While the network of information that spreads these viewpoints doesn’t encourage a long deliberation, viewers who practice patience and careful observation of multiple sources over time (in this example, just a few days’ time) can arrive at an informed conclusion without rushing to judgment.

One good pathway through such an argument is to compare a filmmaker’s stated intentions with the execution of those intentions and the effects of the finished product. A decade ago, which might as well be an eternity in Internet years, the movie Hounddog encountered a backlash because of its content involving the rape of a 12-year-old girl, played by the young Dakota Fanning. After the film’s release, the Women Film Critics Circle Awards of 2008 gave Hounddog its “Hall of Shame” distinction, explaining the dishonor thus: “While the sexualization on screen of then twelve year old actress Dakota Fanning is dismissed by the filmmaker and some anti-rape organizations because it’s intended to focus on a grave crime, one hand washing the other is not the point.” In this circumstance, the ostensible goal to educate viewers on the subject matter was commendable but not considered a sufficient justification for what the filmmakers required the actors to do. Critics and audiences rejected Hounddog.

In one sense, A Dog’s Purpose and Hounddog are among the simpler cases of onscreen representations conflicting with offscreen realities/intentions, insofar as the debates involved facts and events related directly to the productions as well as played out roughly in conjunction with the films’ releases to the public. The more complicated examples are movies that involve objectionable actions of years past or truths about those actions that take years to gain widespread attention. Last year, both Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation (2016) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972) were the subject of public outcries regarding events that took place many years ago.

Nate Parker and Aja Naomi King in The Birth of a Nation (2016)

Nate Parker and Aja Naomi King in The Birth of a Nation (2016)

During Sundance 2016, the single most sure thing of the festival was that Nate Parker’s film was destined for critical acclaim, film accolades (likely Oscar wins) and well-positioned for commercial success. Yet throughout the summer and fall preceding the film’s awards-ready October debut, significant media attention focused on the allegation and trial of rape and other misdeeds committed by Parker and Birth of a Nation co-writer Jean Celestin, dating back to their time together in college in 1999. As those facts eclipsed the positive coverage of the film’s artistic merits, Parker’s silence and ambivalent statements about the events and their connection to his film turned the public conversation about the film into a largely negative response. Many critics took issue with Parker and Celestin having written a rape plot into their historical drama. Later revelations about the real-life accuser’s tragic life and suicide added a sorrowful dimension to the coverage that the filmmakers and distributor did not foresee and then could not escape.

The Birth of a Nation underperformed at the box office. The critical acclaim receded. The movie is nominated for zero Academy Awards. The business effects and media cycle summarized here are unimportant when compared to the tragedy of a lost life and perhaps also the missed opportunity for Parker to reach viewers with a worthwhile historical drama. But the issues of accountability that emerged in coverage and conversations about the film are worthy of examination for anyone making determinations about what civilized society means when we try to separate art from an artist or a business product from a business/businessperson.

The 2016 revival of controversy surrounding Last Tango in Paris reveals the often delusional folly of attempts to compartmentalize a film in art and business terms, of isolating it from the ideology and behavior that produced it in the first place. For decades, anyone living in a free media environment has been able to access publicly available accounts of that film’s miserable production conditions, specifically the experiences of actress Maria Schneider. Just 19 years old when the film was shot, Schneider more than once spoke out about the abuse and humiliation she suffered in the company of director Bertolucci and actor Marlon Brando. Bertolucci and Brando also discussed in interviews and/or public appearances the sorts of manipulation and blurred lines of consent that took place during filming.

Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider in The Last Tango in Paris (1972)

Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider in The Last Tango in Paris (1972)

Yet it was a late 2016 YouTube re-release of a 2013 video of Bertolucci discussing his and Brando’s manipulation of the actress that broke the story to a wider audience. Comments on public Internet forums and celebrity reactions on social media brought the film renewed attention, signaling the beginning of a change in its reputation from classic film to a chronicle of reprehensible and disgusting behavior. With Last Tango in Paris, perhaps the question we should ask is why this recontextualization took so long to occur?

Even without any knowledge of how it was shot, Last Tango in Paris is an utterly miserable and at times hateful movie. That influential critics and those in awe of Brando’s commitment to his craft elevated the film to the status of “art” has always struck me as a puzzling happening of ‘70s film history. We could question the ethics of entertainment / news sites repackaging Schneider’s mistreatment for provocative 2016 headlines. But in this instance the late-breaking outrage about Bertolucci and Brando’s machinations may have finally opened viewers’ eyes to a truth waiting in plain sight to be seen: to celebrate this film damages us. 

On the 26th of February, the American film industry will celebrate a handful of titles that have developed and maintained reputations as excellent or important or crowd-pleasing works. No small amount of campaigning and marketing goes into the process of seeking and winning these awards. In a way, each movie is itself an advertisement for a filmmaker or a genre or an ideology that shapes the products we pay to see. The Academy Award nominees have expressed themselves, undergone critical and commercial testing, and will now enjoy the rewards.

The controversies outlined in this article reinforce Justice Brandeis’ statement about “more speech” as a remedy for bad speech, of which there’s no shortage in our present networks of communication. Access to more information causes producers and consumers of media to be accountable and to hold others accountable for what ends up on screen. The recent announcement by the Internet Movie Database that its message boards are closing because they “are no longer providing a positive, useful experience” appears to be a conclusion that some bad speech about movies requires that forums facilitating such speech should disappear. While this is likely a way to dodge trolls on the boards and to redirect activity to IMDB’s social media sites, to see such action taken across other news and entertainment forums would be a significant loss to the development of discussions and debates such as the ones reviewed here.

Movies aren’t merely good and bad products. They are the result of ideas and actions that have moral and ethical components. To examine those ideas and actions for what they truly are, for their causes and effects, and not only as fiction detached from reality, is a process that allows consumers to know what it is we’re being asked to support. In this way, the free exchange of information about movies could help to promote humane conduct both onscreen and off.

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