[26 August 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Harlan Ellison is one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. You can argue with his attitude and his occasional lapses into tasteless self-aggrandizement, but when you look over his creative output - be it film, TV, short fiction, novels, or essays - his talent is above reproach. He is a thinker and a scholar, a wise elder statesman in the vanishing world of literacy. He’s also a notorious mixer, turning even the most mindless exercise into a debate worthy of a despotic tribunal. So it goes without saying that most of his work remains solely in the mind’s eye of the reader. Many of his most important pieces have gone without adaptation, mostly because Ellison is so meticulous about how his thoughts should come across to an audience (just ask Gene Roddenberry). He will not suffer fools, not even lightly, and last time anyone checked, Hollywood is a jester’s paradise.
So when something like A Boy and His Dog comes along, it’s reason to celebrate. Not because it’s a particularly brilliant film (it sort of is, in a way). Not because it represents the best that Ellison has to offer (he’s done much, much better), nor is the reason to cheer over the decidedly high tech treatment Shout! Factory provides for this often overlooked little movie. No, it’s because as part of the bonus features we are treated to something the author does frequently, and very well - talk. Included in the Blu-ray presentation is a sit down between Ellison and director L. Q. Jones, and for 51 minutes, we get a conversation which plays like a combination of stand-up comedy and artistic insight. While the author was notorious critical of the filmmaker in the past, the two now play pals, explaining some of the problems with, and reactions to, bringing this particular material to life.
The story is set in 2024 and offers up the usual post-apocalyptic tropes. We have a wanderer named Vic (a very, very young Don Johnson) who scavenges the vast wasteland that was once our planet for two things - food and girls. He’s young, you see, and his always amplified hormones rage mercilessly. Luck for our hero that his pet pooch Blood (voiced by Tim McIntire) is telepathic and capable of sniffing out all the available…ummm…female accompaniment available. He’s like the pimp version of Jiminy Cricket to Vic’s vacant Pinocchio.
One day, our duo comes across Quilla June (Susanne Benton), a beautiful young girl from a place called “Topeka.” It’s an underground city that fancies itself an utopia. Everyone there wears exaggerated make-up and the town’s leader - and Quilla’s father - Lou Craddock (Jason Robards) hopes out hero can help them out. See, the colony needs more fertile males to help continue the race, and Vic may be their savoir - for a price. Blood had warned Vic about pursuing this gal. Now, it seems, his premonitions were right on the money.
Like many loopy ‘70s speculative fictions, A Boy and His Dog doesn’t just march to the beat of its own award-winning drummer. Instead, it sets up and entire death metal ensemble and shreds the Hell out of all the standard storytelling conventions. This isn’t an experimental film, just an oddly eccentric one. Ellison’s book is basically about the enduring quality of relationships, be it between man and woman or dim-witted future shock survivor and his mind-linked mutt. The “what if?” element is not that important. Ellison (via a script from Jones and an uncredited Wayne Cruseturner) doesn’t provide us with a horrific warning of the shape of things to possibly come. Instead, he uses the isolation and desolation to emphasize the character’s connections - to themselves, to each other, to the scarred society, and in the end, to ideals best left unspoken or unexplored.
But it’s not all seriousness and space junk. No, A Boy and His Dog is also a hilariously dark comedy, a movie that trades on the notion of a lonely survivor scrounging for sex with a smart-alecky pup as his dame divining rod. There are moments of absurdist wit. There are also dated conceits (the entire population of “Topeka” look like rejects from the road show of Godspell) that plague almost all pre-CG sci-fi. Indeed, Star Wars may have ruined the genre with its determined matinee serializing and borrowed dogfights in space, but something like A Boy and His Dog reminds one that not all flights of fancy have to involve robots or ripoffs of Kurosawa. Sometimes, ideas trump a trip to a galaxy far, far, away.
Thanks to Shout! Factory’s new Blu-ray release, a whole new generation can see what their aging burn-out uncles and online fanboy obsessives have been babbling about for years. The visuals have been cleaned up considerably, the look of the movie almost pristine in its 2.35:1 presentation. The colors really pop, as does the aforementioned face paint on the “Topeka” residents. Similarly, the sound has been smoothed out, though very little can be done with an original Mono mix. But the real treats are saved for the bonus features. Ellison and Jones do their chat, with the director then joined by Charles Champlin and cinematographer John Arthur Morrill for a full length commentary. All three provide interesting insights into the production and the film’s posterity. Though it’s ported over from a previously available DVD, the discussion is top notch.
So is the film, for reasons that may appear baffling at first. Indeed, A Boy and His Dog defies expectations because, with Ellison, you really can’t have any. This is a writer who uses words like top chef’s use ingredients, creating poetry out of simplistic plots, gourmet meals out of a few fine items. It’s not a perfect film - in fact, it suffers a bit from being episodic and wildly insular - but it also benefits greatly from the vision of the man behind the masthead. He will more than likely go down as one of more misunderstood geniuses, a scribe whose work warrants more than consideration. It demands attention. A Boy and His Dog probably won’t produce many converts, but that’s their tough luck. Those of us who love Harlan Ellison is glad he still puts typewriter to paper. He is great. This film is almost there as well.