Books

'The Dog Park Club' Isn’t One of Those Super Cutesy Animal Stories

Don’t let the cover fool you—this isn’t one of those super cutesy animal stories; it's a slightly dark but completely amusing mystery with fabulously quirky characters.


The Dog Park Club

Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Length: 304 pages
Author: Cynthia Robinson
Price: $13.99
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2011-07
Amazon

Don’t let the cover fool you—this isn’t one of those super cutesy animal stories that has been populating the New York Times Best Seller lists and leaving readers groping for tissues. People who buy it for the altogether adorable cover with its chipper little dog holding a portion of a missing person’s flyer in its mouth may be disappointed. It’s a super cute cover for a book that isn’t cute at all.

Cynthia Robinson’s The Dog Park Club simply isn’t a typical mystery or animal book. Fans of Marley and Me, Dewey the Library Cat, or Lillian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who series may be a little (or a lot) disappointed. In truth, The Dog Park Club isn’t really about dogs (or four legged animals of any kind): it’s about people.

The main character is Max Bravo—his name just conjures up images of a swashbuckling hero from a '50s pulp magazine. He isn’t. But it’s a great name for the main character of The Dog Park Club.

Max Bravo, a slightly snobby opera singer with an offbeat sense of humor and an extremely cynical outlook, is the book’s narrator. We meet him when he shares: "I had finished the Sunday matinee, tucked away a trencherman’s portion of boiled meats and spatzel, washed it down with several tankards of Riesling, and was contentedly buried myself under a bunker of eiderdown."

Like many of the characters, he’s simply over-the-top darkly quirky fun. Throw in an impressive vocabulary, a good literary background, and a brutally honest demeanor, and you’ve got Max Bravo. Consider how he describes Claudia, his best friend: “I had expected Claudia to look like hell. But I didn’t expect her to look like the madwoman from a gothic novel, the one that the husband keeps locked up in the attic so she can claw at the floorboards wearing nothing but a chemise.”

But despite his flamboyance and, at times, his arrogance, something about him is so relatable. Perhaps it's the humbleness that sneaks in at odd moments, such as when Max talks about the dog park club members and says “Other people showed up [at the dog park], and then scurried away as quickly as they could, leaving us to our insular, hermetic weirdness. We were the idiot dauphins ruling a shabby kingdom that nobody else wanted.” Despite his grandeur, Max Bravo is, at times, completely human.

Most of the characters—all of whom meet each day at the local dog park—are equally quirky, both in appearance and personality. Or as Max describes:

They were also what are referred to in movie trailers as ‘a ragtag bunch’. On-screen, they’d be an ensemble cast of hard cases who are released from a military brig to carry out some complicated, certainly suicidal mission behind enemy lines. Or, I could see them as the crew aboard a rusting old bucket of a space freighter—kooky but capable individuals who each had his own signature eccentricity like singing Little Richard tunes or reading comic books or reciting snatches of James Joyce.

In the beginning, none meet with Max’s approval save Amy: “Amy Carter was different from the rest of us. She was poised and pretty, so pretty you almost forgot she was pregnant. And for a moment I had flattered myself into thinking that she found me handsome. She didn’t say so. It was just the way she’d look at me—with those brown eyes that made me feel like I was drowning in sable.”

And Amy is where the mystery comes in. In a plot that might seem too Law and Order ripped from the headlines, pregnant Amy disappears, and her husband Steve, who is definitely not a member of the dog park club, is (at least in Max’s mind) the prime suspect. At first it all fits—Steve is a “big cretin” with a fishing boat (for easy disposal of the body). He is seen looking a little too cozy with the very attractive real estate agent Stephanie Saint Claire (Robinson comes up with great character names) and burying something in his backyard.

All highly suspicious and enough to turn the Dog Park Club into the Scooby Doo gang—but the plot serpentines and ends up in places somewhat surprising.

At times the book seems a little busy, has a touch too much going on, but strong writing, interesting characters, and humor keeps the pages turning. Even though the story is much darker than the book cover suggests (the reference to Double Indemnity late in the story seems particularly appropriate), the humor is always present. And like so many aspects of this story, it, too, comes in surprising places—such as two characters using cans of fava beans to break out of a burning building.

Throw in a ghost—Max’s grandmother Baba appears and reappears (despite the fact she died in 1978) to offer cryptic advice—“You cannot see because you are blind as that gadjo mother of yours”—and the smorgasbord of surprises is complete.

7

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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