Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Return of the Animal Star

I have nothing to do with what follows

The Random Animal recently saw the film The Artist, despite the admonition in  the ticket window: THE ARTIST IS A SILENT FILM IN BLACK & WHITE. The ticket agent actually telling you that fact would probably violate a silent film code. (There was also a sign about the next film on my list, The WAR HORSE: scenes go in and out of focus, rather like when you’re falling from a horse.)
The Artist is indeed a throwback, with the occasional dialogue box and orchestral music that chirped and lilted and swelled. Most of all, it revealed why people first went to films--to see charming and beautiful people (a little puffed-up) displaying wonderful and worthless talents, a darkening melodrama, a tease of romance, and a funny bit with a dog.
A Jack Russell terrier shared nearly every scene with the handsome male star (French—need we say more.)  It's  Uggie  who came from humble beginnings as a rescued dog to be a screen pro after his role in Water For Elephants.  Like movie dogs of yore, Uggie seemed precociously human, danced, and channeled RinTinTin to race across town and save lives. He received more affection than the star’s onscreen wife, who channeled the unhappy grape-fruited spouse in Citizen Kane. How refreshing in a retro novelty to see a talented dog receive his due. No wonder Uggie received the Palm Dog award in Cannes.
I'd like to thank my litter mates...

On the whole, The Artist  manages artifice with finesse. The premise of a silent b&w film in 2012 is that it’s a pastiche, an anachronism, la recherche du temps perdu when “it” girls bobbed their hair and tap-danced their way to happiness. But even within their cartoonish dimensions, the actors, human and canine, played out the conventions sincerely, with feeling, and a sense of consequence. 

Dogs were featured on a recent episode of the TV mystery series, Castle, "An Embarrassment of Bitches." (The title says much about the tone of the show.). A retriever rolls his eyes and soulfully stares, even though it is evident by his steady gaze in some scenes that an off-screen companion directs his actions. A few television shows have regularly included animals as part of the fictional family--Frasier and Mad About You come to mind, but they are still underrepresented for the stable presence, comfort, and sheer entertainment they provide.

Winter in the Dolphin Tale, Uggie in The Artist, the elephant of Water for Elephants, the horse(s) of Secretariat,  soon--the many horses who display how we idealize the horse and how deploy it in violence in The War Horse. The animal star returns.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


"Pretty please, can I go outside?"

In folklore and fairytales, cats between the realms of the domestic and the wild, the pet or the predator, the fashionable (Hello Kitty!) and the feral (yowling breeders), the natural (shedding fur) and the supernatural (the witch's companion). The Admirer of the Cat appreciates the independence of the beast and its ability to slide between household baby and outdoor terror. Neil Gaiman’s supernatural fantasy Coraline (and the film of that name) finds power and a clue to salvation in a feral cat's knack for sliding between the "real" and what's emotionally threatening and uncanny.
 What is fascinating in a story can be problematic in the backyard.
  If you're a bird watcher, like Jonathan Franzen, the author of Freedom, or a wildlife biologist, you're worried about how feral colonies and free-ranging pets can ravage threatened birds and the voles and micro-rodents that make up the ecosystem. If you're a vet or a shelter worker, you recommend that the pet cat stay inside to be kept free from disease, accident, or a lawsuit involving neighbors. Safe, but oh so boring!
Now cat companions (do you ever really own a cat?) can be responsible AND fun! Some of the options are relatively small-scale, like putting in a large bay window near bird feeders, so the indoor pet can enjoy daylong cat-theater. Others invest in screened areas or cat gazebos, so Fluffy can enjoy fresh air but not fresh robin. And, while this is not a brand new idea, some dare to borrow from the canines and not bell, but leash the cat.
Cat-on-a-leash is not a new Wii experience, but a growing trend as reported by the New York Times.
I guess you can't simply put a cat on a long string and watch it run around, though Tom Sawyer might try that, with a bit of nip thrown in. If you read the NYT, or write for it, you do thinks the proper way, the effective way. Supposedly. For cat-in-training, or more accurately owner-in-training, see the video included in the NYT article, which like a cat itself refuses to go where I want it to and has run away from YouTube.
The Inspirational Cat particularly touched a 16th century Italian poet, Torquato Tasso, so that he wrote in the unspayed feline's not-quite honor a not-quite sonnet:

          These cats have multiplied, and so much so
          That they are double the celestial Bears:
          Cats that disport themselves in all-white furs,
          Cats that are black and even calico,
          And cats with tails and cats quite disentailed.
          What I would gladly see (now wouldn't you?)
           Is one cat with a hump or curlicue
           Like some vain harridan discreetly veiled.

           Let laboring mountains cease from all their toil,
           For if a mouse were born, poor little brat,
           It could not hope to flee so many a cat.

           Good housewife, I admonish you to peel
           Your eyes and watch the pot about to boil:
            Run, look, a cat is carrying off the veal!

            Here I must add my bob and wheel.
            My sonnet will not have what praise entails
            Unless it's like those cats that come with tails.

(trans. Lowry Nelson, Jr., in Sonnets: From Dante to the Present, ed. John Hollander (Everyman's Library Pocket Poets)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Bad Bunnies and Good

"Do I have to? " Photo by Renee Jones Scheider

The Random Animal, as the Year of the Rabbit approaches its end, has been a very bad bunny. Books and Reviews have been neglected for (tempting to say making little bunnies) eating chocolate and watching Republican Presidential candidates turn on themselves like Angry Birds with bad aim. (Does that make Democrats little piggies threatening nest eggs?) Soon the Year of the Dragon ensues, with a blaze of new resolutions and new reviews. So says Bad Bunny.
Good bunnies did thrive in 2011 and continue to abound in 2012. Rabbits with a keen focus and a competitive edge (maybe) participate in agility trials, as reported in a December StarTribune article on the Minnesota Companion Rabbit Society.  Rabbits can be trained to hop, skip, and jump through a course, contingent on their will and owners' patience. As one lapine coach explained, "getting them to listen to directions takes a long time. Some want to, and some say, 'I don't want to, thank you.' It's like a 2-year-old child. 'I know exactly what you're telling me, but I'm not necessarily going to do it.'" Most human/animal relationships depend on trust, and food, or the trust that there will be food--also true of many human/human situations. Rabbits are prey near the bottom of the mammalian food chain, though the ones that enjoy plants in my backyard don't seem to realize they should Be afraid, be Very Afraid. They've seen the dog, which did not come down to facing death, and have become quite fat in their sense of entitlement.
 Back to the athletes, rabbit racing is very popular in Europe, according to the StarTribune article, and you can watch Danish champions in action above (including some heart-to-fur conferences).  Warning: it's intense (for someone).

For more serious warnings with rabbit images, and you can turn to The New York Times on "Leaving Animals out of the Cosmetics Picture." Yes, there's a history of testing potentially noxious substances on the delicate membranes of living rabbits, rats, and the iconic guinea pig. What I hadn't realized is that you can buy a product with a label claiming it was not tested on animals. But that claim does not cover testing of the individual ingredients of the product.  (Also, it seems you can hire an outsider, a "hit lab," to do the dirty work.) Animal protectionists are promoting the "Leaping Bunny Logo." Leaping Bunny is "a program run by the Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics, licenses a rabbit logo to companies the organization has certified as cruelty-free. It also provides consumers with a list of these companies."
So remember the leaping bunny when you want to buy ethical lipstick or when you raise your sights to international sports competition.
Next: from rabbits on hurdles to cats on leashes...