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April, 2008 : Feature:

Ironic, Isn't It?

The release of a newly restored print of 1975's A Boy and His Dog is a cause for celebration. Until the arrival of Star Wars in 1977, the decade was not considered a golden age for science fiction movies. There were Planet of the Apes sequels, Charlton Heston action films, and the occasional surprise like Westworld or The Man Who Fell to Earth, but for the most part these were lean years.

A Boy and His Dog

The Original Poster

What makes A Boy and His Dog interesting is that it is an uncompromising adaptation of Harlan Ellison's story. From the title to the ending, it's a movie that fairly demands not to be taken at face value. Those who do—which is to say, the irony-impaired—will end up being baffled by a movie that delights in breaking the rules.

We meet Vic (Don Johnson), a young man trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. Vic is a fighter, but not the sharpest knife in the drawer. He's aided by his dog Blood, who is not only intelligent but also telepathic. We see them trying to avoid being killed in their survival of the fittest world above ground, and then we see Vic lured into an underground community, which is a parody of small town America from a century earlier. In spite of the veneer of civilization provided by the town's leaders (headed up by an unexpectedly cast Jason Robards), life is just as brutal for Vic down below. Vic finally escapes along with young Quilla June (Susanne Benton), the strong-willed woman who had lured him to the town in hopes that it would allow for her own ascent to power. Once out, they are reunited with Blood, who has barely been hanging on after having suffered severe injuries. Vic has to decide which one of his companions to sacrifice for the other, and the title ought to give away his answer.

What does it all mean? Director L. Q. Jones (who also adapted Ellison's story) doesn't give us any easy moral for the story. This is not a Michael Crichton adventure where technology is the problem, nor is it a message movie like Soylent Green or Silent Running. Jones simply presents Vic and Blood's adventures and leaves us with what used to be thought of as a happy ending involving man and his best friend. The fact that we don't sit back and smile at the end ought to make us think. This is not a movie about surviving the apocalypse. It's a movie that asks us whether the apocalypse will be worth surviving.

A Boy and His Dog

An Earlier Version

The title brings to mind the works of the quintessential illustrator of American life, Norman Rockwell, who actually did a painting called "A Boy and His Dog." The movie then proceeds to turn everything on its head. Vic is little more than an animal. He can think and talk, but he's primarily concerned with survival, food, and sex, and not necessarily in that order. Blood (voiced by Tim McIntire) is the strategist of the team, looking at the big picture. While Blood needs Vic to survive, it's even more obvious that Vic needs Blood.

We're then presented with two distinct post-apocalyptic worlds. Aboveground is a Darwinian nightmare, with the strong exploiting the weak. Life is reduced to a matter of brawn, not brains. When Vic goes for an evening's entertainment at an encampment where some entrepreneur is showing scratchy prints of old porno films, he cheats the gatekeeper by palming off unwanted canned vegetables as something else. He gets away with it because in spite of his power, the guy collecting admission is illiterate. While Vic is a good fighter, as we see when he faces attack from some nomads, it is Blood who knows how to spook them by making them think the "screamers" are upon them. The "screamers" are nothing more than the air raid sirens that have now lost all meaning except as an omen of impending death.

A Boy and His Dog

"Odd Makeup"

Often in these kinds of stories the goal of our hero is to reach some stronghold of civilization where wise people are trying to start anew. Thus we're not quite sure what happens when Quilla seduces Vic, and then lures him into Topeka, an underground community. There—except for the lack of sunlight and the odd makeup the people wear—we seem to be in a Norman Rockwell world. Everything seems so wholesome, and we see that the Committee (headed by Robards) is genuinely pleased that Vic's arrival. The problem is that the world down there is just as corrupt and brutal as the one aboveground. Those with power use it ruthlessly and are loathe to relinquish it. As for Vic, he's needed because he's virile and, more important, fertile. He's there to "marry" all the young women–one at a time–and then impregnate them. That sounds fine to Vic, except that this "moral" community can't have the bestial Vic pawing their women. Instead he will be strapped down and "milked" and the women will be artificially inseminated. It's only a matter of time before Vic, with the help of a now disillusioned Quilla, bust out.

It's hard to imagine that anyone could miss the dark, satiric nature of the film. This is a surreal vision presented as if it's a boy's adventure. Yet people continue to misread the film, almost as if they think that Jones (and Ellison) approve of what occurs in the movie. Eric Henderson, in a 2003 review for Slant, calls it "the 1975 cult classic for boys who hate women." One might wonder how he came to that odd conclusion except he's not the first one to totally misconstrue the film as a misogynist fantasy. One might more properly call it misanthropic: it despairs of the human condition in general, not women in particular.

A little over 30 years ago I was an undergraduate at the University of Rochester when the film played on campus. Over the next several days the letters column of the school paper was filled with a debate over the film, with some very humorless people insisting that the movie, and particularly the ending where Vic favors Blood over Quilla, was not only anti-woman but actually advocating violence against women. After a week or so someone had the wit to collect all these newspapers and mail them to Harlan Ellison for a reaction. The writer is known for having a legendary temper when he feels he's been wronged, which is what made his reaction all the more surprising. He said that if his expenses would be paid he'd waive his speaking fee and fly across country to debate the film's critics.

Satire

Spot the Satire

He did just that. It's hard to say if any minds were changed that night, but Ellison made it clear that things expressed in satire are not to be taken literally, and that he certainly was not suggesting that a dog's life was more important a woman's. For those of us (male and female) who "got" the film, the uproar was a little baffling. It would have been like picking up the National Lampoon and thinking it was Time magazine. Yet, for the literal-minded, A Boy and a Dog seemed to be a movie that endorses rape and murder, instead of turning a jaundiced eye at societies where such things are able to take place.

You may have heard the old theater expression, "Satire is what closes on Saturday night." That's because most consumers of plays and movies (and TV shows and books) aren't equipped to handle nuance or layers of meaning. For them Life is Beautiful is a movie that says the Holocaust was fun, Dexter endorses serial killing, and Romeo and Juliet is pro-teenage suicide. Goodness knows what they make of movies like A Clockwork Orange or Blade Runner or The Truman Show.

Maybe it's just as well that science fiction doesn't often succeed with the mainstream. As another expression has it, "Reality is a crutch for people unable to handle science fiction."


Copyright © 2008, Daniel M. Kimmel. All Rights Reserved.

About Daniel M. Kimmel

Daniel M. Kimmel is past president of the Boston Society of Film Critics. His reviews can be found at rottentomatoes.com. He is local correspondent for Variety and teaches film at Suffolk University, including a course on SF. His book on the history of FOX TV, The Fourth Network (Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, 2004), received the Cable Center Book Award. He is also author of The Dream Team -- The Rise and Fall of DreamWorks: Lessons from the New Hollywood . His essay, "The Batman We Deserve," appears in Batman Unauthorized, an entry in the SmartPop series from BenBella Books. His latest book is I'll Have What She's Having -- Behind the Scenes of the Great Romantic Comedies.

COMMENTS!

Apr 18, 04:39 by IROSF
A caustic wit is a terrible thing to waste. Exercise yours here!

The article can be found here.
May 1, 19:45 by Ann Wilkes
Excellent article. I had never heard of this movie or story until yesterday, when someone mentioned it at a bbq. Now I MUST see it. I like the quote at the end. Any idea who said it? I had a discussion going over on Chronicles Network about what would be the best comeback to people who say (here, I shudder): "I used to read SF." or "Yeah. I read a lot of that (sf) as a kid."

I think I'm leaning toward: Why not brave it as an adult? It's grown up while you weren't looking.

Always looking for more suggestions...
May 5, 09:29 by Daniel M. Kimmel
Thanks.

As for the quote, a little Googling found that it's a well known (in fandom, anyway) variation of a Lily Tomlin quip, "Reality is a crutch for people who can't handle drugs."

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