A Dog of Flanders

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Mellow Nello
dog in A Dog of Flanders isn’t really the scruffy black Bouvier, but the
motherless boy Nello (Jeremy James Kissner), raised by his poor, ailing grandfather.
Delivering milk to his neighbors with a cart pulled by the abused mutt he rescued,
nursed back to health and renamed Patrasche, Nello struggles innocently, selflessly.
He is at the mercy of the business, religious and art institutions in 19th-century
Belgium. This waif, who desires to be a painter–like his late mother and
her hero the great Peter Paul Rubens–has little access to fulfilling his
dreams. His society, thus depicted, seems very much like our own. I make this
emphasis to clarify A Dog of Flanders’ emotional acuity. What might easily
be dismissed for a mawkish children’s movie is actually something special–a
portrait of the human as a young artist.

Although this is the era
of teen movies, hardly any of them attend to characters’ inner lives–what
A Dog of Flanders unabashedly presents as Nello’s spiritual sojourn.
This isn’t merely a boy-and-his-dog story, but a simplified tale of society’s
least-empowered member being treated as a mongrel, then transcending his plight
by discovering his true, spiritual worth. It’s a moral tale meant to instruct
children, but it combines spiritual richness with genuine political force.

This kind of sincerity doesn’t
suit the current filmgoing/filmmaking climate–note how insensitive the
reviews have been (see below)–but A Dog of Flanders is satisfying
in ways Hollywood movies rarely are anymore. The more Hollywood courts sensation-hungry
teens, the more it continues to drive adults away. (The new Outside Providence
is actually a fairly serious tale about father-son empathy, though the ads distort
its sensitivity to look like another American Pie gross-out.) Movies’
current emphasis on physical gratification and financial reward obviously isn’t
satisfying enough. Yet the atmosphere may be too cynical to accept how naturally
A Dog of Flanders expresses Nello’s aspirations. He meets Michel
LaGrande (Jon Voight), an art instructor whose encouragement sees Nello through
clashes with a cruel landlord, the corrupt art council sponsoring a Junior Rubens
competition and the harried, quick-to-blame farmer who banishes him from seeing
his daughter Aloise (Madyline Sweeten), Nello’s only friend. Observing
the bitter, exploitative habits in the grown-up, professional worlds of 19th-century
labor, the church and high culture amounts to a revelation. Yes, jaded adults
more than children could learn a lot from this movie.

A Dog of Flanders
source is an 1872 novel by the Flemish writer Ouida (Marie Louise de la Ramee).
It was last filmed in 1959 by producer Robert B. Radnitz, who specialized in
intelligent, morally grounded family stories that transcended their genres just
as the child protagonists rose above their impoverished circumstances–most
notably in the Appalachian Party of Five prototype Where the Lilies
and Martin Ritt’s Sounder. While A Dog of Flanders
isn’t quite in Sounder’s class–the actors’ accents
are wonky, director Kevin Brodie makes clunky transitions, devaluing the high
quality of Walther van den Ende’s tactile photography–it does so much
right that you forgive its flaws. Brodie doesn’t hold an image of Aloise
following a funeral cortege long enough for its impact to sink in, and a vision
of morning light also flashes by. Imagine how a more felicitous, emotion-based
director like Ritt, Spielberg or Peter Chelsom (The Mighty) might have
turned Nello’s experiences into a tapestry. Yet Brodie invests the movie
with something uncommon–care. He gets the grandfather’s death scene
right: Jack Warden’s splotchy-faced anguish against a windowsill gets next
to you; the texture and lighting suggest Flemish painting made real.

Sticking to the issues of
social survival and personal communication, Brodie displays rare ethical boldness.
It starts out with a scene of struggle and misery (Nello’s mother carrying
him through a snow storm) that intentionally evokes the opening of David Lean’s
Oliver Twist and sets the stage for some of Dickens’ reformist empathy.
Yet there’s a lot of God talk among the characters, which might seem pious
except that it is a consistent part of the film’s Christian behavioral
scheme. Nello isn’t simply a sacrificial lamb, he’s part of a wider
view of human yearning and hardship. His example informs our understanding of
the farmer’s preoccupied middle-class indifference ("You are not my
responsibility!" he shouts at Nello); the blacksmith’s (Bruce McGill)
endured loneliness and kindness; LaGrande’s lofty compassion; and the film’s
eventual father and son reunion.

Eschewing secular humanism,
the film concludes with a series of events that can be understood as simultaneously
social and spiritual critiques. Nello finally enters the church where a great
Rubens hangs away from public view and its eventual unveiling reveals him to
himself. It’s an epiphany. Rubens’ art speaks to him–it is the
filmmakers’ proposition that art must have a moral purpose; it’s what
staves off oblivion. Nello learns from the painting of Christ being deposed
from the cross that a society without compassion is lost, that true happiness
comes not from possessions or positions but what is within. When Nello regrets
never knowing his mother, he is told, "Know yourself, you’ll know
her"–as profound a line as any in recent cinema. These insights come
as part of the instinctive humanity Nello showed to the abandoned pup, but also
from his grandfather’s moral teachings ("Never hate!") and the
expediency of art.

Because all that’s
easy to forget these days, A Dog of Flanders is a refreshing reminder.
Out of step with fashion, A Dog of Flanders’ serious conviction
has genuine strength and surprise. Its combination of spirituality and politics
recalls the paradoxical motto on the Housemartin’s tough and lovely first
album: "Take Jesus. Take Marx. Take Hope."


Teaching Mrs. Tingle
directed by Kevin

Teaching Mrs.

Mrs. Tingle
might not be a hit, but it’s still
a blight on the culture. Everything writer-director Kevin Williamson refuses
to face about the state of teenagers today–their inner thirst, their outward
hunger–is part of what’s insidious about his films and tv shows. No
less pernicious than teen movies by his Hollywood peers, Williamson’s films
set the phony standard. From Scream to Cruel Intentions, American Pie to Mrs.
Tingle, the view of adolescence is brazenly dishonest, yet these films create
the mythos that sells. In 1960 Nagisha Oshima made a movie that seriously examined
teen passion and anxiety (then newly indulged), but his instructively titled
Cruel Story of Youth vanished from Film Forum after a recent two-week reissue
engagement. It should have been a turning point, rescuing the current youth-cult
cinema, but hope for the pop audience’s intelligence disappeared with it.

What separates Mrs. Tingle
from Cruel Story (and A Dog of Flanders) shames us. So what
if few actually endorse it with their money? Its existence already pollutes
the air by justifying a high school trio’s barbarity toward a super-mean
history teacher (invading her home, attacking her, tying her to her bed, then
getting her fired). The selfish, mindless trio (Katie Holmes as studious Leigh
Ann, Marisa Coughlan as her clownish best friend and Barry Watson as the hunk
in the middle) are improbably celebrated as heroes at graduation. It’s
part of the ridiculous carnival premise (part soap opera, part horror story)
that Williamson has "invented" to gain industry clout. (Don’t
be fooled: The Blair Witch Project is part of this same dumb movement,
passing off inane scare tactics as authentic youth expression.)

Williamson’s formula
has profitably flattered teen narcissism and gullibility, but in Teaching
Mrs. Tingle
he goes in for satirical jibes at recent moral decrepitude.
"What’s right anymore?" Leigh Ann asks the homicidal hunk. When
someone suggests telling the truth, Leigh Ann knows "It won’t work!"
This Clintonian cynicism is William Bennett’s worst nightmare complete
with a whiny white-girl music track that makes it everyone’s. Williamson’s
plot recycles Nine to Five’s revenge comedy as a high school
fantasy on sex and scholarship, but like all exploitation movies (and unlike
Nine to Five) it’s a distraction from genuine social crisis. The
real social problem is not that teachers are mean but that they (and our education
system) are not teaching. So Williamson uses a pandering, shifting moral tone–Lesley
Ann Warren enacts Leigh Ann’s mother as if playing high tragedy, while
Helen Mirren gives Mrs. Tingle icy cruelty often backed by a delirious Mrs.
Gulch music theme. In postmodernism’s confusion, any gimmick can be used
to sucker and divert youth audiences.

Revenge served cold-blooded
loses its moral justification. Leigh Ann and Mrs. Tingle’s face-to-face
confrontation is bogus. Student swings with Jealousy, but Teacher lays her out
with Fear. Mrs. Tingle threatens Leigh Ann with a working-class future like
her mother’s ("You’ll wear that [waitress] tag so well").
Capitalizing on teens’ terror of social ignominy, Williamson takes it all
the way to life failure, class fear. Another student (son to one of Mrs. Tingle’s
own high school classmates) is told his father also "had the words ‘no
future’ chiseled on his forehead." But though Mrs. Tingle speaks with
Brit affectation, no sense of the punk idea No Future is suggested by that insult–that’s
ancient history to today’s teen audience, anyway. Instead, there are running
gags on Alanis Morissette’s malapropisms in "Ironic"–as
if teachers only taught grammar.

Teaching Mrs. Tingle
neglects the social resonance that distinguishes A Dog of Flanders or
the credible sense of absurdity remembered from My So-Called Life’s
believably frightening handcuffed-to-the-bed episode. Williamson’s craft
(no one’s eyes are lit well) is as gummy as his morality. He falsifies
the perils of youth worship and the confusion of youth narcissism that makes
Oshima’s almost 40-year-old film still relevant.

Made in response to Rebel
Without a Cause
(the primal teen angst film), Cruel Story of Youth’s
self-consciousness about pop thrills and generational alienation shows in its
lurid, widescreen sensuality. But it’s mainly a political inquiry into
Japan’s postwar malaise, including student activism and apathy. The key
scene plays Makoto and Kiyoshi’s abortion clinic sentimentality against
the overheard pathos of Makoto’s elder sister and Dr. Akimoto, former lovers
representing the previous generation. Oshima compares passion to regret, tragic
history to tragic naivete. "We vented our rage against society by demonstrating,
but what we did got as twisted as the world," the doctor says. Then he
rues, "Your sister and her kind, by contrast, indulge every desire to express
their rage against the world. Maybe they’ll win. Eventually failures like
this abortion racket, if accumulated, will destroy them and their relation with
one another."

Oshima’s moral and
political good sense doesn’t pander. He sees no generation as better off
than another and wisely views the dilemmas of youth through the complexes of
a world they didn’t make. A Dog of Flanders is equally farsighted;
even without the sexual urgency that made Cruel Story influential (see
Purple Rain), its connection between youthful yearning and social opportunity
is important to understand and uphold. Williamson doesn’t bother to. Whether
out of ignorance or evil makes no difference; he has made youth movies crude
and–next to A Dog of Flanders–soulless.

Holden in the Dog House.
Every critic has the right to walk out of movies, but it’s unprofessional
to write a dismissive review of a film having missed the final, crucial scenes.
The New York Times’ Stephen Holden dumps on A Dog of Flanders
with: "Falsely accused of setting a fire, [Nello] becomes something of
a town pariah until one dark and snowy night. This is when Patrasche saves the
day." The dog has little role in Nello’s enlightenment; during and
after the fire Patrasche in no way "saves the day." The film climaxes
with Nello’s confrontation with the spirit of Rubens–that was the
point at which I saw the Times reviewer walk out. He missed Rubens asking
Nello about an art competition: "You didn’t just want to win,
did you?" Not witnessing that line misses the film’s daring questioning
of materialist values–a crucial ethical conundrum in a children’s
or adult’s movie, demonstrating a far different intention than the mere
sentimentality that the Times reviewer imputes. Such a principled perspective
would make A Dog of Flanders boring only to an imperialist 90s sensibility–or
a dishonest journalist.