How do we portray the secret and no-so secret lives of pets?
Hollywood has a fascination with the idea of investing animals with human personality traits. Truth be told, I suppose the notion is bigger than the film industry. Going back to the first instance where Man interacted with beasts in the wild, forging tentative mutually beneficial relationships that soon morphed into some semblance of interpersonal intimacy, we’ve probably always wondered what animals thought of us. We have a hard enough time imagining how we see one another, so in the case of animals, it is easier to make broad assumptions based on whatever makes us feel good about ourselves, with the understanding that we don’t have to be bothered with the animal’s perspective.
Even when, for instance, in an animated movie like the recently released feature “The Secret Life of Pets,” humans are situated on the periphery – presented as loving caretakers who wander off for hours at a time, leaving our pets to wait patiently for our return, what occurs revolves around our own self-involvement. We imagine our pets taking on our own character traits. The hero of “Secret Life” is Max (Louis CK), a devoted little terrier who is head over heels for his perky owner, a loyal type herself with seemingly endless reservoirs of love. When she takes in a stray named Duke (Eric Stonestreet), Max initially recoils, expresses dislike for the big dopey ragamuffin, but as the pair embark on a series of misadventures across all of New York City, Max comes to embrace Duke, tapping into his own bottomless pool of affection. It is less of an instinctual response and far more character-driven, which is how we would like to believe all living creatures would react.
I dismiss this idea, out of hand, that animals are like us – maybe because I’m not so sure that we’re as pure of heart as we like to think we are. While I certainly appreciate the sentiments espoused in “The Secret Life of Pets” in the broadest of senses, I was far more drawn to the Todd Solondz indie dramedy “Wiener-Dog,” a live-action tale about a dachshund who drifts from owner to owner, each more odd and pathetic than the last, altering their dysfunctional lives – not necessarily for good or ill.
Solondz sets out to skewer our expectations, the sentimental assumption that puppy love will soften the hardest of hearts or return us to the state of lost innocence. More intriguingly, Solondz shoots each vignette from a dispassionate perspective, at a slight remove from both the dog and the human characters. It is a hallmark of Solondz and his misanthropic sensibilities, which is perfectly suited to this unique endeavor. He’s not trying to place us inside the heads or hearts of either the dog or the humans. He’s merely allowing the audience to bear witness. In some scenes, we are given the perspective of the dachshund, looking up at the humans, and the framing magnifies their flaws.
It stands to reason that the new release “Nine Lives,” from director Barry Sonnenfeld (the “Men in Black” franchise) will go in the opposite direction. Starring Kevin Spacey as a stereotypical businessman with family issues (probably longing for the by-gone days when husbands came home and enjoyed a quiet martini or six while the wife and kids hovered in the background) who winds up with his consciousness trapped in the body of the family cat, this movie will focus on humanizing the pet, but I’m curious about how the story deals with the businessman’s body. In true body swapping fashion we should get a cat’s eye view of the world in the body of a human, right?
So what might that look like?
I want to go on record stating that I believe Spacey just might be the closest approximation we, in the human world, have to a cat analogue. He strikes me as a man and performer with little interest in catering to the whims of his audience, which is exactly how I feel about cats, so this might be genius casting.
Or it is just another example of a human, in this case – me – seeking to place human personality parameters on a member of the animal kingdom. I guess we all can’t be as objective across the entire spectrum as Solondz.