Monday, November 22, 2010

MY LIFE AS A DOG (1985): Swedish Warmth

We don’t endow the stereotypical Swede with a sense of humor.  Generally we think of a Swede as being stoic, somewhat priggish and too much of a conformist.  Even its greatest filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman, made the typical Swede appear as someone almost frightening.  Yet My Life as a Dog is a sensitive, passionate, comic and bit too cute depiction of life in a small Swedish community.
Ingemar (Anton Glanzelius) is a twelve-year old boy with a sick mother, absentee father and angry brother in 1959 Sweden.  The mother (Anki Liden) has tuberculosis.  The father is in South America loading bananas.  The brother, Erik (Manfred Serner), receives almost no joy out of life save in humiliating Ingemar in front of his mother.  Ingemar indeed is a troublesome creature in that he can’t drink his milk without spilling it, he allows himself to be talked into many things that cause him shame, and he enjoys nothing more than making others (especially his mother) laugh.  He’s caught playing doctor with a local girl, a chase with his dog turns the apartment they are living in into shambles, and he accidentally sets a fire in the town dump – all of which drives his otherwise charming mother into a rage.  (Yet in her stable moods, we feel his mother adores Ingemar for his very unSwedish attributes.)  Eventually, Ingemar is sent away to stay with his Uncle Gunnar (Tomas von Brommen) to prevent his mother’s health from worsening.
Gunnar is almost as much of a buffoon as Ingemar.  Gunnar builds a hut for Ingemar that resembles a space ship.  (Ingemar is obsessed with thinking about the Russian dog Laika that was sent up by Sputnik only to starve to death in space.)  Gunnar also flirts with the local women and drives his wife crazy by playing the same nonsensical song over and over on a phonograph.  Gunnar works in a glass factory in the small Swedish town where Ingemar comes to stay.  A co-worker of Gunnar is named Berit (Ing-Marie Carlssen), who makes money on the side while posing nude for a famous Swedish artist.  Berit talks Ingemar into accompanying her while she poses for the artist.  And Ingemar meets Saga a prepubescent tomboy that develops her first crush on the young boy.  She hides her affection for Ingemar by engaging him in boxing matches.
Though life in the small town is better for Ingemar than it was living with his mother at home, nevertheless tragedy does occur.  Ingemar’s mother dies and, we are led to believe, his pet dog is disposed of.  Ingemar does not have his brother’s stoic disposition, so he takes the losses hard.  Only through the zany goings-on of the community does Ingemar recover.  In fact, it is Ingemar that adds as much to the lives of people like his uncle, Berit and Saga as they add to his life.  This small collection of lunatics we are led to believe have little in common with the remainder of Sweden as a whole, though they celebrate their Swedish heritage as much as anyone else.  They sing Swedish folk tunes and perform acrobatics to entertain each other.  They go for swims in the icy river.  They admire the sculpture made of Berit, though it is eventually banned for its “indecency.”  Most importantly, they celebrate the great victory of another Ingemar (Ingemar Johansson) when he wins the World Heavyweight Championship from Floyd Patterson on June 26, 1959.  (Johansson would be defeated by Patterson in two later fights and would never again fight for the heavyweight crown.)  Finally, the almost clumsy relationship between Ingemar and Saga in the end turns into young love.
Director Lasse Hallstrom should be commended for his choice of actors and actresses for this movie.  If not perfectly acted, at least everyone in the cast looks their part.  Berit, Saga and Ingemar’s mother are beautiful, though not in the same way as beauty would be defined in an American magazine.  The three look too refreshingly human.  And Ingemar, Gunnar and many others of the males making up the supporting cast are likeable oddballs and eccentrics.  They never quit trying to bring some happiness to those in their lives – however annoying they may be to them.  The movie is 101 minutes long, short by modern standards.  Director Hallstrom avoids the temptation of saying too much by making it any longer.  Yet the movie is not an escape from the real world.  With all of its charm, it also portrays anger and death and abandonment and loss.  Erik, Ingemar’s older brother, does not handle the hardships any better than Ingemar.  He simply stuffs it away in Swedish pride and only shows his real side when he’s angry.  Ingemar’s mother tries to hide in the books that she reads, but Ingemar is too much of a real presence for her to ignore.  The only one in the movie that does not appear remotely human is the bureaucrat that shuffles Ingemar around whenever Ingemar seems to be getting in the way.
My Life as a Dog is not a movie that would probably ever be made by an American director, and it probably would never catch on with an American audience.  There is innocence to the movie that has mostly been lost on our western shores.  That’s not to say that one culture is superior to the other.  America, at least in its arts, tends to express itself more forcibly and directly.  American art is tougher, more independent and cynical.  No Swede could have ever written a novel like Moby Dick or direct films like Apocalypse Now.  On the other hand, probably no American moviemaker will ever create anything closely resembling a Bergman film nor make a movie like My Life as a Dog.  Americans have to appear sure of their selves and will never take the risk of making their selves appear foolish.  The educated American to maintain the respect of others must speak knowingly about war, culture, violence, rape, abortion, the economy, science and especially politics.  You will never hear him say in a public setting, “I don’t know.”  Thus, we have that irritating pontification in American films by directors and producers whose very point of view would be in question if they didn’t manipulate the story to fit their bias. 
My Life as a Dog is never so self-conscious.  There’s barely anything we would even call a plot to the film, and it’s mostly just a short sketch about the life of a young boy.  Ingemar, in My Life as a Dog, is adorable in that he doesn’t worry about appearing foolish.  He doesn’t understand why his mother has to die or why his dog has to be taken away to the kennel or why the Russians had to launch a dog into space only to see it starve.  Despite the anger of his mother, he only wants to hear her laugh and feel good.  He’s like the fighter, Johansson, the 5-1 underdog described as an undisciplined playboy that goes to Yankee Stadium and wins the world championship – though no one had even taken him seriously as a heavyweight fighter.  However short-lived his championship, Johansson became a Swedish icon and a sometime ridiculous one at that.  Ingemar in this film is also a fighter in his own small way in his own small community by never letting his spirits fail him and by remaining unconcerned about propriety and the small thoughts of others.
July 17, 2008
 © Robert S. Miller 2008

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