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Isle of Dogs and the Density of Guilt


Let’s just lead with the fact that Wes Anderson’s visual style is something, not so much to behold, but to stand in the intimidating shadow of, awestruck. I’ve noticed that pornography and punk rock share a commonality with one another, in that they’re difficult to define, but you know them when you see them. The same thing could be said about how one identifies a “master of their craft.” J.K. Rowling and Cormac McCarthy are both masters of writing. Paul Thomas Anderson and Federico Fellini are masters of the art of filmmaking. Radiohead and The Stooges are gods in the eyes of music nerds, but all are for varying reasons and in vastly different ways. Wes Anderson has, without question, mastered his brand of filmmaking, whatever that brand is. Whether you’re a fan of Wes Anderson or not is incidental; the world’s best wine still tastes like garbage to someone who doesn’t like wine.

(Author’s note: After reading Lindsay’s article, I can’t help but notice the under representation of women in my list of masters. Instead of changing it, I’m going to leave it, because I think it’s illustrative of the issue.)

Giving art time to resonate or dissipate is profoundly effective in gaining perspective on it’s strengths, weaknesses, and emotional weight. Moreover, a second or third viewing can reveal previously unrecognized layers and intricacies. A jovial character’s initial behavior towards the beginning of a film may become perceived as sinister, if you suddenly realize said character is secretly a murderer.

Repeat viewings can change a film’s atmosphere entirely; time away from a film allows one to see how it continues to resonate in the longer term.

So when I first see a film I suspect to be prefect, it has become ritual to wait a minimum of one year, see how I feel, and then watch it again. Declaring a movie to be a perfect  10/10 immediately after first viewing is knee-jerk and driven primarily by the residual elation from a recent dopamine rush. Or at least, those are my feelings on the matter.

Isle of Dogs is probably a perfect 10/10 film.

To put things in perspective, the last film I saw and immediately considered to be a perfect 10/10 was There Will Be Blood, and I saw that movie when it came out in 2007. Just as a point of reference, that’s how hardline I am about the whole “let it resonate” approach to rating films a perfect score. I just can’t imagine ever feeling differently about Isle of Dogs. I’ve given it a few days, but that’s the best I can do.

Despite my apparent fanboy-dom toward Wes Anderson at present, in truth, I’m actually not a huge fan of his work. Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox all stand out as amazing works to me, but they were never overwhelming favorites of mine. Some of his other films I just flat out didn’t enjoy. It’s a tonal thing, I believe. His genius and capabilities as a powerhouse of artistic cinema have never escaped me, but he’s also never been my preferred flavor. Anderson’s usage of German Expressionism, aesthetically speaking, in The Grand Budapest Hotel was staggeringly gorgeous to look at, and I believe I watched it numerous times in the span of a month. But I never found the story, characters, and writing to be particularly memorable.

Topping the visual style and art direction of The Grand Budapest Hotel, I would have thought to be a feat Anderson was unlikely to achieve, but Isle of Dogs is a fine crow, upon which I must now feast. Little impresses me more than a filmmaker knowing when to change the look of a film to suit the narrative. That kind of calculated artistry is what separates the Coens from the Tarantinos.  Anderson is constantly switching between different hues and saturations in Isle of Dogs, but where this would feel forced and maybe even patchworky from less capable directors, here it’s seamless. Even different animation styles are used to change the dynamic. In at least one instance, the stop motion is traded for a more traditional 2D style animation, which I suspected to be vector based, rather than hand drawn, but Anderson has stated “I don’t think there is anything in the whole movie that you would call CG.” Kind of cryptic language, but nevertheless, the sequence served the film well. Occasionally the film goes monochrome, specifically at a grassy field, and it somehow feels incidental. Striking, yet wholly organic. Every scene, without exception, is accented perfectly by its color palate and symmetrical framing.

It’s one of the most visually beautiful films I will ever see.

It would be easy to continue gushing over Anderson’s obviously impeccable visual style, but that’s cheating. It just needs to be seen and appreciated. One day, far from now I hope, Wes Anderson will no longer be with us, and there will never be another like him. I take a lot of comfort in knowing there are probably more Anderson projects on the horizon.

That said, a visual style is only going to give me so much enjoyment from a film.

Unless its setup to be a solely visual experience, I expect the story to move me as well. This is where Anderson has fallen short in my experience. Not even terribly short, but a little shy of amazing. Thematically, Isle of Dogs ripped into me like a ’90s kid unwrapping a Nintendo 64 on Christmas. First, I think Isle of Dogs was heavily critical of the concept of “hivemind.” Here we have a scientist telling people in no uncertain terms that getting rid of all the dogs is unnecessary, and that they’re very close to curing Dog Flu.

No one cares.

Why? Because empirical evidence doesn’t matter to the hivemind. People fear and then people react. There’s no room for critical thinking when the hivemind is threatened. Now the script may well have been written long before our current political climate, but the message transcends current events, unfortunately. I’m not going to get overly political in this article, because it’s not that kind of article, but something, something… Donald Trump and his supporters are destroying the planet to suit their egos. Scientists are warning them, they don’t care.

My personal favorite sequence in Isle of Dogs deals with intrinsic nature. Specifically, the intrinsic nature of children and of dogs. It’s not some doom and gloom cynical commentary on the nature of sentient beings either, it’s actually quite sweet. While passing through an abandoned amusement park, a dog named Chief warns a young boy named Atari that they do not have time to go down the huge slide. He seems to understand he’s being discouraged by Chief, but Atari’s intentions are rigid.  Even after Chief warns Atari he will flat out leave him behind if he goes down the slide, Atari can’t help himself. He’s a child, and children go down slides when they see one. There’s an implication of pure innocence at the heart of the scene. To mirror the aforementioned sequence, Chief is put in a dilemma. Atari throws a stick-shaped object across a field. Chief sees it and declares he will not fetch, as he isn’t compelled to fetch for anyone. After a few moments of futile protest, Chief fetches the stick. Why? Because he’s a dog, and dogs fetch. For the first time in history, I was moved to “happy tears” by a movie.

Full disclosure: I have a dog who is terrible at fetch, and there are plenty of children afraid of slides. It isn’t literal. What I found moving was the idea of a static, inherent playfulness present at the heart of nearly every living creature. Yes, we all harbor evil potentials, but we also harbor endearing ones.

Even still, the film doesn’t forget that we’re inherently flawed, but it empathizes with feeling powerless to one’s own shortcomings, and striving for redemption. Chief reveals in an integral scene that he once had a family, but bit a young boy within the household. He laments on the fact that he didn’t really understand why he bit the boy, it seemed to just be reactionary, out of fear. In a solemn moment he resigns to his aggression saying “I bite.” Chief isn’t a “bad dog,” nor is he depicted as such. He’s a conflicted dog, and an imperfect one, but he’s still a good boy at heart.

It’s inevitable that sometimes we emotionally hurt the people we love, usually out of defense or fear, and then in most cases, we immediately regret it. Sometimes we’re not even aware we’re doing it, let alone can we understand why we did it.

It is not until the mirror is long reflecting a face of vague origins, that we recognize the mutating nature of regret. For dogs, perhaps that’s exemplified in the presence of dirt layers obscuring fur. Good on Chief for rinsing that off and embracing his intrinsically good nature. Good on all of us who are doing the same.

Written by Josh Lami

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