Sunday, September 30, 2012

What the Dog Said

I got a family dog late in my childhood. A few months before my high school graduation, my parents finally acquiesced to my sister's years of requests for a puppy. As a birthday gift, she got to pick out Cosmo (for whatever reason, I was allowed to pick the name, and my family somehow agreed to name him after Kramer from Seinfeld), and I finally had a real pet for the first time in my life. On a semi-related note, fish are stupid and a waste of time.

What I quickly discovered about having a dog — in the months before I went away to college and during the breaks I spent back at home — is how simultaneously smart and moronic he was. I was amazed at how quickly he took to potty-training, realizing that if he rang the bell hanging from the door, someone would let him outside. (I was even more impressed when he began to ring the bell just so he could get attention, waiting at the door long enough for someone to walk all the way there before he ran away, doing whatever a dog's version of sardonic cackling might be.) He knew all the best ways to guilt someone into giving him a treat, and when they would finally put their foot down, he would smugly jaunt over to his most recent hiding spot to chew on one he had previously stashed away for such an occasion. He began to recognize our cars as they came down the street. If you told him to get his rope, he would go and get his rope. I once bought him an edible bone for Christmas and placed it in a taped-shut box in the basement. I found him gnawing on the bone in the kitchen less than an hour later, a seemingly carefully opened box left strew on the carpet a floor below his cream-colored paws. As the star of the sitcom responsible for Cosmo's name once said: “Dogs are the leaders of the planet. If you see two life forms — one of them's making a poop, the other one's carrying it for him — who would you assume is in charge?”

And yet, dogs are also ridiculously stupid. Cosmo never seems to learn that you don't actually have a treat in your hand. He turns and takes off no matter how many times you fake the throw and hide the ball behind your back. He always, always, always looks only at your finger when you point to something, instead of looking where you're pointing. And no dog in the history of existence has ever figured out that it's a mirror, not an identical dog staring right back at them. They are shocking on both ends of the spectrum, the ideal example of an idiot savant.

Dogs have mastered the art of contradiction.

The television series Wilfred on FX has become one of my favorite shows on television over the course of its initial two seasons. Adapted from the Australian series of the same name, it's a dark comedy about Ryan (Elijah Wood, AKA Frodo Baggins), a previously suicidal young man whose smarts (he went to law school) are in a constant battle with his mental unease, and Wilfred (Jason Gann, series co-creator), the dog who lives next door. Everyone else — including his attractive owner, Jenna — sees Wilfred as the regular dog that he is, while Ryan instead sees him as a full-grown (Australian) man, wearing a dog suit, walking upright and speaking to Ryan the way Ryan would talk to any other human being. Wilfred is still a dog, but that's just not quite how Ryan sees him. Rather, he sees Wilfred acting essentially as a person would act were they wearing a dog outfit, while also partaking in vices such as smoking, drinking, using corse language, doing profane things with stuffed animals and manipulating Ryan's life in destructive yet hilarious ways.

Ryan, a completely functional and otherwise rational adult, seems fully aware of how insane and crazy his relationship is with Wilfred...but he's ultimately ok with it. Regardless of how many times Wilfred gets Ryan into ridiculous situations and shenanigans, or the fact that Ryan realizes and acknowledges the unexplainable control Wilfred seems to have over his life, or the reality that everything about Ryan's life is more or less normal other than the HUMAN TALKING MAN-DOG THAT SPEAKS WITH AN AUSTRALIAN ACCENT AND LIVES NEXT DOOR — the two of them become best friends. Ryan comes to believe that deep down, Wilfred genuinely has his best interest at heart and in some way holds the answers to the personal issues plaguing Ryan's mind. And despite all evidence to the contrary, I as the viewer almost feel the same way. The show manages to manifest this odd desire to trust the vulgar talking dog next door as much as the young man from The Shire seems to.

The show recently finished a very entertaining and hilariously quirky second season, a perfect pairing alongside Louie for FX's summer comedy lineup. The dark and twisted storyline of (what one can only assume to be) a mentally disturbed young man drifting, unbeknownst, through young adulthood is offset by the constant Aussie-twinged canine humor that Wilfred employs. The show is able to succeed comedically with Wilfred as this deviant, evil genius thanks to the ubiquitous reminders that he is actually just a regular dog (from the viewpoint of everyone else). His scheming and chain smoking are “humanized” by him describing his fondness for the sunspot he naps in, unconsciously keeping a grip on the tennis ball after he retrieves and returns it during fetch, or pondering if his owner still exists elsewhere in the world when she leaves the house (not to mention the humorous exaggerations of an X-rated evening with a stuffed giraffe, a battle for cuteness with a newborn baby or eating a refrigerated bucket of his own vomit).

The audience sees Wilfred in the same way Ryan does, leaving us with similar questions and curiosity as to when they will all be answered. How long will this relationship last under its current structure? Is it like a Fight Club or Sixth Sense situation? Is Wilfred a creation of Ryan's manic insanity? Is the show tapping into a nuanced examination of mental illness? Is this an artistically adapted prologue to Lord of the Rings?

And that is really the show's greatest accomplishment. It combines those gripping and suspenseful questions with a talking animal. It touches on topics of mental health, broken families and death alongside jokes involving dog sex and churros. It forces us to contemplate whether the bearded Australian — wearing a furry grey onesie and greasepaint on his nose as he lights a bong — is evil, good-intentioned, or even real. It's the perfect blend of low-brow and high-brow; serious issues mixed with immature humor.

An ominous drama contradicted by a man dressed up as a dog.

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Sunday, September 16, 2012

His Back Pages

Bob Dylan has long been a man with a noted interest on the topics of life and mortality, the inescapable pain of lost love and the inevitability of life ending. Now, he's embracing these things.

The 71-year-old Dylan released (what I believe to be) his 35th studio album last Tuesday, entitled Tempest. It comes just over a half-century since his eponymous debut in March of 1962, still touching on those similar themes of life and death and the true value of what occurs between them, only now with a much more contented air of acceptance. As Eric Forman of That '70s Show once said: “You know, life is like a train. It's bearing down on you, and guess what? It's gonna hit you. So you can either start running when it's far off in the distance, or you can pull up a chair, crack open a beer and just watch it come.” Bob Dylan has transitioned to the full, more eloquent embodiment of the latter half of that dilemma. Although as Tempest makes quite obvious, the train still has some ground to cover.

The album is widely being claimed as Dylan's darkest and most sinister thus far (more ominous than the gloom and sorrow of Blood on the Tracks, less contemplative and more brash than Time Out of Mind), and yet it still manages to retain a wry, crooked smirk through all 10 tracks, almost reveling in the darkness. “Tin Angel” weaves yet another of Dylan's notorious and melodic yarns, this one about love and betrayal and murder. “Narrow Way” touches on lust and carnal desires, “Long and Wasted Years” on the magnetic yet ultimately fleeting powers of companionship (“So much for tears / So much for these long and wasted years”). The title track spends 14 minutes on the fate of the Titanic, while the culminating song laments John Lennon's death, though one can almost imagine Dylan singing it for himself when his time comes. He remains the same masterful Dylan that he always was (even more so in relation to his past few albums), with just enough mystery and aloofness hanging around to in any way nail him down. Never has there been a person held in such reverence, but of which so little is truly grasped. He is simultaneously renowned man and unattainable myth.

Though it takes a bit longer to appreciate, time has been just as kind to Dylan's voice as it has to his songwriting prowess. Never known for his pitch-perfect crooning, Dylan has always been praised more for how his singing fits his overall sound and persona — the nasally delivery meshing with his folksy constructions; the haunting spitfire of his protestations; the reserved, easy flow of his sardonic tracks; the pressing nature of his electric compilations. Age and repetition have relegated his current vocals to some combination of an angel and garbage disposal, his gravelly growl peppered with the beauty of soul and wisdom, the perfect pairing for an album such as this. The voice is striking and slightly off-putting the first moment you hear it, before gradually rollicking so seamlessly with the music that any deviation would only cause those initial, now-forgotten moments of brow-furrowing to return.

But the man's voice and enigmatic traits are merely evidence of how he has continually redefined himself as an artist countless times over the course of his life: from folk to electric to country to Americana, constantly bouncing back and forth between them and blending them together. For better or worse (and it's often been for better), no Dylan album sounds quite the same. Even the legendary stretch of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde were all distinct masterpieces in their own ways. His steadfast greatness has long been sparked by his reinventions; his unchanging brilliance owed as much to his lyrical artistry as it is to his fearless hatred for complacency.

Though ultimately, it is not his singing or songwriting that deem him so intriguing, but rather the response to it. What makes Dylan special is how strange it is to think of his career in terms of something as trivial as that of a musician. It even feels weird to discuss Dylan in terms of having a “career” at all, as it seemingly devalues his life's achievements in some way. It's odd to think of his “profession” providing for himself and his family and making him rich beyond our wildest dreams, because we so often focus instead on how important and revered he is in the zeitgeist of our culture and individual lives. We refer to him as an artist because singer/songwriter seems too superfluous; we idolize him as a deity because “musician” doesn't pay him enough respect.

Maybe that's why Tempest is so dark in tone. Maybe it's so obsessed with death because its effects on Dylan will prove to be meaningless. Maybe he's embraced mortality because the concept feels so foreign to him. All that he's accomplished and the impact he's had on so many will allow him to live forever. The number of breaths that remain in his lungs will not determine whether he lives or dies.

In 1965, Dylan sang “He not busy being born is busy dying.” Despite being somewhat depressing, this sentiment is true. In 2012, Dylan sang “The more I die, the more I live.” For him, this sentiment is also true.

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