Best in Show (2000)’s Comedic Perversion of Gates of Heaven (1978)

One of the most difficult things to pinpoint about Errol Morris’s landmark documentary Gates of Heaven is the question of its tone. In the 1970s, a feature-length documentary about something as quaint as a pet cemetery was met as an absurd concept (so much so that Werner Herzog ate his own shoe over it), so it would be tempting to read a humorous irony into the interviews Morris conducts for the film. There’s no narration, editorializing, or extratextual context provided for the film’s oral histories of an inter-family dispute over ownership of a pet cemetery. The most of his own personality Morris imposes on the story is in his choices in framing & editing, which have a proto-Wes Anderson flavor in their sense of symmetry & color. When an eccentric pet owner sings to their dog or recounts a long, rambling non-sequitur story about their tragically uninteresting children, it’s presented in such a matter-of-fact delivery that it’s difficult to tell if & when Morris is finding them as humorous as his audience does. This documentation of small-town disputes & niche pet-culture eccentrics later turned out to be a huge, blatant influence on the comedic sensibilities of director Christopher Guest. One of Guest’s improv-heavy mockumentaries, the 2000 comedy Best in Show, even mirrored Gates of Heaven’s documentation of eccentric pet owners & the commercial industries that surround their devotion to their animals. And since Guest’s tone is blatantly comedic, the way his own filmmaking style accentuates the quaint humor of his characters is as an excellent demonstration of just how tonally vague Morris’s own style remains.

It’s hard to believe Best in Show was released almost two whole decades ago. Its cast of Guest-regular performers (Bob Balaban, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, Michael McKean, Jennifer Coolidge, Ed Begley Jr, etc.) look so oddly young in retrospect, after watching them age in other projects in the years since. In addition to being a time capsule, Best in Show remains an incredibly endearing comedy, something that’s difficult to achieve in a film that openly (even if gently) mocks the kind of pet-obsessed eccentrics who are more sincerely profiled in works like Gates of Heaven. Errol Morris’s influence on Best in Show is most apparent in the film’s earliest stretch, when these characters are first introduced. Before they converge for a climactic dog show competition, each contestant is individually interviewed in their home environments, which often resemble the 1970s decor of Gates of Heaven’s pet-owner homes (right down to the amateur dog portrait art in the background). Most of the individual contestants are coupled off romantically, except for Christopher Guest’s own bloodhound owner, which is a distinct departure from Errol Morris’s style, which tends to focus on one orator at a time. The bloodhound owner would fit right in with the Morris doc, though, almost recalling the quiet sweetness & tragedy of the lonesome Floyd McClure, the pet cemetery entrepreneur who kicked Gates of Heaven’s entire story into motion. The similarities between the two works becomes less apparent as the contestants coverage for the actual dog show competition, because Best in Show then resembles a traditional sports movie narrative instead of a quaint documentary. In the early, introductory stretch, however, you can detect Morris’s fingerprints all over the picture, something that’s only betrayed by the movement of Christopher Guest’s camera.

Part of Morris’ distancing tone is in how his film captures long uninterrupted oral histories of a pet cemetery dispute in a static camera, only coloring interviewees’ input through the background imagery he chose to frame them with. To establish a more distinctly comedic tone, Guest more often “interviews” two characters at the same time, allowing more improvisational play & establishing a quicker pace. There are more interviewees, more live pets, more location changes, more camera movement, more everything. Instead of framing his characters with Wes Andersonian symmetry & calm, he allows the camera to drift back & forth between speakers to accentuate a ridiculous statement or an incredulous reaction. If there is a blatant sense of humor to Gates of Heaven, it’s to be found in the film’s matter of fact documentation of mundanity. Best in Show runs with that thread, making its characters out to be incredibly boring, in that it’s genuinely incredible how boring they are. As much as anyone can assume what Morris was up to in his work, I don’t think Gates of Heaven is mocking his subjects the way a mockumentary must, by design. Similarly, Christopher Guest’s own characters are played with a kind of sweetness (give or take a high-strung yuppie couple with an unseemly J. Crew catalog addiction), even if their extreme mundanity is supposed to be read as humorous. Guest just makes their screentime quicker, broader, and more dynamic in motion than Morris does, because Guest must establish a comedic rhythm instead of allowing one to arise naturally (if at all).

Again, I’m not sure exactly how much humor or ironic detachment Errol Morris intended his audience to read into Gates of Heaven. All Best of Show can illustrate is how that movie may have looked if it were clearly tipped in that direction, fully committed to establishing a comedic tone in capturing the eccentricity of hopelessly devoted pet owners. The two films do feel oddly complementary, though, even if only because they both find an endearing sweetness in most of their subjects, no matter how distanced they remain from them. Best in Show resembles Gates of Heaven (especially in its earliest, introductory stretch) not necessarily because of its similar subject matter, but because it finds genuine fascination in the eccentric mundanity of the pet industry it depicts.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, the landmark pet cemetery documentary Gates of Heaven, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its resulting promotional-stunt Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.

-Brandon Ledet

Isle of Dogs (2018)

Director Wes Anderson has such a meticulously curated aesthetic that his work is almost polarizing by design. As his career has developed over the decades, long outlasting the wave of “twee” media it partly inspired, he’s only more fully committed himself to the fussed-over dollhouse preciousness of his manicured visual style. That can be a huge turnoff for audiences who prefer a messier, grimier view of the world that accepts chaos & spontaneity as an essential part of filmmaking. Personally, I can’t help but be enraptured with Anderson’s films, as if my adoration of his work were a biological impulse. Like the way house cats host parasites that fool pet owners into caring for them, it’s as if Wes Anderson has nefariously wired my brain to be wholly onboard with his artistic output. It’s a gradual poisoning of my critical thinking skills that stretches back to my high school years, when his films Rushmore & The Royal Tenenbaums first established him as a (divisive) indie cinema icon. Anderson’s latest work, Isle of Dogs, only makes his supervillain-level command over my critical mind even more powerful by directly pandering directly to things I personally love. A stop-motion animated sci-fi feature about doggos who run wild on a dystopian pile of literal garbage, the basic elevator pitch for Isle of Dogs already sounds like a Mad Libs-style grab bag of the exact bullshit I love to see projected on the big screen, even without Wes Anderson’s name attached. As he already demonstrated with Fantastic Mr. Fox, the director’s twee-flavored meticulousness also has a wider appeal when seen in the context of stop-motion, which generally requires a level of whimsy, melancholy, and visual fussiness to be pulled off well. That’s why it’s so frustrating that Isle of Dogs is so flawed on such a fundamental, conceptual level and that I can’t help but thoroughly enjoy it anyway, despite my better judgment.

Set decades into the future in a dystopian Japan, Isle of Dogs details the samurai epic-style adventure of a young boy attempting to rescue his dog from an evil, corrupt government (helmed by his own uncle). All dogs in his region have been exiled to the pollution-saturated hell of Trash Island (which is exactly what it sounds like) amidst mass hysteria over a canine-specific virus, “snout fever.” The story is split between two efforts: a search & rescue mission involving the boy & a gang of talking Trash Island dogs (voiced by Bryan Cranston, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Ed Norton, Bob Balaban, Tilda Swinton, etc.) and a much less compelling political intrigue narrative in which an American foreign exchange student (voiced by Greta Gerwig) attempts to expose the government’s villainous deeds. As an American outsider himself, Wes Anderson is at times contextually positioned in the POV of both the Trash Island Dogs and the foreign exchange student, the only consequential English-speaking characters in the film (a large portion of the dialogue is unsubtitled Japanese). In his worst impulses, Anderson is like Gerwig’s foreign exchange student– an enthusiastic appreciator of Japanese culture who awkwardly inserts themselves into conversations where they don’t belong, wrongfully feeling entitled to authority on a subject that is not theirs to claim. From a more generous perspective, Anderson is like one of the American-coded trash dogs– compelled to honor & bolster Japanese art from a place of humbled servitude, even though he doesn’t quite speak the language (either culturally or literally). By choosing to set an English language story in a fictional Japanese future, Wes Anderson has invited intense scrutiny that often overpowers Isle of Dogs’s ambitious sci-fi themes, talking-dog adorability, and visually stunning artwork. This is especially true in Gerwig’s (admittedly minor) portion of the plot, which sticks out like a sore thumb as one of the film’s more conceptually flawed impulses. For a work so visually masterful & emotionally deft, it’s frustrating that it seemingly wasn’t at all self-aware of its own cultural politics.

There are much better-equipped critics who’ve more thoughtfully & extensively tackled the nuanced ways Isle of Dogs has failed to fully justify its Japanese culture-gazing: Inkoo Kang, Justin Chang, Emily Yoshida, Alison Willmore, to name a few. As a white American, it’s not my place to declare whether this gray area issue makes the film worthy of vitriol or just cautions consideration. I could maybe push back slightly on the cultural appropriation claims that say there’s no reason the story had to be framed in Japan and that Anderson only chose that setting for its visual aesthetic. Like Kubo & The Two Strings’s philosophical relationship with the finality of death (or lack thereof), Isle of Dogs engages with themes of honor and ancestry that feel very specific to its Japanese setting (even if not at a fully satisfying depth). Truth be told, though, I likely would have enjoyed the film even without that thematic justification. Unless Isle of Dogs is your very first exposure to the director’s work, you’ve likely already formed a relationship with Wes Anderson as an artist, whether positive or negative. It’s a relationship that can only be reinforced as the director doubles down with each project, sinking even deeper into his own particular quirks. I assumed with Moonrise Kingdom that no film could have possibly gotten more Wes Andersony. Its follow-up, Grand Budapest Hotel, immediately proved that assumption wrong. While Isle of Dogs stacks up nicely to either of those films in terms of visual achievements, its own doubling-down on the Wes Anderson aesthetic is tied to the director’s long history of blissful ignorance in approaching POC cultures (most notably before in The Darjeeling Limited). It does so by submerging itself in a foreign culture entirely without fully engaging with the implications of that choice. As a longtime Anderson devotee in the face of this doubling-down, I’m going to have to reconcile my love of his films with the fact that this exact limitation has always been a part of them, that I’ve willfully overlooked it in my appreciation of what he achieves visually, emotionally, and comedically elsewhere. Isle of Dogs is a gorgeous work of visual art and a very distinct approach to dystopian sci-fi. It’s a great film, but also a culturally oblivious one. The conversation around that internal conflict is just as vital as any praise for its technical achievements.

-Brandon Ledet

Mascots (2016)

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threehalfstar

Christopher Guest’s brilliance as a comedy director has always relied on a kind of subtlety & understatement that lends his behind-the-camera work to being overlooked. Guest’s best films, titles like Waiting for Guffman & Best in Show, are densely populated with cartoonishly over-the-top, attention-hogging characters, so the director wisely takes a back seat in a lot of his own works. He fosters an improv-loose environment & sets a distinct narrative stage for his performers in each film, but otherwise isn’t especially flashy in his own directorial style and a lot of the humor in his films is derived from that dynamic. He’s like the improv comedy version of Robert Altman. As time goes on, Guest continues to return to that tried & true formula and his work starts to feel even more understated & undervalued. The mockumentary style Guest established in his early work has since infiltrated every corner of American television. The Office, Parks & Recreation, Modern Family, Arrested Development, the most recent version of The Muppets: Guest’s humor has almost completely replaced the traditional laugh track sitcom, so it has become even more difficult to parse out exactly what makes him special as a hand-off director with a consistently even keel. There’s no better example of what I’m describing here than Guest’s latest work, the Netflix-distributed comedy Mascots.

Mascots has been generally received with an underwhelmed shrug, largely due to the perceived career-long sameness of Christopher Guest’s catalog as a whole. In all of his films a group of hubris-oblivious weirdos in a highly specific field meet for a climactic competition where their personalities clash in both public & private forums. Instead of a dog show or bluegrass concert or an Oscars race this time, Mascots instead stages its climactic showdown at a sports mascot competition. Other than the setting, the Christopher Guest formula remains more or less the same, with the director even reprising his role as Corky St. Clair from Waiting for Guffman (along with Parker Posey’s Cindi Babineaux from the same film) to drive that established tradition home. It’d be reductive to assume that because Guest continually returns to his old grooves & rhythms, though, that Mascots is worthless as a comedy. If the director has proven anything by staging all of his films in a similar fashion, it’s that the formula works. Mascots may not feel as fresh or unique as Guffman did in the early 90s, but it’s still damn funny. Its setting-specific references to “mini tramps” & “Fluffies” combine with dark, perverted tangents about furries, yeast infections, and penis-in-ear sexual intercourse to make for a bizarrely understated comedy that only doesn’t feel strange because its creator’s voice has infiltrated so much American television in the past decade that it’s started to feel normal. By the time Mascots reaches its predetermined climax it can be just as funny as any of Guest’s most well-loved films. It only feels slight due to its modern context.

If anything has shifted in Guest’s insulated world, it’s been the gradual expansion of his usual cast of weirdos. Along with Posey, the director’s regular cast of Jane Lynch, Bob Balaban, Ed Begley Jr., Fred Willard, Jennifer Coolidge, and whoever else fits in that specific set returns to the screen. What’s more important, though, is that Guest has picked up more weirdos along the way. Chris O’Dowd, who had worked with Guest on a short-lived HBO series, steals some spotlight from the director’s veterans as “the badboy of sports mascotery.” He’s joined by familiar character actors from shows like Parks & Recreation and The Office that have sprung up in the wake of Guest’s best-known works. He may not be an especially flashy or experimental filmmaker, but I have great respect for the consistency & the quality of laughs his films deliver, especially since he acknowledges his own influence by recruiting comedians who’ve made a name in the mockumentary television field launched in his shadow. As long as Guest wants to continue to film weirdos in highly specific fields discussing “passion” & “craft” in his tried & true mockumentary formula, I’ll continue to afford him my attention. Nothing made this so clear to me as moment during Mascots‘s climactic competition where the crowd was applauded a literal piece of shit, freshly plunged, and I felt the urge to join them. Christopher Guest has earned my laughter in any context he asks for it.

-Brandon Ledet

I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House (2016)

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twohalfstar

I’m a huge fan of ambient, abstracted horror, but it’s a difficult formula to pull off. The quietly unnerving thrills of titles like Evolution, Beyond the Black Rainbow, Under the Skin, and The Witch are a lot more difficult to pin down than the inventive kills, gruesome creature designs, and effective jump scares more conventional horror films rely on for easy success. It’s always a bigger risk, then, for a horror picture to reach for that atmosphere over genre thrills ethos and I greatly respect I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House for its ambition in chasing menacing abstraction. Unfortunately, though, this straight to Netflix cheapie never quite commands the confidence & soul-shattering dread needed to make its abstracted, intangible terror worthwhile. Instead of dealing in unnerving ambiance, I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House winds up feeling like a studied exercise in emptiness. It’s an admirable stab at abstract horror, but the blade misses its mark and the audience walks away dazed, but entirely unharmed.

Part of the reason this small scale ghost story fails to connect with its atmospheric target is that its central victim never feels like a real person. A live-in nurse caring for an aged horror novelist finds herself alone for days on end in an ancient home. She explains several times in her near-constant narration that “A house can’t be bought or sold by the living. It can only be borrowed from the ghosts who stayed behind.” Although an ostensibly modern character, she always speaks in this measured, inhuman way, breathily peppering her dialogue with phrases like “Heavens to Betsy,” and explaining herself to be a notorious scaredy cat. What follows is a low rent version of Guillermo del Toro’s revivalist Gothic horror Crimson Peak, with the scaredy cat nurse investigating a possible murder committed in the house, one hinted at in her patient’s novel The Lady in the Walls (a nod to the similar in tone short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” no doubt). Her fascination with this mystery slowly ramps up tension in a series of increasingly bizarre hallucinations, but never culminates in a satisfying way, mostly because the audience never really gets to know or care about the one character who quietly witnesses them.

I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House very nearly reaches a worthwhile sense of menacing, abstracted dread in its third act hallucinations. Body horror scares mix with characters plucked from costume drama murder mysteries and a score of eerie hums to hint at the better movie this could’ve been with a better-defined lead character or more of a climactic playoff. Less-patient horror fans will be immediately turned off by the film’s whispered narration & representations of ghosts as feminine figures stalking blurred, black voids, but I don’t think that dedication to stillness & quiet is necessarily its worst impulse. I just think the movie fell a little short in achieving something memorably unnerving. The most immediately significant aspect of the film that comes to mind as I mull over its distinguishing details is a bit role from Bob Balaban, who was barely in the picture. This kind of abstract, loosely held together horror requires a lot of concentrated dedication from its audience’s end, which means that when it fails to make the effort worthwhile it’s easy to feel frustrated with its more glaring shortcomings. I respect I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House for reaching for such a lofty, intangible goal, but it never quite met me halfway in achieving it.

-Brandon Ledet