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Saturday, August 22, 2009

A Battle for Love (on Lasse Hallstrom's My Life as a Dog)





Lasse Hallström, Reidar Jönsson [based on his novel], Brasse Brännström, and Per Berglund (screenplay), Lasse Hallström (director) Mitt Liv Som Hund (My Life as a Dog) / 1985

I first saw My Life as a Dog when it originally appeared in 1985, equally enjoying it again on television this year. And in a year gone "to the dogs," (the connecting link of My Year 2007) how could I resist briefly speaking of Lasse Hallström's moving work, devoted to a child whose has, to his way of thinking, been as unloved and overlooked as the famed Russian mutt, Laika, I describe elsewhere, sent into space, as the child puts it, "without enough food to survive?" The boy, Ingemar, (beautifully performed by the young Anton Glanzelius) has, himself, been lied to, told that his beloved dog, Sicuan, was been sent to a kennel at the moment he himself was shipped off to his uncle's house in the small Swedish town of Kalmar, a move to provide his terminally ill mother some peace; but in fact, as his friend, Saga, tells him late in the film, the pet has been euthanized. Is it any wonder that the child transforms himself into a barking beast, holing up in a kind of doghouse, his uncle's newly built one-room "summer retreat?"

Fortunately, Ingemar's situation is not as horrifying as it seems. The mother, who spends much of the early part of the film alternating between quiet bedroom rest (she is dying of tuberculosis) and fits of frustration and anger for her children's quarrels, has previously been—as we witness in flashbacks of Ingemar's memories—a joyful and loving woman. Yet the more he and his brother try to take over household chores and keep themselves out of trouble, the more havoc they wreck on their dying mother's peace. The brothers, accordingly, are separated, Ingemar going to a maternal uncle in Småland.

Lucky for Ingemar he is placed in an easy going and loving home of his uncle Gunnar and his wife, where the chaos which he created in his mother's house is utterly accepted. For Kalmar is a town filled, like most small towns, with eccentrics. Unfortunately, for the film, some of the eccentricities come right out of the standard catalogue of film types we've seen in small-town-based productions from Ealing films such as Whisky Galore to Federico Fellini's Armacord.

Mr. Arvidsson, and old man living downstairs from the family asks Ingemar to read him passages each evening from a lingerie catalogue he hides under his mattress. Fransson spends most of his life upon the roof of his house, repairing any possible leaks. Konstnörne, the local sculptor, entices the shapely girl, Berrit, to pose nude for him; she agrees to do so, but only with Ingemar in tow for her protection. Saga, a young girl of Ingemar's age, plays soccer and boxes better than any boy in the town, but feels compelled, with Ingemar's help, to keep her breasts a secret, strapping them tightly in tape. All these characters and others come together regularly in the factory of the town's major employer, the Boda glassworks.

Befriended by many of these figures, the slightly clumsy, ill-at-ease Ingemar is made to feel at home, and, before long is playing on the soccer team and sparring with Saga. Yet he is also a circumspect young boy, and frequently compares his life with tragedies such as that of Laika and a man who, taking a shortcut across a the field during a track meet, was killed by a javelin. His brooding mind is met with the loony joyfulness of his uncle, whose favorite record is the Swedish ditty, "Far, jag kan inte få upp min kokosnöt" ("Oh, What a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts").

After a few months in this zany world, Ingemar is returned home, where it quickly becomes apparent that his mother is near death. Unable to comprehend the situation, Ingemar spends a great deal of the time choosing a special Christmas gift for her: a toaster that will be easy to operate and not make too much noise. She dies before he can present her with the evidence of his love. This time he is sent to his other uncle in the city, but is quickly deemed "crazy" by his wife, and is packed off to the country uncle once more.

This time, however, things have seemingly changed. The glassworks company have replaced Mr. and Mrs. Arvidsson (the old man has died) with a large Greek family on the first floor of his uncle's home, and there is no longer any room to bed the boy in the house. Late each evening Ingemar is trundled off to old Mrs. Arvidsson, a worn-out, slightly cynical woman, with whom he must share a bed. Ingemar has insisted that his uncle send for Sicuan, his kenneled dog, but every day the uncle seems to forget to do so. Ingemar's friends continue to welcome him, but Saga, although still a top athlete, can no longer hide her womanhood, and she and another girl fight over Ingemar's attentions. Angry over his agreement to attend a party with her competition, Saga cannot resist revealing the truth about his dog. For the insightful young Ingemar, the death of his beloved dog suddenly brings his situation into new perspective, as in his pain for both his mother's and pet's death, he must face that perhaps he is not so much better off that the figures he has read of and heard about in the newspapers and on radio. His escape to the "summer house" is, in a sense, a retreat to a small world, where he can briefly gain control over his own current of events.

The news that Mr. Fransson is coming down from his roof for his semi-annual bath in the river, electrifies everyone, and, after his uncle breaks down the door to the summer house where Ingemar hides, the boy readily joins him and the other townspeople to witness the swim.
The movie ends with most of the town listening to the famed boxing bout of June 26, 1959, between Swedish boxer Ingemar Johansson (with whom, obviously, the younger boy shares his first name) and Floyd Patterson, a bout, as all boxing enthusiasts know, that ended with Patterson knocked "out on his feet." The townsfolk are delighted, some, in celebration, coming to their front doors to scream out their joy. Saga and Ingemar, after having sparred so many times throughout this film, lie together on a couch, blissfully unaware of the event. It is clear that the young Ingemar has won his own battle for love.

Los Angeles, August 17, 2007

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