Monday, October 10, 2011

Miguel Arteta | Chuck & Buck / Richard Linklater | School of Rock / Jared Hess | Nacho Libre / Mike White | Year of the Dog

the unordinary obsessions of ordinary lives
by Douglas Messerli

Mike White (writer), Miguel Arteta (director) Chuck & Buck / 2000
Mike White (writer), Richard Linklater (director) School of Rock / 2003
Jared Hess, Jerusha Hess and Mike White (writers), Jared Hess (director) Nacho Libre / 2006
Mike White (writer and director) Year of the Dog / 2007

In Year of the Dog an ordinary secretary, Peggy (a part written by scriptwriter Mike White for actress Molly Shannon) lives a regular, if uneventful, life, stopping on her way to the office to purchase donuts for her fellow workers, regularly visiting her brother and his wife, mindful always to bring gifts for their two children. Her warm and inviting home is filled with the energy of her young pet dog, Pencil.

     We quickly recognize, however, that the thoughtfulness of this woman and her seeming joy in her pet, are, in part, a cover for a desperate loneliness and dissociation from the opposite sex. As she later reports, other people (in particular, men) have hurt her in the past; dogs remain loyal.

     But one night even Pencil decides to escape the confines of her yard, going in search of other pleasures in the next door neighbor’s garage, where he evidently ingests some poisonous substance. Peggy hears the dog’s gasping cries the next morning as she awakens, and rushes the animal to a veterinarian, but it is too late: her beloved pet dies. With his death, her world collapses.

     Having met the next door bachelor (played by John C. Reilly) in her search for the dog, she accepts an invitation to dinner. His admission that he “accidentally” shot his childhood pet and that he gets “a rush” from hunting completely repels her, and by the end of the evening she is searching his garage to uncover what she almost seems to perceive as a “murder weapon.” In fact, the hole in the fence and her lack of insistence that the dog return home have been just as responsible for her animal’s death, but, like so many of us, in her sorrow she is unable to recognize her own culpability.

     Perceiving her distress, the veterinarian’s assistant, Newt (touchingly acted by Peter Sarsgaard), suggests she adopt one of his dogs, a formerly abused animal. His need to continue training it results in a friendship between the two. Peggy, it is clear, has found a soul mate and is so desperate to please him that she becomes, like him, a vegan, and quickly begins sharing his passion for helping all animals, including becoming involved in radical animal rights organizations and, against the directive of her boss, mixing those activities with her office work, which extends to signing business checks over to her new charities. Later, while babysitting her brother’s daughter and baby son, she absconds with the overprotected children, taking them on a visit to a farm that saves animals from slaughter, and then threatening to take her young niece to a local chicken manufacturer to witness the slaughterhouse events.

     Newt, moreover, cannot return her growing love for him. White subtly reveals all in a graceful aside: at the moment he is not ready for a girlfriend or even boyfriend, he tells her. He’s currently celibate. Clearly gay or bisexual, Newt has contracted AIDS or is HIV-positive. In his warning to Peggy that each household is allowed only three pets because the human heart is only able to love a few at a time, we recognize that either he or his former companion had perhaps once tried to embrace too many in their sexual activities.

     Newt’s warning is intentionally subtle, and Peggy clearly does not comprehend it. For suddenly, in her emptiness—particularly after her new dog kills one of Newt’s animals and he is compelled to have her pet euthanized—Peggy’s new passion for animals results in what could only be described as promiscuous behavior. A trip to the pound results in her bringing dozens of dogs home.

      Chaos results; her previously ordered existence is overturned with the animals’ literal destruction of her house. Meanwhile, her boss has discovered her fraudulent acts, and when she returns home after being fired, she discovers the city authorities have impounded her new pets. Once again, she blames her neighbor—although we know that Newt, in fact, is responsible for this act. Breaking into her neighbor’s garage Peggy discovers the source of Pencil’s death, a bag of snail poison. 

     A kind of madness follows, as she pours the contents of the bag onto Al’s living room floor and grabs a knife from his special collection, lying in wait so that he, like the animals he has hunted, can know the fear of being stalked and murdered. Fortunately, the neighbor grapples her to the floor before she can cause any further damage.

     After a period of recuperation, her life resumes, her brother arranging for her company to reemploy her. Peggy survives the office atmosphere, however, only a few hours before escaping via bus to a new life, a life, which in its relation to animals, she now recognizes defines and fulfills her as a human being.

    In nearly all of the films written by Mike White, oddball characters gradually move from their obsessions to a recognition of their place in life, temporarily losing touch with reality only to later reintegrate themselves into the society at large. In White’s comic masterwork, Chuck and Buck, Buck—unable to separate boyhood male to male sexual groping with his friend Chuck from the fact that Chuck is now an adult heterosexual—believes he can win his former friend away from his current fiancée by presenting the “facts” within a play, revealing the “truth” through art. Obviously his truth is a false one. Only after stalking his ex-lover and insisting they engage in one more night of sexual intercourse does Buck gradually recognize the truth, allowing him  to find a fulfilling role in life.

     In the more mainstream School of Rock, Dewey Finn, kicked out of his heavy metal, rock band, attempts to use school children to return to fame; but in their developing musical abilities and struggle to win a local battle of bands, he rediscovers himself as a music teacher, founding a School of Rock.

     In Nacho Libre, a dissatisfied cook in a monastery escapes into the Mexican world of luchadores to become a wrestler, hoping to raise money for the orphans. Like Buck and Dewey he remains a loser, and when his identity is discovered he is ousted from the monastery; yet he redeems himself, not only by defeating the champion Ramses, but by reinventing and restoring his relationship with his former life, treating the orphans to field trips, accompanied by the beautiful Sister Encarnación.

     White’s new film, his directorial premiere, continues this pattern. In a time when many works of fiction and film embrace the outsider only to the mock the society at large, or cynically champion the society at the expense of those who cannot easily fit into its falsely ordered classifications, it is refreshing that White’s characters succeed in their struggles to have both unusual obsessions while embracing the everyday worlds around them.

Los Angeles, April 27, 2007
Reprinted from Nth Position [England] (May 2007).

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