Monkey see, monkey do

By CHRISTOPHER MILLIS  |  September 12, 2006

There are, of course, many kinds and degrees of sweetness, some cloying, others subtle. Among the former have to be included Barbara Moody’s dark charcoal drawings of doe-eyed goats and dreamy-eyed rabbits. They stare into each other’s eyes like troubled lovers; I kept wondering what children’s book they had been commissioned for. Peter Smuts, whose ambition deserves praise, takes toy animals, submerges them in water, and creates large, color-saturated photographs distorted in places ever so slightly by the refraction of light through their aqueous homes. You can tell the artist has invested great meaning here by the scale (36x54) and the strained intensity of the pictures, with their focus on the animals’ visages. But that meaning does not translate; the provocation they intend to pack feels lighthearted, the threat feels rehearsed — bar banter rather than a real argument. It doesn’t matter that the zebra’s oversized eyes make it look as if it were about to be hit by a truck, or that the surrounding wash of throbbing yellow might emanate from a nuclear hit. It’s still a toy.

“LA VIE D’UN CHIEN:” John Harden’s short film succeeds as raucous comedy, as a cinéma-vérité send-up, and as an homage to human libido and canine sensitivity.
Not every serving in “Going Ape” tastes like dessert. In John Harden’s 13-minute black-and-white film “La vie d’un chien” (“The Life of a Dog”), a young scientist discovers a serum that temporarily allows people to assume canine form. Experimenting first on himself, the protagonist consummates his love for his pet Pekingese, Sylvie, making her man’s best friend in a whole new way. When he shares the formula of his discovery over the Internet, groups of otherwise decorous citizens take to the streets at night to run in packs, sniff under one another’s tails, hump, and chase cars. The authorities, of course, are alarmed, and the scientist is made to come up with an antidote, but the one he creates locks people into their doggy bodies. In the closing moments, Sylvie and our protagonist as mutt disappear into the darkness of a Paris street. Done in the style of a Ken Burns documentary with voiceovers and photo stills, “La vie d’un chien” succeeds at multiple levels — as raucous comedy, as a send-up of cinéma-vérité, and as an homage to both human libido and canine sensitivity.

The same can’t be said of the two other films, Mary Kenny’s humorless and didactic animations, “The Hunt” and “Death Down Under.” Both are less than four minutes long and done in the flatfooted style of Gumby. In one, an Eskimo seal hunter gets eaten by a polar bear; in the other, an aboriginal bird hunter gets eaten by a crocodile. And there’s about that much suspense. Maybe I’m just deaf and blind to an æsthetic that prizes technical naïveté and heavy doses of message bearing. (The seal hunter has just slaughtered his prey when the polar bear shows up; the bird hunter has just downed a heron when the croc enacts nature’s revenge.)

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