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genre bigotry

8.15.98

"Buy this magazine or we'll shoot this dog."
- Famous National Lampoon cover

Most of us like to think we're open-minded and above prejudice -- but there's one form of prejudice that's still acceptable: genre bigotry. Have you ever tried to get someone to see a favorite movie, only to be told "I hate Westerns" or "I hate musicals" or the ever-popular snobby "I don't like horror movies"?

My response to, say, "I hate Westerns" (which I've heard a lot lately) is that they don't hate Westerns -- they just haven't seen the good ones. Of course you'd hate Westerns if all you've seen is Pale Rider (not one of Clint's best efforts) or most of the John Wayne oaters he made without John Ford. Of course you'd hate sci-fi if all you had to go on was Battlestar Galactica or Lost in Space (the movie, not the TV show). Of course you'd turn your nose up at horror if your only exposure to it was Hell Night or My Bloody Valentine or any of the dozens of slasher rip-offs of the early '80s. Genre bigotry, like all other forms of bigotry, has its roots in ignorance. Every genre has produced some movies worth seeing.

Having said that, I'll now fess up about the one genre of movie I refuse to see: the animal-buddy movie. This usually involves a lonely kid befriending an animal (dog, cat, whale, seal, whatever), and of course at the end of the movie the animal must move on and there's a tearful goodbye. Well, I can't deal with films like this. I almost never cry at movies, but force me to watch a sad animal movie and I'm sniffling like a woman watching An Affair to Remember.

I'm also one of those hypocrites who have no problem with people being killed in a movie, but can't stand seeing animals killed. (An exception is A Fish Called Wanda, where it's done as black-comedy farce.) If you want a really stupid example of my irrationality in this regard, I remember being totally blindsided by the otherwise forgettable The Fly II when Eric Stoltz went to visit a dog he'd become fond of; the dog had gone through a botched teleportation experiment and come out hideously deformed and dying. As it lay on the floor writhing and whimpering in agony, there I was, misting up at a movie I'd never expected to need Kleenex for. I don't remember anything else about the movie, but I remember that poor suffering dog, which I'm sure was a mechanical puppet anyway. If any humans got killed in the movie, I've forgotten them.

The end-all be-all in this disreputable genre, of course, is Old Yeller. Remember the scene in Stripes where Bill Murray asks his platoon "Who cried at Old Yeller?" and everyone raised his hand? I didn't cry at it, though -- I loathed it intensely. Is there anything easier to do than jerk tears by setting up a friendship between a kid and an animal, and then kill the animal? (Why not kill the kid instead? That, I can handle.) I realize that the term "manipulative" is often misapplied to movies because, as Steven Spielberg has pointed out, all movies are manipulative to greater or lesser degrees; movies are images and sounds manipulated to get a response. But I think that when we feel manipulated -- literally pushed and pulled into an emotional response by a mechanical series of plot points -- then we're right to call it manipulative, and movies like Old Yeller are that and more. I mean, reducing an audience of children to helpless tears -- how evil is that?

I'm sure there are sensitive, well-made movies in this genre -- I understand Shiloh is quite good -- but I'll pass on them anyway. And I realize that everything I said above also applies to E.T., featuring an alien instead of an animal -- and E.T. goes through the whole manipulative nine yards, getting sick and dying and coming back to life and then going back home. The movie gets to me -- I've never not cried at it, no matter how many times I've seen it -- but it doesn't strike me as cruel or sappy. It is perhaps the pinnacle of the genre, and yet doesn't really belong in the genre. And I guess the same can be said of any great film -- be it Blade Runner, Unforgiven, Silence of the Lambs, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Singin' in the Rain -- that superficially fits into a genre and yet transcends it.

To me, everything that can be said about a boy and his non-human friend was said in E.T. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, A Boy and His Dog -- which ends with that ultra-controversial line of dialogue that infuriated so many feminists. I thought it was great, not because I'm a misogynist but because I'm a misanthrope; I would've laughed just as hard if the movie were A Girl and Her Dog and it came down to a choice between the dog and the heroine's boyfriend. Given a choice between a dog and an annoying human, I'll take the dog, thanks.


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