It's always exciting and a little bit scary watching some maverick artist flirting with the mainstream. The failures are innumerable and awful to behold, but you never know when some cultish filmmaker might hit on that perfect alchemy fusing personal style and commercial viability.
For Mike White, that golden moment came in 2003 with his script for Richard Linkater's School of Rock, a project that filtered cleverly skewed writing through heaping portions of that Hollywood staple usually described as "heart." The jokes were more accessible, the general disposition sunnier and the ending more unambiguously happy, but School of Rock was still clearly a White project. It still displayed that feel for the margins of the story and the awkward graces of its oddly contoured characters, qualities that made White's previous scripts for Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl such unique treats.
The pieces still have strange shapes that don't quite fit together in Year of the Dog, but White's directorial debut is one step closer to the center and two steps back. It's a curious little movie, made all the more curious by a rigorously applied sincerity that sometimes seems out of step with the story's odder instincts, as if the writer/director is trying a little too hard to divest himself of irony.
The sweet but slightly off-kilter tale told here concerns a girl and her dog — or rather, a girl and her lack of a dog, since the beloved pooch in question dies shortly after the film begins. Former SNL cast member Molly Shannon plays the former pet owner, Peggy Spade, a pleasantly average office drone with a rigor mortis smile and a cubicle festooned with Cathy comic strips. Most of Year of the Dog details devastated, pet-less Peggy's efforts to deal with her loss, but the narrative is less event-driven plot than loosely connected vignettes featuring an assortment of quirky acquaintances.
White fashions the material as comedy, but comedy of a mostly droll, understated sort as he puts Peggy through her paces looking for some way to plug up the hole in her heart. A series of bad dates pushes Peggy in other directions as we watch her become, in due course, a vegan and then an animal rights activist. "It's nice to have a word that describes you," she smiles.
By the end of Year of the Dog, Peg has taken it upon herself to rescue a small army of homeless canines who, naturally, proceed to wreak havoc upon her personal space — but the deeper the woman's life spirals into chaos, the more strangely serene she becomes. White doesn't seem to know quite how or when to end his story, but these odd little moments of contrast become punch lines unto themselves.
By the final few scenes, dog poop and pandemonium are rampant, while Peggy drifts through the bedlam murmuring such New Agey affirmations of life as "magical" and "precious."
It's hard to get a grip on just what we're supposed to make of much of this, since, a lot like one of the abused, confused animals that Peggy rescues, the movie licks your face one moment and nips at your hand the next. White clearly wants us to be touched by Peggy's plight, but it's understandable that we wind up focusing on a running anti-gag that has Shannon's character making statements so deluded and self-serious that they become instantly, unintentionally ridiculous.
Everyone on screen cracks up at these moments, as will many of us in the audience, but the puzzle we're left with is Shannon's straighter-than-straight face informing us in no uncertain terms, "It's not a joke."
Anyway you look at it, though, it's a dog life at the movies this week. A canine image also figures prominently in the opening moments of Bamako, a half-fascinating, half-infuriating new film from Africa. And that dog is so thoroughly beaten down, too hot and tired to even stand, that it's quite possibly nothing less than a symbol of the African people themselves.
If that sounds a bit excessive, you'll just have to deal with it, because hugely audacious conceits — albeit hugely audacious conceits leavened with whimsy and poetic abstractions — are completely in keeping with Bamako's game plan. After all, this is a movie that revolves around a trial so cosmically proportioned it borders on the absurd: The defendant is global capitalism, the plaintiff all of African society.
This postmodern African J'Accuse is the brainchild of the Mauritian filmmaker Abderrahmnane Sissako, but Bamako has little in common with the lovely, languorous life slices of the director's previous Waiting for Happiness. There are slices of life here, too — the trial takes place in a dusty, communal courtyard shared by several families who make periodic appearances — but the bulk of Bamako takes the form of a passionate but often dauntingly academic debate on Western culpability in the ongoing oppression of Africa.
Speaker after speaker line up to rail against the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and indeed all the agents and offenses of Western capitalism. Facts and figures are tossed around pointing out payment deficits and budget discrepancies, and damning historical analyses of colonization are offered up with relentless urgency.
There are interesting nuances here if you look closely — almost all of the participants are black, for instance, but the principal prosecuting and defending lawyers are both white; and though many African dialects are heard, the official language of the court is that grand old European power-tongue, French — but the film we're given here is essentially a one-sided political debate, prone to the same problems as all such debates, no matter how noble, from Michael Moore to Jean-Luc Godard.
It's when Bamako breaks up its arguments with scenes from the courtyard, a beautifully textured African microcosm for sure, that the movie really comes to life. Sussako's camera catches daily life on the fly — kids playing, couples bickering, people at prayer, goods being peddled, bribes being passed — and even opens and closes the film with a simple act of song (a lovely, surging performance by Alissa Maiga that is alone worth the price of admission). The director allows his film to breathe in this way, incorporating these elegant images with seeming effortlessness into the procession of bureaucrats, academics, artists and working stiffs who come to testify before the court.
It's worth noting that one of these witnesses — a lanky, old-before-his-time ex-schoolteacher — is simply too anguished to speak. The judge repeatedly asks, "You've nothing to say?" as the witness stands mute, even though it's painfully clear he's got plenty on his mind. So much, in fact, that it's impossible to know where or how to begin spitting it out. This is a supremely eloquent statement, this pained silence saying more than reams of words, and Bamako would have been an even better film with more of it.