When I heard about the Blind Spot Series blogathon over at The Matinee I knew I would participate this year. I loved the idea of concentrating on 12 foreign and classic movies that every movie lover must see. My list for 2014 is here and I’ve included some modern misses and Asian films from my watchlist as well. As a coming of age film My Life As A Dog blindsided me with its unique meeting of expectations…
You’ll recognize the director of my pick for February’s blind spot movie, Lasse Hallström, from such fare as The Cider House Rules and Chocolat. I too have seen these and while they didn’t linger as powerful films in my memory I remember them as well-made character driven stories. After being nominated for an Academy Award for writing and directing in 1985 and winning Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes, My Life As A Dog became the stepping stone from which Hallström made his way into the American film industry. A Swedish film, there are many reasons to have watched My Life As A Dog, but I chose it not for its illustrious pedigree, but because the title intrigued me.
I wasn’t disappointed.
The movie opens with Ingemar sharing blood with a girl his age and proclaiming they are now married. A train interrupts them, rumbling overhead. After this quick introduction to our precocious 12-year-old protagonist we are thrown into a moment of 4th wall penetration. Sounding remarkably adult-like he explains his philosophy of life:
”I should have told her everything. Mom loved stories like that. It’s not so bad if you think about it. It could have been worse. Just think how that poor guy ended up who got a new kidney in Boston. He got his name in all the papers, but he died just the same. And what about Laika, the space dog? They put her in the Sputnik and sent her into space. They attached wires to her heart and brain to see how she felt. I don’t think she felt too good. She spun around up there for five months until her doggy bag was empty. She starved to death. It’s important to have something like that to compare things to.”
All this in the space of a few minutes time. I don’t want to ruin the best moments for you but this is the power of My Life As A Dog.
A coming of age story, by its very nature, is meant to fulfill certain expectations. For example, if it doesn’t have a young protagonist can in really be labeled coming of age? No. So to a certain extent you will feel a bit of déjà vu, like I did, as if you’ve already seen this story before. Of course, you know you haven’t. Ingemar’s adventures are too distinct, too charming, you’d have remembered each and every one. No it’s the echo of other similar themes lingering in your memory, such is the fate of such genre specific films. It begs the question, though, just what is a coming of age story?
My Life As A Dog is an excellent rendition for us to examine. Anton Glanzelius gives us a great kid to root for in the charming and mischievous Ingemar.
Kids become adults but until then they are under the watch-care of those who must be responsible for them until such time. We hope that most children have a mother and father or some such who love them and want what’s best for them. Ingemar has a mother who is terminally ill and an older brother who deals with that fact in a supremely different way from his little brother, putting them in constant contention.
After Ingemar is sent away to Småland he has his boob-crazy uncle Gunner and his wife, Ulla, the Arvidssons who share the house, and the blonde bombshell of the town, Berti. These are the adults from which Ingemar has to pull his examples in how to deal with life. These relationships shape how Ingemar interacts with the world and it’s no surprise that his actions are pretty erratic and unpredictable.
His mother is at the heart of his world model. She loves stories and he makes every effort to have stories for her she will love. If they aren’t good enough she asks him to leave her to her reading, creating a desire in him to have more and more to share. When he and his brother’s hijinks get too much for her to bear her screaming leaves him rocking back and forth with his fingers in his ears while his brother locks their mother away until she can calm down. How is he to deal with her death any differently?
His mother isn’t the only adult to inspire Ingemar’s unexpected reactions with her puzzling example. His uncle at one point barks madly like a dog at Aunt Ulla and when Ingemar desires to get in on the fun he finds a door summarily slammed in his face. Mr. Arvidsson bonds with Ingemar over the lingerie magazine, but then hides it whenever someone else comes in. His uncle Sandberg takes them in only because their mother is dying, then argues with his wife about keeping his mentally disturbed nephew in the house. You can start to see why Ingemar’s actions not only get him into lots and lots of trouble, but also why he delights us so. We get a view of what it means to be a child dealing with an adult’s world.
This is one of the best parts of My Life As A Dog. In most American coming of age stories the adult tête-à-têtes are kept to a minimum only so far as they have to do with the protagonist’s journey. Here, we get to see the very real and present effect adults have on children.
An Inciting Tragedy
A coming of age story starts with a tragedy. It might not be the dying of a loved one like it is here, but it is as affecting for our young protagonist. Even as we are shown Ingemar is a child on the cusp of adulthood through his relationships, we are shown that he is struggling to replace and yet maintain his mother in his life, even as the woman he remembers so fondly slowly slips away from him.
In the city he has a little blonde girl whom he pals around with at the train bridge and around their homes. He has a fake marriage ceremony with her and reads the paper while she languishes about trying to draw his attention. He provides a fire for his dog, trying to warm him as one might do for their own child. When children feel the effects of a tragedy in their lives, like adults, they try to shore up the status quo, doing the best they can do. In other words, they try to maintain what they have. Ingemar can’t do anything but the same thing.
While this is all setup in the bigger scheme of the story we don’t feel it’s setting up so much as showing us Ingemar’s life. Through the events in My Life As A Dog we see that even if he doesn’t understand -he knows- and he’s trying to adjust even as he’s trying to stay the same.
The inciting tragedy comes to a head and starts our protagonist on his journey. Ingemar and his brother must spend the summer away from their mother, to give her a rest. His uncle Sandberg, who lives in the same city as their mother, sends them off to his mother and brother. Ingemar gets the better end of the stick with his uncle Gunner. (On a side note I do wish they’d have explored his relationship with his brother more and what he experienced at their grandmother’s home.)
On the train Ingemar reflects again on Laika, calling the dog’s mission an example of “human progress” as he sees his being sent to his uncle’s as a way for his mother to get better. In this is a fear that he is at fault for her illness. We only get a small glimmer of this as he talks:
“In fact, I’ve been kinda lucky. I mean, compared to others. You have to compare, so you can get a little distance from things. Like Laika. She really must have seen things in perspective. It’s important to keep a certain distance. I think about that guy who tried to set a world record for jumping over buses with a motorcycle. He lined up 31 buses. If he’d left it at 30, maybe he would have survived.”
Our protagonist is entering the real world. He is on his own, or is he? There in Småland he finds a glass making town filled to the brim with a lovable cast of adults and peers. Many little things happen with Ingemar in this town; he gets into hijinks, makes friends and finds a love interest.
Notably though is a quasi-love triangle that forms between his former and current lives. Saga is a tomboy who shares her secret because there is something about Ingemar…something equally as intriguing to us, the audience. He plays it cool, calling on adult examples to smooth the way. Nevertheless a bond forms between the two. At the end of summer once he returns home again, he goes back to the comfortable relationship with his fake wife, as they buy a toaster for his mother that she’ll never get to use.
Ingemar doesn’t know what he’s found quite yet. Saga is a mystery to him. Someone he is uncomfortable to be around nevertheless refuses to avoid. He practices his flirting skills with Berti, reads for Mr. Arvidsson and goes on an aborted space voyage with his best male friend, Manne. The bond with his uncle Gunner is strong yet can’t replace what he’s losing with his mother, not quite yet anyway. My Life As A Dog illustrates how life always provides a way, we might not like it, it might be uncomfortable and it might end tragically but it’ll move us forward nonetheless.
Struggling with Society
However, before Ingemar can enter his future life, he must deal with the present and very real fact, his mother has died. When he returns to life in Småland life is vastly different. It’s like a sea of change, and his head keeps dipping below the waves. He can only cope by insisting that his mongrel be returned from the kennel to live with him now that he has a quasi-permanent home.
As he’s forced to adjust to changed circumstances other forces are coming to bear on him faster than he can deal with his major issue. This force comes in the form of an aggressive Saga who very much wants to make the transition into adulthood as well, but only at the side of her trusty friend, Ingemar. With the death of his mother, died his relationship with his fake wife and such is the way of life, avenues once open, close, never to return again. We must look toward the future we’ve found. This is the struggle that all children have upon the threshold of adulthood and we get to witness it up close and personal.
Ingemar is very lucky he’s found a half-decent life in Småland with Gunner and Ulla. He doesn’t know it yet and goes through the motions. Saga and another girl aren’t having any of that. It forces a confrontation in which Saga forces Ingemar to face the truth. It was quite beautiful as events came full circle and Ingemar tries to maintain his life as a dog… and yet… can’t. That dog died in space with his mother. He must make a new journey with new companions.
The movie closes with my favorite shot of the entire film. Ingemar curled up with the only person willing to share the truth with him. In that one moment I can imagine her as his future and see the man Ingemar will be due to his delightful view of life.
Lasse Hallström does an excellent job taking what we expect from a coming of age film and giving us moments of sheer delight. We see with adult eyes a glimpse into youth’s growth that is rarely portrayed in such a true and yet unique manner. I was blindsided coming into My Life As A Dog.