Issue October 8, 2008

A boy and his dog

When discussing criticism among bewilderingly interested acquaintances and passersby, I like to make an example of the (imaginary) movie critic whose top 10 includes “Benji,” “Lassie Come Home,” “Air Bud,” “Old Yeller” and “The Mask” (which features a delightfully twisted sequence where Jim Carrey’s cute little fox terrier sticks his face into the titular artifact and turns into a demonic live-action cartoon). 

With such a list, it is quickly apparent that such a critic might be best suited for a job writing movie reviews for Dog Fancy, if that publication actually had such a position available. Thus, a rave review for the admittedly great “No Country for Old Men” (which features a scary scene in which a pit bull chases Josh Brolin across a bleak desert landscape) might be rendered hopelessly untrustworthy for the general public. 

Like the comic book guy on “The Simpsons,” I realized long ago that I had wasted my life … reading comic books, watching movies, listening to music. I developed a panoply of pop culture addictions that could only be temporarily staved by the constant discovery of new highs: a gripping new record that demanded repeated listens, a film with ground-breaking special effects or compelling observations about contemporary American life, a graphic novel with mind-boggling new approaches toward storytelling.

It was a path that I had originally taken in order to find community; after growing up watching television every day after school, I found friends who enjoyed pop music. After getting caught in a conversation about a band I hadn’t heard (The Clash!), I redoubled my effort to hear as much music as possible in order to keep up. Thereafter, a handful of experiences sparked my passion, and I was hooked. Now, for better or worse, I have arrived at a place where my addiction can hardly be satisfied.

I fear that my experience is pointing toward a position that might require a denial of the value of these cultural experiences, that I must nullify my encyclopedic knowledge of Hollywood from the 1890s through today, the history of advances in sound technology and the merging of musical styles over the last 100 years, the evolution of the modern printing processes and the ways that these have changed the market for pulp entertainment and men’s magazines. Perhaps I should use my meager advocacy skills to encourage the rest of you to find something better to do with your time and money.

Anyone with half a brain would be looking for ways to understand the current state of economic affairs and developing a strategy for improving their position in advance of retirement. Unfortunately, I find the world of finance and real estate spirit-nullifying. Worse, it seems to be rigged, and the only way to win is to make friends with somebody who has already pierced the veil of deception and join the party on the dark side.

It makes me think of an episode of “Leave It to Beaver” called “The Big Fish Count” (Season 4, episode 21, originally aired Feb. 18, 1961, not yet on DVD), in which Beaver enters a goldfish-counting contest at the local pet store in order to win a puppy. His plans are complicated, however, when Eddie Haskell, who works at the pet store, lets some of his friends know how many fish are in the big tank. By the time the contest is over, every single entrant has “guessed” the correct number … everyone, that is, except Beaver, who has stood by his original guess even after receiving the inside information. 

I can’t remember exactly how the episode ends, who gets the puppy or what exact lesson Beaver is left with, but it seems like it must have had something to do with integrity. I imagine Beaver was satisfied that he played by the rules, even if it meant that he didn’t get his puppy — because winning isn’t worth playing dirty. 

There’s a lot to be said for (and against) the morality tales that defined network television between the mid-’50s and the ’60s, but lately it seems like the cheaters have been winning. And I keep buying the story about following the rules. 

For further investigation: “They Only Kill Their Masters,” (1972, dir. James Gladstone, feat. James Garner, Katherine Ross, Harry Guardino, Hal Holbrook, June Allyson, Tom Ewell, Peter Lawford, Edmund O’Brien, Ann Rutherford and a Doberman pinscher named Murphy).

And: “Nature: Dogs that Changed the World” (2008, two-part documentary, airing this week on PBS or online at www.pbs.org).