Nothing but the dog and me
My Dog Tulip, animated memoir, not rated, The Screen, 3 chiles
INearing 50 and burned out on a lifetime of fizzled trysts, British writer J.R. Ackerly found a love that was true and unconditional — an 18-month old female Alsatian dog named Tulip.
“She offered me what I had never found in my sexual life, constant, single-hearted, incorruptible, uncritical devotion. She placed herself entirely under my control,” writes Ackerly. “From the moment she established herself in my heart and my home, my obsession with sex fell wholly away from me. The pubs I had spent so much of my time in were never revisited, my single desire was to get back to her, to her waiting love and unstaling welcome. ... The 15 years she lived with me were the happiest of my life.”
Those 15 years are the subject of My Dog Tulip, an animated film directed by husband-and-wife team Paul and Sandra Fierlinger. The hand-drawn computer animation has a light, impressionist touch. Using animation software called TVPaint, Sandra Fierlinger created bright, airy backdrops, avoiding the peril of filming in the gray skies of England and lending the picture a jovial quality. Some of the film’s more delicate scenes are even captured with nothing more than (computer-assisted) ink drawings on lined notebook paper.
There is no complicated plot. A man adopts a dog who wins his heart, trashes his apartment, and, over a period of several years, refuses nearly all offers to breed with potential male dog suitors. Like all dog stories, it ends with the untimely death of an animal that scarcely ever lives two decades.
This charming film’s appeal lies in its ability to give quicksketch illustrations of Ackerley’s lively prose, narrated in a stately fashion by Christopher Plummer. For instance, as Tulip plows through the narrator’s living room, upturning produce and sofa cushions, Ackerley takes the whole scene in stride, announcing in subtly lavish prose that “she becomes so hysterically excited
at the mere hint of being taken out for a walk, that she rushes into the kitchen to grab the vegetables and scatters them all about the corridor as if they were rose petals marking her ascension to heaven.”
Baffled for years by her outrageous antics, Ackerley eventually learns the source of his dog’s anxiety from a forthcoming female veterinarian. “Tulip’s a good girl, I saw that at once. You’re the trouble,” the veterinarian intones. “Well, she’s in love with you, that’s obvious. And so life’s full of worries for her. She has to protect you to begin with; that’s why she’s upset when people approach you. I expect she’s a bit jealous too.” Though the film only makes passing reference to the writer’s homosexuality, it is clear that Tulip is the answer to much of the loneliness the openly gay writer suffered in the much-restricted world of England in the 1950s.
This is a very adult film. The protagonist is world-weary, tired of both commitment and loneliness yet striving always to make deep connections with other human beings, even if they are nearly always about his dog. It is also a film self-consciously steeped in its own Britishness, as demonstrated by the quote that begins this movie, “Unable to love each other, the English turn naturally to dogs.”
Ackerley’s 1965 book was widely praised for conveying the world of his dog, in a sort of reverse anthropomorphism. This movie adaptation doesn’t fail in this respect. As in Ackerley’s novel, there is a deep fascination with the scatological workings of dogs. Tulip’s impacted anal glands, droppings, and marking habits are given lengthy treatment. There is no shock value here, simply a curious dog owner hoping to understand how this fascinating beast works.
There is considerable screen time given over to Ackerley’s search for a suitable mate with which to breed Tulip. The poor dog seems to attack nearly all her male suitors before finding love — or its serviceable animal substitute — with a stray dog in a park. How the protagonist deals with her puppies, at one point plotting to drown them in his bathtub, seems capriciously cruel. (He instead chooses to drown his sorrows in drink.) Needless to say, despite its whimsical animation, this is a far cry from
or Marley & Me. Instead, it’s a philosophical meditation on the human and canine need for companionship and their baffling capacity to misunderstand one another. As Ackerley’s no-nonsense vet put it, “Dogs aren’t difficult to understand. One has to put oneself in their position.”
An attack of Tulipmania? My Dog Tulip