Animal Education

Animal Education

War between men and dogs looms in the Budapest of White God; Ethan Hawke pays homage to New York City’s greatest piano teacher in Seymour: An Introduction.


What title would you give an apocalyptic Middle-European action-horror movie, one that’s full of sharply observed family drama, hyperbolic political metaphor and animal suffering? Writer-director Kornél Mundruczó settled on Fehér Isten—though I suspect these Hungarian words are just the translation of an English original, White God, that he devised in twisted tribute to Samuel Fuller’s White Dog. Like that long-suppressed parable about racism, Mundruczó’s movie is visceral in effect, educational in focus (it’s largely about the uses and abuses of training) and deeply invested in matters of concern to the canine community. That said, White God departs from White Dog by adopting the style of street-corner documentary for long patches, while in others (notably the blood-soaked finale) rising to a pitch of grandiose delirium.

At the beginning, though, you’re in the land of the merely uncanny. Something dreadful must have happened, because the Budapest shown in wide-screen overhead shots is eerily deserted in the golden light. No one is on the streets except a lone bicyclist—an oval-faced pubescent girl wearing a blue hoodie and backpack, combined incongruously with black dress pumps—who hurries over a bridge, past a single abandoned car and into the now-silent old city center. She looks over her shoulder as she pedals, perhaps warily, perhaps in expectation, as the establishing shots give way to the mounting rhythm of suspense editing. Sure enough, a dog suddenly rounds the corner behind her. It’s followed by three more dogs, a dozen, two dozen, until the street becomes a bounding, panting swarm of mutts of every description—floppy-eared, pointy-eared, shaggy, sleek, lap-size, pony-size—racing to overtake her.

The girl in this waking nightmare, Lili (Zsófia Psotta), is not just your random, opening-scene victim of genre-movie convention but one of White God’s two main characters. The other, who runs with the pack, is a very handsome young mix of Labrador, shar-pei and hound named Hagen (played by litter-mates Bodie and Luke). But this information comes only after the wordless foreshadowing of the prologue. When White God goes back to the beginning, you learn what dreadful thing happened. Lili and Hagen were separated—or, rather, society became so screwed up that authorities near and far, paternal and municipal, insisted it was right to tear Lili and Hagen apart.

Paternal authority takes the form of Lili’s father, Daniel (Sándor Zsótér), a bald, bearded, cadaverous man whose grim demeanor suits the job he endures as an inspector in a slaughterhouse. You are not spared the sight of industrial butchery (the first blood spilled in White Dog pools on the workplace floor), nor is the father spared the indignity of seeing his ex-wife take off gaily on a three-month tour of Australia with her new husband, who seems to have claimed not only the spouse Daniel loved but also the more dignified and lucrative career he once enjoyed. A man who is already the sum of all disappointments, Daniel must now accept the added trial of boarding a resentful and withdrawn Lili in his cramped apartment, and with her (here’s the intolerable part) her dog.

Everything about the dog makes Daniel more curt and censorious, and Lili reacts by becoming more sullen. Hagen whines in the night when separated from Lili. Hagen sets off a protest from a huffy neighbor, who doesn’t want any dogs in the building. Hagen becomes the object of a visit from city officials, who signal the political theme of White God by informing Daniel that only dogs of pure Hungarian breed may legally be kept. As a mutt, Hagen must be registered and then, to put it politely, removed. Strict measures are necessary. According to the huffy and also mendacious lady upstairs, the mixed-blood beast attacked her.

Mundruczó is too smart to overstress the point this early in the film. He’s got plenty of time for that at the climax. Instead, having momentarily touched on allegory, he settles back into a deft kitchen-sink portrayal of Daniel’s useless attempts to enforce his authority. As a father, I recognize too well the stiffened posture, the biting tone, the gestures made abrupt by anger, all leading inexorably to Lili’s reluctance even to look at him, let alone say anything, except in the brief, loud moments that precede her storming out of the room. She makes mighty efforts at self-control; but from loyalty to Hagen, she soon rages out of the conservatory where she is among the youngest members of the trumpet section, laboring under a maestro’s pedagogical oppression.

When Daniel has had enough of this defiance and hooky-playing, he makes Lili abandon Hagen at a highway underpass. That’s when White God really begins to take hold, as it changes into an extended dog’s-eye tale of lonely wandering, new fellowship (in a pack of strays) and abuse by a captor, who trains Hagen, or rather tortures him, to compete in fights. With astonishing smoothness, Mundruczó shifts not only from the human to the animal world, but also from intergenerational tensions reminiscent of Spielberg (including the wrenching scene of desertion in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence) to the restrained moral outrage, hyper-attentive observation and implicit symbolism of Bresson in Au hasard Balthazar. What’s all the more remarkable is that a second stylistic mode enters White God at the same time, with Mundruczó introducing chase sequences and adventure-movie tropes among the quasi-documentary images of Hagen. Somehow, he makes this blend persuasive, even though it’s as paradoxical as Lili’s dress shoes and hoodie.

Lili herself is not forgotten in this long middle section. On a parallel narrative track, she too becomes more and more a stray, spending her time searching for Hagen and also for love, or at least respect, from an older boy in the youth orchestra. The latter quest, though not fully successful, does bring her a little kindness, and the loan of a bicycle at a moment of crisis. The former takes her to the gates of the city dog pound, which Mundruczó photographs to resemble a maximum-security prison, or (more to the point) a Nazi death camp. The earlier political theme returns, with a vengeance.

About the climactic uprising, I will try to remain reserved, which is more than Mundruczó does. Leaving behind Bresson for George Romero—the mere fact that I can write that phrase is a testimony to White God—he delivers police vans, rifles, sneak attacks, panicked crowds and even (just for fun) a flame thrower. It’s all thrilling, satisfying, nondigital and extremely well prepared. My only complaint is that this finale exposes a weakness in Mundruczó’s notion of human versus animal education.

Having suffered musical training, Lili finds she has the power to communicate with and save but also to dominate others. This is believable. But the skills that Hagen learns through painful training, though amusing for a movie audience to watch, are also completely implausible. Worse still, they are made up in service to the highly dubious assumption that the capacity for violence is peculiarly human and has to be inculcated into dogs. I know, it’s just an allegory. But by urging you to think this way, Mundruczó reveals a sentimentality toward Hagen, and nature, that you will not find in either Bresson or Romero.

I wish the emotional resolution of White God had matched the amazement of the final image: a stunt shot that implicitly demonstrates, to eye-popping effect, the mastery of Mundruczó and his crew over a vast crowd of dogs. The purpose of the shot, though, is entirely different: to appeal for harmony between humans and animals. Had Mundruczó felt this contradiction, or ambivalence, more deeply, White God might have concluded as a great movie. As it happens, the film is no more than wildly inventive, engaging, exciting and memorable, with faultless performances by all the humans, and by Luke, Bodie and a Jack Russell terrier mix named Marlene. I can live with the disappointment.

* * *

Nobody today still believes that beauty is truth and truth beauty, except for Seymour Bernstein. A greatly admired, deeply nourishing New York City piano teacher who is still active in his 80s, Bernstein and his persistent faith in musical art are the subjects of the documentary Seymour: An Introduction, a film both beautiful and true.

Expertly directed by Ethan Hawke, Seymour: An Introduction is both a portrait of an artist’s life and a quiet repudiation of the assumptions that might tempt some people to call Bernstein a failure. These nagging ideas even seem to have come into Bernstein’s own head, more than once. This is a man who in midlife turned away from a very promising concert career, preferring to teach others and dwell alone in a one-room apartment on the Upper West Side. (As of the filming, he had been living in these monastic circumstances for 57 years.) Bernstein knows, as do you, that he lacked the stuff to grab for fame and luxury. Although the matter of his sexuality is not openly discussed in the film, he also seems to have felt that erotic triumph was closed to him. (With sorrow and a hint of bitterness, he recalls that his father used to say, “I have two daughters and a pianist.”) Bernstein knows what could have been, and what other people think; and so, in effect, he makes a case for himself throughout the film, arguing with overwhelming eloquence, both in words and at the keyboard, that even though he gave up a lot to be pure in his devotion to music, he continues to receive far more in return.

The pleasures that the viewer receives from Bernstein begin early, in scenes that establish what it’s like to learn from him. Standing beside a pupil at the piano, he explains in his courtly, encouraging, mellifluous way that “the most important thing—well, one of the most important—is a pulse that never stops.” As he continues to talk about steadiness of rhythm, the film cuts right on the beat to another pupil, and then another, each seeming to sit in exactly the same spot on the screen. (The editor responsible for this wonderful work is Anna Gustavi.) Here, in miniature, is Bernstein’s ideal of seamlessness, in which craft and feeling are one. When you’re inspired to respond openly not only to music but to all aspects of life, he says gently, beaming into the camera in a softly focused close-up, art becomes “a never-ending cycle of fulfillment”—a statement that might sound like mystical hooey, if the film didn’t show how he teaches his master classes at NYU, exacting such rigorous attention to each detail of a late Beethoven sonata that he has to promise one pupil, very kindly, that she will eventually get beyond the first measure.

The soundtrack of Seymour: An Introduction is rich with recordings of his performances, and with his brief demonstrations at the keyboard. (The very first moments, appropriately, show him practicing—and talking. He wants to explain how he prepares for an octave leap so that he can hit it accurately. But the grandest example of Bernstein’s musicianship comes when he performs before an audience for the first time in about forty years, having been persuaded to play a benefit concert for Hawke’s theater company. Here, in the public performance, is the film’s modest but much-needed source of tension—a directorial intervention that allows Hawke to show Bernstein getting excited, and a little nervous, in the run-up to the event.

How well does Bernstein do when the big night comes? As he plays his finale—nothing much, just the overwhelming last movement of the Schumann Fantasie in C major—Hawke’s camera finds a little girl in the audience, sitting on her father’s lap. She’s listening closely to what the portly old fellow is doing, with her jaw dropped to her knees.

As the historian of science Naomi Oreskes points out in Robert Kenner’s documentary Merchants of Doubt, the tobacco industry staved off strict government regulation for about fifty years, largely by paying a few accommodating people to insist that a robust body of scientific evidence about the health risks of smoking was inconclusive. This long con, devised by a public relations team, cost some money to execute but enabled the tobacco companies to keep up their profits well into the 1990s.

The same con, in some cases carried out by the very same people, is now used by the big energy companies to stave off government action on global warming. The difference, Oreskes says, is that we can’t afford to wait fifty years to do something about climate change.

There you have the whole grim argument of Merchants of Doubt. Fortunately, there’s nothing grim about the movie. If we can’t have a rational political process, Kenner figures, or mainstream media willing to distinguish between scientific debate and suborned perjury, at least we can enjoy ourselves in the dark. So he brings on the stage magician Jamy Ian Swiss to do card tricks and demonstrate the techniques of misdirection, he cranks up the computer graphics to make document files dance on the screen, and he introduces you to cheerful corporate flacks (such as Marc Morano) who don’t much care if they lie, so long as they crackle for their audience with oily, overheated entertainment.

I had a good time watching Merchants of Doubt. Maybe it’s meant to be a call to action, but it’s a bit more like a social-issues documentary by Samuel Beckett. You laugh as you contemplate everyone’s doom.


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