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Friday, December 20, 2013

A Boy and His Dog

The last sci-fi film of 1975 was A Boy and His Dog (ABHD). This was a somewhat peculiar film in that it was partly a classic post-apocalyptic tale, partly a black comedy, also partly a social commentary, but intermixed with misogynist elements that disturb quite a few viewers. Based on the 1969 novella of the same title by Harlan Ellison, adapted for the screen by L.Q. Jones — who also directed. A young Don Johnson (pre-Miami Vice) stars as Vic, the boy with the dog. Actor-dog “Tiger” co-stars as Blood, the telepathic partner.

Quick Plot Synopsis
The year: 2024. Vic and Blood eek out a living on the barren desert of the American southwest in the post-apocalyptic wastelands following World War IV. They’re “Solos” who forage and steal bits from other bands of foragers. Blood communicates with Vic telepathically. Vic just talks to Blood. Blood can’t hunt for his own food, for some reason, so Vic provides food for them both. In exchange, Blood locates “females” via his heightened doggy senses, so that Vic might have his way with them. Vic is a bit shallow and highly libidinous. Blood does locate a female in disguise. Vic follows her to a buried school. He plans to rape her, but she’s disarmingly calm and chatty. Quilla June is “cooperative” too, which surprises, and beguiles Vic. She knocks him out and flees. Vic follows her down into the “Down Under.” There, he enters the subterranean world of WWIV survivors who have recreated the world above (trees, grass, buildings, etc.) all done in the tone of early 1900s rural America. “Topeka” is run by The Committee. Quilla June was the “cheese” to lure Vic into the trap. She expects to get onto the ruling committee as payment for her service, but she’s put off with excuses. She bristles at this. Periodically, the women of Topeka fail to get pregnant. Underground living does something bad to their DNA. So, a young strong specimen from above is brought down to provide new ‘seed’. Vic thinks stud service would be okay, but he’s hooked up to a milking machine to extract his seed. No joy there. Quilla June helps Vic escape, hoping that he’ll help her and some cohorts kill the Committee so she and her cohorts can take over. Vic has no stomach for revolt and just wants to flee. The coup fails. Quilla June has no option but to go with Vic back to the surface. When they get there, Blood is near death from starvation, having waited all those days or weeks. Quilla June urges Vic to abandon Blood and run off with her. Vic gets a sinister look. Fade to black. Fade back in to a campfire. Blood is better, having eaten well. As Vic and Blood leave, Blood comments that Quilla June had remarkable judgement, if not very good taste. They both laugh at the pun. Freeze frame. Credits. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Once one gets over the disturbing aspects (rape, misogyny, etc.) the dark humor can be fun. The visuals are intriguing too. Long’s vision of post-apocalyptic life: with ragtag bands of scruffy people wearing tattered scraps of clothing and junk for structures, is much like the classic “Mad Max” motif — even if before Mad Max. Long’s vision of the Down Under world is also intriguing for it’s odd veneer of “normal” over a reality of “1984”.

Cultural Connection
Rural-phobia — 1975 was a “good year” for films expressing an urbanite’s fear of rural life. Giant Spider Invasion painted a grim picture of rural folk as crude and hopelessly backwards (as well as morally bankrupt and greedy). Just how city folk might imagine “they” are “out there.” The Stepford Wives painted a grim picture of suburbia. The banality, the conformity, were just too creepy for hip city folk to endure. In ABHD, that fear of the rural is exemplified in Topeka, the land “down under.” Again, the banality and rigid conformity. People go about with smiles painted on their faces, going about with routines of faux-normal — marching bands, barbershop quartets, etc. These three films together start to paint a picture of how big city people might “see” life in the hick middle between two “hip” coasts.

Misogyny? — Many viewers are disturbed by the apparent misogyny of Ellison’s story and Long’s adaptation. It’s true that the story paints a view in which women are little more than objects to be ravaged then killed (or eaten). Yet, consider the story to be told from the point of view of a hormone-charged 15 year old (the age of Vic in the novella). To a boy of that age, all that matters is getting his rocks off with no regard at all for the woman as a person. ABHD is as self-centered and insensitive as a sex-obsessed teen might typically be. Note that the title stays A Boy and His Dog, not A Sensitive Mature Man and His Dog.

Classic Split — The Down Under scenes are the most intriguing. The trope of post-apocalyptic survivors carrying on with civilization underground, has a long history in sci-fi film. 1952 has “1,000 Years From Now” (or it’s racier title, Captive Women) with the ragtag Mutants living on the surface with the corrupt “Normals” living beneath. Of course, H.G.Wells had his Eloi and Morlocks, 1956 had World Without End, in which the surface was populated with mutant cavemen and underground was civilized society, and with degeneration due to life under ground. In 1973’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes, there were the ragtag humans (and apes) on the surface. Beneath the ruined cities lived a society of “civilized” techno-enabled survivors — also with degeneration. In ABHD, that society is presumed to keep carrying on.

Pre-Max — Even though the make of Mad Max says ABHD was not an influence on him, we see much the same vision of what post-apocalyptic Earth would be like. Barren landscapes. Scruffy survivors wearing rags and mismatched odd things. Vehicles and structures made from junk of the “before” times. This vision was so much invented by any one artist, so much as it multiplied. Glen and Randa (’71) had ragtag survivors scrounging for old-world food amid a desolate post-apocalyptic landscape. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (’73) had ragtag humans and crude vehicles. Death Race 2000 (’75) introduced the “punk” element. Planet Earth (’75) also had ragtag mutants and odd junk vehicles in a desolate landscape (and with civilized normals living underground, from the Genesis II story line). As such, with George Miller’s Max-world came along, there was already a foundation of that view of what a post-apocalyptic world would look like.

Love Cynic — While Ellison might not have intended his story to be misogynist, he did appear to have a grim view of “love.” In ABHD, the men on the surface have no love. They only seek sex. Quilla June uses sex as a tool to get what she wants (power). The Committee use her (and sex) as bait for a trap. Vic hooked up to the milking machine is a fitting visual metaphor for the impersonal nature of sex in 2024. Quilla June tosses around the word “love” but only as a ploy. One minute she’s berating Vic for not doing what she wants. The next minute, she’s professing to love him, as a ploy to get him to do her bidding. Even in the end, she professes love for Vic, but even his simple mind can see through her ploy. She needed him to survive. Vic realized he did not need her nearly so much as he imagined. Hence his willingness to sacrifice her for Blood.

Bottom line? ABHD can be a tough film for some people to watch, given its (apparent) anti-woman elements. But, if one can see even those scenes as part of the selfish pubescent point of view, the rest of the elements can be appreciated. ABHD isn’t for everyone, but it is a well told tale with some intriguing subtexts. Don Johnson actually does a fair job of acting, given that he’s delivering his lines to a dog. ABHD is worth watching, as long as you’re braced for the harsh elements.

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