A Boy and His Dog (1979)

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*. When translating from page to screen a lot of information is going to be lost. There’s an art to keeping just enough of the text so that nothing essential is left unexplained. Though sometimes the producers don’t care. For example, in Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange there is no explanation of what the hell the title means. Which is rather high-handed, when you think of it.
*. This movie begins with Blood (the dog) calling the Boy (Vic) “Albert.” There is no explanation in the movie for why he is doing this, since Albert is not Vic’s name and it seems like Blood is doing it just to bug him. In Harlan Ellison’s novella, however, it is explained right away. “Albert” is a reference to Albert Payson Terhune (1872-1942), an American collie breeder who wrote a bunch of books about the adventures of one of his dogs.
*. Should they have left this out of the screenplay? I suspect that today few first-time viewers of this movie will have read Ellison’s story, and very few among those who have will have any idea who Albert Payson Terhune was. So on that level keeping the reference would be pointless, and perhaps a bit confusing. It still registers as Blood calling Vic a slightly silly name instead of using his real name, so I think audiences just see it as harmless needling.
*. While on the subject of moving from print to screen it’s worth mentioning a couple of other points. Ellison didn’t do the screenplay because he was suffering from writer’s block at the time (as strange as that must sound for such an incredibly prolific author). L. Q. Jones kept the general structure of the story, but there are at least two differences that may be meaningful.
*. In the first place, the “downunder” town of Topeka looks and functions a bit different on screen. To start with the most obvious thing, the citizens have their faces plastered in make-up.
*. What does the make-up mean? Is it a nod to the degenerate townspeople in the second part of El Topo? Is it meant to cover blemishes on their skin caused by radiation damage? Or hide their sickly pallor?
*. I take it as having thematic significance: they are clownish happy faces for a society that is false, sanctimonious and hypocritical (much like every other latter-day portrayal of 1950s American innocence). But I still have to wonder if the woman Mez’s look was inspired by Batman’s Joker. Her face seems a direct reference, plus she’s wearing a purple jacket over a green blouse.

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*. In Ellison’s story there is no punishment farm in Topeka for transgressors to be sent to. Was this an idea taken from the Chinese Cultural Revolution, or the de-urbanization of Pol Pot’s regime? Perhaps the former, but not the latter, as Pol Pot didn’t come to power until 1975.
*. In the novella Topeka’s police force is a small green box with arms on it, whereas in the film it’s a big robot guy named Michael. This change probably has no meaning at all but was done to save money.
*. A final difference with the screen Topeka is that the movie makes up the artificial insemination angle. In the novella Vic really is going to get to ball all those chicks. In the film he isn’t going to enjoy himself nearly as much (though some guys are in to that machine action, or at least so I hear).
*. In all of these changes we can see the creation of a more visually striking Topeka, a more surreal and deformed kind of place. In addition, its lifelessness is emphasized by the fact that it is always night, the mannequin/corpse-like make-up, and the mechanical breeding. This is a point I’ll come back to.

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*. The second change worth noting is in the final lines. Ellison objected strongly to the groaner of a joke that ends the movie, with Blood talking about how Quilla June “had marvelous judgement, if not particularly good taste.” Specifically, he called it a “moronic, hateful chauvinist last line, which I despise.”
*. I don’t understand his outrage. The novella makes clear that Vic is chauvinist, and not very bright. It’s also the case that the story ends in exactly the same way, with Vic killing Quilla June and serving her up to Blood in order to keep Blood alive. Given what he actually does, who cares if Blood jokes with him about it?

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*. I thought the print on the DVD I watched looked terrible, in desperate need of a restoration. But they did at least manage to return to the original widescreen picture, unlike earlier video versions that were panned and scanned (the process of cropping a widescreen image to fit television screens). Widescreen works well in wide open spaces like the post-apocalyptic desert, but also in the large areas below ground here. Topeka is not a cramped place (much of it was shot in a park), and most of the other sets are quite spacious (a ruined gymnasium, a church).
*. I like how everyone seems so bored when they’re watching the old porn movies. This is another difference from the novella, where the audience are openly masturbating. Of course, they couldn’t show that in a movie.
*. I was relieved when L. Q. Jones says on the commentary that Vic should have been suspicious of Quilla June’s shiny white bra. It seems pretty unlikely that a girl in such a place would have a clean face, much less clean underwear. But Vic is clearly thinking with his dick.

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*. It’s surprising Susanne Benton never went on to do much. She’s really very good here, selling a character who is both smart and sexy, and ultimately too romantic (or idealistic) for her own good.
*. What I think has helped the film last as a cult film, aside from the more shocking or transgressive parts (like the semen-milking apparatus), is its series of mythic inversions.
*. The first of these is the inversion of the human and animal realms. Traditionally, humans have been ranked higher than the beasts, though lower than angels, on the great chain of being. But here Blood is the more evolved — erudite, articulate and above sexual matters — while the humans we meet are just so many rutting animals. As Jones points out a couple of times during his DVD commentary, “the only human being in the picture is the dog.” “Tiger” is the real star of the movie.
*. The other inversion is of what I call the myth of the Morlocks, after the H. G. Wells novel The Time Machine. In Wells’s story society is divided into above-ground and subterranean classes, with the beautiful people living the good life up top and the brutal mole people doing all the grunt work underground (where they also represent a violent proletarian-revolutionary force that literally feeds off the Eloi).
*. You’ll find this myth of the Morlocks repeated throughout a lot of science fiction, and it has both political and psychological underpinnings. The Morlocks are the Freudian Id, our animal minds with their instinctual lust for blood and sex, while the Eloi are the angels of our better nature, representing art, culture, and civilization, frolic above. The individual vs. the social self, id vs. superego, brute vs. angel.
*. A Boy and His Dog flips this around. It’s in the downunder of Topeka that we still have an advanced civilization and its false face. Topeka is also associated with death, being a place that has lost its Strangelovian “essence” or vital principle. Meanwhile, above ground, in the waste lands, are predatory gangs of animal spirits, living for sex and the hunt.

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*. Such an inversion poses an interesting question. Who is more fully human: the rovers or the Topekans? I think the first response of most people would be to say the rovers because we sympathize with them more easily and because they don’t seem quite as grotesque and repressed. But a boy and his dog aren’t going to breed together. They are eventually just going to go “over the hill” and die. Vic doesn’t even have any friends aside from Blood. It’s easy for a healthy young man to be such a lone wolf, but how human is that? Is that what we are really like as a species? Loyalty is important, but is it everything?

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*. Then also notice another inversion of the usual above/below imagery. In the perpetual night of Topeka everything is green and leafy. In the sunlight above there’s nothing but a dirty desert where nothing grows. Which is the garden? Which is our natural home?
*. Personally, I think the one really human character is Quilla June. She has all the right ideas, and is independent enough not to want to live in Topeka but also concerned about the future and the need to start a family. In her end don’t we see a re-eneactment of the opening shots of nuclear armageddon, the loss of all hope for the future of the species? In the final shot, aren’t Vic and Blood turning their back not only on her smokey remains but on all of us?

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