I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Circle Back to Spanky

by Kristen Bialik
June 21, 2014

All the anxiety I ever felt as a dog-loving child watching Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey resurfaced in paw-pattering fits in Spanky: To the Pier and Back. Apart from titles that both hint at (despite my worst presentiments) the safety, or at the very least the return of the hirsute heroes, the comparison is less than fruitful. Guy Maddin is certainly no Duwayne Dunham. But wait -- the latter director (widely known for family classics a la Little Giants, Halloweentown, and yes, even a few episodes of 7th Heaven) also worked as an editor for Lynch's Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart, and even directed a handful of episodes of Twin Peaks. Huh. Though this viscous glob of relations I’m trying to yoke together may hold no more fecund results, I can’t help but think of the oft-made Lynch-Maddin comparison and how the two directors (hell, throw Duwayne Dunham in there too) fantastically exploit the darker side of innocence. Spanky: To the Pier and Back has, like Blue Velvet, a bit of that scuffed-up puerility and dangerous, ingenuous curiosity. It draws a chalky, easily flushed-out line between a children’s movie, complete with an intrepid, protagonist pup, and something more eerie and elegiac.

Anyone who’s ever seen or participated in a children’s hand-clapping game knows that the seemingly innocuous can border on weird and creepy... and that kids are mysteriously drawn to such things. But kids are, after all, people. We shouldn’t be surprised that they enjoy material other than the cloyingly saccharine creations we feed them. Still, it begs the question, when do we develop a taste for the grim and macabre? Spanky is tame Maddin fare. It is a far cry from the more openly disturbing earlier works filled with incest, murder, and dismemberment. Spanky is after all, a cute little canine, and as such, he has the power to one-up just about anything on the precious scale. And yet, something about the roaming dog unnerves me.

I can’t quite put my finger on the unease I feel when watching Spanky because the shots themselves are stunning. This textured world in black and white is equal parts frothy water, puppy fur, and fine sand. I guess you half expect a Bilbo Baggins-esque adventure and instead you get a frenzied pug and its peregrinations. Mixed with high contrast tones, the images become as stark as they are abrupt. Similarly, Matthew Patton’s score is at once unsettling and hauntingly beautiful. Its minutely undulating swells hold on to you, riding like a rickety train from ear R to L and back again. Feeling as if the stretches of sand and overlapping, fermata notes should have a soothing effect, against which the flurry of images creates a jarring arrhythmic montage feeling. Filled with kinetic tight shots of waves and rustling leaves, Spanky has a one-foot high eye to the ground, descrying all the fleeting details of a wind-whipped branch in a single glance.

It’s this lost and frenzied nature of the film that gets me, the ephemeral shots that are long enough to comprehend but not enough to navigate. Spanky seems like a reasonably adept dog. I mean, he’s a dog; it comes with a certain level of olfactory aptitude and sense of direction. Still, these inherent tools don’t seem enough to make sense of the landscape flashing by in fits and fragments. The film perfectly depicts the sights and feelings of being in a foreign place, the way the eye catches certain things and then forgets about them. An unusual lamppost. A sign like a cross. A beach-lain feather. These are the things that tug at the peripherals, dragging the eyes from side to side. These are the things that feel quasi-familiar, but alienate us instead (fun fact: Spanky was filmed in Gimli, Manitoba, just under 100km from Maddin’s home Winnipeg). And these are the things we cling to on the return.

Whenever I go hiking I marvel at the way the trail immediately behind slips away, in thought and memory, with each passing step. An overturned log that caught your attention a mile back is instantly supplanted by whatever fills the senses in the next moment. Film is the same way. Though the shots build on one another and are accessible in some remote corner of our short-term memory, the eye, the mind, and the heart are all consumed in what is presented immediately before us. And on a hike’s descent, those forgotten landmarks return to us like faces of strangers you’ve seen repeatedly in a crowd, like an acquaintance to whom you’ve never spoken. They tell you you’ve been here before, that you’re on the right track, not to fear the feeling of uncertainty when the landmark disappears in the steps following. In Spanky: To the Pier and Back, images reemerge and portray visually the cyclical nature of the journey that the title implies. Those rocks. Those branches. That sign like a cross. Though there are greater periods of darkness at the end as shots turn to black, the unfamiliar is recognized, Spanky seems more sure-footed than ever, and the introduction of the sound of waves at the end of Patton’s score mitigates with the violence of their crashing. It is soothing, this realignment of sound and action and the spaces traversed. It shows that in everyday human life (kid, adult, or dog), there is confusion, there is violence, there is familiarity, and there are moments that are simply, ordinarily, beautiful.

*Article written as a part of The Maddin-est Blogathon in the World! Contest!

Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.