Recently I came out of The Kinema at Narooma and noticed great splotches of moisture on my bright pink T-shirt. There was no hiding the fact that I’d been sobbing over Red dog. It’s rare these days that a movie does this to me, mainly because I prefer hard-edged movies, with such a dose of reality that tears are too easy a response.
What was it about Red dog that made me shed water in such copious amounts? There was no sentimentality in the landscape. It was a landscape of intransigent beauty, filmed to show that beauty, (although it didn’t show too much of the havoc wrought by mining.)
I analysed the points in the story that provoked tears: the lonely men finding solace in the dog; the suicide attempt derailed; the depression cured; the death of John; the devotion of Red dog and his long search; the victory over the managers of the caravan park (albeit by a form of communal bullying); the new pup; the new love affair; the death of Red dog at John’s grave.
As I look at my list I begin to realise why I’m suspicious of the truth of my tearful reponse. I’ve been tricked. These are all solutions far too easy for the problems they purport to solve, and my tears cloud this revelation. That’s why my usual movie diet doesn’t produce tears: because dream solutions are rarely offered at the end of the story. In Toomelah education isn’t really put to the test – it’s just a hopeful coda to the unremitting difficulty of Daniel’s life.
I’m never confident in my own thinking about such matters. I always want a second opinion. In this case I found a formidable one in Raimond Gaita’s After Romulus, where he reflects on telling the story of his father and his mother. With that lovely serendipity that often meets one’s needs, I was it reading at the same time as I saw Red dog.
As a philosopher, Gaita reflects on the nature of truthfulness, and decides that the impact of Romulus my father depends on its truthfulness. He saw the book as a “witness to the kind of goodness (Romulus) lived” and he pointed out that the integrity of truthfulness doesn’t survive invention. (p. 92) The question is “Was Romulus really like that?” I can apply that question usefully to Red dog.
A key part of Gaita’s attempt to be truthful was to resist pathos and sentimentality (p. 94). He allows that sentimentality is often sincere, but he also insists that sentimentality ” betrays our attempt to see things as they are”, which he sees as an important human undertaking. Sentimentality is in fact the form falsehood takes. (p. 103)
Can I really be adamant about judging a movie through the lens of integrity, truth and reality? Yes, I can. After all, it’s my own responses I’m scrutinising, and I’m also trying to figure out what I value in a movie experience. I’m not really pure about this. I’m not sorry I saw Red dog. I’ve seen many enjoyable movies that wouldn’t meet anti-sentimentality standards; and read many a book of the same kind.
It was the large moist splotches on my pink T-shirt that raised all these questions. This time I didn’t slink out of the theatre leaving my tears behind me and I needed to account for them.
My view of the world tends towards the sunny – another word for sentimental perhaps: I choose to see butterflies rather than falling rocks. However, it’s my aspiration “to see things steadily and to see them whole”. In the effort to see things as they are, Gaita suggests, we need to rid ourselves of banality, second hand opinion, cliche, vulnerability to pathos and sentimentality.
As Red dog wins the Best Film at the AACTA Awards, I’m left with Gaita’s question: “Can we justifiably trust what moves us?” And my own gloss on this: “Are tears too precious to waste on the sentimental?”