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Baxter and Me

(Gillian Leahy, Australia, 2016)


 

Dog Day, Every Day

 

Dogs are certainly having their day in contemporary cinema. In the USA, performance artist Laurie Anderson made Heart of a Dog (2015), a meditation on the grief she experienced over losing her beloved and talented canine, Lolabelle. In Switzerland, Jean-Luc Godard attached a small, digital camera to his exuberant dog, Roxy, for Goodbye to Language (2014), an experimental essay in 3D.

 

Australia weighs into this burgeoning genre with Baxter and Me, which offers no less than an entire autobiography recounted through the angle of the many dogs – with names like Sandy Sox, Wombat, Ajax and Bibster – with whom writer-director Gillian Leahy has shared her life. Leahy even forfeits the star acting credit to this presence she lovingly refers to as a “beast”: Billy Baxter Budd, to accord him the due respect of his full title.

 

Baxter and Me begins with the familiar sights, sounds and textures of an everyday life: a home veranda, sunlight reflected on the walls, somebody waking up. However, even the most ordinary, suburban routine shelters an element of mystery or magic. That element here is Baxter, sleeping peacefully right alongside his “master” like an intimate partner. Leahy asks plaintively, in her voice-over narration: “What is going on here?”

 

The question is not only personal and particular, but also philosophical and universal. What is the basis of the relationship between human and animal? This quietly lofty tone is announced in the very first words of the voice-over, with their intimations of the timeless realms of myth and fairy tale: “Once upon a time, dogs came in from the woods and started to live with humans. They bargained away their freedom for food and shelter …”.

 

If we talk of animals as pets and their owners as masters, we are already sunk deep in the casual language of ideology, of social values. Are pets merely slaves, our servants? As we observe the mundane rituals that obtain between Leahy and Baxter – preparing his food, taking him for a walk – the filmmaker is led to ponder: “I sometimes wonder who’s the boss here”. Like any family tie, this is a dynamic interaction that somehow finds its own shape and equilibrium.

 

And yet – as the course of the film constantly reminds us – this equilibrium can so easily be shaken by the bad news of an accident or a death. Or, less dramatically, any number of “upsets” that even the best-tamed creature can introduce into the so-called civilised order of humankind.

 

This animal, after all, has will, energy, tastes and distastes. Baxter sometimes likes to roam free, off the leash; he is also, as one of the best sequences of the film shows us, “a lover” by nature. The pact between human and animal realms is always bound to be an unstable, uneasy compromise between the constraining rules of the former and the instinctive wildness of the latter. This pact is also fundamentally unequal, an exercise of power: we as humans decide when our pets are to be castrated, sent away or “put down”, that terrible euphemism which Leahy dwells upon during one especially painful recollection.

 

Is there a political program, radical or conservative, that can really stretch itself to accommodate “animal rights”? Many words have already been written and spoken on this issue, and so Leahy wisely chooses to approach it obliquely, through her personal connection to political activism. Baxter and Me gives us a valuable history lesson about feminism in Australia, not just at the broad level of civil rights principles, but also at the intimate level of lived experience in the 1960s and ‘70s: communal, share-house living; the rise of lesbian and gay liberation; experiments in open and multiple relationships.

 

Well-chosen clips from experimental films and documentary records allow us to grasp something of the productive rage, anarchic joy and mind-expanding intellectualism of those years. By the same token, Leahy does not hold back on admitting the feelings of disappointment, betrayal and disillusionment that also inevitably accompanied these attempts at alternative living. She is equally candid about the sorts of blockages and fantasies that a difficult childhood left her with, the kind it takes a lifetime to unravel: yearning for affection, fear of abandonment, and the dream of a settled, “normal”, nuclear family. As it turns out, Leahy’s dogs have been her most steadfast companions along this rocky route.

 

What is the connection between Leahy’s recounting of her feminist history and her ongoing rumination on dogs? The concept slowly dawns on us as the film adroitly unfolds its elements and levels. In a splendid news interview clip dating from the time of Leahy’s initial radicalisation in homegrown political movements, she speaks at first shyly, but then with mounting confidence, about the principle of equality. She eloquently declares that we need to apply and internalise this principle at all levels of daily life: the workplace, at home, in intimate relationships.

 

Leahy, in the present, recalls the slogan of that era: “the personal is the political”. But – as she goes on to wonder, later in her life – have we extended this fine principle even nearly far enough? What about animals, for instance? Do we regard them on the same level as us? Do we grant them the same freedoms we grant ourselves? Do we have the faintest idea what motivates them, or what they really want?

 

Much of the writing in recent decades about the connection of humans and animals, whether by heavy-duty philosopher Jacques Derrida or the recently deceased artist-critic polymath John Berger, has zeroed in on a finally rather inscrutable question: what does an animal itself see, feel, think about us? We humans are so busy projecting our own feelings (such as love and devotion) onto our pets, thus insidiously “anthropomorphising” them, that we rarely try, as it were, switching the camera lens around. This is something that both Laurie Anderson and Jean-Luc Godard attempt, in their respective ways, in their recent, dog-centred films.

 

Leahy is driven by similar thoughts and doubts, prompting her into a reflective state somewhere between whimsical musing and a graver anguish. She worries: does Baxter keep hanging around this human just because she’s his food-and-shelter provider – or does he really love her, after all? What would be the sign or the proof of such an emotion in him? Every time the camera gets in close – this dog is a true “natural” when it comes to performance for film – we have an opportunity to ponder these mysteries more deeply, as we scan the features of Baxter’s face, the movements of his eyes and tongue, his physical actions and reactions almost always in an accord with the filmmaker’s own.

 

What kind of film is Baxter and Me? It will most quickly and easily be labelled a documentary. In its combination of pleasant music (composed by Elizabeth Drake) and eye-catching cinematography (Steve Macdonald), not to mention its immense “human interest” angle for all animal lovers, it might seem to be a project made for television. But on closer inspection, and armed with background knowledge of the director’s career, we can see that it reflects traces of all the different filmmaking forms that Gillian Leahy has explored since the 1970s.

 

Leahy’s early short films, such as Hearts and Spades (1974) and Starting Right Now (1975) are freewheeling, lyrical and experimental. In 1986, her major work My Life Without Steve was a cause célèbre within Australian independent filmmaking: an extremely personal (even confessional) testimony of love-gone-wrong, it bravely offset its luscious imagery (mainly of domestic spaces and objects) with a voice-over commentary owing as much to the poststructuralist ruminations of Roland Barthes (especially his book A Lover’s Discourse) as the aesthetic minimalism of Chantal Akerman (particularly News from Home, 1976).

 

Like many politically-minded filmmakers of her generation, Leahy was also drawn to activist, social-issue, “consciousness raising” projects, such as Doled Out (1978). Yet, alongside the impulse to document social change, there is also a less conventional desire to record, as in an audio-visual diary, one’s regular, domestic life in an “artisanal” way, using whatever technology is to hand. This aspect is evident in her 1998 work made for SBS TV, Our Park, where a community’s political issue (the fate of a park) is an urgent and local matter of concern for Leahy herself.

 

Baxter and Me unostentatiously mixes these various tendencies in Leahy’s career toward documentary, personal reflection, fictive reconstruction, and daily chronicle. With Baxter as star and Leahy his foil, some moments play as almost burlesque comedy; while a recurring motif offers us a distant, framed portrait of the pair dancing to a succession of music tracks (by Linda Ronstadt and others). Certain gorgeous images of the nocturnal cityscape or the sea, held a moment or two longer in Denise Haslem’s editing than we might normally expect, recall the aesthetic precision and daring of My Life Without Steve, a film that demands to be revived today.

 

Ultimately, Baxter and Me would appear to draw its inspiration more from the modern, loose, fluid genre of the essay film than any rigid documentary format. It is characteristic of films from Chris Marker’s influential Sunless (1983) to Patricio Guzmán’s recent works Nostalgia for the Light (2010) and The Pearl Button (2015), via Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I (2001), to begin from a small, seemingly unspectacular detail in the artist’s daily life. From there, the circle is slowly widened: aspects of history, biography, political context, as well as references to culture and mythology constellate themselves around this initial centre, like filings drawn to a magnet. At the end, we usually return to the intimate detail with which we began, now set within the enlarged framework that the film has outlined for us.

 

The advantage of the essay film in comparison with more conventional documentaries is the rich sense they give us, as spectators, that they are unfolding a mystery, a philosophical question, as we watch them. The end-point is rarely predictable in advance; and the course is open to every detour and digression along the way. We experience a process of discovery: revealed to us is not simply one individual’s story, or a reportage set within a tightly unified time and place, but the less visible, deep connections between different strata of the world. In this type of cinematic essay, even a lone dog like Baxter can find his place in a historic, social and cosmic whole.

 

It is an intriguing coincidence that Baxter and Me has appeared in public at the same time as another notable Australian film, Margot Nash’s The Silences  (2015). There is much that links the two works, both by directors once associated with the Filmmakers Co-Operative in Sydney, which is remembered today not only for the films it helped make possible, but also the indispensable broadsheet Filmnews (1975-1995). In particular, it is striking that both Baxter and Me and The Silences use the personal essay format to retell an often distressing family history, as well as to excavate the archive of the filmmakers’ own past works.

 

Like The Silences, Baxter and Me offers a precious glimpse of an era in Australian cinema that is difficult to access today. The opportunities for talented women filmmakers of a particular generation, including Leahy, Nash, Martha Ansara, Jeni Thornley and Monique Schwarz, have not proved especially generous – especially when it comes to their aspiration to move into higher-profile, more handsomely resourced, fiction feature production. Some have found or created work occasionally, on small-scale projects or for television, while juggling a career (as Leahy has done) in teaching; others were trapped, for long periods, in the rigours of “script development” that our government funding bodies uphold so stringently, with often nothing much to show at the end of that process.

 

Gillian Leahy’s films have always explored many levels at once: personal, political, mythical. Baxter and Me sums up both a life and a life’s work, to the point it has so far reached; it “brings it all back home” in a moving, humorous, deeply insightful way.

 

This review, which won the Australian Film Critics Association 2018 Ivan Hutchinson Award for Best Long-Form Writing on Australian or International Cinema, first appeared in Metro Magazine (Australia), no. 192 (May 2017) – for further information on this publication, see http://www.metromagazine.com.au

© Adrian Martin January 2017


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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