J.R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip was first published in England over fifty years ago, when I was three, and I can hardly imagine the startled and awed response of a reader in 1956 encountering this little book for the first time. Ackerley had long been a familiar figure in London literary circles. He was the literary editor of the influential BBC magazine, The Listener, from 1935 to 1959, and a long-standing friend of E.M. Forster. He was also a familiar figure on the seedier streets, which he cruised in search of young working-class men. He was looking, he wrote, for his Ideal Friend. It wasn’t until he was over fifty that he finally found that Ideal Friend, and she was, improbably, a dog. Queenie (Ackerley’s publishers insisted that her name be changed to Tulip in the book) was an eighteen-month-old German shepherd who belonged to one of Ackerley’s infatuations, a young man who asked him to look in on his dog while he was in jail. Ackerley did look in, and neither he nor Tulip ever looked back. My Dog Tulip is the story of their relationship, of their mutual commitment to love, honor, and attempt to understand.
Over thirty years later, in a review of Peter Parker’s biography of Ackerley, Alison Lurie wrote: “Even today his uncensored descriptions of his own, his father’s and his dog’s sex lives can cause a shiver of surprise.” Twenty more years have passed in which uncensored descriptions of sex are our daily bread, practically our mother’s milk, and yet Ackerley’s intimate, elegant memoir of his bond with the one great and true love of his life is still and will always be, I think, disquieting. For that shiver of surprise comes as much from the respectful delicacy of Ackerley’s accuracy, from the tender precision of his observation, from his simple, open interest, and ours, as it does from the actual couplings of Tulip and her suitors or the frank examinations of her many excretions.
Thankfully, and almost magically, that shiver of surprise is very much a part of the experience of watching My Dog Tulip, a new animated film based on Ackerley’s book. Like the book, the film is fiercely intelligent, funny, tender, and delightfully scatological. It is so thoroughly and naturally a film for adults that it makes live-action movies seem almost childish in comparison.
The second chapter of My Dog Tulip is called “Liquids and Solids,” two essential and familiar categories for any dog owner. It begins:
In the journal of General Bertrand, Napoleon’s Grand Marshal at St. Helena, the entry occurs: “1821, April 12: At ten-thirty the Emperor passed a large and well-formed motion.” …I sympathize with General Bertrand.
Like the general, Ackerley observed the motions, well formed and otherwise, of his charge with a committed vigilance, and the film does not neglect this part of Joe’s association with Tulip. There is a genial description of Tulip’s anal glands narrated by Joe as he identifies them beneath her tail with his finger, then proceeds to make tea and eat a piece of toast slathered with marmalade. A heated argument with a surly bicyclist about fouling the sidewalk is related with some pride, as is a lyrical account of an idyllic defecation in the ancient cemetery of Putney Church: “And are not its ghosts gladdened that so beautiful a young creature as Tulip should come here for her needs, whatever they may be?” Indeed, the dog, as portrayed in the film, does look beautiful among the gravestones, so lithe and so alive.
Paul Fierlinger and Sandra Fierlinger, the filmmakers, are a married couple with a long list of impressive credits in the world of animation, including animated documentaries. But this is their first—indeed is the first feature film period—to be completely hand-drawn and painted using a computer tablet rather than paper. The result is something far different from the smooth, rounded, computer animation of big family movies like the recent Toy Story 3 or the wonderful Up.
The filmmakers have set the story in the 1950s with a witty style sometimes reminiscent of the bright, impressionistic urbanity of Ludwig Bemelmans illustrations, sometimes of the deceptively simple fluidity of Jules Feiffer sketches. (Once, for the briefest of instants, a Thurber line drawing morphs into and out of view.) Washes of color (Sandra did the backgrounds) and irregular fine line drawings move us from the red buses of downtown London to a brown landscape of huffing steam engines, to a garbage-strewn river bank, to seaside cottages, to suburban kitchens. The interiors are wonderfully detailed—as evocative as a Merchant Ivory movie.
The Fierlingers have given the film an easy, comfortable pace that suits the strolls and rambles Ackerley and Tulip take through Putney and Wimbledon Commons. Joe, as he is known in the film and was known in his life, is a middle-aged bespectacled man wearing a somewhat bemused expression except when he is laughing at the unfortunate antics of his ill-behaved dog. Tulip herself is a magnificent creature. She is drawn as an individual (indeed, all of the Alsatians—as German shepherds were called after World I, à la Freedom Fries—in the film look quite distinct, while remaining recognizably of the breed). She is a noble breathing leaping animal, squatting, urinating, stretching herself upon the sofa, her expression trusting, curious, sentient. With none of the floppy cuteness of a cartoon dog, but all of the vibrant, angular softness of a dog, she moves through the film like a thing of flesh and blood and sinews and fur and devotion. She is heartbreakingly alive in this film, as she is in the book. And her dolorous, thoughtful face—the filmmakers have made it far more expressive than they have, say, the face of Ackerley’s sister Nancy (which, one gathers from Ackerley’s writing, is how he saw it exactly).
The film follows the book closely, with a few additions from Ackerley’s autobiographical novel, We Think the World of You, which is also about his Alsatian. Ackerley’s words, and they are almost all Ackerley’s words, are narrated by Christopher Plummer in a warmly modest and dryly amused voice.
For the most part, the filmmakers follow Ackerley’s path with the energy and devotion that Tulip showed her walking companion, and why not? Ackerley’s prose is immediate and thrilling, and hearing it aloud one realizes just what an astonishing feat that is, for his sentences can rival Henry James’s in length and complexity. For such a decidedly literary work, the words are surprisingly natural, effortless, bright, and clear. Ackerley’s self-effacing wit, his uncompromising details, his slivers of anger, his deep, fascinated love—they are there, conversational and alive.
Some of the film’s most surprising and joyous moments, however, come when the filmmakers move, momentarily, away from Ackerley’s path and take imaginative flights. After Joe brings Tulip back to his flat in Putney, the two take a walk along the embankment where
amid the flotsam and jetsam of wood, cork, bottles, old tin cans, french letters, and the swollen bodies of drowned cats, dogs and birds left by the tide, she is often moved to open her bowels.
Tulip duly defecates, urinates, and sniffs at the bloated corpse of a cat, then cavorts in and out of the frame as Joe idly, contentedly, kicks at garbage, singing, “Human beings are prudes and bores, You smell my arse, I smell yours….” In a lovely unexpected flash of comic intuition, the tune is taken up by the unseen voices of a heavenly choir.
“And so it was that this beautiful creature came into my life,” Joe says, walking back to his flat, as the dog bounds into the frame. “And transformed it,” he continues, and Tulip leaps up, her paws on his shoulders. They turn as if in joyous dance, and now Joe is clothed only in a long black-and-white animal-skin loincloth, a headdress of leaves and feathers on his head, and the Putney towpath is transformed into African savannah.
In some scenes, Tulip appears suddenly, unexpectedly as a pencil sketch on a sheet of lined notebook paper and she is upright, wearing a dress, dancing on her graceful legs around a pile of horse manure, one of the many “privileged objects of her social attention”; or, when she is in heat, she will appear like a movie star in dark glasses, avoiding her many suitors, who are themselves portrayed as paparazzi waving cameras, flashbulbs ablaze.
Miss Canvey, Ackerley’s beloved vet, is changed to Miss Canvanini, presumably to allow for the lovely accent of Isabella Rossellini, who provides her voice. Lynn Redgrave, in her last performance before her death, is Joe’s sister, Nancy, who, in a darkly hilarious sequence, moves in with the happy couple and tries to take over. “I hardly remember for how long these two formidable females tussled for my custody,” Joe remarks. Clearly, it is Tulip who won. And clearly, Ackerley’s opinion of females of his own species was not uncomplicated. “Women are dangerous,” Joe says as he scurries away from the greengrocer’s enraged wife after cleaning up a mess Tulip has deposited in front of the shop. “And I feared now that Tulip’s death cries as, in dodging some vegetable missile, she went under a bus, would sound like music to this one.” Ackerley preferred to keep such dangerous females, including Nancy, at a safe distance. “It is always a mistake to ruffle them,” he wrote. “They stop at nothing and they never let go.”
This unease, almost revulsion, with the female does not extend to Tulip, however. Quite the contrary. Ackerley’s tireless resolve to provide her with all the experience a female dog is capable of enjoying; his rapt, almost fetishistic fascination with such gender-specific attributes as “the tiny trackless rubies [that] run from long white hair to long white hair down the droop of Tulip’s tail”: this was all part of Ackerley’s emotional embrace and celebration of all of Tulip that was exclusively female. She was the one female he was close to, in both senses of the word.
When Tulip first comes into heat, Ackerley’s tenderness toward her is palpable. There is a moving scene of great serenity in which the two of them walk lightly through the falling snow, a pretty Christmasy tune in the background, Tulip leaving a trail of delicate pink splotches in the winter white, as well as a trail of besotted local dogs. Ackerley’s love for Tulip and his determination to give her everything in life she could want led him to try to find her a “husband.” The subsequent encounters with various suitors—Max, an Alsatian with the demeanor of an old family retainer; Chum, another Alsatian belonging to the uxorious Mr. Plum; and finally Mountjoy, an aristocratic Alsatian belonging to a family that was “frightfully keen on the marriage”—are the stuff of the great romantic comedies of the past, if Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant had been German shepherd dogs. Watney, the impossibly small stiff-legged terrier from the local pub, is the only dog Tulip has any matrimonial interest in until, one moonlit night, she meets Dusty.
From this union with a dirty ragamuffin of a mongrel comes a litter of puppies, and Ackerley’s reaction to Tulip’s motherhood is, as might be expected, unsentimentality overcome by warmth. He cannot drown the eight puppies, as he has planned to do.
Nor can he keep nine dogs in his flat. The somber result is puppies given away because they had to be, given to people not quite suitable, people who are not prepared to take care of them, who pass them on to others or put them to sleep. Ackerley never let Tulip marry again. But it tortured him that she could not have a sexual life.
As time went on, she became Ackerley’s only companion of either gender. His friends were not inclined to visit him and be greeted by an enormous, growling canine duenna; and as for visiting his friends, he would not go without the dog and, as he put it, “People seem to take exception to being assaulted when they cross their legs in their own sitting rooms.”
He despaired of the other dog owners he met who insisted on their animal’s behaving with utter obedience and utter propriety. The sexual seasons of a female were difficult for the owner, as he himself had discovered; and as for male dogs, their sexual nature could exhibit itself at any time, making them “an embarrassment to the ladies and a source of inconvenient wonder to the children.” But Ackerley had no sympathy for these prejudices, for the “embarrassment, fear, snobbery” of the human species. He loved his dog not just as his companion, but as an animal he constantly tried to better understand. The filmmakers end My Dog Tulip with a shot of Joe seated alone on a bench, one of Ackerley’s saddest and most acute observations scrolling on the screen beside him:
What strained and anxious lives dogs must lead, so emotionally involved in the world of men, whose affections they strive endlessly to secure, whose authority they are expected unquestionably to obey, and whose mind they never can do more than imperfectly reach and comprehend. Stupidly loved, stupidly hated, acquired without thought, reared and ruled without understanding, passed on or “put to sleep” without care, did they, I wondered, these descendants of the creatures who, thousands of years ago in the primeval forests, laid siege to the heart of man, took him under their protection, tried to tame him, and failed—did they suffer from headaches?
Tulip lived to be sixteen and a half years old. The intensity of Ackerley’s love for her, the precision and sensitivity of his portrait of his beloved is there, even in this simple statement of her age: not “sixteen,” but “sixteen-and-a-half.” Half a year means something in the short life of a dog, and certainly it meant something to her owner. Tulip lived with him for fifteen of those sixteen and a half years, and for J.R. Ackerley they were “the happiest of my life.”
September 30, 2010