Random Disclaimer: the following essay contains spoilers for the television series: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine…
As a creator, when you’re responsible for representing a culture that is alien to you, sometimes, you need someone closer to said culture to tug on your leash a little tighter.
The other day, at Wondercon down in Anaheim; I saw in the program that the actress who played my favorite sci-fi heroine growing up – Major Kira Nerys – Nana Visitor, would be on a panel for a newly formed community called; Gaaays in Spaaace. The group’s aim is to promote and celebrate the inclusion of LGBTQ characters in Gene Roddenberry’s wonderful vision of the future; Star Trek. During the panel, someone brought up the fact that a new fan favorite couple (the first openly gay one in Trek’s history in a televised series, thus far) had fallen victim to the “bury your gays” trope. (If you are unfamiliar, it refers to the trend/epidemic of a LGBTQ character in a romantic relationship who will inevitably die tragically, to create cheap drama to further the stories of other cis/straight characters.) This was apparently personally devastating to many LGBTQ fans in the Trek community; as I learned.
Nana poignantly brought up a point that recalled when the white showrunners (and some of my all-time favorite television writers, I might add) of the program; Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, planned to end their series by killing off the lead character – a black man, a single father trying to raise his son – by having him sacrifice his life to protect the Gods of a different species. The actor playing the show’s Starfleet Captain – Benjamin Sisko – Avery Brooks, shook his finger at the writers.
You cannot end a show about a hopeful future by killing off a black child’s father, thus turning him into an orphan. You cannot do it, he stressed to them. I understand why you think it is good storytelling, but… as a black man… I am telling you; You. Cannot. Do It.
(Paraphrased from Nana’s telling)
And they didn’t kill Ben Sisko. And, to this day, me and many others Trekkies (including many of those who still feel marginally represented in a utopian vision of the future, still twenty years following its tenure) consider DS9 to perhaps still be the most innovative, inclusive, and progressive, show in the history of its genre.
Wes Anderson could certainly benefit from watching some key episodes of it.
I honestly don’t think I have much to say that has not been said by – what certainly seems to be – the majority of Asian-American film critics, regarding the numerous racial problems / representative issues with Isle of Dogs (if you haven’t read the pieces written by Justin Chang, Angie Han, and others, please, consider doing so. Please. I love you Greta, but that character is just… yuck.) I would also go so far as to say that, many of the decisions continue to reveal Wes’ clear artistic limitations.
But first, something positive! The most successful thing about this stop motion picture to me is unquestionably Bryan Cranston’s casting. Very few people could balance the rugged earnestness required of poor, shaggy Chief. He nails it, and the animation accentuates his performances marvelously. As expected, the film looks incredible. However, much more than every so often, Anderson’s ambitions overcloud his judgement in aesthetic ways in addition to the ethical ones. He honestly looks like he’s showing off. He almost seems to try to one-up his matryoshka doll structure of Grand Budapest by having seemingly innumerable layers to his prologue. Essentially, it’s artful info dump, after artful info dump – which he then extends to well beyond its welcome into the first act. But, unlike the much more successful – but also arguably culturally appropriated / white-washed film – he doesn’t bother to treat the last act as passionately, or seem to care enough to add an epilogue, to his usually meticulous structure. After the middle portion, the narrative of Dogs fizzles out.
All Wes’ typical obsessions come together in ways he’s done time and time again here. The man repeats successful beats from past films – such as the scout showdown from Moonrise Kingdom – over, and over, and over again. (I think there are at least three stand-offs in this film with a Desplat drum beat set to a similar editing pattern as that scene). Ultimately, all this only seems to further shine a light on his casual adoption of a culture, in the broadest and most surface level ways possible, for no real reason. He’s not even doing or saying anything new from a craft standpoint. He’s just lucky, talented, and comfortable enough to be able to filter his ideas through whatever prism he chooses. If anything, Isle of Dogs is really nothing more than an occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, lazy, homage laden, political allegory, wrapped in an obsessive, meticulously imitated, Japanese cinephile candy wrapper. (And, the actors, especially Cranston, Goldblum, Balaban, Swinton – literally with one line of dialog that steals the whole movie here – as well as Vance, Murray and Norton, deserve the bulk of the comedic credit.)
Nothing about this story says it had to be set in Japan, but it is apparently important that the audience sit through a stop motion kidney transplant – all in one take – just so a revered American director can show off.