Friday, January 24, 2014

The Bent World of Dog Show People

The cast and characters of "Best in Show"

This post recycled from December 21, 2006

Across the world, but especially in America, people congregate in social tribes, and most of these tribes seem to have an occasional "pow wow" of one sort or another.

For motorcycle freaks, that pow wow might be
Bike Week in Daytona, or Sturgis
in South Dakota.

A certain type of fundamentalist Christian cannot pass up a tent revival, while folks with other interests may flock to Renaissance Fairs or Civil War re-enactor events.

Gun enthusiasts have their gun shows, while still other Americans are attracted to tractor pulls, car shows, or rodeos.

Whatever the group -- from wine connoisseur to reformed alcoholic, from Star Trek fan to opera aficionado-- each has its own gathering, its own customs, and its own set of odd-ball characters.

The writer and producer Christopher Guest has made a living crafting "mock-umentaries" about such American subcultures.

His first foray into the genre was a movie entitled This is Spinal Tap -- a wonderful send up of the bloated pretensions of heavy metal music.

This movie was so well done -- and done with such seriousness and affection -- that some people actually thought it was a documentary about a real band. Reality blurred a bit more when Guest and his actor "bandmates" toured and played their instruments on stage -- never cracking a smile or leaving character as they sang faux heavy metal lyrics such as "as Big bottom, big bottom. Talk about bum cakes, my girl's got 'em."

Spinal Tap was followed up by
A Mighty Wind (a parody of folk music), and Waiting for Guffman (a parody of community theater).

In A Mighty Wind and Waiting for Guffman, as with Spinal Tap, Guest's comedy depended on his movie audience recognizing that his characters had very close approximations to real types.

In A Mighty Wind, for example, estranged folk musicians are modeled on the likes of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, Mamma Cass and Denny Doherty, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.

In Spinal Tap, the repeated demise of drummers in freak accidents is a reference to the untimely deaths of such rock percussionists as Keith Moon, John Bonham, Eric Carr, Nicholas Dingley, and Dennis Wilson.

For his entry into the dog show world, Christopher Guest created "Best in Show," in which dog show archetypes are dissected with the precision of a surgeon and the cultural sensitivity of an anthropologist.

The thread that holds the tapestry of characters together in Best in Show is not dogs, so much as the recognition that many of the people that attend dog shows seem to be "working out" their issues through the world of dogs. We laugh at the joke because it is so often true, and everyone in the audience knows it and "gets it."

A repeated theme in the movie is dysfunction -- sexual dysfunction, social dysfunction, and emotional dysfunction.

The fact that many dogs show obsessives are driven by a hole in their soul, and that that they seek to fill this hole through the surrogacy of dogs and dog shows is faced head on.

Many of the "normal" people that frequent dog shows are slightly odd, and more than a handful seem to be trying to compensate for the absence of children in their lives by dressing up their dogs, dancing with their dogs, or -- as in this case -- singing to them. Frustrated maternal instincts from both straight and gay couples are worn on the sleeve for anyone who takes the time to look for them.

A recurring theme in Best in Show is the large number of openly gay and closeted gay people that can be found at dog shows. In the clip below, a sad and powerful story is told in a single line: "I asked my ex-wife ... who's that?" The painful laughs that follow are triggered because almost everyone familiar with dog shows knows a character who fits the story. This is a story about lost lives.

Another recurring theme in Best of Show
 is that people of moderate financial means often seek personal recognition and an improved social position by participating in the world of dog shows. Or, to put it more succinctly: "Make Fern City proud" !

The role of the dog show judge as part-and-parcel of the scene gets a delightful send up when color-commentator Fred Willard and his side-kick come together to steer the TV public through the judging process. The judge, "a retired school teacher from New Jersey," is initially mistaken for a man, and Willard cannot help but blink at the way she will spend her day.

Following the success of Best in Show, Bravo-TV did a "reality" show knock-off of the movie. It says quite a lot that they had no problem finding a ready cast of real people to populate their series: Showdog Moms & Dads.

In this series, a cast of "real dog show people" were followed around to canine events across the country including a woman with no kids who freely admitted to displacing her maternal instincts on to her German Shepherds; a married man (and former AKC judge) who came off as a closeted version of Liberace; two screaming queens and their Toy Fox Terrier; a woman whose relationship with her Weimeraner appeared to be much stronger than her relationship with either her husband or reality, and; a "normal" person who was a single-mom and dog trainer trying to raise her son in a dog show world -- and with dog trainer commands.

I suspect Best in Show and Showdog Moms & Dads made some people in the dog show world uncomfortable, if for no other reason than rooms full of people were laughing out loud at scenes not so very different from reality.

Is this what we look like to the rest of the world, they wondered? Others protested that not everyone at a dog show is dysfunctional ... or gay ... or controlling ... or ego driven.

To which we can reply: Of course not. Not everyone at a Star Trek convention was unpopular in high school. Not everyone at a gun show is a Republican. Not everyone who listens to "Peter Paul & Mary" is a Democrat.

But that's the way to bet.

The bottom line is that tribes do share cultures, values, backgrounds and experience. And the people at dog shows are a tribe every bit as strong as those at a Star Trek convention, a gun show, or a "Peter Paul & Mary" concert.

The success of Best in Show, and Christopher Guest's other movies, is based on his understanding that obsessive groups do differ from us and each other, and those differences make the people in those groups both interesting and amusing.

Certain "types" are "over-represented" at almost every convention or tribal gathering. The result is that if you want to see tattoos, Bike Week is not a bad place to start, and if you are studying psychological dysfunction, a dog show is not a bad place to collect test subjects.

Of course, if you are looking for plain crazy, you can also do pretty well at the local dog park! As Cesar Milan's show, The Dog Whisperer, suggests, a lot of people have very dysfunctional relationships with their dogs outside of the show ring.

A commonality here,
as I have noted in the past, is that a lot of people with "dog problems" treat their dogs as if they are human children rather than what they really are ... which is a dog.

Too often, the result is a dog that thinks it is "top dog." These confused "top dogs" believe they must discipline the humans in their pack and also protect their packs (human and non-human alike) from outside intruders. The result is a disaster, as Showdog Moms and Dads captures so humorously on film.

Paradoxically, this little bit of "reality" turns out to be more surreal -- and at least as comical -- as anything dreamed up by Christopher Guest.

In an interview with an Australian publication, Christopher Guest explained how he got the idea for the movie:

"I got the idea for Best in Show six years ago when [wife Jamie Lee Curtis] and I were taking our mutts to the dog park in Los Angeles. I noticed a real dynamic that existed between owners and their pets. The pure-breeds looked down on our mutts in the same way their owners looked down on us. I started attending dog shows to meet the people and to see just how serious this all could get at the top level."

And so, you see, it really did start in a dog park!


geonni banner said...

It's been years since I saw the movie "Best In Show," but I remember how "non-dog people thought it was over-the-top. Those of us who had experienced the world of shows and pure-bred dog fanciers all thought it was, if anything, understated. One thing they left out was the breed-motif paraphernalia that is so much in evidence in the average show-breeders home. Items that depict the breeder's homes are everywhere - place-mats, throw-pillows, wind-chimes, acrylic throw-blankets, figurines, wall art, coffee cups, canisters, clocks, and a million more collectibles." And of course they are usually wearing breed T-shirts or sweatshirts, windbreakers,and hats. And of course there are bumper stickers, vanity plates and window decals. The effect is mind-boggling, and would have made a good addition to the film.

PBurns said...


Folks in the dog world tend to embrace a breed as identity and style ("my breed is...") and this runs head on into the common idea of "collecting" something. I have been in a lot of dog people's homes and what you say rings true. In my house, there is none of that. Oh sure, I have a shelf of dog books, and plastic dog crates in the garage and in the laundry room but there are not throw pillows, prints, china figurines, blanket of ribbons, etc. This may be because I am a man.


Donald McCaig said...

Dear Patrick,
Years ago, when I was still sane I vowed "No Chotchkas!" None of those doggy cups, pillows, art, photos.

Alas, I have revealed myself to be just as sappy as the Pillow People. Sheepdog photographs and posters everywhere while my dear Granny's portrait lingers in the attic.

As a card carrying member of a distinct dog culture I'm aware how cultures promote values and do so in very subtle ways. If, for instance, someone tells me about their "Borders" or "BCs" rather than their "Border Collie", "Sheepdog"or "Collie" I know they've come from the Dog Fancy or one of its clients.

Donald McCaig

PBurns said...

That might be a fun thing to think about -- shibboleths in the world of dogs. Going to a "hunt country" antique sale with the wife in a few hours. We will see what that means. I am a cheap bugger, so that is always a barrier.

Water Over The Dam said...

My son and I went to see 'best in show' when it first came out (he was 13) and we both thought it was very funny (we had 'done' some dog showing.) Odd thing though, no one else in the theater was laughing!

One thing that struck me at the time was that, unlike reality shows, 'Best in Show' had an underlying kindness and affection for those wacko people - the humor was pointed, but not cruel. Today, nastyness would rule.

Also I do recall they walked the characters thru those tschotske selling areas.
Hope you found some good 'dog-junk' on your antiquing tour.