Almost two years ago, fake news reported that leaflets had been distributed by Muslim fundamentalists in Manchester, Britain, calling for a public ban on dogs to keep the area pure for Muslims. I am technically unable to reproduce the poster in this version of the blog, but after a sign showing a dog crossed out in a circle, and presumably the same reference in Arabic, the poster reads:
FOR PUBLIC PURITY
This area is home to a large Muslim community. Please have respect for us and for our children and limit the presence of dogs in the public sphere.
Keeping the purity of the public space enables the (sic!) Muslims remain untainted and without blemish.
As part of this effort, we have chosen to address one of the aspects that can have a detrimental effect on the purity of public space, with the aspect being the presence of dogs who are considered impure in Islam.
This might have been the impetus for Wes Anderson to write Isle of Dogs since he devised the script for the movie before the 2016 U.S. election, the rise of anti-immigration populism and Christian nationalism as well as the election of Spanky as a proto-fascist president. Or perhaps Wes Anderson was simply prescient in tackling themes like refugees, xenophobia and intolerance.
The dogs, whose barks are dubbed into English while the Japanese characters speech is incomprehensible to better capture the emotional punch, are sent into exile to Trash Island and eventually an intended genocide. The heroes include a Japanese 11-year-old “little pilot,” Atari (Koyu Rankin) and representatives of four different dog species (Rex – Edward Norton, Boss – Bill Murray, King – Bob Balaban, and Duke – Jeff Goldblum) and one outlier to the outliers, a stray named Chief (Bryan Cranston). There is also a love story (Scarlett Johansson is the voice of Nutmeg). In this superb parable of our time, instead of hatred even for the Machiavellian dictator who hates dogs, we are taught trust, love, empathy and the benefits of democratic procedures.
The core of the story is a corrupt politician who spreads false news, assassinates scientists, spreads fear and persecutes minorities. The taiko drums are merely the introduction and finale to a brilliant score that provides the propulsion more than the simplistic plot of this stop-motion phenomenal innovative animation film rooted deeply in contemporary Japanese pop culture and iconography. Archetypal comic fight scenes of swirling clouds with only “Xs” and exclamation marks emerging from the mist and imported Lauren Bacall – Humphrey Bogart dialogue bring into the movie Hollywood nostalgia.
The second of the excellent films that I saw yesterday, the just released Dutch film Layla M on Netflix, is rooted in realism rather than fantasy. Like possibly Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, this movie was, I believe, based on a series of 2014 news reports in the Dutch press of European and Muslim teens recruited and radicalized by ISIS who were lured to become jihadi brides. The marriages very often failed as the husbands turned out to be domineering, patriarchal wife beaters. Yusra Hussein was a 15-year-old Somali girl in such a situation. In the film, Layla is a 17 or 18-year-old Dutch-born very intelligent and spirited girl from a Moroccan immigrant family who turns to religion and is gradually radicalized. Unlike the typical explanations for the susceptibility of teenage girls to such lures, Layla is not motivated by a search for excitement or adventure or to give meaning to her life, but as a reaction against Dutch stereotyping and a sincere search for meaning from her religion.
In Act 3, Scene 1 of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Mark Antony shouts, “Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war.” This is what the corrupt mayor does in Isle of Dogs; he exhorts the Japanese citizens of his city to reject and throw out of the city the dogs. Mark Antony wanted to use Julius Caesar’s assassination to urge revenge. In the havoc stirred up, the mayor and his criminal cohorts can seize the wealth of the nation. The dogs, though pets, but originally trained for war, are to be released from their leashes and their master’s love and control to create mayhem. Only in confining them to an island, they organize themselves, revolt and come back to conquer the hatred and fear stirred up. In Layla M, in spite of the irony that religious Muslims regard dogs as unclean, it is radical Islam that cries havoc and releases its young men to become dogs of war totally subservient to the dogmas of their new masters.
If Anderson’s film is full of slapstick, Mijke de Jong’s Dutch film is chock full of deadly slaps. If Anderson manages to craft an allegory about genocide by the use of huge mounds of garbage that have a strange ethereal beauty, de Jong’s relatively squalid Dutch suburbs offer only a hint of all the hidden ugliness. If Anderson’s film is surreal, de Jong’s is real. If Anderson employs humour and levity, the rare moments of levity in de Jong’s film quickly sink into the bog of radicalism.
I did not intentionally watch the two films back-to-back, but they told the same story from opposite perspectives and using opposite techniques. Layla M is a very good film, good in its ethos and good in its execution. Anderson’s film, however, belongs to a very different order of brilliance.