My Dog Tulip
My Dog Tulip is an animated film about Joe Randolph Ackerley, the one time arts editor of the (now defunct) weekly BBC magazine The Listener, and his dog. Ackerley, while certainly a man of letters, was not the most prolific of authors, having published no more than four main works in his lifetime. A significant portion of his perhaps insignificant canon takes the form of memoir, and his 1956 work My Dog Tulip is no exception. This particular memoir, however, might seem like the unlikely source of inspiration for a big screen animation chronicling as it does the 16 years of his life shared with a dog, his beloved Alsatian Tulip.
Paul and Sandra Fierlinger’s My Dog Tulip takes the first person narrative of Ackerley’s memoir and adds animation. An approach such as this obviously puts a lot of faith in the source material but, thankfully, this isn’t your average sentimental dog memoir and Ackerley isn’t your average sentimental author. One can only imagine the upset My Dog Tulip caused when it was originally published – the prudish British public no doubt finding its colourful and graphic descriptions of his dog’s life simply too vulgar. The film is very much faithful to the book in this respect, skirting as it does a veritable wellspring of vulgarity; from Ackerley’s eloquent and lucid descriptions of the biological functions of his disturbed Alsatian, to the unsettling frank account of his numerous failed attempts to mate her.
These amusing anecdotes are voiced brilliantly by Christopher Plummer whose erudite voice resonates with an authority and mature wisdom that lends ever more power to Ackerley’s prose.
The contrast of Ackerley’s grandiose eloquence and the crude subject matter is amusing, and works effectively as a foil to Ackerley’s other wry observations and philosophical musings (which feature throughout). However, tempering vulgarity with humour is a risky business – in failure you run the risk of not simply being unfunny, but also of suddenly exposing the vulgar nature of your subject. Fortunately Ackerley’s tremendous wit, coupled with Plummer’s flawless delivery, can seemingly sustain any degree of depravity.
Given the weight of Ackerley’s prose and the quite direct adaption of it to screen, the accompanying animation was always going to be in danger of becoming superfluous, potentially amounting to little more than a visual sideshow. However Paul Fierlinger’s artwork manages not only to be a fine visual spectacle, but one that deftly captures the physicality of Ackerley’s prose; not least in the brilliant moments of sheer slapstick as Ackerley blunders from one absurd scenario to another after his unruly and ‘undoctorable’ dog.
My Dog Tulip is an amusing portrait of canine life equal parts touching and vulgar. But there is more to it than just amusing gratuity. Being an openly gay man in the mid-twentieth century one can assume that Ackerley was more than familiar with the complicated nature of human relationships. What lies beneath the surface of My Dog Tulip, then, are Ackerley’s quite profound meditations on love, devotion and friendship. Who is the ideal friend? Well, as Ackerley discovers, it might as well be the four-legged one who sicks up on the carpet. And then eats it.