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The Greatest Betrayal

I gave a presentation to a memory care community today on Animals in the Movies. A lovely look at Hollywood stars from Rin Tin Tin to Mr Ed, Flipper, and Babe. I pre-screened everything I was going to show to the residents but was still a bit nervous about running the clip from Breakfast at Tiffany where she throws out Cat.

When I worked as an activity assistant in a nursing home, movies were usually our default activity on Sunday afternoons. Sunday mornings had a lot of god-botherers on the calendar and although I didn’t mind the ones that came in and sang, the preachy fire and brimstones ones really got on my tit. They’d try and drag residents into the living room and start banging on about fornication and gambling and then have the nerve to do the finger-to-lip shush to the staff if they were making too much noise. Often I’d end up in a Kramer vs Kramer tug of war over a resident to prevent them being wheeled into the looney clutches of these awful people.

The Sunday afternoon movie and popcorn was a way to rebalance things and to get rid of the baptisty pall. I always liked animal movies for this group – lovely heartwarming nonsense that wouldn’t offend too many people, be easy to follow along and hopefully make them laugh long enough to forget what they were going to eat for dinner. It is in this spirit that I chose (the grammatically ambiguous) Marley and Me. A happy romping puppy film with Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston. No, I had not read the book, but was imagining the film to be in the same vein as Beethoven (St Bernard, not Ludwig van) except with a labrador and less slobber.

We were about 60 minutes in and I was busy popping popcorn and watching for any signs of choking. By the time I realized what was happening it was too late. The music had suddenly gone from puppy paws jolly to stirring strings sadness. Marley had been seen by the vet and we were now at the ‘I’m sorry there’s nothing else we can do’ conversation. We then went immediately into the longest, saddest, and most emotionally painful dog euthanasia scene in any film. I swear it will just destroy you. If ever there were a need for more reasons to hate Owen Wilson. The whole room was just stunned. None of us could quite believe just how badly this had turned out. I quickly stuffed handfuls of unbuttered popcorn into my mouth in the hope that my own personal choking fit would be enough of a diversion. Not a chance.

The Sunday afternoon movie was a way to rebalance things and to get rid of the baptisty pall. I always liked animal movies for this group – lovely heartwarming nonsense that wouldn’t offend too many people, be easy to follow along and hopefully make them laugh long enough to forget what they were going to eat for dinner. It is in this spirit that I chose (the grammatically ambiguous) Marley and Me. A happy romping puppy film with Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston. No, I had not read the book, but was imagining the film to be in the same vein as Beethoven (St Bernard, not Ludwig) except with a labrador and less slober. We were over half way through and I was busy popping popcorn and watching for any signs of choking. By the time I realized what was happening it was too late. The music had suddenly gone from plinky plonk jolly to stirring strings sadness. Marley had been seen by the vet and we were now at the ‘I’m sorry there’s nothing else we can do’ conversation. We then go immediately into the longest, saddest, and most emotionally painful dog euthanasia scene in any film. I swear it will just destroy you. If ever there were a need for more reasons to hate Owen Wilson. The whole room is just stunned. None of us can quite believe just how badly this has turned out. I quickly stuff handfuls of unbuttered popcorn into my mouth in the hope that my own personal choking fit will be enough of a diversion. But everyone just stares at the screen and hates me.

The only salvation would be the ending of the film where, in a bittersweet, laughing through tears moment, the grieving family would welcome a new furry bundle of puppy and the Circle of Life would play in the background as the credits rolled. But not this movie. No. The closing shot is of Owen Wilson with a shovel digging a hole in the backyard and burying Marley. Capped with a lingering final aerial shot of the pile of rocks marking Dog, Dead. Apparently the producers decided to cut it there and not include the last scene when the youngest daughter wakes up with night terrors, believing that Marley has been buried alive.

My point is that (1) movies should not be allowed to end just like that – this is America damnit, not Sweden – and (2) if they feature animals who die we need some sort of early warning system. Now while I am entirely justified in expressing outrage over Marley and Me, I will also admit that I do suffer from a childhood viewing of a film that left me completely scarred and unable to ever bond with otters. Ring of Bright Water does at least not suffer from Marley and Me’s grammatical ambiguity but it has plenty of other horrors.

Oh it starts off very nicely. In fact you could watch the trailer and not even begin to imagine the trauma that awaited you. “The Most Delightful Otter in the World” “A Treat for the Whole Family”. Yeah, until said otter is bashed in with a shovel in front of your very eyes. The Plot: Scottish man spots a frisky otter in a pet shop window. He impulsively brings the playful creature home to his flat and names him Mij. Mij lives in the bath until man moves to Scotland and the two get involved in all kinds of hilarious highland capers.

So far so good. And then bam, Otter is out playing while man is away and gets whacked with a shovel (not wielded by Owen Wilson) from a ditch digger. I cannot even watch this bit of the film to check my accuracy because it’s just too traumatising. There’s no foreboding music. Just the whack of a shovel from an ignoramus ditch-digger. I still remember that sense of complete disbelief and betrayal. I was so sure that the next scene would be Mij popping out from behind the sofa and it’d turn out that some poor unfortunate stoat or other creature had just got the chop. But nope, Mij remained decapitated in a ditch. As the narrator explained, Mij had been taught never to fear or distrust a human, which led to his grisly end. But I learned very early on to never trust anyone yielding a shovel. *See also, Owen Wilson, dog burier.

And yes, I do realize that the film was based on a true story but children growing up in England in the 1970s were subjected to some very harsh and early realities of life. See also, Kes. That’s falcons ruined for me, thank you Ken Loach. What’s next, rabbits?

If the violence in the film of Watership Down wasn’t enough to make you ill, there was always the song. I never understood how the hand that wrote Underground, overground, Wombling free, The Wombles of Wimbledon Common are we, have also penned the syrupy death song Bright Eyes?
Is it a kind of a dream
Floating out on the tide
Following the river of death downstream
Oh, is it a dream?

Alexa…play Remember You’re a Womble.