Dreams of My Childhood, Dog Days of Summer

When I was seven, we finally got rid of our Mittens. Mittens was our mutt, as strange, mercurial and mean a dog as I would ever encounter, alternately friendly and full of tooth-filled bites (this last trait, a sign of the dog's old age and declining health,was why my parents finally felt like it was time to get it away from their ten, seven, and three-year old children). I didn't have nearly the relationship with Mittens that my older brother had-- he'd chosen the dog, grown up with it, taken care of it far more than either my sister or myself had. And yet, I was devastated-- it was a loss, and for a seven-year old boy, the first time I had to confront the reality that loved ones (even mean, canine loved ones) could disappear from one's life. My mother met me on the way home from school (we lived close enough to my elementary school that I could walk to and from home), to tell me that Mittens had been "given away." I sniffed, but by then, after months of various folks coming to look at the dog (none of them choosing to take it), I was prepared, and felt ok. It was only an hour or so later, with scooby-doo on the tv in the background, that my brother told me the truth-- Mittens had not been "given away," but put to sleep (far too sick to have a happy life at that point) at the vet's, my parents and brother there with it. (I think this experience is why I can never watch Umberto D. without choking up as the title character releases his dog, and shoos it away).

Flash-forward eight or nine months later, the summer of 1981. The whole family gathers together to go to some mysterious suburb (if you asked me where it was, I still couldn't tell you-- the whole thing felt like a mirage, a shangri-la , a Brigadoon which disappeared the moment we left), where a lovely cocker spaniel has just given birth to a bunch of puppies. We choose one, bring it home, and as it runs around our driveway (ok, runs and stumbles-- it's only a few days old, and still finding its legs), we decide to name it Dusty, after her dirty-beige coat of fur. She is, unlike Mittens, a total delight-- dumb as a post, but very sweet, very playful, and very loyal (the fact that I still think of Mittens as an "it," while Dusty actually gets a gendered pronoun, probably signifies the difference). There are still photos of Dusty, all of four or five inches long, poking her head out from behind the car tire, her brown eyes looking at us warily, deciding whether or not to trust these strange humans. Later in the evening, my father, brother and I would pile into that station wagon and head to the movie theater, where we would see Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time. I'm not sure there are single "days that change your life," but I remember this as a very happy day: new dog, new movie, total bliss.

It's safe to say that no two filmmakers colonized my childhood movie imagination more than George Lucas and Steven Spielberg (I was four when Star Wars was first released, so I was perfectly positioned to see all the re-releases, eagerly await the sequels, and in the meantime invent my own "movies" with the action figures). I'm not sure where I'd put them on a list of my favorite filmmakers now (although Spielberg would probably still be pretty high up there), and I've seen thousands of very different kinds of films in the 26 years since that summer day, but it remains one of my favorite summer memories, and for the next five years or so, no summer would seem complete without their inimitable brand of fantasy filmmaking. There was action, delight, humor, and above all, WONDER in their work: the sense of a whole universe of color and excitement that was cinematic catnip to a nerdy young comics & sci-fi obsessed boy (now knowing more about Spielberg's life and work, I also like to think that my dog-in-the-suburbs tale is the other half of Spielberg's aesthetic: the human-scaled mixture of melancholy and hope that is sometimes misinterpreted as merely sentimental. It sometimes is-- the wretched "Kick The Can" segment from Twilight Zone: The Movie comes to mind, and so does pap like Always and Hook. But I think overall it's well-earned, and bears a darkness and complexity-- Elliot going to the shed to meet E.T., for instance, or the hauntingly strange final image of A.I. -- that leads quite naturally to the more adult darkness of Munich, Minority Report and Saving Private Ryan).

That's why I was pleased (via SLIFR) to learn about the brilliant "31 Days of Spielberg" occuring at the film blog Windmills of My Mind. That blog's creator/moderator, Damian, has declared Mr. S. his favorite filmmaker, and he's eight days into what looks like an epic of critical analysis and appreciation. As the weather spikes here in Ohio, I can't think of a better way to beat the heat than catching up and moving on with Damian's multi-part work. Check it out for yourself and see if you don't agree. For myself, I can't wait to read what Damian says about Jaws, and about Spielberg's most underrated film, the brilliant Sugarland Express.


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