Friday, June 16, 2017

Best in Show: A Mockumentary that’s Going to the Dogs

A few weeks back, while huffing and puffing on the elliptical trainer at my gym, I chanced to flip TV channels and came upon the Beverly Hills Dog Show. History was being made: for the very first time the dog show’s Best in Show competition was being broadcast on television. Frankly, it’s hard for me to imagine who would care. Then again, I don’t understand the rationale behind dog shows in the first place.

Yes, the dogs are – one and all – quite beautiful. Best in Show means that the winners in various specialized categories (the work dogs, the terriers, the toys, and so on) are competing against one another, with one to be named the overall winner. The Best in Show competition in Beverly Hills pitted a whippet against a corgi, a bichon frise, and several others. As is apparently typical of dog shows, none of them is expected to do anything spectacular (like, say, rescuing Timmy from a burning building). Each trots around a circle at his or her master’s side, and then stands at attention, waiting to be admired for being a credit to his or her breed. Judges study the dogs from all angles, examining their teeth and gently lifting their tails. Frankly, it reminded me of a scene from Twelve Years a Slave, except that these dogs were competing for trophies, not being auctioned off to the highest bidder.

The other distinctive thing about a dog show is that the dogs are far more graceful and aristocratic than the human beings. Each owner accompanies his or her prize-winner around the ring, sprinting lumpily at the canine’s side. They’re an unlikely lot: the men dressed in sober business suits, the women in ill-fitting tailored attire (with skirt inevitably too short, too tight) and flat-heeled shoes. And their seriousness of purpose can’t be missed.

No wonder Christopher Guest felt that dog shows were ripe to be satirized. Guest (also known, as the 5th Baron Hadon-Guest) first fell into the mockumentary business when he appeared as rocker Nigel Tufnel – the one whose amp goes to eleven -- in Rob Reiner’s 1984 classic, This is Spinal Tap. Following up this comic salute to “one of England’s loudest bands,” Guest began directing his own semi-improvised mockumentaries, featuring a troupe that generally includes Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard, Michael McKean, and Parker Posey. I’ve never quite gotten over their first effort, 1996’s Waiting for Guffman, about a small-town musical revue whose castmates dream of showbiz success. (Guest himself is a hoot as Corky St. Clair, imported from Broadway to lead the locals to glory.)

But Best in Show (2000) may be the merry band’s most popular effort. I think it’s because audiences love dog movies, and also because in this film the dogs have so much more dignity than their human handlers. Take Sherri Ann Cabot (Jennifer Coolidge), a trophy wife whose standard poodle Rhapsody in White is the stoic victim of Cabot’s penchant for sartorial makeovers. Or Gerry and Cookie Fleck (he has, quite literally, two left feet, while she seems to have past history with every man she runs across): they like to serenade their Norwich Terrier, Winky, with their own semi-musical dog barks. Or the Swans (Parker Posey, Michael Hitchcock), a yuppie couple whose own social and sexual neuroses seem to have caught up with their Weimaraner. Only Guest’s own character, a backwoods type named Harlan Pepper, actually seems at one with his bloodhound. Who wins? That’s for me to know. . . .

But I’d say it’s the audience. (Then again, I find  beauty pageants hilarious too.)

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