I was recently watching François Truffaut's revered 1959 film The 400 Blows
, a heavy-hearted character study of a 12-year-old Parisian boy who skips school, mixes with the wrong crowd and gets in trouble with the fuzz as his relationship with his parents slowly splinters. Celebrated for a unforgettable final shot in which the boy runs towards the ocean then turns and gazes directly at the camera, as if reaching out to the viewer in some undefinable gesture for help, the film assisted in defining the archetypal narrative for 'wrong side of the tracks' drama.
Before arriving at this moment Trauffaut presents several beautifully framed sequences that shift his vérité bread-and-butter style direction into dream-like territory. In one of them the kid, protagonist Antoine (Jean-Pierre Léaud), is locked in a divvy van and being taken to a rehabilitation centre for juvenile delinquents. As it glides through Paris at night, the streets illuminated by incandescent signs of shops and theatres and the glow of headlights, Antoine stares indecipherably at the road behind him, a tear rolling down his cheek as he clutches the bars of the back window, as if attempting to hold on to the past.
It didn't hit me the first time I watched this film, back in my university years, but it sure hit me the second. Not a realisation of what the scene was about or what it stood for but a meaning outside it, in my own past. A memory. And with that, into the hot tub time machine we go...
My family had several pets over the years I grew up but Butch, our Jack Russell, was different. He was a great pal. I adored him. When friends and family came over we often showed them a trick where one of us would throw a tennis ball over the agapanthus in the backyard and Butch would leap after it, his arse flicking up ridiculously towards the sky. It never failed to amuse.
My father worked full-time in a workshop at the back of our garden. Customers had to walk through the yard and down a slim cement path, past a ratty trampoline and a low-hanging basketball ring (too many trampoline-assisted slam dunks) to get there. And of course, past Butch. One day he decided -- who knows what that silly pooch's reasons were -- to take a bite out of a customer's leg. Dad was very apologetic and the nibbled bleeding woman took it no further. But the damage had been done and Butch, it was quickly declared, unbeknownst to me, had to go.
The last time I saw my dog plays in the memory not like Truffaut -- more like an over-egged moment from a cheesy drama, a sort of sex-less Mills and Boon meets Lassie.
The kind of icky emotional goo I wouldn’t hesitate to lampoon if I saw it in a movie. But...
EXT. SUBURBAN STREET – MORNING
Running. Crying. I learnt that my dad has put Butch into the back of the family Toyota to take him to a new home and I hadn't been given the chance to say goodbye. Butch has his two paws up on the back seat and is staring longingly out the back window at me. He doesn't look away. I keep running. The car speeds off into the distance.
Cue violin music.
I'm not, of course, implying that Butch necessarily understood the gravity of this moment or that the protagonist in The 400 Blows
is anything like a meddlesome bum-flipping dog. My mind simply linked the two scenes and it's interesting to contemplate cinema's capacity to do that: to prompt us to revisit narratives already written in our real lives. This got me thinking about other films I associate with particular memories, and whether all of them were as sucky as the one with a cute dog and me bawling my eyes out.