The owner had the dog professionally stuffed in order to cope with the loss. The dog on the right (alive) shares in my initial reaction to this scene from the documentary Furever: detached yet ruminative, struck with sympathy but mostly just perplexed.
The fact I'm reading my own feelings into the living dog may suggest how we relate to our pets or other people's pet. We anthropomorphize them, we treat them like humans, we assume we're like them and vice versa. That may explain why some would go to such extremes when dealing with the death of a pet. That's the central focus in Amy Finkel's film: our grief and how we deal with it.
[For the next two weeks, we will be covering the 2013 Brooklyn Film Festival, which runs from May 31st to June 9th. Check back with us for reviews of features, documentaries, and shorts playing at the fest. For more information and a full schedule, visit brooklynfilmfestival.org.]
Going into Furever, I almost expected the movie to be like an unofficial sequel to Errol Morris's debut feature, Gates of Heaven. Instead, Furver reminded me more of Chis Smith's Home Movie, which focused on the owners of eccentric homes and how they choose to live. Here in Finkel's film, it's about people's pets and how they die, but the commemoration of the death of the pet says just as much about the owner as home decor and design. One owner in grief, surrounded by paintings of her dead dog, even says that it's more about her than her pet.
All at once, what she's saying is true and yet also a kind of facade. It's about the pet too, of course, but the pet is also a reflection of the owner. At one point during Furever, a few of the subjects wonder about the relationship we have with pets. A few think the love is unconditional, but as one person points out, a pet's love is entirely conditional. The allure of the pet is that the relationship is free from conversation and complication -- it's a baby, in a lot of ways. Maybe the pet has the sweet end of the deal.
Furever does a lot of hopping around as it goes through its various topics. It starts with pet cemeteries and pet trinkets as memorabilia. There are glass keepsakes with pet ashes built into them, and there are diamonds made from dead pets as well. People get tattoos to commemorate their losses, or they commission portraits as a kind of substitution. (On the note of substitution, there's a segment on artificial testicles for neutered dogs that seems out of place on the topic of grief, but thematically it's a good fit given the larger idea of pampering and anthropomorphizing pets.)
These more traditional methods of grieving give way to less common forms, like pet taxidermy or pet freeze drying. Both are similar, and both are pretty creepy. I'm trying to say this without judgment, but it really wigs me out. These pets are carefully posed to simulate something familiar from a lived life, but they are lifeless things. It's that uncanny slip from pet to stuffed animal. Even though many people who've it done find solace in the decision, there's something unnerving about a lifelike stuffed pet riding in a baby stroller outdoors. All the elements combined multiply the morbidity and the absurdity.
Finkel's structure for Furever makes an interesting shift from the mere act of death and grieving to thoughts on the afterlife. Two of the segments that close the film involve a religion built around ritualistic pet mummification based on the ancient Egyptians. The founder of said religion was mummified himself, and his corpse is kept on the premises in a golden sarcophagus. The other segment is about pet cloning and focuses on a man who champions the cause of creating a new pet that's genetically identical to a dead one.
In some ways those two last subjects of pet-life after death -- one spiritual/religious, the other scientific -- could have supported their own individual documentaries or a shared documentary. In particular, I wanted to learn more about the belief system of the mummification enthusiasts, or even just find out more about the ethics of cloning and the personalities of cloned animals. We're told that a cloned dog is just like the dead one in mannerisms and disposition, but how much of that is pet and how much of that is the owner?
But that aside, there's an engaging survey of pet death and owner grief in Furever, and it never tries to deride its subjects even though it would be easy. It would also be cruel. Their grief, no matter what caused it to occur, is legitimate. Maybe the same can be said about the expressions of grief. Sometimes even with the death of humans, it's just as much about the griever as the grieved.
Furever screens Saturday, June 8. For tickets and more information, click here.