Some people’s mothers are made for TV, might be the takeaway from Casey Pinkston and Luke Dick’s docu-dramedy Red Dog. Much like the infamous Twitter feed-turned-books-turned-Shatner-sitcom Shit My Dad Says proved, sometimes the bullshit spewing from your parents’ mouths is actually liquid gold. You should bottle it, market it, and count your blessings. Dick’s motivations aren’t perhaps that capitalistic. As he said before Red Dog’s SXSW premiere, this film is about family and at the roots of this particular family is his mother an unfiltered, unbridled no-nonsense sort, never far from her next cigarette or her next verbal doozy.
The impetus that led to this explorative film about family history? Dick’s mother’s decision to raise her young son while working as a go-go girl at the Red Dog Saloon, an establishment that Oklahoma City has on at least one occasion tried to declare a public nuisance. It was basically home, as he was a toddler. Now, as a man in his thirties with two young children of his own, Dick’s asked her ‘what were you thinking,’ and she decided to answer. Red Dog pulls together a motley crew of former Red Dog affiliates and with the help of some clever animation and a score designed by Dick himself, spins an epic yarn that is indeed about family, the f*#ked-up ways they’re sometimes made, and how it can all lead to the right place in the end.
Director: Casey Pinkston, Luke Dick
Release Date: March 10, 2019 (SXSW)
I really, really enjoyed Red Dog. There’s something about its brutal honesty that wins you over in the first 10 minutes. Co-Director Dick creates an autobiographical debut bow that’s encapsulating. I quickly forgot the theater, my neighbor who was helping me to secondhand smoke via the fumes leaking from his outfit, and even the virus I’d picked up, incubating, festering and happily procreating in the back of my throat (the lozenges remained forgotten in my coat pocket). While Dick clearly loves the limelight—he’s a songwriter (having composed multiple tracks for Dierks Bentley, amongst many others), a musician, and a bit of a self-aware presence while in front of a camera—he cedes most of the screen time to his mother, her former dancer friends, the family that owns the Red Dog Saloon, and a number of other characters (many of whom are revealed as the cadre of father figures from Dick’s life that he labels HUSBAND 1, HUSBAND 2, HUSBAND 3, and so forth as the film progresses. The film is a narrative patchwork of memories and advice from lives forged from hard living and hard partying.
Dick’s own mother began her time at the strip club after winning an amateur dance competition at age 15. As she put it, fake IDs were easy to come by back then. It’s unclear exactly how old she was when she had Dick, or even how old she was when she finally left the life behind (and subsequently how old Dick was), but it is quite clear that their lives were for the longest time tied to the experience. All her husbands and lovers named in the film until the last (and current) came from her life at the Red Dog. She seems happy enough, content to not trade a moment of it, and for his part, so does Dick, more bamboozled by the reality of his life and his childhood, he’s obviously got nothing but love for his mother and was more than content with each of his dad’s as they came and went, asking them in turn if he could call them ‘Dad.’ (One of the film’s more touching moments came as one ‘Dad’ left the picture and told Dick he could no longer call him that. It’s also unclear, despite Dick’s forthright ownership of two young children, if he himself has an older child (he appears to) who’s high school or college age, and where she fits in this picture—but despite the lack of attention given her storyline, it seems to suggest that life follows patterns more often than not, and maybe it hasn’t all been happy reminiscing along the way.
Interestingly enough, despite the life of no regrets attitude shown by so many in the film, there’s another man, a contemporary of Dick’s who was raised in a similar situation. He, as a retaliation for a slight endured in childhood, reported his mother and boyfriend to the police for their homegrown hydroponics. His mother never forgave him, and has since passed on. He clearly is not all sunshine and rainbows about the life nor the lifestyles it bred. In fact, when the film refers to the Red Dog as the rowdiest strip club in Oklahoma, almost as a badge of pride, it’s no understatement, only rowdy doesn’t always have pleasant connotations. Quick research reveals all sorts of crime associated with the site, up to and including murder.
There’s a character, Tiny, in the film, who used to work as a bouncer at the club. His modus operandi was to enquire for work at a place, find the current bouncer, walk up to them, confirm their identity, and then knock them out, thereby clearing the way for him to re-approach the owner and point to their current bouncer sleeping on the job. As an older man, he’s a hilarious character, but also a somewhat grounding one. There’s plenty of hindsight at work in this emotional whirlwind, smoothing wrinkles, beautifying life’s minor imperfections with the deft hand of an able plastic surgeon (herein embodies by clever editing, lots of footage, willing participants, and Dick’s engaging score).
I’ve no doubt that Dick, his mother, and many of these other characters are just as happy as they seem, but one the question that drove this film into existence, that what were you thinking never really gets answered. More so, the story of this man’s life, of his mother’s life is shared in as meaningful a way as any of us can really hope for in our own lives. It’s cleverly captured, encapsulated, and regurgitated as a more than pleasant ride.
If one were to look for faults, beyond social commentary on child rearing and its long-term implications, one might find inconsistencies in the filmmaking. Some single frame interview shots (including Dick in his own home) are beautifully lit with the latest LED lighting and look like cinema gold. Others, obviously accumulated over years and during weeks spent on the road, are inconsistent in their quality (lighting and color foremost) and may jar more practiced eyes. Otherwise, the story flows like churned butter. It really is largely heartwarming and welcome, reminding all of us that happiness can spring from even the least ideal experiences and upbringings.