I have a confession to make. In a tweet about the film Beginners earlier this week, I chose to post a picture of my own Jack Russell terrier, Maxine, rather than expand on my actual comment within the tweet. Maxine and I have been pals for fifteen years now (sixteen in June), but this is the first time she has been brought up for academic reasons since I was in fifth grade. Needless to say, it’s long overdue.
Elaboration is for blog posts anyways. Speaking of which…
Just over eight minutes into Beginners, Oliver sits on a bench with Arthur in a dog park.Oliver wants Arthur to play with the other dogs (his “own people”) but Arthur is content to hang out with Oliver and observe from a far. Oliver decides to give Arthur a history lesson about his breed. He explains that Jack Russels were first bred in the 1800s by hunting enthusiast for their courage and stamina, but now are bred mainly because humans think they’re cute. Oliver elaborates and touches on a point that is a major theme in the film: “You think you’re you when you want to chase the foxes, but other people planted that in you years ago…you’re chasing tennis balls because it’s as close to a fox as you’re going to get.”
While Oliver speaks about the facts behind the Jack Russell, Arthur disproves Oliver’s point throughout the movie. He has no interest in chasing random objects or other animals. The only people he does chase, or more appropriately, follows around (hangs out with?) are humans who he feels attached to, who he loves—Oliver, Anna, Andy, and Hal, Oliver’s deceased father.
That’s an interesting story in itself. To be brief, Hal has been gay all of his life, but was married to Oliver’s mother for forty four years. In the year after she passed away, Hal told Oliver, at the age of seventy five, that he was gay. Not long after that, he started to date Andy.
Among the many things that I would like to talk about in Beginners, I think one of the most crucial is that idea that spirit can break free of what others attempt to force on people (or in this case dogs, too) through social stigmas, pressure, or (again, for dogs) breeding.
In other words, the spirit of a human, or a dog, has the potential to reveal the true self.
An hour and eleven minutes into the film, Oliver recalls how Hal told him about being gay while married to Oliver’s mother, Georgia. He reveals that she proposed to him. Hal answered, “I love you and we’re great buddies, but you know what I am. And then she says, ‘That doesn’t matter, I’ll fix that.’”
The scene cuts into the colors of the gay pride flag with Oliver’s voice over of the word each color stands for. We get a group of pictures of what the world was like in 1978, a feature repeated in the film that I liked a lot but don’t have space to elaborate on here. This is followed by a look at Hal’s annual Christmas stuffed animal display at the museum where he was director. Oliver’s voice over recites Hal’s favorite quote from Margery Williams’s “Velveteen Rabbit.” The Velveteen Rabbit asks the Skin Horse, “What is real?…Does it happen all at once?” The horse replies, “It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time…Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
This, to me, is the movie. It captures every character and each unique relationship. But I want to focus on Arthur and Hal. Arthur loves his humans so much that he can’t stand to be away from them. He is well trained and follows directions except when one of his humans tries to leave him alone. The real Arthur is not a dog bred to hunt or to just be cute (even though, let’s face it, he is), but real Arthur is capable of love, seen through his actions and his subtitles, and even sadness at the thought of being left alone.
Hal fits the quote nearly to a tee. He has played the role of straight husband for forty four—over half his life—and is finally able to break from that role in his mid-seventies. There are times where it hurt, like the Skin Horse tells the Velveteen Rabbit, as is clear when Hal tells Oliver that “I was willing to try anything” when his friend and future wife proposed to him. Despite suffering from cancer, Hal appears very much alive and happy in any scene that he is not drugged up in a hospital bed. It is that real self—the animated, excited, exuberant Hal with Andy, with Oliver, with Authur, and with his impressively large group of friends—that comes through in Hal.
What really makes the Velveteen Rabbit scene is the image of Hal dancing with Andy, and then with Oliver while Arthur happily runs around them. First they dance to the words Oliver speaks in his voice over, until a bit of uplifting classical music brings the viewer fully into the scene.
So, how does this relate to ontology vs. epistemology in the film Beginners?
Here’s my thought:
We, as people, may spend the majority of our lives searching for knowledge—of ourselves, of society, of what is right/wrong, of beliefs, of what we need, what we want, or how to break away from decisions based on expectation or social pressure—before we can really understand who we truly are—what are true state of being is.