Henry Coombes presents a much-anticipated short film, generously supported by Scottish Screen, the Scottish Arts Council, Glasgow Media Access Centre and Tramway, which is long on psychological insight.
Laddy is a golden retriever (played by an actor in canine costume), who struggles to please his prim mistress Lady on a pheasant shoot. At first, Laddy is obedient and willing but, recalling the cruelty that lies ahead and what he inevitably must retrieve, Laddy is struck by palpable anxiety when the beaters begin to worry the birds. At this ominous point, the agonised dog paws Lady’s gun to prevent her from taking aim, but he is firmly chastised for the unorthodox empathy he feels for his fellow creatures. With the dog now firmly in his place, the shooting begins without mercy.
As Lady and one male competitor shoot at the skies with arrogant abandon, the film reaches a powerful audio-visual climax, as poor Laddy suffers a mental collapse. The breakdown transports him—and us, by way of flashback—to Laddy’s early years as a puppy, and effects a dramatic change of pace: we witness a tranquil fireside scene in which Laddy suckles contentedly at his mother’s underbelly. But, just as the viewer assimilates this tragi-comic tenderness as a foil to the heartless clamour of the pheasant slaughter, a truly unforgettable close-up of Laddy at his mother’s teat trumps that earlier crescendo. Living for the absolute moment of jouissance, sweet little Laddy-aspuppy uncontrollably and deafeningly guzzles and gorges his bitch’s milk, lost in an act of abandoned self-gratification as powerful and as repellent as that enjoyed by the Lady with a gun. This tenderness-cum-terribleness creates a fork in the road on Laddy’s (and the viewer’s) psychological journey.
Snapping back to the reality of the shoot, but with the tenderness of the flashback still in mind, Laddy cannot initially bring himself to retrieve the dead pheasants for a Lady now enraged by his disobedience. Yet, by the same act of recalling cosseted puppyhood—this time with the shame of taking from a mother-as-only-vessel uppermost in mind—Laddy slowly conforms once more to the socialised rituals of the job of retriever, as if to compensate for his earlier existence as selfish receiver.
Of course we can’t be sure whether Laddy is tortured by his eventual compliance with the rules of the shoot or whether, in fact, he is relieved to relinquish unreflexive animalism by going along with conventions which demand the delivery of others’ desires. Maybe, what with this particular psycho-ethical forking, Laddy is a troubled artist of a kind, and the sensitive dog may well embody something of Coombes at an art-world cross-roads, with Dionysos and Apollo as guides.
One thing we can be sure of is that Coombes is giving us something more complex than a manifesto on animal rights and something more profound than a sketch of the weird will-to-power of tweedies. The film continues his abiding interest in social ritual as a field in which the individual meets himself on a formative psychological excursion—one which proceeds never in a straight line.
Ken Neil is the new Head of Historical and Critical Studies at Glasgow School of Art