Film Details
Bestinshow2000


Film Title:
Best in Show
Director:
Christopher Guest
Year of Release:
2000
Distributor:
Castle Rock Entertainment
Country of Production:
United States of America
Language:
English
Imaginary animals
No
Article Type:
Full

Film Genre(s):
Human-Animal Relation:
Edit Animal List


Michelle Burton
Friday 22 August 2014
Courtesy of Reel Reviews Radio
The competitors

 

Get 3,000 show dogs in a room and you’ll have a lot of personality. But get the five show dog owners of Best in Show to the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show and you’ll have more personality than 3,000 dogs could ever provide. Cameras follow these handlers’ journeys before, after and during their pursuit of the top title; it’s mundane at times, ridiculous at others, but always laughable. The competitors:

 

Best in Show is a comedy in every sense of the definition: it ‘humorously exaggerates the situation, the language, action, and characters.’[1] These characters, each with a personality that radiates, take themselves very seriously. Especially in front of the camera… they are being documented, after all. Guest prefers to describe his films as ‘documentary style’ as opposed to the commonly used ‘mockumentary.’[2] This is partly because of his approach to filmmaking: he creates an outline of key plot points and character intricacies but lets his actors improvise most of their dialogue. The result is about 15 hours of footage, edited down into the 90-minute film.[3] Improvisation allows Guest’s work to verge closer to reality than the average Hollywood film.[4] To this end, stylistic techniques used in the conventional documentary are also employed, such as ‘the couple-on-the-couch interview, the live-action-scene, experts in the field, and drama - all of the elements we traditionally find in a documentary aimed at unearthing what subcultures are all about.’[5] Guest uses documentary techniques without necessarily commenting on the genre itself; rather, he utilizes the style to display the competitive dog show ‘subculture’ through satire.

 

Courtesy of Fanpop
God loves a terrier, yes He does.

Outlandish, guffaw-inducing dog items litter the film. The Flecks have all sorts of terrier objects: clothing, murals, car mirror ornaments, a mailbox. Scott and Stefan create an old Hollywood Shih Tzu photo calendar with siblings Miss Agnes and Tyrone posing in costume. Sheri Ann and Leslie fund and produce American Bitch magazine for lesbian dog owners, and the Flecks record an album of original songs about terriers. These trinkets are a tangible representation of an obsession. Immediately, the audience associates these people with their dog, labelling them not as lawyer or small-businessman, but dog owner. Their pet is a large part of their personal identity.  The variety of items also serves to establish another aspect of personal identity: economic status. Both the Flecks and the Cabots throw parties to celebrate their dogs’ entry into the Mayflower. While the Flecks hold a modest luncheon in their backyard and provide a live performance of their original tune, ‘God Loves a Terrier,’ the Cabots hold a black-tie event at ‘Cabot Manor,’ complete with a Butch-shaped ice sculpture. The Flecks’ lifestyle greatly differs from Sheri Ann’s, due in part to the economic disparity. Surely, the Flecks have plenty of other things they should be spending their limited income on (such as paying down their credit card bills), and Sheri Ann could be splurging on all sorts of trifles (she loves makeup). Despite their different situations, they all enthusiastically choose to put their money into the training, grooming, and regional competitions in order to advance to the Mayflower. The satirical nature of Best in Show asks viewers to think about the literal and figurative value we place on our pets, and the economic lengths we would enthusiastically go on their behalf. It makes one wonder what these people have to prove to each other by investing their time, money and energy into these competitions. While some do it for the love of their dogs and their desire to show them off to the world, there’s a competitive aspect, too; if there weren’t, professional handlers wouldn’t exist. The Mayflower winner’s ‘prize’ is little more than the title and bragging rights that accompany it. Perhaps, going hand-in-hand with monetary value, being Best in Show gives value to an owner’s life. Just getting to the competition is a strain for those in the position of the Flecks or Harlan; finding the means to travel all that way is a feat in itself. To show a superiority over a wealthy person or snobby lawyer type funnelling thousands of dollars into the competition is all the better. For the owners, this echoes the idea of the 'American Dream' of going from having little to making something oneself, while simultaneously seeming a bit exploitative of the dogs.

Guest hosts these larger-than-life characters within an otherwise realistic world. All of the dogs used in Best in Show are competitive show dogs, and the main five dogs are former American and Canadian Champions.[6] The dogs handle the manhandling of the competition rounds with grace, and they don’t seem distracted by the presence of cameras, lights and microphones. There’s only one instance of a dog being ‘coached’ to behave in a certain way to advance the plot. The dogs, therefore, do not characterize themselves (beyond their obedience) through words or actions; rather, their owners do so on their behalf. Another part of Best in Show’s satiric nature comes from examining the extent to which owners assign human qualities towards their dogs. The film opens with Meg, Hamilton and Beatrice in a therapy session, discussing how Beatrice witnessed them having sex. Meg and Hamilton are especially worried because after the incident, she ‘didn’t say a word.’[7] Harlan flip-flops between asserting that dogs can’t talk and his faith in Hubert’s ability to telepathically communicate with judges and bark the phrase ‘macadamia nut.’

 

Courtesy of The Guardian
(clockwise, from top left) Gerry, Cookie and Winky Fleck; Scott Donlan, Stefan Vanderhoof and Miss Agnes; Hamilton, Meg and Beatrice Swan; Harlan and Hubert Pepper

The assignment of human qualities to pets is certainly not uncommon in animal films. Guest seems to be commenting on the extent to which these dog owners focus all of their dogs’ thoughts and behaviours back onto themselves. The owners can have lives outside of dog ownership (as a ventriloquist, lawyer, etc.), but the dogs are simple creatures whose behaviours and purported thoughts revolve solely around their owner. Yet, these dogs are still presented as having personalities of their own that are not entirely influenced by their owner. When the Mayflower kicks off, announcer Trevor Beckwith (Jim Piddock) says, ‘I can’t speak for the animals,’[8] but what follows between him and fellow commentator Buck Laughlin (Fred Willard) is a flurry of assumptions as to what the dogs are thinking. As Rhapsody in White takes the ring, they comment, ‘this dog is as close to perfect as you can see and she knows it.’[9] They base this on appearances and her history of winning. Does Rhapsody in White understand that she’s won Best in Show twice? Does she realise the implications of winning? Any of the owners in the film would probably say yes, contradicting the idea that their dogs have no sort of self-created image. But these dogs aren’t ‘acting’ in the film, only being themselves on-camera. How much can dogs really understand about their surroundings? Pondering questions about the reality of the film means raising questions about our own reality in relation. This is the genius of Christopher Guest and Best in Show. The satire Guest deploys is conventional at times, but he uses it to raise bigger issues often left unexplored in other animal films, specifically about the contradictions pet owners themselves raise but rarely address.

Best in Show undoubtedly serves to critique the obsession humans have over their dogs. Guest’s inspiration for the Swans’ dog therapy scene came from a real premise, one that he said he couldn’t imagine doing as a dog owner himself.[10] Dog ownership can be time-consuming, expensive and seemingly irrational. The lengths of the owners’ devotion to their dogs is endearing. However, Guest also complicates the ethics behind dog shows and the reasons that owners choose to participate in them. The notion of dogs having their own agency or merely revolving around their owners is problematized when considering the fact that dogs are essentially forced into participating in these shows.

Additionally, there are instances where the owners’ obsession with their dogs negatively impacts human relationships or encounters. The Swans’ journey demonstrates this; in their on-the-couch interviews, they seem a perfectly happy, loving couple, but Beatrice’s icy behaviour gets them arguing with each other and any stranger caught in the crossfire. The resolution to the Swans’ storyline suggests that a specific breed of dog can give a new identity to or reinforce the identity of its owners. Meg and Hamilton become visibly happier when they trade Beatrice for an over-enthusiastic pug. In their ode to Winky, the Flecks sing that terriers are ‘strong, sturdy, bright and true;’ no flashy appearances, just a loyal little dog. The Flecks are blatantly middle-class in their presentation, and their lyrics seem to echo that same middle-class sentiment. In crisis, Gerry deals with his insecurity, steps in for Cookie, and leads Winky to victory. Through their money and marital issues, keeping the family unit (and yes, Winky is part of that) intact is paramount.

Because of Guest’s unique filmmaking style that emphasises realism for its human and canine actors, Best in Show stands alone in the animal film realm. However, specific aspects of representation in Best in Show are reminiscent of other animal films. The opening scene of Disney’s 101 Dalmatians shows dog and owner having similar behaviours and styles. The same idea can be found in how the breeds of dogs correlate to their owners in some respects, and there are multiple mentions of owners strutting similarly to their dogs during the competition. Stylistically, Guest’s filmmaking style could be compared to Ken Loach’s approach used in making Kes; both directors use story and character outlines, but leave their actors to improvise dialogue according to what they feel is most natural to their character. Loach and Guest use these methods to better ground their films in reality.
--Micki Burton


[1] Tim Dirks, ‘Comedy Films’, Filmsite (1996) <https://www.filmsite.org/comedyfilms.html> [accessed 20 November 2013].

[2] Steve Heisler, ‘Christopher Guest’, A.V. Club (2009) <https://www.avclub.com/article/christopher-guest-27321> [accessed 23 November 2013] (para. 11).

[3] Thomas Doherty, ‘The Sincerest Form of Flattery: A Brief History of the Mockumentary’, Cineaste Vol. 28 (2003) <https://www.jstor.org/stable/41689633> [accessed 19 November 2013] (p. 23).

[4] Chris Gore, ‘Uninvited Guest: A Christopher Guest Interview’, Film Threat (2001) <https://www.filmthreat.com/interviews/145/> [accessed 23 November 2013] (para. 11).

[5] Spencer Schaffner, ‘Strategic Simulations’, JAC Vol. 27 (2007) <https://www.jstor.org/stable/20866808> [accessed 20 November 2013] (p. 721).

[6] Best in Show. Dir. Christopher Guest. Castle Rock Entertainment. 2000.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Chris Gore, ‘Uninvited Guest: A Christopher Guest Interview’, Film Threat (2001) <https://www.filmthreat.com/interviews/145/> [accessed 23 November 2013] (para. 9).

Bibliography:

Dirks, Tim, ‘Comedy Films’, Filmsite (1996) <https://www.filmsite.org/comedyfilms.html> [accessed 20 November 2013]

Doherty, Thomas, ‘The Sincerest Form of Flattery: A Brief History of the Mockumentary’, Cineaste Vol. 28.4 (2003) <https://www.jstor.org/stable/41689633> [accessed 19 November 2013]

Gore, Chris, ‘Uninvited Guest: A Christopher Guest Interview’, Film Threat (2001) <https://www.filmthreat.com/interviews/145/> [accessed 23 November 2013]

Heisler, Steve, ‘Christopher Guest’, A.V. Club (2009) <https://www.avclub.com/article/christopher-guest-27321> [accessed 23 November 2013]

Schaffner, Spencer, ‘Strategic Simulations’, JAC Vol. 27.3 (2007) <https://www.jstor.org/stable/20866808> [accessed 20 November 2013]

Further Reading:

Doherty, Thomas, ‘The Sincerest Form of Flattery: A Brief History of the Mockumentary’, Cineaste Vol. 28.4 (2003) <https://www.jstor.org/stable/41689633> [accessed 19 November 2013]
Gore, Chris, ‘Uninvited Guest: A Christopher Guest Interview’, Film Threat (2001) <https://www.filmthreat.com/interviews/145/> [accessed 23 November 2013]
Heisler, Steve, ‘Christopher Guest’, A.V. Club (2009) <https://www.avclub.com/article/christopher-guest-27321> [accessed 23 November 2013]

Further Viewing:

101 Dalmatians. Dir. Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske and Wolfgang Reitherman. Disney. 1961.
Best in Show. Dir. Christopher Guest. Castle Rock Entertainment. 2000.
Kes. Dir. Ken Loach. United Artists. 1969.



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