Friday, 10 June 2011

Genre Specific: The Lives of Otters

To celebrate the release of Mel Gibson's sock-puppet meltdown The Beaver, Genre Specific - that one true magnetic North of cinematic certainty - looks into the small, soggy slew of films that make up the otter cycle - or, as we like to think of them, the otterdammer├╝ng...


Genre Specific: The Lives of Otters
What is it about the humble otter that embodies and unifies the holy trinity of life, death and heartfelt mountain-centric folk music? The tiny canon of otter movies is defined by the sort of banjo-twangin’ tragedy that belies the playful nature of these wet, vicious, endlessly endearing little fellows: in the world of the cinematic otter outing, there are sweet beginnings and impish whimsy, but never, under any circumstances ever, is there a happy ending.
'Dazzled the care from my mind...'
Just look at the story of Mij in Ring of Bright Water. Just as spine doctors screen paraplegic spelling-bee caper The Diving Bell and the Butterfly to their newly immobile patients, for years kids have been recommended Jack Couffer’s otter saga to prepare them for the death of a loved one or family pet. Or just to make them cry. A lot. Once you know that, you begin to get an idea as to the incredible schizophrenia coiled within the DNA that informs the movie. Our hero, Graham, is landed with a pet otter for plot reasons we won't go into and ditches his number-crunching life as a buttoned-down accountant in a most unswinging ‘60s London. Decamping to Scotland, Graham writes the Great Accountant Novel as Mij wriggles and tumbles his way through touching, semi-perilous escapades - scoffing pet fish, wrecking houses, stranding our hero on the roof of his cottage and creating all-round sweet mayhem. 
Do you want our otter-graph? Honk!
Enter local vet Virginia McKenna ‘Off Of The Lion Films’, struggling wildly with a Highland accent pitched somewhere between Miss Jean Brodie and Liam Gallagher, and you have a three way love story dowsed in bucolic generosity and capped in the last 10 minutes by an out-of-the-blue shovel murder that you has you gasping in desperate hope that it must be some kind of badly misjudged dream sequence - like the end of ‘Mad Men’ season 3. But no. Them’s the breaks, kids: You’re born, you chase your tail for a while, then you’re beaten round the head and neck with a shit-flecked shovel – if you’re lucky! Ring of Bright Water is just about the cruelest film this side of Gibson’s own Passion of The Christ.

By unhappy coincidence, the other great otter film star, Tarka, was played by a specimen of Lutra lutra called Spade…

But at least his movie carried a warning, viz. the full title of Henry Williamson’s 1927 otter epic set amid the gurgling brooks of North West Devon: Tarka the Otter. His Joyful Water-Life and Death in the Country of The Two Rivers. That’s life and death, and this being otter-death it’s unlikely to be met in old age in a feather bed, surrounded by well-wishing great-grand-otters. Peter Ustinov makes an avuncular narrator of Tarka’s life from squirming newborn to his final embattled abandonment by his entire family as the heavily tooled up hunters close in on him. In keeping with Williamson’s proto-Green, anti-hunting otter-dammer├╝ng, the little water-prankster has to meet a fatally operatic death, and Tarka meets his in the jaws of his nemesis, the hunting dog Deadlock. The hound also gets it in the neck, if that's any comfort.
Otter than 'ell
There's no death but there is a mountain of soul-destroying hopelessness in Emmett Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, in which Muppet masters Jim Henson and Frank Oz uncannily tap into the fatalistic death cult of otter existence. But with its sentimental against-the-odds set-up, Jug-Band appears, at first, to be up there with Rocky in the dream-chasing pantheon of poor boy/soggy mammal-made-good-fantasies. Eking out their worthless lives among the dirtpoor Muppets of the Ozark mountains, Emmet and his Widowed old Ma sell their last pathetic belongings to raise the entrance fee for the town’s talent contest. The prize dangling tantalisingly before them is the $50 prize money and the promise of a 'special' (?) Christmas to light their benighted existence. 
'I don't believe you. You're a liar.'
With hard graft and an attitude torn from the rocking pages of AC/DC's “It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock'n'Roll)”, Emmet's band win through in classic style: the townsfolk are freaking mad for their beat. But this is an otter's life, and a last minute entry from thuggish swamp punks and bloody-handed gang rivals The Nightmare Band blows Emmet's troubadours off the stage and wins the fat cash prize. Emmett and his Ma are left humiliated and poorer than ever. The lesson? Screw your ‘Jug Band’ and go electric, you furry putzes!


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