Jonathan Kiefer

You're An Animal Too

A dog is a man’s best friend, they say.  But what do you do when a dog marks you as an enemy?  Here, Jonathan Kiefer ponders this problem with some help from Edward Albee’s play The Zoo Story.  

My neighbor’s dog reminds me of Edward Albee. Not the man himself, but one of his plays, The Zoo Story, which happens to be the first play I ever saw and one I’ve always wanted to perform. Any experienced actor will tell you that the highlight of the play is its meaty 7-page monologue, aptly referred to by the character who delivers it as “The Story of Jerry and the Dog.”

“I still don’t know how to this day the other roomers manage it, but you know what I think: I think it had only to do with me,” says Jerry of his problem with a neighbor’s dog. “If you think about it, this dog had what amounted to an antipathy toward me; really.”

That’s what my neighbor’s dog reminds me of.  An antipathy?  The dog hates me. She barks violently and loudly whenever I come or go. Her name is Brownie, though she’s mostly black; she is middle-aged and middle-sized, and—it bears repeating—she hates me. I am sure I don’t deserve it.

Brownie can hear my doorknob, and even its faintest rattle will send her tearing across the yard, barking furiously. She runs up a wooden staircase on the side of my neighbor’s apartment and looks down over the fence at me, snarling and growling, baring her teeth, barking, barking, barking. She won’t stop until someone comes to get her or I go away. This has gone on “from the very beginning,” as Jerry so wearily puts it. The neighbors do scold Brownie for the racket she makes, and they even spank her, hard. I hate to see that, not least because I worry she will associate the pain with me and bark harder next time.

I believe Brownie is a German Hunt Terrier, which, according to the Internet, qualifies her as a “vigilant” and “cantankerous” guard dog, typically “suspicious of strangers” and “not suitable as a pet.” Your average Deutscher Jagdterrier is a solid hunter, among the best of the terriers for rooting out badgers and taking down boar. I have seen neither badgers nor boar in my neighborhood, so there you go. At night, however, I can hear Brownie doing battle with local skunks and raccoons; even they don’t push her buttons as I seem to. She, in turn, can hear me getting up to go to the bathroom, and sometimes she will bark once to inform me of this.

Brownie would do well in some allegorical 11th-century middle-European empire-kingdom, as the court hunter-hound of a king who wants to inspire fear or at least serious aggravation wherever he goes. She makes do instead in the garret of my neighbor’s outdoor staircase. I would say that I’d want her for my own guard dog, except I’ve never seen her display as much hostility toward a stranger as she has toward me, and therefore I would not feel very protected.

Like Albee’s Jerry, I tried at first to make peace. Reaching over the fence at my own risk, I once fed Brownie an entire package of Pepperidge Farm Chess Men cookies, which are difficult to share, even with people. She took them right from my hand, one at a time, and ever so delicately devoured them with obvious satisfaction, then quietly dismounted the steps and vanished into her yard. When next we met, she barked and huffed and snarled as usual. She had eaten my cookies and hated me the whole time, the bitch.

When Jerry’s efforts to kill the Dog with kindness failed, he tried to kill it with poison. But he quickly regretted that decision: “I wanted the dog to live so that I could see what our new relationship might come to,” he says. I know what he means. Once, while watering the garden to a soundtrack of Brownie barking, I had the idea to pull the hose out into the driveway and strangle her with it. Or at least to spray water in her face. I haven’t done anything yet, either because I’m afraid of getting caught or because I fear it will ruin our prospects for progress, if they exist. Yet my passive resistance clearly has failed; she has learned that I am a pushover, that I can be bullied.

I have often felt invisible in the world, but never when I’ve wanted to. I am not invisible to the more desperate and predatory homeless people, because they are invisible themselves—and I am never invisible to Brownie. To her, I am hyper-visible. Sometimes, in fact, I think that she can see straight into my soul, and that she recognizes something awful in there. It’s unsettling. Sometimes her barking has a tattletale quality, as if I’ve perpetrated some hideous moral offense of which only she is aware, and she won’t let me get away with it. She makes me feel guilty for something I don’t even understand. Faust had a bothersome black dog too, of course. Goethe described it as a poodle, which isn’t an exact match, and it's a harbinger of Mephistopheles, which might be. Just what kind of a deal is Brownie trying to broker with me?

She has a certain purity of expression that I must admire. There is a fine line between self-discipline and compulsion, but another way Brownie makes me feel guilty is by her dedication.  She’ll stop whatever she is doing at any time to come to the fence and bark at me. Thousands of times since I moved in. If I could do anything with as much regularity, vehemence, and unswerving duty as that, mine would be a focused, successful, and very visible life.

Jerry’s Dog does not die, but the play is still a tragedy. Jerry, who also feels invisible sometimes, does make a kind of progress with the Dog. “We regard each other with a mixture of sadness and suspicion,” he explains, “and then we feign indifference. We walk past each other safely; we have an understanding. It’s very sad, but you’ll have to admit that it’s an understanding. We had made many attempts at contact, and we had failed.”

Brownie and I aren’t there yet, but I’m not so sure we should try to be. “We neither love nor hurt,” Jerry continues, “because we do not try to reach each other.”

I saw Brownie on the street once. She was loose, unleashed and out of context, her owners absent. I don’t know how she got out, but what a sight. She ran up and down the block, aimlessly, with the joy and terror of liberation, her tongue lolling like a Great Dane’s. She didn’t bark at me once, and I wondered if she even recognized me. I took a few steps toward her, but she ran away.

Unlike life, good drama solves its own problems, and that’s partly why it’s useful. Albee’s plays always solve the problems they pose, even when the solutions are unpleasant, as they usually are. “The Story of Jerry and the Dog” is really about Jerry and the Rest of Humanity, and this of course is Albee’s instructive gift. When I first saw the play, The Zoo Story initiated me into theater’s mysteries, and some of life’s. Although I’ve played other Albee characters—with, perhaps, the great nourishing satisfaction of some ungrateful Deutscher Jagdterrier eating Pepperidge Farm Chess Men—I’ve never had a go at Jerry. Perhaps I no longer need to.

Jonathan Kiefer

Two New Works on Roman Polanski

“Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired”Directed by Marina Zenovich THINKFilm, 2008

“Polanski: A Biography” By Christopher Sandford Palgrave Macmillan, 2008

Probably no one would dispute the three most important facts of Roman Polanski's life: First, in 1943, the concentration-camp incarceration of his father and murder of his pregnant mother by the Nazis — from whom Polanski, then still a boy and essentially on his own, escaped. Second, in 1969, the murder of his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, by the Manson family — to whom many journalists wantonly presumed the director, then most recently of Rosemary's Baby, somehow was connected. Last, in 1977, the he pleaded guilty to having with a 13-year-old girl — whose subsequent forgiveness still doesn't change the corollary fact that Polanski has since been a fugitive from American justice, self-exiled to Paris indefinitely.

Nor should it be controversial to suggest that these episodes remain inescapably significant to Polanski's filmmaking, just as his work remains inescapably significant to American movies. So what can any new biographical treatment, be it a detail of the life or a full survey, on film or in prose, possibly hope to add? And what does it say that the two most recent efforts get by quite nicely without even interviewing the man himself?

As if faintly anxious about requiring extra justification, both recent documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, and Christopher Sandford’s new book, Polanski: a Biography, flash their credentials early and often. As it turns out, Sandford’s formerly sealed court transcripts aren't any more revelatory than Zenovich’s familiar ones are cinematic. Yet neither of these new journalistic endeavors seems superfluous, and we're left to decide whether in the final analysis that’s to Polanski’s credit or our shame.

Not so long after the Manson murders made him a pallbearer for American innocence, Polanski found himself officiating the unholy marriage between American jurisprudence and celebrity journalism. Meanwhile he’d managed both to catalyze the visionary, personal filmmaking of 1970s Hollywood and arguably to pilot its irrevocable descent into indulgence. Thus our stance on the man basically comes down to which application of Jack Nicholson we consider more significant to American culture: directing him in Chinatown or borrowing his hot tub to dope and sodomize a minor.

With that in mind, Zenovich wants simply to reiterate that regardless of Polanski’s guilt or guile, his trial was a mockery of justice. That’s thanks especially to absurd encouragement from the testily star-struck judge Laurence Rittenband, for whom the filmmaker proved a formidable goad. Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired has much damning evidence to present against the media circus.

And Polanski: A Biography has more. One scene Sandford describes is so visually concise that it could have been a cartoon in The New Yorker: “Amidst the commotion,” he writes, “one enterprising young man stationed himself at the front door, selling T-shirts inscribed with the slogans ‘FREE POLANSKI’ and ‘JAIL POLANSKI’.”

In both Zenovich’s film and Sandford’s book, Polanski comes across simultaneously as libertine and fatalist; as outgoing trouper and proud, brilliant creep; and as a major artist superbly matched to the technically sophisticated showmanship inherent to his chosen medium. Both of these accounts, while not approving, necessarily, or even entirely charitable, seem protective of their subject. Which is a little silly: if there’s one thing Roman Polanksi always has been able to do, it’s stand up for himself. This is a man who took it upon himself to clandestinely investigate his wife’s murder, suspecting his own friends enough to gather forensic evidence from them and send it to experts for analysis. This is a man who then got his memorably graphic production of Macbeth bankrolled by Playboy magazine while the actual murderers went to trial. No, we don’t need new biographies to tell us Polanski is chutzpah personified, but of course that’s why he still and always interests us.

As to a context of his films, Wanted and Desired puts forth a few choice clips, then turns the task of synopsis over to the prim Mormon prosecutor Roger Gunson, whose preparation for the Polanski trial included a retrospective of his work — from which Gunson reasonably adduced a thematic through-line of “corruption meeting innocence over water.” (It’s probably as brilliant an aesthetic summary as anyone prosecuting a hot-tub sex scandal will ever hope to contrive.)

Sandford necessarily allows a broader view: “As well as two satanic-cult pictures, his canon includes psychological thrillers, faithful adaptations of Shakespeare and Dickens, a costume melodrama, matinee swashbuckling, Hitchcockian suspense, Thirties noir, excursions in absurdism and soft porn, sometimes concurrently, and a deranged Dracula spoof in which a Jewish vampire hunter, played by Polanski himself, repeatedly peers through a keyhole at a naked woman who happens to be Sharon Tate.” Not to mention an adaptation of Wladyslaw Szpilman’s 1946 memoir, The Pianist, for which Polanski became the oldest director ever to win an Oscar, in 2003. Arguably it was precisely that film’s Polanskian detachment that inoculated it against Spielbergian mawkishness.

But by then, Sandford writes, Polanski “enjoyed the kind of public opprobrium not seen since the time, thirty-seven years earlier, when John Lennon had remarked that the Beatles were ‘more popular than Jesus.’ A few rather desultory public burnings took place of books and posters of The Pianist, though these put the perpetrators in the morally equivocal position of vandalizing what was in effect a memorial to the Holocaust.”

Such is the peculiar power of Polanski, a survivor so tenacious that he overstepped the American myths of survivorship, and accordingly became, as Sandford puts it, “Hollywood's ogre–that necessary figure.”

And so, in both Wanted and Desired and in Polanski, any pretext of new hindsight or of adjusting a cultural reputation seems, however innocuously, specious. Maybe it’s enough just to affirm Polanski’s irresistibly analyzable, ultimately inexhaustible mystique. As the director himself likes to say, in his exaggeratedly exotic accent, after what everyone else on set always figures is a final take, “Fandastic, fandastic! We go again.”

Jonathan Kiefer’s reviews are archived at He reviews for many publications, including SF Weekly and The New Republic.