Personhood, Anthropomorphism and Heroism in "Max" (by Dejan Duric)
|Datum:||30 november 2015|
That canines have a special place in our hearts is not a secret. As Mark Twain said, “[h]eaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in” (qtd in Pain). In what follows, I will analyze the contemporary, spectacular representation of human-dog relationships in the film Max. The bonding between “man,” the Wincott family, and dog, Max, is at the center of the storyline. The movie shows how the underlying theme of the human-pet relationship is both complex and problematic but also allows us to discern deeper-seeded cultural markers of contemporary American culture. The anthropomorphic qualities ascribed to Max reveal not only how fragmented U.S. understanding of animal life is, with pets positioned in a completely different category compared to other animals, but his representation as a nonhuman person and his specific personality traits also emphasize uniquely American cultural conceptions, such as the importance of heroism.
Nevertheless, the constant negotiation between wildness and domestication indicates how limited the concept of personhood can be when applied to nonhuman life: Max is constantly inspected in terms of human characteristics in order to gain a personhood status.
Max’s anthropomorphization, particularly through the construction of his heroic character, emphasizes the dialectical relationship between the human and his pet. John Berger, reflecting on this relationship, argues that “[t]he pet completes [its owner], offering responses to aspects of his character which would otherwise remain unconfirmed” (14). In Max, the relationship between Ray Wincott, the patriarch of the Wincott family, and Max highlights how Ray is completed by Max who at times displays a heroic character that Ray could only be envious of. In a dialogue with his younger son Justin, Ray reveals how the story of him getting shot during the Gulf War was misconstrued. According to Ray, people “didn’t want to hear the truth, they wanted a hero.” Ray sees his inability to tell truth, in particular to his deceased son Kyle, as a failure on his part and goes on to tell Justin that “a hero always tells the truth no matter what people think about him or what the consequences are.” When Max saves Ray from being shot by his kidnapper in one of the final scenes, Max’s “heroic act” should be understood as a response to the failed heroism of Ray. Through these heroic acts, Max becomes a permanent member of the Wincott family, which is ritualized when Ray removes Max’s cage from the garden and states that “it’s time for Max to be inside with us from now on.” Thus, the story comes full circle. Whereas Ray and Max at first have a difficult relationship, they bond through the anthropomorphic qualities of Max which not only nourishes Ray’s fragile heroic status but also firmly situates Max within the pet paradigm.
While in a certain respect the construction of Max’s personhood can be seen as beneficial in an attempt to foreground nonhuman life, the anthropomorphic lens of the movie hinders this progress. Pete Porter, articulating the cues of nonhuman personhood, argues that “as secondary internal cues grow dominant, the nonhuman becomes, in effect, human” (408). While in Max secondary internal cues are hardly to be found, the nonhuman still becomes very human. Secondary external cues, such as non-diegetic music and commentary from the human actors concerning Max’s emotional state, are present. That being said, the spectator is mainly invited to construct Max’s personhood status through primary cues where Max’s emotional state is exemplified through his actions. However, these primary cues are always centered around anthropocentric notions such as heroism, obedience, and friendship. Thus, ultimately the movie fails to construct Max as a non-human person without turning him into a humanized canine.
The binary opposition of domestication and wildness, or culture and nature in a more metaphysical sense, is a recurrent theme in Max’s personhood construction. Kwane Stewart, commenting on the “No Animals Were Harmed” status of the movie, writes that “the animals were never in harm’s way, and by utilizing various tricks and tactics of the trade … amazing action sequences were created, especially the dramatic ‘fight’ between Max and a Rottweiler.” What is revealing in Stewart’s quote is the fact that a Belgian Malinois, Max, is personified by his name and the Rottweiler is simply reduced to his breed. Moreover, the Rottweiler antagonists, as a pack of two instead of individuals, are portrayed as vicious, mean, and wild, as the pure animalistic opposite of Max, which is not surprising because as Kari Weil claims, “[r]eal ‘animals’ lie opposite of pets; they are, in Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, the ‘demonic animals, pack or affect animals that form a multiplicity’” (53).
This is not to say that Max is never reduced to an animalistic status, but even in the few instances where Max’s animal characteristics are emphasized, the focus on the animalistic is downplayed. For instance, Sergeant Reyes tells the Wincott family that war dogs “are bred to work, take away that sense of purpose and they are lost.” Nevertheless, he prefaces this by stating that dogs can suffer from PTSD, in itself a cultural conception. Thus while being bred for a specific goal is something associated with animals, suffering from a mental illness, such as PTSD, is only possible if the Descartian dualism of mind and body is applied to Max: even when he is bred for a purpose, he still has a consciousness that can be affected by mental illnesses.
Max’s constant struggle to attain a personhood status is marked not only by this disassociation from wildness and the animalistic but also by his heroic character, which is linked to an overarching Americanized military culture that glorifies the veteran status of individuals. The official movie poster for Max really does emphasize the connection between veteran status and personhood. Max, in the poster, is portrayed in his bulletproof vest amidst smoke and dirt, alluding to the possibility of him being on the battlefield and “in action.” Moreover, the words on the poster, apart from anchoring the image through the reemphasis on Max’s military status, help to accentuate Max’s role as the Wincott Family’s best friend. In this sense, Max’s veteran status functions not only as a building block for his construction of personhood but also suggests that by being a veteran one attains transferable skills that help him or her to be a quintessential member of society. In Max’s situation, this means being accepted into the Wincott household. Nevertheless, this validation is in harsh contrast to a reality where veterans, while in a certain sense lionized, are prone to have psychological impairments after returning from war zones, an aspect of veteran life that the movie Max in its spectacular representation of military culture fails to express.
See the trailer at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6EPPMCwD5bw
Berger, John. “Why Look at Animals?” In About Looking, 3-28. New York: Vintage, 1991.
Max. DVD. Directed by Boaz Yakin. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2015.
Pain, Albert Bigelow. Mark Twain: A Biography. Adelaide: eBooks@Adelaide, 2014. https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/twain/mark/paine/index.html.
Porter, Pete. “Engaging the Animal in the Moving Image.” Society & Animals 14, no. 4 (December 2006): 399-416. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed November 8, 2015).
Weil, Kari. “Is a Pet an Animal? Domestication and Animal Agency.” In Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now? 53-62. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.