Dogs are emotive, and because they’re non-human, we sometimes read their expressions as extreme stylizations of our own, especially when they’re on camera and in close-up. In other words, when we recognize something human in a dog’s face, it becomes exaggerated. The canine reaction shot—the “cut to dog” of bad comedy and extreme sap, often with the animal in question cocking its head or muzzling itself with its paws—has to be the most intrinsically hokey move in the everyday vocabulary of film: the dog as emoticon, its face registering as a blank space against which the viewer immediately recognizes an approximation of a smile. In movies, dogs are rarely dogs.
People have been filming animals for about as long as they’ve been filming people, and the very early history of movies is a veritable zoo. In the years when film was partly sold as a way to experience the distant and unusual secondhand, animal acts constituted a distinct genre, from the famous Boxing Cats (Prof. Welton’s) (1894), in which a mustachioed man holds two tomcats in a miniature boxing ring like Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots, to lesser known titles like Trick Bears (1899), one of those has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed nightmares unique to early cinema, in which circus trainers beat bears with sticks until they begin to march upright, holding prop rifles.
It’s only with the popularization of narrative that dogs became the movie animal, being enough of a feature of everyday life to fit into just about any story, and both very easy to train and very reliable. The first really important British narrative film, Rescued By Rover (1905), is about a collie rescuing a kidnapped baby; Vitagraph, one of the most important studios of the early American film industry, had a “Vitagraph Dog” that would appear in its films. It’s unclear who was the first to think of cutting to a close-up of a dog for emphasis, but by the sound era, it had already become a cliché, with Asta, the dog in the Thin Man movies, probably being the most famous example. (Michel Hazanavicius’ silent-era pastiche The Artist toes a line in this regard; its Jack Russell terrier, Uggie, is both a parody of how movies use dogs and a continual source of reaction shots and cheap sympathy.)
Even durable clichés are subject to fashion. For a stretch from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, big dogs were the go-to; this was the golden age of the cop-and-dog action-comedy (see: Turner & Hooch and K-9, released within months of each other in 1989), and of German shepherds and Saint Bernards cast as family dogs. In the 2000s, lapdogs—especially Chihuahuas and Yorkshire terriers—became the standard for comic punctuation, tasked with reacting to everything from Reese Witherspoon trying on an outfit in Legally Blonde to Mike Myers getting whacked in the crotch in The Cat In The Hat. (This era, coming around the introduction of the record-scratch sound effect to comedy trailers, may represent the nadir of the canine double-take.)
What is it that makes dog reaction shots so agonizingly corny? Cat reaction shots—a feature of everything from Alien to Celine And Julie Go Boating to Inside Llewyn Davis—aren’t considered mutually exclusive with crafty filmmaking, perhaps because cats’ expressions are unreadable. Instead, what registers on camera is their eyes. A cat is an ambiguous gazing presence. Blofeld, James Bond’s arch-nemesis, has a cat. Would Harry Lime’s introduction in The Third Man work as well if it were a puppy that nudged itself between his shoes, rather than a stray kitten? Cats laze into suspense movies as though they were familiar windowsills facing the afternoon sun.
But dogs—especially dogs in close-up, edited to suggest that they are reacting to something—aren’t open to interpretation. Perhaps viewers tend to treat the immediately obvious as hokey because it is also, in some ways, non-involving. There aren’t many pleasures more inherently filmic than trying to understand the expression of an actor seen in close-up, akin to the instant it takes to get a punch line or to understand the ramifications of a narrative twist. But a trained dog cocking its head on cue like a old comedy club rim shot isn’t the kind of thing that has to be sussed. Put in somewhat academic terms, it isn’t the sort of image that includes the viewer in the process of making meaning. Framed this way, the instantly legible, emoticon-like dog close-up becomes an issue of space—how much space movies make for us and how much space we need as viewers. In close-up, a dog is almost always end punctuation—usually an exclamation point. Cats are ellipses.
Perhaps because it’s so cheap and cheesy that the canine reaction shot serves as a kind of litmus test of great filmmaking. After all, is there a better proof of style than being able to make the bad look good? Achieving the sublime almost always involves risking ridicule. In this sense, filmmaking is a gamble; the more a movie stands to lose by staking so much on a scene, a performance, a line reading, or, yes, a close-up of a dog, the more it stands to win. What is Goodbye To Language, Jean-Luc Godard’s 3-D free-fall, but an extended meditation on the canine reaction shot, with the filmmaker’s dog, Roxy Miéville, as its central inspiration? And does Umberto D. use the title character’s beloved pooch, Flike, as a source of cheap sympathy, or is the movie more affecting because it could so easily descend into maudlin-isms? The basic mechanics of the canine reaction shot—that corny obviousness—all but guarantee something hokey. A canine reaction shot that isn’t is like a tightrope walker.