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Straw Dogs: ancient and contemporary meanings
Yes, this is about the films (the 1971 original and the 2011 remake). But this is also about the meaning of the title, where the phrase came from and how it is used as a metaphor for failures and has-beens.
I saw the 1971 film starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George on TV. I was much too young to have been admitted to the movie house but you know how old films are shown on TV and that was where I caught it. Back then, there were hardly any controls and even ultra violent films were shown in the afternoon when any kid could see it.
Straw Dogs is a violent film with a complicated rape scene. I saw the 1971 film only once but, trust me, the mere mention of the title evoked the gripping tension that I experienced while watching it. There is one scene that will forever be etched in my mind — the part where Dustin Hoffman was struggling with one of the bad guys, the shotgun that they were wrestling with went off and demolished the foot of the bad guy. It was bloody and gory... You don't forget a scene like that. And I wondered if it was retained in the 2011 remake.
Straw Dogs is about nerdy L.A. screenwriter David Sumner (James Marsden) who goes to live in a small town with his wife in order to finish his writing project. The town where his actress wife, Amy (Kate Bosworth), grew up is still populated by people she knew in the past including her ex-boyfriend Charlie Venner (Alexander Skarsgård) and his gang, the "straw dogs" in the film. In their high school days, Amy was a cheerleader and Charlie was a football player.
David, eager to please but unable to understand the small town culture, hires Charlie and his crew to fix the roof of the barn (part of the property that Amy inherited after her father died). Charlie taunts David at every turn but David is either unable to understand the nature of Charlie's acts or, not being a confrontational person by nature, simply ignores the obvious and refers to Charlie and his gang as a "bunch of straw dogs."
David (scanning the headlines of the local paper): "The nation's at war. Fortune 500 companies are going bankrupt. The lead story is that the first game of high school football season is a week away."
Amy: "Blackwater... Well, you know, Blackwater's not at war. Although it was a big deal when John Burke came back from Iraq."
David: "You and Deputy Burke, returning heroes."
Amy: "In this town, heroes come from one place — that football field."
David: "Like the guys fixing our roof. Bunch of straw dogs."
Amy: "Straw dogs?"
David: "Yeah, in ancient Chinese rituals, dogs made of straw were used as offerings to the gods. During the ritual, they were treated with the utmost reverence. When they were no longer needed, they were tossed aside, trampled on. They became nothing. When their football careers are over with, that's all these boys become."
When Amy goes jogging and gets lasciviously ogled by Charlie and his crew, David tells Amy that perhaps she should wear a bra instead.
The taunting turns to harassment when David discovered Amy's cat hanging in a closet. Amy was sure it was Charlie but David could not bring himself to ask Charlie directly.
Charlie invites David to join them hunting telling him it's hunting season. The hunting party separate, Charlie shoots a deer then gets caught by the sheriff holding a shotgun for he does not have a permit to carry. When he tries to explain that had been hunting, the sheriff tells him that hunting season is over. Meanwhile, Charlie and one of his friends double back to the Sumner house where they rape Amy.
The tension (lingering and building since the start of the film) and violence escalate. Yes, the scene with the foot that got blown up with the shotgun was retained in the remake. It was just as emotionally exhausting to watch the remake as it was to see the original. Still, I felt gleeful by the time the end credits rolled. I learned something from the remake that I probably didn't pay attention to when I saw the 1971 film for the first and last time — what "straw dogs" means. I know that it's a mean metaphor to use on people but it is, strangely enough, fitting in some cases.
By the time the film was over, I was asking myself how many other kinds of straw dogs there are in modern society aside from high school athletes who weren't too good to make it to college sports and, from there, to the pro league. I thought of child actors who couldn't successfully transition to adult roles, fashion models whose looks have faded and who couldn't re-invent themselves...
So, the "straw dogs" metaphor only applies to people who are successful in their youth but who fail to be just as successful in their adult life? No, in modern usage, it is used to describe a mediocre plan too.
But when used to describe people, I don't think it's an age thing at all but, rather, a generation thing. It's about people who feel relevant and significant in a generation but who lose that feeling of relevance and significance after the generation has passed and given way to new ones. I wondered if by hanging on to their perceived personal relevance and significance during their heydey, they are subconsciously — but relentlessly — trying not to become straw dogs.
I thought about writers and published authors trying to adapt with the Twitter and Facebook culture, and creative photographers trying to make a living in a generation of Instagram users.
I thought about bread factory owners and how they try to cope with a world that is currently in love with artisan bread.
I thought about pesticide makers in a generation that's fast becoming obsessed with organic food.
I thought about the United Nations — organized by and in favor of the U.S. and its World War II allies — in an age when a new Superpower has risen.