A pot-bellied man with a white beard and a bandana, his arms stretch in front of his body as his hands grip the ape-hanger handlebars of his Harley. The wheels grind against the highway that bisects the landscape on either side of him. The hum of the motor and the whirl of the wind envelope him like a meditation. There is nothing more liberating than this. There is no sensation that is more American. But what if the woman that rides behind him is a full-blooded Mexicana? And what if this pot-bellied biker is taking computer courses to improve his Spanish?
Winter’s Bone writer/director Debra Granik turns to direct-cinema to depict characters and circumstances so nuanced that complex lighting and camera setups would make them appear gaudy. In the documentary Stray Dog, playing the New York Film Festival this week, Granik follows Ron ‘Stray Dog’ Hall, a Vietnam veteran and avid biker, who runs a trailer park and continues to grapple with the psychological scars of being a soldier. New to Ronnie’s life is his wife Alicia, a Mexican woman whom he adores and whose two teenage sons will soon come join them in Missouri from DF.
Here are five reasons you should check out Stray Dog, a unique character portrait of not just a man but also a changing nation, from a filmmaker whose observational approach asserts that sometimes the most seemingly ordinary folks can offer the greatest depth.
Living in the extremities of the continent it’s very easy to ignore Middle America and it’s even easier to make assumptions about the people who live there. Ronnie ‘Stray Dog’ Hall defies the expectations of urbane big city dwellers with his thoughtfulness, charisma, and resourcefulness. He focuses his energies on helping the community of vets that surrounds him and their families. Because of a nine-year tour in Korea, Ronnie has a fondness for and interest in cultures outside his own. His loyalty and respect for others outshines Park Slope “open-mindedness.”
Granik’s fly-on-the-wall method allows Ronnie’s friends and family to easily interact with him, giving the audience some great moments of unexpected intimacy; the film is full of colorful white people. Just when you thought brown people had cornered the market on exoticism, leave it to some bikers with PTSD to surprise you. In addition, because it is in part a road movie, the film is full of interesting and beautiful locations across the US.
Ronnie met Alicia in Mexico and they speak a random mix of English and Spanish to each other, though Ronnie aspires to fully learn Spanish. Alicia’s presence in his life contrasts what we believe a motorcycle enthusiast’s trailer park community to be like, and equally how we assume this community will react to her. As for Alicia, she resiliently makes a place for herself though being careful to compromise as needed. For example, while making guacamole for a BBQ she makes sure the chile and jalapeño won’t overwhelm her neighbors. The contrast between the two cultures becomes significantly more apparent, however, when her sons, Angel and Jesus, arrive from Mexico City to live in a trailer park in the middle of nowhere.
One of Stray Dog’s greatest attributes is that it doesn’t have a political agenda. We are simply presented with both the immediate effects of war as Ronnie visits the funerals of newly arrived coffins, and the long-term effects as Ronnie tries to make amends with his past; what becomes of a soldier who is no longer following orders, who no longer regularly faces life and death situations? The film shows how war is devastating at different scales, destroying nations and families; and across dividing lines, hurting both the victim and the aggressor.
If you watch people long enough, even if there is a mic and a camera between you and them, they will eventually start being themselves, and spontaneous and incredible truths will surface. This is what makes non-fiction so special. However, the proliferation of documentary film and reality television has made us accustomed to a type style, whether we’re aware of it or not, in watching non-fiction. These tropes are meant to compress time, emphasize the stakes, and provide a gratifying pay off; in essence they mimic the fiction formula. Garik has put all that aside, however, and has gone back to basics, to a direct-cinema that allows you to watch, absorb, digest, and internalize on your own terms.