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Friday, Sept. 23, 2005

TRUE LIFE, ERR, KIND OF

A doggone try to save the world



A Letter to True

Rating: * * (out of 5)
Director: Bruce Weber
Running time: 78 minutes
Language: English
Opens Oct. 1
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Life is great if you're a dog named True, or, more to the point, if you're fashion photographer Bruce Weber. "A Letter to True" is Weber's ode to his dog True, his post-9/11 world view and his very particular lifestyle, which this documentary shows is a gated paradise located far away on Planet Fashion.

News photo
A dog called True stars in "A Letter to True"

"A Letter to True" was made with the best intentions and the message ("War is over . . . if you want it") is undeniably important . . . but c'mon, honestly! This is a film about what happens when a rich, world-renowned fashionista who habitually "flies to Italy for Vogue" decides to say something about the sad state of the world. In short, it just doesn't work, because up there on Planet Fashion they breathe a different kind of air than the stuff we get down here on Earth. It's markedly sweeter, lighter and scented with designer room spray.

True is the fourth pup in Weber's clan of purebred Golden Retrievers, and for dog lovers, the spectacle of True romping on the sand outside Weber's beach house in Montauk, N.Y., or wrapped in a plaid blanket on a sofa with his lovely ears peeking out is akin to soft puppy porn. True is one fashion-conscious and photogenic pup, posing with that combined air of disdain, defiance and cuteness so crucial to models. When he thinks he's off-camera, True can be frank, pensive, attractively world-weary.

Think of Weber's trademark shots of supermodels without makeup, sitting around in shorts in the privacy of their homes, but looking terrific anyway. If any photographer can push the supermodelness of supermodels (including model dogs) to out-of-this world limits, it's Bruce Weber.

"True" is an extremely attractive film. Natch. It's knee-deep in Weber's clique of celebrity pals. The opening scenes, shot in black-and-white, show a nude young woman posing in a hotel room, playing out that special, pseudo-seductive session with her trusted photographer, Bruce. Is there a reason for her being there, beyond the fact that she looks fabulous? None!

Other footage attests to Weber's status and position in the fashion world: his conversation with Dirk Bogarde in the latter's home in Provence, the location shoot of a young boy ("who looks so much like Elizabeth Taylor he could be her son. . . . I know because Liz is one of my closest friends") dressed in a cowboy outfit and squinting handsomely in the sun. Weber's special friends Julie Christie and Marianne Faithful both recite poems (by R.M. Rilke and Stephen Spender) just for True. And Weber runs a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. over the final scenes, which he was granted permission to use only after Bill Clinton wrote a personal letter of request to the King Foundation.

All this would have been fine if only Weber hadn't couched the film in terms of the "war against terrorism" and the cause of world peace. He links the collage of wildly diverse images (from scratchy WWII footage to scenes from "The Courage of Lassie") with lines read aloud from his letter to True. His narrative tone is pitched somewhere between bashful boyishness and soft-headed ignorance, as he says things like: "I love you so much and I'm so afraid that one day I'll come home and you'll be gone," before explaining his post-9/11 anxieties and how "the world has never seemed the same since," delivering this threadbare phrase in the voice of someone who has just discovered its blinding originality.

Other times, there's a strange lapse in Weber's sense of proportion. He talks about the death of a friend who was in one of the hijacked planes that crashed into in the World Trade Center ("You knew him too, True") but devotes at least 10 minutes more screen time to the scene of a family vet recalling the demise of one of Weber's other Golden Retrievers.

He talks about how much he admires Jonathan Demi for making a documentary about the plight of Haitian refugees (they jump into the ocean en masse when the U.S. Coast Guard tries to apprehend their boat) and then cuts to beach shots of professional surfer (and "special friend") Herbie Fletcher giving surf lessons to True.

Apparently, Weber chose to become a photographer after he saw Vietnam War shots taken by Life cameraman Larry Burrows. Burrows later died in Laos and Weber, for reasons unexplained, ditched news coverage and switched lanes to fashion. "But those photos by Burrows made me question everything," he says sagely. The words never ring so empty as when the film jumps from images of the bedraggled Burrows dodging bullets and then hurling himself into a chopper, to pampered pooches on dainty leashes being led around Gramercy Park as the soundtrack changes to "Manhattan," crooned by Blossom Dearie.

"A Letter to True" is a unique and, in many ways, courageous attempt to segue an intensely personal interest (i.e., love of dogs and other pets) to issues of U.N. General Assembly proportions and gravity. One can be kind and say that the director's heart is in the right place. But if that and a Golden Retriever is all it takes to right the wrongs, then hey, we can all pack our bags and move to Planet Fashion.



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