When a millionaire fashion photographer with five purebred Golden Retrievers makes a freely associated scrapbook documentary about them, you can’t possibly expect serious social commentary. It is reasonable, however, to hope for some good dog footage.
Bruce Weber’s new film, A Letter to True, will be accused of sentimentalism, and that’s good, because without any the movie would have been a complete disaster. As a pet project, in every sense, it has the prerogative–maybe even the responsibility–to be completely personal. And it’s rightly about as sentimental as rubbing a Retriever’s belly.
The youngest of Weber’s dogs is the beneficiary of the eponymous correspondence, which Weber reads aloud through a series of beautifully photographed, sweetly scored and extremely digressive comments on such topics as living in the post-9/11 world, the plight of Haitian detainees, surfing, Elizabeth Taylor, and macaroni and cheese. It will probably drive culture critics crazy, but regular dog-loving people who also enjoy flipping through the pages of Vogue or Abercrombie & Fitch catalogs should find something gratifying in here somewhere.
“Now, of course, everyone wants to make a film on their dogs,” Weber says early on. “But let me tell you, it isn’t so easy.”
Later he ruminates on an influence, Vietnam War photographer Larry Burrows, who was killed at work in 1971. Of course, Weber’s work is hardly life-threatening, unless you count the threat of deadening overindulgence, but his commercial instincts are well honed: By combining a nostalgia for innocence with refined savvy about high style, he’s carved out a glamour-fantasy niche; Weber’s brand of indulgence has a broad, familiar appeal.
As do the dogs: not merely Weber’s own, shown in rapturous, slow-motion, beach-sunset fetch and other activities, but all sorts of (admittedly pampered) others, up to all sorts of antics. He gets at the way dogs can restore us to a paradoxically nurturing kind of naiveté.
Mercifully, Weber isn’t one of those people who talks to dogs a little too much in a voice in a voice that’s a little too cutesy, staying stubbornly oblivious to the pity and exhaustion of all human acquaintances. His movie could feel like an onerous, eternal-seeming slideshow, but it doesn’t, and not just because it’s so pretty.
The most cogent commentary in A Letter to True is the ongoing riff on companionship. Weber may have some illustrious friends, like Elizabeth Taylor and Dirk Bogarde, but it’s the humbler, shaggier ones who earn his deepest gratitude and most inspire him: “Go ahead, True, chew up this letter like you chew up your toys,” he says. “Most dogs do that to the things they love the most.”