Credit: Brain Dead Studios/Jaw Work Films/Studio Yours Truly/Al Warren
Before We Vanish by Conor Truax Featured Film

Dogleg — Al Warren

July 25, 2023

Metanarratives have long-embodied the postmodern sensibility of ironic detachment by creating cultural products that are both self-acknowledging and effacing. They explore the very idea of narrative, are “admissive of “their own artificiality,” and, under their broad but strict definition, have ranged in theme and form, from earlier works like Fellini’s to Singin’ in the Rain to Monty Python and the Holy Grail and all the way to the present: Asteroid City, Barbie, and more.

However, it wasn’t until the early-2000s that metanarratives cropped up more frequently in popular culture, with late-millennial cornerstones like The Matrix, and innovative post-millennial screenwriting from the likes of Charlie Kaufman and Justin Roiland. Now, metanarratives are everywhere. So are conspiracies. Quite evidently, these are narratives about narratives, too, with their own visual language and semantic logic. In fact, they may be emerging as the primary mode of cultural production. Fox News reports on the narratives of CNN, and vice versa, as they refract the realities cast by one another through their own filter of truth. Our world is hyperreal because we continue to try to construct one with absolute meaning, where people are right or wrong, and experience is objective and definite.

In recent metanarrative films like Deadpool and The Matrix Resurrections, viewers are permitted an understanding of a broader narrative control exacted by the “meta-authors” of the “meta-narratives,” and in turn, granted the feeling that the world can be explained, and we can understand it. Of course, this narrative mode is not different in its manipulation than those that came before it. With his second feature-length film, Dogleg, writer-director Al Warren and his screenwriting collaborator Michael Bible joyfully subvert the myth of cinema’s capacity for total concrete representation, with a beautifully colored, rhythmically shot film that captures the friction created by the desire for a control that has never existed.

In Dogleg, Alan Warner (Warren) is a struggling director whose girlfriend Julia (Angela Trimbur) goes out of town on business and leaves him to take care of their dog, Roo, during the weekend’s festivities. The evening after her departure, he is meant to shoot a scene for a Slacker-esque film that has taken him five years to make, but first he has to attend the gender reveal party of their friends, who he describes, laughingly, as “her friends.” He is a filmmaker, not a businessman. Their home in the Palisades costs two million dollars! She stresses. “This is a fucking two-million-dollar house,” he replies.

At the party, the host encourages Alan to take his dog off-leash, and so he does. The gender cannon shoots purple confetti into the blue sky, and the dog goes missing at the sound. The happy couple screams “twins!” and so begins a frantic search through city streets for Roo, as Warner attempts to find the pup and complete his shoot without totally falling apart, as things are wont to do. Whether he does will be up to the audience to decide, but not without due consideration of the interstitial short films woven into the film’s fabric, as Alan partakes in a voiceover conversation with a film critic from whom he yearns for some sort of advice, or at least validation.

Dogleg is a film concerned with lost control, or rather, the dissolution of control’s mirage. Alan can’t find his dog, and he can’t finish his film, and he can’t ride one of those weird hoverboard things, and he can’t make his parents proud. Might he lose his fiancé? “You better not lose her,” his dad (David Aaron Baker) says. “Julia is the best thing that’s ever happened to you. She’s the best thing that’s ever happened to this family.” There is truth in the mechanics of Warner’s dad’s speech; despite his best efforts, and ours, Warner lives in a world where things happen to us and our loved ones whether we want them to or not, and though we can try to dictate what things happen to us, we are ultimately not in control of much.

In his book Transcendental Style in Film, Paul Schrader articulates that the transcendental quality of lasting cinematic works is rooted in their ability to “stylize reality by eliminating those elements which are primarily expressive of human experience, thereby robbing the conventional interpretations of reality of their relevance and power.” With Dogleg, Warren does just this through the use of overlapping, nested realities — the events of the film, the films within the film — that have a rhythmic beauty and visual texture more akin to a song than a stereotypical, linear Hollywood flick.

In fact, Warren builds on Schrader’s tradition, which said that “transcendental movies lean away from you, and they use time — and as other people would call it, boredom — as a technique.” This is not true in Dogleg. Warren and Bible are conscious of the reality of the particular world we live in, where people no longer have the patience to be bored; they don’t have the patience to be patient, much less entertained. Dogleg’s structure, like Slacker or The Phantom of Liberty before it, jumps in and out of different stories with enough kinetic energy to sustain the attention of the most distractible viewer, while resting in the moments of each scene by maximizing the potential energy of life’s mysterious existence, in turn bringing us closer to life and to ourselves.

It’s this that makes Dogleg special. In the vein of filmmakers like John Cassavetes, Robert Altman, Claire Denis, or even David Lynch — lofty comps, but instructive as to the film’s experience — Warren makes no effort to establish a traditional narrative in concrete terms. Rather, he veers toward a theater of absence rooted in the unknowingness of our existence. On screen, he has no idea where to find Roo in this unfamiliar neighborhood, or world, and all the while he is trying to make a film of connected shorts without any idea of how he’s going to make the project cohere into something with a sensical throughline working toward a “pervading thought.” By submitting to his lack of control, and admitting to our mainly absent understanding of the world we find ourselves in, Warren reminds the viewer, with a smile and a laugh, that all we know is that we know nothing, and at the end of the day, maybe that’s totally fine.