Post-screening Q&As rarely make the news, but the Isle of Dogs team’s recent appearance at SXSW contained a rare moment of unplanned virality. As Wes Anderson explained the intricacies of stop-motion animation, Bill Murray found the experience so enthralling he slowly fell asleep:
He’s not alone. Narcolepsy is one of the main symptoms of “snout fever,” the fictional disease at the center of Isle of Dogs – other symptoms include “aggression, loss of appetite, and insomnia” – and its effects don’t seem to be limited to fictional canines. I’m a primary source: I attended a 6 p.m. screening of the film a few weeks ago, and though I don’t have many bones to pick with the story of these plucky pups, I still had trouble keeping my head upright. Around the time our heroes started debating what to do with the brave human boy who’d crash-landed into their midst, I fell into a full-on slumber. (When I woke up they were riding in airborne gondolas, a fact I only mention so someone can tell me exactly how long I was out.)
I am a congenital movie-sleeper, and I wouldn’t dare suggest that my falling asleep in a film is any indication of its quality. (In college I fell asleep in some of the most exciting works 20th-century cinema had to offer, including Zardoz, Come Drink With Me, and even The Wild Bunch. It’s a strange disease.) Except, in this case, I didn’t seem to be the only one. Multiple other Vulture staffers reported that they, too, had fallen asleep in Isle of Dogs. Those who didn’t fall asleep reported that, while they had kept their eyes open, their friend, or maybe their friend’s friend, could not. And while it remains true that you can find someone saying any dang thing on social media, Twitter this weekend was, if not “awash with,” then at least “full of at least four people” talking about falling asleep in the film.
(Though maybe it’s just three, since I like to imagine the last two people were sitting next to each other.)
Scientifically, roughly one-third of Isle of Dogs viewers have reported falling asleep in the movie. Anecdotally, this film seems to be inspiring an isle of yawns.
Unlike other movies with somnifacient reputations, Isle of Dogs is not especially long – only 101 minutes! – nor is it especially slow. The plot moves at a decent clip, and there are plenty of fights, chases, and robot dogs that jump off of miniature helicopters. This isn’t, like, Solaris. So, why is this movie of all movies putting viewers to sleep? (Not like that.) I can think of three factors:
1. The Wes Anderson Thing
If there’s a word that describes Anderson’s directorial tone, it’s “deadpan.” If there are two words that describe Anderson’s directorial tone, they are “deadpan” and “understated.” People do not shout in Wes Anderson’s films; instead, they say something mildly clever while barely moving any of their facial muscles. You don’t burst out into guffaws so much as say to yourself, “Ha, that’s funny.” (There are rare exceptions, the ear-piercing smash-cut in Moonrise Kingdom being a personal favorite.) His soundtracks, too, tend to lean toward muted acoustic pop. To quote my favorite contemporary poet, it’s quiet.
2. The Visuals
As my colleague Kyle Buchanan put it in 2014, over the course of his filmography Wes Anderson’s characters have slowly lost the freedom of movement. That’s especially true in the director’s animated films, where their actions are meticulously composed to remove any traces of randomness or disorder. Characters in Isle of Dogs seem to only move in straight lines, perfectly parallel or perfectly perpendicular. The sense that you’re watching a children’s picture book is enhanced by the movie’s sky, which is not blue but a dull, blank white. Depending on who you ask, the overall visual effect is either flat and boring, or incredibly soothing. Either way, you’re nodding off.
3. The Language
I’ll leave it to Justin Chang and Angie J. Han to explain the representational issues in Anderson’s decision to present the bulk of the Japanese language in the film untranslated. But suffice it to say, having the vast majority of the film’s human characters speak in what’s essentially unintelligible dialogue for most viewers does not make it easier to stay awake. Although in this case, subtitles might not have helped: I’ve always found it easier to fall fully asleep in foreign-language films, since there are no audio “hooks” for my ears to latch onto once I start to close my eyes. Keeping them open in any of the scenes back in Megasaki was arf-ully hard.
I don’t think you can pin the blame entirely on one of these factors, but add them all up and, as the movie’s heroes might say, staying awake through the whole thing is pretty ruff. Tell me – did you fall asleep in Isle of Dogs?