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A Dog’s Life

A Letter to True, the meandering new documentary by Bruce Weber (who made Let’s Get Lost, the great 1988 film about Chet Baker), is addressed to the youngest of the photographer-filmmaker’s five golden retrievers. The pack, who live like kings, bounces between the New York and Florida homes of Weber and his 30-year companion, Nan Bush. Because "sometimes he is the only one who will listen to me," Weber is writing True a long letter, and assembling for him this hodgepodge film collage of the people and things that have meaning to the artist, among them: Vietnam War photographer Larry Burrows, who literally gave his life for his art; poetry by Rilke and Spender (read aloud by Julie Christie and Marianne Faithful); Kelly, a good-natured redneck mom sporting in the mud ponds with her puppyish brood of military-aged kids; and, most effectively, the lifelong friendship of actors Elizabeth Taylor and Dirk Bogarde, two popular icons who lived wild but always took care of their dogs.

Weber clearly reveres Bogarde, who may have provided a role model for how to enjoy a fabled, luxurious life without losing your soul. In fading home movies, Bogarde is seen with his 50-year life partner, Anthony Forwood, and their Welsh corgi, entertaining Ava Gardner and Jean Simmons poolside. While Weber’s voice-over throughout the film often strains for profundity on subjects such as 9/11 and the Iraq War, he’s concise and on point in relating Bogarde and Forwood’s love story, and their simultaneous fatal illnesses, capping with Bogarde’s typically wry deathbed comment to his lover, "Well, this has become a bloody mess."

A golden nugget to be sure, as is the use, at the film’s opening and close, of two long, disconcertingly moving clips from The Courage of Lassie, a forgotten, utterly unhip 1946 tearjerker starring a 14-year-old Taylor. In the movie, Frank Morgan, forever famous as the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, tells young Kathie (Taylor) that her dog worships her as she does God, an analogy that may not occur to every dog owner (including this one) but seems inarguable when the god in question is as transplendent as the young Taylor.

Far less endearing is Weber’s inclusion of a long audio selection from Martin Luther King’s sermon "A Preacher Leading His Flock," set against seminal photos from the civil rights era, such as those of Montgomery, Alabama, children being hosed by police. The words are as stunning as ever, but including them alongside footage of handsome Australian surfers and luxury-laden movie stars is not only infuriating but downright insane. It’s also rather sad, leaving one with the sense of a gifted popular artist on a quest for another kind of credibility.

In the end, Weber returns, wisely, to Elizabeth and Lassie. Up again comes reliable Frank Morgan, in a scene where he’s shaming a packed courtroom of citizens lobbying to euthanize the collie "Bill" — who, it turns out, is Lassie, just returned from World War II, where he helped the good guys execute a secret mission that took place on . . . September 11. You can’t help but shiver at the coincidence of dates, but what really gets you is the scene that comes immediately after, when a newly freed Lassie glides onscreen and begins licking the face of a weeping, disconsolate Taylor, a human who appears to need her dog a lot more than he needs her, not a profound insight in the grand scheme of things, but a rather sweet one nonetheless.

A LETTER TO TRUE | Written and directed by BRUCE WEBER | Produced by NAN BUSH | Released by Zeitgeist Films | At the Nuart