Mary Strachan Scriver

Dec 4, 2021

4 min read


All these people who see the world in binaries must have problems figuring out Jane Campion films which are built around whole keyboards of ideas, linked or discordant. Thus they understand “The Power of the Dog” as either about gay or straight sex, though that aspect of human life is more various than anything else except maybe eating, because it is similarly a basic motivator.

“The Power of the Dog” is about permutations of love as attachment between individuals. Brothers, lovers, mothers and sons. It’s not that “Phil” is gay and suppressing it, though he’s suppressing plenty. There are accessible men all around him. Think of the beautiful swimming episode surely meant to remind us of Eakin’s famous painting “The Swimming Hole” with graceful young nude men in every pose.

“Phil” is so closed in on himself that he is a case of fetishism (that white cloth) to support onanism, self-stimulation to recreate the feelings he once had for a person who reached out to him — teaching a ranch boy 18 years old how to ride. (A bit unreal.) What happened to kill this man is unknown, but “Phil” loved him to the point of near worship and defended against any repeat so as to keep the experience unique. But Rose’s boy is much like him.

One reviewer was so unaware of the plot that he missed the near obsessive braiding of rawhide into a rope, thinking that “Phil” was using twine. He probably also missed the implication of anthrax, probably because of being too young.

In the early 2000’s after attending an ASLE conference, I rode the little transfer bus from the campus back to the airport with a half-dozen other attendees: biologists, ecologists, and so on. The government had just intercepted vials of anthrax and were grilling the shippers, who turned out to be sending samples of known anthrax for study in a lab. At the time powdered anthrax had been mailed in murder attempts. It was the ricin of its time. It was a hot topic for all of us.

“Anthrax is caused by a spore-forming bacterium. It mainly affects animals. Humans can become infected through contact with an infected animal or by inhaling spores. Anthrax can be found naturally in soil and commonly affects domestic and wild animals around the world.” When an animal dies of anthrax, it must be buried deeply or burned. Today in humans antibiotics are generally successful in treating it, which is why the story has to happen before antibiotics are developed. Also, anthrax is an excellent metaphor for the latent hatred in all of us — at least potentially.

Willingness to kill someone and the subtle knowhow for doing it, can be a deadly combination, but even so the prerequisite here is unjust abuse. The young man’s friend, the “professor,” and he have undoubtedly argued out the moral principles that separate the boy from the madness (we hope) of “Phil.”

The story of the book and film this version was based on, was supposed to be happening in19th century Montana, which led some to believe it was shot here, but it didn’t look like anyplace in Montana that I know. The terrain is all foothills and the buildings are not like any that are here. The elegant main rooms were European in feel. The horses of the actors looked expensive to me, maybe Arabian. In short it looked like the way an Easterner might think Montana should look. Or a New Zealander.

Disorganized bunches of men were everywhere outside. It was easy to understand why someone would seek secret places, but harder to guess what they were doing. Around here, persons looking for secret spots might find hot springs, which are favorite spots for unwinding and trysts, even for bears. Some springs are small and secluded.

Much of my life has been working with men in settings where there were few women, enough for a separate culture to form. In some places this is so marked that the language takes two forms, like Dakota. So the speakers had a good laugh at the tough warriors using female forms of the language they had been taught by a woman. Men in rural America can be a bit embarrassed by women. Some are careful not to be misinterpreted. In earlier times they knew nothing at all about menstruation and the like. Many are not disclosing with women or even with younger men, but seek an older man to talk about heart-felt things. These types are easier to find among people of color. This is all provisional thinking and ought to be examined and questioned.

But it does lead to questions about how “Phil” got so twisted. His parents seem fragile, though the most redemptive moment for “Rose” is when “Phil’s” mother tenderly hands over the knotted gold jewels of wedding rings and other significant small pieces, she had evidently kept hidden. The women exchange a kiss and now “Rose” is really married.

At the end I could hardly refrain from singing “Pore Jud is daid, a candle lights his head, his fingernails have never been so clean. . .” I’ll have to watch the film many more times.