by Richard von Busack
Worst in Show, about the Petaluma based Ugliest Dog Competition (Feb 9 and 13th at San Francisco’s Indiefest) demonstrates that this contest is no place for the merely rough-looking dog, the dog as homely as a mud fence. I’d put in the preview DVD and started watching while eating dinner. 30 seconds in, I knew that wasn’t going to fly. Damnit, these dogs were ugly enough to put me off my feed. When I was a kid, we would have quoted that playground gag about shaving their butts and teaching them to walk backwards.
Three-time champ (2003-5) Sam looks like he was built by Tom Savini. Interviewed here is Southern California's Susie Lockheed, the woman who rescued and nurtured that snaggled-toothed, cataract-eyed creature, whose physique was like a plucked, rotting tom turkey. Happily, we learned that Sam was not just traffic-stoppingly ill-favored but was also snappish. Lockheed keeps the champ’s ashes, and his many press clippings, including the headlines occasioned by his passing (“HEART FAILS UGLIEST DOG” screams a beautiful headline).
But the funniest thing happens while watching this sweet, hilarious and startlingly touching documentary by John T. Beck and Don R. Lewis (Drag King, SF Stringers); the problems of an ugly dog become secondary to the personalities of the human competitors.
This oldest and most prestigious ugly dog competition is relatively small scale; it’s held annually at the Sonoma-Marin fair north of San Francisco, and first prize is $1600. The most hardened competitor in recent years is Sunnyvale’s Dane Andrew, actor and photojournalist, who speaks of a dynasty of ugly dogs that he’s breeding. A familiar face on the talk show circuit, Andrew is at one point is seen introducing his prize-winning and world famous ugly dog Rascal to actress Jane Russell. When we see Andrew holds the peculiar Rascal up to sniff Jayne Mansfield's gown at an exhibit of movie star clothes at the Metreon, it's clear what dreams of celebrity intoxicate him.
Challenging this contender, in contests filmed over the last three years, are such dogs as Winston, a scar-faced and slouchy but otherwise unexceptional looking Alsatian or something. As in a beauty contest, it’s hoped that the sad back story of the dog will improve the odds of winning; poor Winston had been left behind after Hurricane Katrina and never claimed by his original owner. Also seen in competing is Icky, a Chinese crested, and Pabst, a particularly saurian-looking Boxer with an underbite like a cash register drawer.
Odds would seem to favor the Chinese Crested. It's a breed that can really bring on the ugly: shrimpy, twitchy, covered with warts and wens. With its nearly hairless, liver-colored hide punctuated with brushy tufts of white hair, this is a breed of dog that is never going to out-cute Lassie.
The 2010 contest is surprisingly resolved with an upset victory. We hear the tragic story of the owner of the come from behind winner's owner: a K-Mart clerk from rural California; not to spoil the secret of her winning dog, but if breeding tells, inbreeding shouts. This story of human tragedy gives a spine to this film about the allure of gawking at ugly dogs. Certainly, the filmmakers try to go meta: they interview experts on ideas of beauty and ugliness. Stanford professor Deborah L. Rhode points out that there used to be laws restricting the extremely ugly against public appearance; SF State University's Aaron Kerner holds forth on the attraction of ugliness itself.
Seeing one winning dog, smiling at the audience applauding its startling looks, one gets a little twinge. It’s too much like the scene in Hunchback of Notre Dame when Quasimodo is grinning at being crowned king of the fair, little realizing he’s being ridiculed.
Believe it or not, even an ugly dog competition can spark ethical issues: “It changes the tenor of the whole contest to enter a sick dog," says a judge. In 2008, Gus, a one-eyed and three-legged dog, bloated from cancer therapy, went for the gold. That the dog was loved, that the prize money paid for his chemo, that he was certainly ugly enough to win, was beside the point to some. Not that it’s happened...not that it’s even suspected of having been tried...but the judges are on guard against the possibilities of later-day Comprachicos (a la The Man Who Laughs) mutilating a dog to make it ugly enough for the competition. Considering the sad history of people's cruelty to dogs, they're right to be on guard.
The real trouble, as we see in the backstories of the owners and the lengths they go to win, is the egos on the line: a problem that's treated comically at a far smaller-scale ugly dog competition in Benicia visited during the closing credits.
Among other things, this documentary inspires respect for one of a dog’s many fine qualities: it’s lack of aesthetic concerns, its essential carelessness about whether its owner could win any prizes for beauty.