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Essentially, very little happens in either The Cave of the Yellow Dog or Bobby, two dispatches from distant worlds: respectively, Mongolia and 1968. But whereas the American film is crammed with distractions, the Mongolian one offers only a vast landscape, exotic cultural details, and everyday matters of life and death. Even the fable that provides the title can’t compete with the movie’s glimpse of life on the Mongolian steppes.
Byambasuren Davaa, who wrote and directed The Cave of the Yellow Dog, is the granddaughter of Mongolian nomads who went to film school in Europe. That’s where she met Luigi Falorni, her co-director on 2004’s The Story of the Weeping Camel, a semidocumentary that dramatized an actual Mongolian musical ritual used to soothe distraught animals. This time, Davaa travels alone, and even further into fiction. She enlisted a real family, the Batchuluuns, to tell the story, but they are acting their lives from a script Davaa wrote.
That doesn’t mean there’s no ethnographic information or local wisdom. The Batchuluuns are Buddhists, and talk of the transmigration of souls comes naturally to them. The film opens with the burial of a dog, who’s laid to rest in a position that may help him be reborn as a human. As the father (Urjindorj Batchuluun) explains, “Everyone dies, but no one is dead.”
Although they dwell in grasslands rather than the desert seen in The Story of the Weeping Camel, the Batchuluuns also live a nomadic life that centers on their animals. They have no camels, but they do keep goats and sheep, as well as a few cows and a horse. Willful cutie Nansal (Nansal Batchuluun), who is the oldest of three kids but looks to be no more than 8, rides the horse when she takes the sheep to pasture.
One day, after returning to her family from a stint at a boarding school in town, Nansal goes exploring. She hears growls coming from a cave, and enters to find a dog. (Not a yellow dog—that comes later.) Nansal names the dog Zocher (Spot) and takes him home. Although Zocher seems entirely benign, Dad worries that he’s part wolf or that he will attract wolves to prey on the family’s sheep. He insists that the dog must go. When the family packs up its yurt and its myriad contents—incredibly, Mongolian nomads do not travel light—Zocher is to be left behind.
It’s easy enough to guess what will eventually happen: Zocher will commit some brave and useful act that will make Dad change his mind. While holding that little breakthrough in reserve, Davaa sends Nansal out to get lost in a storm. She eventually takes shelter with an old woman, who tells her of the cave of the yellow dog. It is, to be frank, not one of the world’s great yarns, but at least it gives the movie a more lyrical name than Spot.
As in Davaa’s previous film—and Mongolian Ping Pong, another recent movie depicting the region—there’s some gentle humor involving the sort of useless or inexplicable modern goods that can be purchased in town. Mostly, though, the Batchuluuns live as their ancestors did, fitting themselves unassumingly into the cycles of nature and a land that dwarfs them. Cinematographer Daniel Schönauer’s images of mountain, plain, and sky are enchanting, but that owes less to his artistry than to the landscape itself. Davaa’s Mongolia is not a stage for high drama but a timeless place where an unceasing procession of birth, death, and rebirth seems entirely plausible.
There’s only a fragment of central narrative in Bobby, but rather than elongate it, as The Cave of the Yellow Dog does, the film’s strategy is to delay. The film is set on June 4, 1968, the day leading up to the shooting of presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, and so there’s never any question what the climax will be. Hot-’80s-actor-turned-lukewarm-director Emilio Estevez, making his first film in 10 years, decided not to hit the campaign trail with Bobby but rather to wait for him to arrive at the Ambassador Hotel, the site of his assassination. There are always diverse characters and abundant stories at a large hotel, a circumstance previous filmmakers have employed. When Estevez’s script borrows a line about the bustle of intersecting lives, a retired doorman (played by executive producer Anthony Hopkins) all too helpfully observes that it’s a quotation from Grand Hotel.
Things aren’t all that grand at the Ambassador, where the former doorman and a fellow retiree (Harry Belafonte) haunt the lobby every day. The hotel manager (William H. Macy) is having an affair with a switchboard operator (Heather Graham), right under the nose of his wife (Sharon Stone), who runs the beauty salon. In the kitchen, a racist supervisor (Christian Slater) disrespects his Latino workers (Freddy Rodriguez and Jacob Vargas), who fortunately can draw on the wisdom of a veteran African-American cook (who else but Laurence Fishburne?) who serves life lessons with his blueberry cobbler.
The guests illustrate an even wider array of problems, checked off from a laundry list of late-’60s issues. A drunken diva (Demi Moore) torments her hapless manager (Estevez), who also happens to be her husband. Two Kennedy campaign workers (Brian Geraghty and Shia LaBeouf) visit the hotel’s resident hippie (Ashton Kutcher) for a little chemical motivation and end up experiencing their first LSD trips. An earnest young woman (Lindsay Lohan) gets coiffed and dressed for her wedding to a guy (Elijah Wood) whose romantic motivation is that he’d rather be married than go to Vietnam.
A few plot lines are more flattering to their characters, either because they express the aspirations of entire peoples or because they feature the director’s dad. A somewhat testy African-American Kennedy staffer (Nick Cannon) mellows when both RFK and a pretty hotel employee (Joy Bryant) show an interest in him. After repeated rebuffs, another Kennedy staffer (Joshua Jackson) finally agrees to help a Czech journalist (Svetlana Metkina) who equates Kennedy’s rise with her country’s new liberalization. Middle-aged marrieds (Helen Hunt and Martin Sheen) bicker a bit, but their love is never in doubt. Off-screen, Dodgers pitcher Don Drysdale tries for a sixth consecutive shutout; Andy Warhol is in a hospital, recovering from a gunshot wound received the previous day; and Soviet tanks prepare to roll into Prague.
Although Estevez uses Altman-esque immersion techniques—overlapping and intersecting both sound and image—he never gets inside the characters or the period. This is a sitcom ’60s, complete with a comic acid freakout and a lounge version of “Louie Louie.” Yet the film’s coda is, quite unexpectedly, effective and moving. Relying on news footage and voiceover of a speech condemning violence that Kennedy delivered after Martin Luther King Jr.’s slaying, Bobby creates a powerful sense of loss—loss not only of a leader but of hope, of idealism, and of a future that promised openness and generosity rather than the petty vindictiveness of Richard Nixon (who appears in the film as the embodiment of a bad acid trip).
Estevez’s RFK is not a real person, of course. Indeed, he barely exists as a physical character. Entering the hotel and moving to the kitchen, where he was shot, Kennedy is a blurry presence, glimpsed more as a disruption in the crowd than as an individual. He’s the presidential candidate as martyred rock star, something like Jimi Hendrix or Kurt Cobain, who died before they could disappoint. Bobby is not about the actual Robert F. Kennedy. It’s about the spirit of times, something it fails to conjure with its skein of stalling-tactic anecdotes but then gets remarkably right in its powerful closing sequence.CP