Dog Tags

TLA Releasing,

Damion Dietz

Paul Preiss,
Bart Fletcher,
Candy Clark, Diane Davisson, Chris Carlisle, Hoyt Richards

Unrated, 90 minutes

Don't Ask, Be All
That You
Can Be
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, November, 2008


Leo Tolstoy's famous first sentence in Anna Karenina reads "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." No truer words were ever written and I found myself remembering them when I considered the familial relations in writer/director Damion Dietz's latest film, Dog Tags.

Dog Tags is the story of two very different young men who become unlikely friends, and then lovers. Nate (Paul Preiss) lives with his mother (American Graffiti's Candy Clark) in a small town. Nate's absent father hit the road before he was born and Nate, defying his mother's wishes, is obsessed with finding him. He has just joined the Marines and his fiance buzzes his hair down to stubble so that the recruiter will "know [he] means business." It is immediately apparent that she is the one who calls the shots when they are seen having sex and she choreographs his every move according to a book, Taking Charge Of Your Fertility, in the belief that certain positions will conceive a boy rather than a girl. He seems to be glad to get away from her, and his mother, when he leaves for Boot Camp.

His polar opposite, Andy (Bart Fletcher) always wears heavy black make-up around his eyes and resembles a Goth. Whereas Nate wants order in his life, Andy wants to hit the open road in his beat-up car, leaving everything behind to begin again with a "clean slate." He is unable to get over the loss of the one love in his life, a Marine who was home on a few days leave. They shared a night, and an intense connection, in a motel room and then never saw each other again. He scares off potential dates by generally being depressing all the time.

Our soon-to-be lovers "meet cute" in a truly funny, and totally original, way when they both unexpectedly find themselves in a porn shoot. Nate is on leave after boot camp, Andy is travelling, and both have accepted an offer of employment that wasn't what they were expecting. "You don't have to touch each other," the photographer yells after them as they high-tail it out of there, "Just play with yourselves." Andy's decrepit car doesn't start ("It was a mobile Meth lab when I bought it out of the Auto Trader") and Nate fixes the engine and they drive off together.
Along the way we get to know the second unhappy family when they stop at Andy's mother's house - where she is looking after Andy's baby son. Paralleling Nate's mother, Andy is also a single parent (the mother flew the coop this time) and he has a tendency to leave the kid with his mom while he goes space truckin.' Andy's mother is a former television actress turned agorophobic who refuses to leave her home and Andy, consumed with wanderlust, is one of the most irresponsible parents in the history of film. When Nate wishes he could find his real father, Andy offers to be his spiritual guide and suggests that they go on a spontaneous road trip and look for him together.
Andy, of course, is looking at Nate and seeing the Marine he once loved. You know that they will eventually enjoy carnal relations so this isn't, by any means, a spoiler. The inevitable seduction occurs after Nate has received the shock of his life and the young Marine surrenders, without hesitation, to Andy's advances. Their love scene is exquistely filmed; the camera treats their bodies as erotic landscapes and the editing features almost invisible cuts in which Nate will be replaced by the man who got away as Andy responds to both the real man and the memory. The next morning Nate is confused but not weirded out. "There is no should or supposed to," Andy says, "What does Nate want to do?"
It's a bit of a demented road trip but most of the ride is satisfying. The many quirky character touches include Andy making up Nate's eyes while Nate looks in a mirror, laughs and, with irony, says, "The few. The proud."Is this Nate's attempt to shed his former facade and embrace a new gay identity? The gays in the military angle - usually the focus of queer films with a soldier - is strangely absent here. The emphasis is elsewhere and Dog Tags benefits from a structured script with numerous parallel narratives and themes. Both Nate, and Andy's kid, were conceived during drunken one-night stands; both Nate and Andy have ambivalent relationships with their mothers. Feeling trapped, Nate finds Andy's offer of life on the open road intoxicating. Most viewers will probably figure out the identity of Nate's father but somehow it doesn't make the journey any less satisfying. Whether or not the story resonates with audiences, Andy and Nate's scenes together are very compelling. The ending didn't thrill me but the road leading up to it was dramatic and entertaining.

Director Dietz has honed his craft and Dog Tags's execution is a quantum leap forward from his previous film, Love Life. I liked Love Life and found its story such an intriguing premise (and the leading man so hot) that I was able to look past the often flat direction and lackluster photography. Dog Tags looks great; the cinematography is polished, the cutting contributes the right rhythms. At least two dramatic peaks literally explode from the screen in intensity. The camera knows when to go in close and when to isolate a character in a vast expanse. A dolly shot pulling out from, and then later tracking into, an empty drive-in theater screen is a visual metaphor for Andy's "clean slate." Okay, some of the symbolism, and plot developments, are a bit obvious but the story is told with skill, and the actors inhabit their parts beautifully, making most of Dog Tags a film that is well worth seeing.


More on Damion Dietz:
Love Life