It's a Dog's Life

'The Toe Tactic's existential angst and animated canines

<i>The Toe Tactic</i>
The Toe Tactic

The boundary between the real and the imagined is not always a certain one, and directors have long juxtaposed animation and live action to explore this idea. Emily Hubley, however, might be the first to have done it with hand-drawn, talking dogs.

"But I know nothing of dogs," she says over the phone, from her home in New York. "Somewhere I may have a connection to them that I don't know of, but I don't own one."

The dogs appear in her first feature, The Toe Tactic, which has its world premiere at South by Southwest. The film tells the story of Mona Peek (Lily Rabe), an existentially stressed temp worker who, upon hearing that her childhood home has been sold, returns to the property to recover a piece of her father's bone, which she caught as his ashes were scattered and later buried beneath the house. Mona's act sets in motion a mysterious "game," reminiscent of a tic-tac-toe-like diversion Mona played with her father as a girl, involving a troop of animated canines from a sort of alternate dimension.

"It's truly just about creating and the creative process," she says. "It's not a game with set rules, and it's certainly not anything that was in my history. The participation of the dogs infuses the film's investigations of memory, loss, and remorse with a sense of benevolent humor."

The dogs play the game and narrate as Mona goes about her days, at times taking control, as when one steals her wallet and sets in motion several serendipitous encounters with, among others, a forlorn elevator operator known as Elevator Man (Old Joy's Daniel London) and a soothsaying former high-powered literary agent named Victoria Hadaway (Novella Nelson). Hubley says much of the film is about "being in doubt about what's real and what's important, especially when you're in a fractured or fragile state. You question everything, and you read meaning into everything."

The daughter of Academy Award-winning animation team John and Faith Hubley, Emily Hubley and her siblings grew up attending international animation festivals. Her toddler voice can even be heard in her parents' famed 1973 short, "Cockaboody." "It was our life," she says. "They took it very seriously. I was surrounded by it."

Indeed, the influence of Hubley's parents is evident in her work. Her drawings are playful yet substantial, simple and childlike without being simplistic. But Hubley initially questioned whether to become an animator. "I never thought I could do animation because it was so populated by all the good draftspeople. At the time there was such an overriding aesthetic of what was okay to do," she says. "I felt so insecure about my drawing capability. I always thought, 'How can I come up with an idea that people won't pay attention to how badly it's drawn?' I was always trying to find the slyest way to sidestep my shortcomings. And that pushes you. Insecurity is not necessarily a bad thing; you just have to make it serve your purpose. ... Now things are a lot more open-ended, and there are a lot more individual styles."

Hubley went on to create the animated sequences in John Cameron Mitchell's Hedwig and the Angry Inch and has directed more than a dozen short films, including "Big Brown Eyes," a 1984 collaboration with her sister Georgia.

The Toe Tactic is also a family affair. Her brother Ray edited the film, and Georgia wrote the music with her band, Yo La Tengo. When I ask Hubley about it, she laughs. "People always go, 'How on earth did you get Yo La Tengo?' I say, 'Why, don't you think I deserve them?'" Georgia Hubley has been making music for Hubley's shorts since 1975, when they first joined up on a film narrated and co-written by their mother. "It goes way back," Hubley says.

The premiere will be Hubley's third visit to SXSW. In 2002, her short "Set Set Spike" screened at the Festival, and last year, her short "Another Tack," which featured the animated poetry seen in The Toe Tactic, was shown at the Hideout alongside a live performance by the musician and composer Sue Garner. "I love Austin," Hubley says. "There was awhile when we were thinking we'd shoot the movie there." The next one perhaps.

The Toe Tactic

Narrative Feature, Spotlight Premieres, World Premiere

Saturday, March 8, 1:30pm, Paramount

Tuesday, March 11, 7pm, Paramount

Thursday, March 13, 1:30pm, Paramount

Film Festival & Series, Interviews

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