Worst in Show, about Petaluma's World's Ugliest Dog Contest, shows that this competition is no place for the merely rough-looking dog or the dog as homely as a mud fence. I'd started watching it while eating dinner. Thirty seconds in, I knew that wasn't going to fly. Dammit, these dogs were ugly. When I was a kid, we would have quoted that playground gag about shaving their butts and teaching them to walk backward.
This oldest and most prestigious ugly-dog competition is relatively small-scale; it's held annually at the Sonoma-Marin Fair, and first prize is $1,600. But the funniest thing happens while watching this sweet, hilarious and startlingly touching documentary by John Beck (former Press Democrat staff writer turned filmmaker) and Don Lewis, which screens this week at the SF IndieFest: the problems of an ugly-dog become secondary to the personalities of the human competitors.
Interviewed here is Susie Lockheed, the woman who rescued and nurtured three-time champion dog Sam, a snaggle-toothed, cataract-eyed creature whose physique was like a plucked and rotting turkey. Happily, we learn that Sam was not just traffic-stoppingly ill-favored but also snappish. Lockheed keeps the champ's ashes and his many press clippings, including the headlines occasioned by his passing ("Heart Fails Ugliest Dog").
The most hardened competitor in recent years is Dane Andrew, an 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 seen introducing his world-famous ugly dog Rascal to actress Jane Russell. When we see Andrew holding Rascal up to sniff Jayne Mansfield's gown at an exhibit of movie stars' clothes, 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, the sad backstory of the dog is hoped to improve his odds of winning; poor Winston, rescued by Santa Rosa resident Ashley Brown, had been left behind after Hurricane Katrina. Also seen 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's never going to out-cute Lassie. And yet the 2010 contest is surprisingly resolved with an upset victory by Kathleen Francis, a K-Mart clerk from Clearlake; not to spoil the secret of her winning dog Abby, but if breeding tells, inbreeding shouts.
Certainly, the filmmakers try to go meta, interviewing experts on ideas of beauty and ugliness. Stanford professor Deborah Rhode notes that there used to be laws restricting the extremely ugly against public appearance, and SFSU's Aaron Kerner holds forth on the attraction of ugliness itself.
And believe it or not, even an ugly-dog contest 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 and that he was certainly ugly enough to win was beside the point to some. Not that it's suspected of having been tried, but the judges keep on guard against the possibilities of owners mutilating a dog to make it ugly enough for the competition.
The real trouble, as we see in the backstories of the owners and the lengths they go to win, is the ego on the line, a problem that's treated comically at a far smaller-scale ugly-dog competition in Benicia visited during the closing credits.
With appearances by Vicki DeArmon from the Sonoma-Marin Fair and a soundtrack by Danny Sorentino, the documentary is stamped with locals surrounding the contest. Ultimately, Worst in Show inspires respect for the lesser trumpeted qualities of a dog: its lack of aesthetic concern, and its essential carelessness about whether its owner could win any prizes for its nonexistent beauty.
'Worst in Show' screens as part of the SF IndieFest on Wednesday, Feb. 9, and Sunday, Feb. 13, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. For showings and ticket info, see www.sfindie.com.