For Our Consideration: The agony and the ecstasy of the canine reaction shot

Dogs are emotive, and because they’re non-human, we sometimes read their expressions as extreme stylizations of our own, especially when they’re on camera and in close-up. In other words, when we recognize something human in a dog’s face, it becomes exaggerated. The canine reaction shot—the “cut to dog” of bad comedy and extreme sap, often with the animal in question cocking its head or muzzling itself with its paws—has to be the most intrinsically hokey move in the everyday vocabulary of film: the dog as emoticon, its face registering as a blank space against which the viewer immediately recognizes an approximation of a smile. In movies, dogs are rarely dogs.

People have been filming animals for about as long as they’ve been filming people, and the very early history of movies is a veritable zoo. In the years when film was partly sold as …

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