BC/R&F: Viggo Mortensen

I began the Border Collies of the Rich and Famous series with the decidedly sub-par performance of one-time BC owner Ellen DeGeneres. We turn things around this time with exemplar Border Collie companion, Viggo Mortensen.

Viggo is a modern renaissance man, flexing his creative muscle in theater and film acting, music, poetry, photography, and painting.

Born in New York to an American Mother and Danish father; Viggo was raised in Venezuela, Argentina, Denmark, and the United States. He speaks English, Danish, Spanish, Norwegian, French, Italian, and Swedish.

Worldly yet grounded; famous yet private; an actor yet genuine; you might say that Viggo’s choice of the Border Collie is a fitting reflection of his own versatility and uncompromising nature. Whether on a working ranch in South America or on the Red Carpet in Hollywood, Viggo seems to possess a skill set that isn’t ever fully utilized at any one time or any one place; much like the Border Collie.

The definitive Border Collie in Viggo’s life was Brigit, and she appears in his photography, poetry, and prose. Her bark can even be heard in one of his songs. Brigit is gone now, but her life and death had a profound impact on Viggo and he expressed that connection in his art.

The genuine interest in his images does him good and soon we’re zigzagging our way through the room. In front of the photograph Scared Brigit he says:

‘I had to run across the street to get this. It’s the neighbour’s dog that’s angry at my dog, Brigit. Look how the eyes of the dogs all reflect in different colours. Green, blue, red,’ he lists as he points to the dogs one by one.

The composition, with a petrified Brigit in front of the red jaws of the neighbour’s dog and the violent pull on the leash, have pulled the image into wide-screen.

Viggo’s connection with Brigit in life is documented in his works, and their calm connection is apparent in the many photographs they took together.

The dog under foot is a fitting echo of his viking ancestry, but that was Brigit’s place in life, not in death.

Eager to change the subject, he passes me the PowerBook and invites me to read an essay about his late dog that will soon be published in Linger, a collection of his writings and photographs.

Letter to Brigit tells of his melancholy drive last summer to deliver the frozen body of his fifteen-year-old mutt to a San Fernando Valley crematorium. After retrieving Brigit from the vet where she’d been put down, he headed north on the 405 with her bagged and sealed in blue plastic in the backseat. He was crying. Suddenly, the push and pull of rush-hour traffic forced him to jam on the brakes, sending Brigit hurtling to the floor. He eased the car to a stop on the shoulder and, for the first time, looked in the bag.

“We had taken your collar off,” he wrote. “I knew that Henry was wearing it wrapped twice around his wrist as a bracelet.” But this dog had a collar, he saw now.

This dog was not Brigit.

I look up from the computer screen, expecting to see grief on his face, or at least a serious expression. Instead, he is smiling absurdly. “It was sad,” he says. “But it was funny.”

– Esquire March 2006 “Eats Roadkill, Speaks Danish

While I highly recommend tracking down a copy of Linger, most of you should be able to lay your hands on a copy of BARk magazine. Motrensen’s Letter to Brigit is reprinted in the Sept/Oct 2006 edition.

Probably I am able to write about this with a degree of detachment because your brother Henry and I have already gone through the worst of your final decay and death process together. We took you, our fifteen-year-old, completely lame and largely incontinent pal, to be “put down” three days ago. In the intervening time we had to wait for a slot at the crematorium to open up. I have been able to largely digest and assimilate the stronger surface emotions of your final morning. As much as I am and will continue to be haunted by your sweet, departing gaze when the brain-stopping serum was administered, time and the responsibilities resulting from your passing have more or less carried me away from that heartbreaking scene. I will always see your eyes slowly lose their gleam as I gently lay your head down. Will always remember your final generous gesture of rolling halfway over to let us rub your belly one last time before the doctor gave you the sedative.

The printing of Viggo’s swan song to Brigit in BARk was apropos for me, as that very month I put down my own Bonnie Belle. The union of those two events has rather endeared me to the magazine, as they gave me the right dose of perspective at a difficult time.

I could not bring myself to take pictures of any of it, to take anything, although I did for a moment consider grabbing my camera to ensure that later on I’d have an image, some tangible visible record of the process of losing you. Maybe that momentary impulse came from fear that the emotional weight of participating in your last days as flash-and-blood would eventually outweigh or alter the straight facts that photographs might hold. Fear that visuals so fresh right then, as I sat on one of the two plush green leather couches of the crematorium waiting room, would reshuffle themselves and gently blend together as merely tolerable sentimental recollection. It wouldn’t have been right, though, to shoot what only you and I should know.

The camera stayed in the truck.

Viggo is a professional at capturing other people’s emotions and putting them on screen for the world to see. While there is a heavy amount of artifice in all things artistic, the genuine nature of his relationship with Brigit is something all dog owners can appreciate and strive to emulate.

In a quote that could have easily come from a Border Collie, Viggo sums it up pretty well:

There’s no excuse to be bored. Sad, yes. Angry, yes. Depressed, yes. Crazy, yes. But there’s no excuse for boredom, ever.

– Vanity Fair, Finding Viggo January 1, 2004

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About Christopher

Christopher Landauer is a fifth generation Colorado native and second generation Border Collie enthusiast. Border Collies have been the Landauer family dogs since the 1960s and Christopher got his first one as a toddler. He began his own modest breeding program with the purchase of Dublin and Celeste in 2006 and currently shares his home with their children Mercury and Gemma as well. His interest in genetics began in AP Chemistry and AP Biology and was honed at Stanford University.