Monday, July 6, 2009

WHITE DOG - #455

Samuel Fuller's 1982 racial shocker White Dog is one of those infamous movie that cinephiles always heard about but rarely had the opportunity to see. Buried before its stateside release for a variety of reasons, most of which involved a studio that misunderstood the film Fuller had given them, it had the distinction of being the last picture the patriotic Fuller shot on American soil, and given the toothsome commentary promised by White Dog's rather startling concept, it made most of us feel pretty secure that we were missing out on a lost classic. The man who shook up racial convention in Shock Corridor returning to such controversial subject matter had to be a must-see, right?

Well, yes and no.

Now that White Dog is available on DVD at last, it is faced with the daunting task of living up to its largely imagined reputation, and while it does so in terms of subject, we're still faced with a social parable that is shaky in its delivery. Sam Fuller was never a filmmaker known for his subtlety, and some of his choices in White Dog are rather hamfisted even for him. Though the reports that many of the Hollywood numbskulls that sank the movie misconstrued White Dog as being racist serve to tell us the kind of asinine thinking that killed the glorious 1970s (Fuller takes his own shots at Star Wars and its ilk in White Dog), I can see where studio execs might have been confused by what they'd been handed. At times, White Dog is as clumsy as an After School Special and as over-the-top as the most exploitative drive-in B-reeler; at other times, it's philosophically daring and politically progressive. Does the audience who wants to see dogs mauling people want a treatise on racism, and vice versa? The answer, if you know anything about exploitation pictures, is obviously to the affirmative, but let's not forget, we're talking about the asinine here.

Based on a story by Romaine Gary (one of Jean Seberg's husbands), and shooting from a script co-written by Fuller and Curtis Hanson (later the director of L.A. Confidential, among other things), White Dog tells the story of Julie (Kristy McNichol), a young actress who, while driving late at night in the Hollywood Hills, strikes a white german shepherd with her car. Unable to find its owner, she keeps the dog herself (though if she gives it a name, I didn't catch it). This turns out to be a lucky turn for her. When a rapist breaks into her home, the dog subdues the creep and holds him down until the cops come. This scene yields one of those hilariously bad moments that mar the picture. When the dog breaks through a second-story window to chase the attacker, I had flashbacks to that regularly circulated clip of Helen Hunt jumping out of a window after taking angel dust. [Helen Hunt YouTube Clip]

In fact, this dog-to-the-rescue scenario sets off a rather bizarre and largely unexplored subplot where, arguably, the dog becomes sexually fixated on Kristy McNichol. (Funny, I couldn't see her appeal when I was a kid and she was popular, but I do get what the dog sees in her now.) While, yes, his stealing her panties and sticking himself between her and her boyfriend (Jameson Parker, one of the Simons on "Simon & Simon") is fairly accurate dog behavior, given that the rest of White Dog encourages us to pay attention to who the dog looks at and how, and to be suspicious of what he is thinking, you can forgive me for assigning him some interspecies affection here.

Because, you see, what Julie is soon to discover is that her dog doesn't just mangle people who would do her harm, but he goes off for seemingly no reason at other times, as well. That boyfriend, who, having served his usefulness, is soon to disappear from the picture, tells Julie that her fluffy pal is an attack dog and needs to be put to sleep, but it's not until Julie takes the cur to Noah's Ark, an animal ranch where they train wild animals to behave themselves for the sake of movies, TV shows, and commercials, that she's told the full extent of his purpose. When the canine attacks an African American man working at the ranch, one of the Ark's owners, Carruthers (a rotund and hairy Burl Ives) sees it right away: this hound is a "white dog," a killer trained to fixate on black people.

Carruthers reiterates that the best thing to do is put the dog down, but his black partner, Keys (Paul Winfield, TV's "Julia" and King), disagrees. Keys sees an important challenge in the dog. An animal is not racist by nature, that is learned behavior. Some hateful human being trained this dog to be this way, carrying on an unctuous tradition that dates back to slave days. If Keys can break this dog of its bad habits, he can prove that racism can be broken. Old dogs can be taught new tricks, and racial hatred can be unlearned.

This is when White Dog starts to get good. Up until this point, the movie has played as a cross between a horror flick and one of those Tori Spelling movies on Lifetime where she doesn't realize her boyfriend is a killer. (For the record, the White Dog adaptation predates the Cujo movie by a year; Stephen King's book was released in 1981.) "Kristy McNichol is sleeping with a serial killer! How long before he turns on her?!" We've even seen him go out and attack a black man driving a cleaning truck, forcing him off the road and into a shop window (another scene staged as an awful cliché), information Julie is not privy to. Now do you see why I was wondering if the dog was going to kill the boyfriend?

There is quite a significant shift in White Dog upon Keys joining the narrative. It stops being a story about the girl and her animal and starts being about his crusade to change a way of thinking. Fuller saw the clash between man and animal as two powerful forces coming together to settle a grudge that spanned centuries. He staged it as a gladiator match, going so far as to instruct production designer Brian Eatwell (prior credits include multiple Nicolas Roeg movies) to design a domed cage for them to do battle. It's reason vs. violence, civilized behavior vs. primitive brutishness. Fuller is not afraid to let Keys preach it, either, and he gives the man several speeches about the importance of what is happening and the danger of flinching in the face of the task. When the three humans collude to cover up the dog's connection to his most recent killing, there is even a chance for Fuller to use Burl Ives' character to take a swipe at bureaucracy. The people who create the law and those who enforce it don't understand what is necessary to fix the problem. As he says it, all they know are "long words and long prison terms."

The crucial scene of this last murder is staged in a church, which continues the horror movie overtones that permeate White Dog. (Seeing the animal's snowy fur so regularly and so easily stained with red blood is also quite terrifying.) Putting this foul crime on hallowed ground could have been cheesy, but Fuller turns it into one of a couple of visually dazzling scenarios in the picture. Keys arriving at the site is shot so it looks like a leftover from To Kill a Mockingbird. The church reinforces the moral imperative of the situation, while the stained glass of St. Francis of Assisi underlines Keys' role in it. It's a perfect example of where Fuller's heavy style can actually make something work in ways no other director could get away with. Likewise, in an earlier scene, when Julie sees the dog unleashed for the first time while she is working on a movie set, the rear projection that frames her illustrates her disorientation in an impressively nauseous and surreal manner.

By the end of the movie, the jumbled first half is a distant memory and Fuller has largely redeemed himself. Julie has even met the man who trained the dog, and as it turns out--predictably, though not necessarily far-fetched--he is a kindly grandfather who arrives with a Whitman Sampler and two adorable granddaughters. This paves the way for the powerful ending, where Keys must give the dog his final test. There is a fear that the dog could lose his sanity in the deprogramming, and Keys wants to make sure he is tamed rather than turned into a killer of another kind. This is apparently Fuller's intention with the end of the film, to suggest that the dog has snapped by being dragged from one extreme to another, but I got even more out of it. Given Burl Ives' physical resemblance to the dog's original owner, Keys not only broke the dog of his hatred of black people, but so much so, that in the dog's eyes, he has now turned on the man who victimized him, the one who made him a monster. It's a more powerful conclusion than one would expect, no knee-jerk easy solution being provided to the rather significant problem.

White Dog is another Criterion with particularly good packaging. The multiple Eric Skillman drawings that grace the cover, booklet, and the disc itself are graphically pleasing, particularly the very simple palette of red, white, and black. I like the cover of the disc, with the dog's facial features on a white background, no defining outline.

The supplemental feature with interviews with producer Jon Davison, co-writer Curtis Hanson, and the director's widow, Christa Lang-Fuller, is also essential viewing. Not only does it shed light on this particular production, but it also serves as a vivid portrait of how movies can come together and how an indifferent or even hostile studio environment can destroy it. Additionally, it gives us a glimpse of Sam's later working years through people who knew him.


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