Friday, May 8, 2009

White Dog (1982)

Well, there are two kinds of white dogs I guess. There's the kind that is literally a white dog. And, there's the type that is literally racist. This dog in White Dog is both.

Just kidding. It's ridiculous to even think a dog could be racist. That particular disease is solely the province of man (and woman).

I've been meaning to view more pictures from Samuel Fuller for a long time. Recently, I watched A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies and figured it was time (only Scorsese could get me to love pictures before I've even seen them). I had previously seen The Steel Helmet (great) and The Big Red One (pretty fucking good), but had missed the boat completely on Pickup on South Street along with several others that were considered classic Fuller. I appreciated Steel Helmet for it's intimate look at the Korean War and The Big Red One for it's expansive look at WWII. Fuller never got the big budgets and, for the most part, made pictures outside the studio system. That takes some talent I think. Back to the Scorsese film. What a fucking way to spend three hours. If you haven't seen it yet, I highly recommend it. He has a few obvious choices, but also points out a lot of lesser known films that I immediately added to my netflix queue (Val Lewton, Fuller, lots of westerns I'd never heard of, etc). It got me thinking that I should probably do a similar project. Start with the pictures that really got to me as a young boy and continue up through adulthood. The second episode of my film series would probably be all about Revenge of the Nerds (and the advent of bush) and, maybe, Benji the Hunted. My retarded film development (also, general laziness) is probably one of several reasons I'm not making films today. Also, lack of ambition, talent, money, etc. This Fuller guy also directed Fixed Bayonets and Burt Reynolds in Shark! Why not start with White Dog?

I made a solid choice. White Dog is the story of a white dog, hit by a car driven by an aspiring actress, Julie (played by aspiring actress Kristy McNichol). The dog is saved and adopted by Julie. She takes him to live with her in her posh, isolated home in the Hollywood hills. It's a pretty nice home considering that Julie can barely get extra work and, in the one job we see her acting in, she appears as a stewardess riding a gondola in Venice on a sound stage! Not too glamorous I guess. Anyway, Julie takes the dog in. Everything is fine until a rapist breaks into her home and starts to do what rapists do. He doesn't get very far because the white dog isn't too fond of rapists. The rapist was white. Black or white, however, he'd still be a rapist. So far, good dog. Later, the dog gets loose, and attacks a guy riding in a street sweeper. This was just some guy minding his own business sweeping the streets at 2 AM or whenever. That guy was black. Ok, black or white, still a street sweeper but I guess that same logic doesn't apply to this situation. Still, was willing to give the dog the benefit of the doubt. It was pretty weird though when the dog finally returned home and Julie didn't think much of the blood dried into his fur. Later, Julie takes the dog to work with her. She's "acting" in a scene with another actress. The dog attacks and mauls the actress while the cameras are rolling. The actress happened to be black. Ok, we might have a problem.

I'm surprised Julie was even allowed to take the dog home after that attack. Of course, no one knows about the street sweeper attack. They just think we're dealing with an attack dog here. Julie seeks the guidance of an old animal guru, played by Burl Ives. He says the best thing she can do is put the dog down. Then the dog attacks a black worker at Ive's wildlife reserve and Ives realizes they're dealing with a "white dog" (dog trained from puppyhood to attack black people). Now, he really wants to put it down. In steps his co-owner, played by Paul Winfield (the guy that gets the mind-slug in his ear, not Chekov, in Wrath of Kahn). Winfield, black, is a bit of a crusader. He likes a challenge. If he can't fix the dog in an allotted amount of time (I don't know, few weeks, or so) he'll put him down himself. His fixing involves several no holds barred matches between himself and the dog in a thunderdome like cage. Ok, not entirely accurate. He lets the white dog maul him (he wears a protective suit) in the hopes that he'll eventually come to accept him or some shit. McNichol may be at the head of the cast, but Winfield owns this picture.

I enjoyed this one immensely and was, often, incredibly moved. The studio didn't like what they had and so dumped this thing into a few theatres and marketed it as an exploitation horror film. It's not even close to that. This came out a couple years before Cujo, features several scenes of a dog chasing and mauling a human, but this one is making a more bold statement than "don't chase rabbits through a grassy field" or whatever Cujo was trying to say. The white dog, admittedly like Cujo, is not at fault (dogs never are). Hell, this called to mind the atrocity that is Michael Vick (sorry for beating that dead horse). It's actually somewhat heartwarming to hear that several of those dogs have been given another chance and are actually doing well. Unfortunately, several of them were immediately euthanized. I like to believe that there is a second chance for these dogs, a chance at rehabilitation or something. You may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but can't you, at least, unteach a new-ish dog old tricks? The dog in White Dog was probably subjected to vicious beatings from black crack addicts as a puppy at the behest of his racist owner (in exchange for a couple of bucks). This movie is a tragedy because I believe this kinda thing probably has happened.

This one was fairly controversial apparently. Some fucking morons think of it as racist. I guess the story goes that some representative from the NAACP was refused admittance on the set (Fuller likes a closed set) and then started spouting off against the film. I don't know, I think they mentioned this in the interviews from the extras on the DVD. Anyway, the backlash helped to bury the film. This is an important film about racism and the question of whether or not it can be cured. I think the film may be slightly ambiguous (if you're a moron) but I came away thinking it answered that question with a definitive NO. Slightly bleak viewpoint, but there you are. The truth hurts.

I refer to the dog as "dog" or "white dog" because I'm pretty sure they didn't give him a name in the picture. At one point, Burl Ives refers to him as "Mr. Hyde" so I guess the serum Dr. Jeckyl received was the hatred of his racist owner. To give the dog a name might bring this closer to Cujo territory I guess. I mean, what if they had named this picture "Spot" or "Rex"? Wouldn't have worked. At one point, the former owner comes to claim his pooch. He's a big burly old red neck, lives in a trailer and shows up with his two young granddaughters. So, I guess those two girls are not growing up in a very good situation is part of the point, they are being exposed to seething hatred, much like the dog. It will probably manifest itself a little different in their lives I suppose. They might not maul black people, but they will probably hire them to do menial labor and call them names, etc. Not as hurtful as mauling but still not good for society.

The role of Julie was almost played by Jodie Foster which would have been neat, but, sorta uneccessary. McNichols, at the time, was an up and comer until she blew any chance of stardom with drugs and alcohol. She's fine in the role, but at about the 30 minute mark, this becomes Winfield's film. He's astonishing. There's a scene where the dog escapes the wildlife reserve (this dog may be borderline insane, but we can't question his intelligence) and makes his way to a small black community. This is a harrowing scene. A little black boy stands outside of a storefront as the dog eats some garbage (the boy is just out of his view). The boy walks into the store just as the dog wanders away from the garbage (missing the boy by seconds). The dog focuses on a black man who sees the look in the dog's eyes and flees. Chased into a church, the man is killed by the dog (it's a painful scene, we hear gargling, snapping jaws, etc. the killing takes place out of our view). Winfield tracks the dog down to the church and the look on his face when he sees what the dog has done is heart breaking. The man's body is under a stained glass window of St. Francis and his dog (also white...probably not trained to kill black people, but I'm not sure). Rather than kill the dog there, Winfield brings the dog (full of tranquilizers) back to the compound (I mean, reserve), more determined than ever. This is suddenly bigger than one man or one dog. He hates the dog, for what he did, but must maintain his belief that the situation is not hopeless. Hell, even Julie wants to kill the dog at this point. For Winfield, it's worth the guilt of having, albeit indirectly, caused a black man's death to even have the chance to show that racism is not incurable. This is not about one dog, or even, one (they still don't know about the poor street sweeper) dead black man. It's about that old racist son of a bitch, his two innocent granddaughters, and various other inbred redneck sons of bitches passing on their ideology of hate to future generations. It's about society. How's that for profundity?

This is a good one. Ennio Morricone did the score. It's not the typical Morricone score, the kind you'd listen to on it's own, but it does the job. I think they used two dogs to play the role of "white dog". One dog that was cute and cuddly. One that wouldn't stop snarling and baring his teeth, drooling, etc. I really like this Fuller guy. There's no kind of show offy shit to his directing. It's all intimate, lots of closeups, feels like TV at times, etc. It worked for this picture. Hell, Burl Ives is in it. Until a year ago, I'd only seen him as the snowman in Rudolph. Now I've seen him as a villain in the terrific De Toth western Day of the Outlaw and also White Dog (not as a villain). At first, it was a little jarring. Now I'm getting used to it. I guess he was pretty old when they shot this so he couldn't remember all his lines. That's alright. Thankfully, that great voice was intact. I don't know, seek this one out. It's on criterion and I think it's pretty worthy.


elmo said...

Oh SPANK- according to Netflix Sam Fuller and I share a birthday. Booya! I saw Naked Kiss, which was okay, but want to see Shock Corridor. Maybe this one too.

F-Stop said...

I dunno. One of my dogs used to bark at black people when we'd pass them on the street. It was super embarrassing. He finally got over it though. Then it was on to barking at me, which was annoying but at least it didn't make me want to hide(much.)

F-Stop said...

And what kind of dog trainer would try to make a dog less aggressive by allowing it to attack him? That sounds fishy right there. I bet Victoria Stillwell could have helped.

brian said...

well, the point was for the dog to eventually be worn down and realize that his attacks aren't accomplishing anything. I don't know, maybe this technique isn't widely used but I certainly bought into it. It worked within the world of the film, I guess.