Thursday, February 12, 2009

White Dog

Until recently, Sam Fuller’s White Dog was not an easy movie to see. There was a bootleg DVD knocking around and some old vhs - mine came via European TV, in a slightly longer, more brutal cut - but the good folks at Criterion have changed all that with a bumper package released this past Christmas. It’s still hard to see in the theatre, tho, and it's quite a favourite movie of mine, and so the screening last year at the Silent Movie Theatre, courtesy of the Cinefamily, was a treat - finally a chance to see it on the big screen. As a bonus, it was presented by Lisa Dombrowski, whose book on Fuller was available for purchase. I hope it sold well - she gave a brief introduction and a remarkably good q&a after the film, before we adjourned to the back terrace for wine and animal crackers.

The movie itself is based on a true story - it happened to Jean Seberg and was novelised by her husband Romain Gary. It opens with a crash (literally) as a young actress (Kristy McNichol) runs down a dog late at night in the Hollywood Hills, a beautiful white German Shepherd that, unfortunately, turns out to be a White Dog: an attack dog trained specifically to attack black skin. This she is told by animal trainers Carruthers (Burl Ives) and Keys (Paul Winfield). Keys is a black man, and against advice he is determined to retrain the dog. He has failed at this twice before. Nobody can guarantee a 100% successful reprogramming, and, worse, the dog’s mind can easily be left “on the razor’s edge of a nervous breakdown”: it can become psychotic. Keys is firm in his conviction, however, that showing such deprogramming can be achieved has practical and symbolic significance in the fight against racist hate.

The opening is inauspicious, as baby-faced McNichol gets out of her car, resplendent in red beret and asymmetrically-patterned red and grey sweater, complete with shoulderpads. The fashions on display reinforce the developing impression of a TV movie one gets throughout the opening scenes. The acting doesn’t help: McNichol is adequate but limp; her boyfriend is downright annoying; Winfield is good, if given to intense shows of seriousness; and when you hire Burl Ives you know you’re getting a large slice of ham. Incidental dialogue comes off as lumpen, irrelevant or risible (or all three: “This Romanian caviar is too good to waste”). Even the music is unhelpfully over-emotive in parts, and the abrupt changes in pace and tone, with generous use of slo-mo, encourage reapplication of the “primitive” label with which Fuller is always saddled.

Perhaps some of this is to do with the fact that Fuller and Curtis Hanson inherited a script which ends with Keys reprogramming the dog to kill whites; having done just that, the dog was to have committed suicide by running in front of a truck. Between them they threw out the ending and punched right to the issues. Time was tight, the movie rushed into production in anticipation of a writer’s strike, and the NAACP brought in to consult. The end result was deemed too controversial to release. Fuller’s background as a journalist informed all his movies - stories where the facts pack a punch and the form is arrestingly abrupt. The disjunctive rhythm of these movies is not a result of so-called primitivism or naivety, but a deliberate device to punctuate the narrative (the one sentence paragraph in a leader..) and deliver a jolt to the audience (this cigar-chomping approach extends to the script as well - when it’s on topic - with such Fullerisms as “that dog’s a 4-legged time-bomb”). He doesn’t care for the niceties of the uptown press, but he knows how to tell a story for maximum impact. Every time the dog snarls or shows anger it’s shocking, and much of that slo-mo is used to good effect; our blood chills as the dog calmly roots through alley garbage whilst out of his sight around the corner a black kid skips onto the sidewalk; or there’s the fantastically hyperbolic cut from a black man, mauled in a church, to the stained glass window above him - St Francis, of course. Rather than the racially-sanitised Jaws-with-paws which would have satisfied Paramount and their consultants, Fuller turned in a typically hard-hitting and forthright report on the subject.

As for the acting, Fuller never really gave two hoots about it, to the detriment of some of his films (contrast third-string leading men like Jeff Chandler or Cliff Robertson with Robert Ryan and Robert Stack in House Of Bamboo, or fortunate finds like James Shigeta and Constance Towers). The best performance here, built by Fuller, is that of the dog (two main dogs actors, in fact). Fuller and DP Bruce Surtees create an awareness of its intelligence and point of view throughout, its eyes expressive in close-up, and that incredible curling wolf-snarl. This is consistently reinforced in the editing: the dog watching TV, unable to hear a house-breaker; or the escape from the animal sanctuary, staged like a prison break, where the dog becomes the protagonist through pure mise-en-scene and the clear depiction of its thought processes. This latter scene is all the more effective for being accompanied by the screeching, lowing and roaring of the other animals; the soundtrack, in fact, is mostly successful. That it is by Ennio Morricone is perhaps what makes it seem a bit much in places for such an unromantic movie and milieu; in the opening scenes however, before the training begins, much of the action may be banal, but the insidious score - a single-finger piano here, a minor key flute - keeps us uneasy as to the exact character of this unpredictable dog.

In the film’s examination of the questions surrounding this animal, its mental state and disposition, it naturally becomes the central character. A comparison with Bresson’s Au hasard, Balthazar is not too far-fetched: the final receding shot, the dog abstracted in an empty frame, positions it as a repository for all our prejudices, assumptions and fears to do with race and human nature. Fuller elucidates many of these but he’s not going to provide an answer. He is reporting. Or, another way, educating, which he always felt was a most important duty of the cinema, and the subject of racism found its way into almost all Fuller’s films, to one degree or another (the Sioux nation in Run Of The Arrow, Asians and Asian-Americans in several pictures and most sensationally, the black asylum inmate in Shock Corridor). Tackling it head-on only intensifies Fuller’s conviction and fury.

Viewer-identification with the dog encourages engagement with the issues at hand: can he be fully cured of racism? It’s clearly not his fault - the racist owners “should be put to sleep, not the dog”, for it was beaten into him as a puppy. Lo and behold, when the owner turns up he has two “cute” grand-daughters in tow, puppies to be beaten, or at least taught to be as sick as he is. Whether or not Keys should be attempting such an experiment is up for debate - no-one has succeeded before, with consequences often fatal. Even Burl Ives, with tears in his eyes, thinks the animal should be destroyed. But McNichol is in horror of the (ghastly) gas chamber at the pound and Keys is a man obsessed; and Ives comes to consider what they are doing as right and proper, even if they risk jail (the film reserves judgment). When the dog finally responds with docility to Keys, he cannot be said to be 100% cured. Keys has been kind to it. A racist with one black friend is not so unlikely. The relentless climax, powerfully structured and wonderfully kinetic, even in slo-mo, is a testament to the intricacies of the issue in that it can reasonably be taken in one of three ways, the power of judgment extended to an audience who’ve been encouraged to think for themselves. If nothing else we’ve been given to ponder the questions as to whether racism can be ineradicably instilled; whether it can be cured; and what measure of responsibility should be expected for character and behaviour that has been formed through conditioning. A fantastic film, genuinely thought-provoking, and thank goodness, finally available once more.

d Sam Fuller p Jon Davison sc Sam Fuller, Curtis Hanson ph Bruce Surtees ed Bernard Gribble pd Brian Eatwell m Ennio Morricone cast Kirsty McNichol, Paul Winfield, Burl Ives, Jameson Parker, Lynne Moody, Marshall Thompson, Christa Lang, Sam Fuller, Paul Bartel, Dick Miller
(1981, USA, 90m)
posted by tom newth at

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