Saturday, February 24, 2007

White Dog (1982)

Samuel Fuller's White Dog is the final film he made in America, and it stands with Park Row (1952) and The Big Red One (1980) as the most personal of his works. It doesn't draw from his life experience as the latter two do (as yellow journalist and WWII dogface), but his emotional investment in the material is just as strong - some of his most powerful imagery is contained within White Dog, in part thanks to the rich color photography of Bruce Surtees, the regular cameraman for Don Siegel in the 70s.

The film is known mostly for the controversy surrounding it. Paramount refused to release it after a firestorm arose about the presumed racist content. It tells the story of a stray dog picked up by a struggling actress (Kristy McNichol). She soon discovers that it is an attack dog, one specifically trained to attack blacks. She takes it to a black animal trainer (Paul Winfield), who is obsessed with deprogramming one of these "white dogs", having failed to succeed in previous attempts.

Seeing it today, Paramount's fears seem absurd, as it is stridently anti-racist, the dog's actions being presented as a horrific perversion of nature. Fuller's dog is an innocent creature twisted into a monster by the sins of humanity - making the film a close relative to Bresson's masterpiece Au Hasard Balthazar (1966). The final shot makes the relationship between the two films concrete - and it's a stunner.

As emotionally devastating as it is, it's still a Fuller film, its enraged tone a far cry from Bresson's Olympian calm. There's a lot to treasure here, not the least of which is Burl Ives' performance as Carruthers, the owner of the Hollywood animal trainer facility. He's introduced throwing darts at a cardboard cut-out of R2-D2 ("That's the enemy!"), and maintains a fatherly bluster throughout. Paul Winfield is superb as the obsessed trainer who refuses to simply kill the animal; in rehabilitation he sees a way to the eradication of racial hatred. In this dogged (and doomed) idealism, he comes to resemble, in J. Hoberman's words, a black Captain Ahab.

*I saw it at Film Forum, and the audience was awful, laughing at everything, from McNichol's outfits to a pivotal scene of Winfield feeding the dog a hamburger. Such derision ruined the truly funny scenes for the rest of us. You know, those who actually prefer engaging with works of art rather than reducing everything to camp. It's easier to feel superior, I suppose, but I just wish they could leave it for films that actually deserve it or court it, like Crash (2005) or Snakes on a Plane.

Anyway, to cleanse my palate, here's Fuller's cameo in Godard's Pierrot le Fou (1965):

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