Sunday, March 13, 2016

White Dog

Although Criterion has released Sam Fuller's drab 1982 White Dog in a prestigious DVD format, the crystalline transfer and extras can't disguise the fact that the film is essentially a made-for-TV movie shot on a low-budget with an inept script and lousy acting.  The film enjoys the reputation as a cult-picture and, I suppose, there is some merit to its political argument, but the picture is not as good as it should be.

Kristy McNichols, generally not wearing a brassiere, is a struggling actress who lives in the Hollywood Hills.  (Although she is unemployed, she lives in a mountainside bungalow that would probably retail for $600,000 today -- the place is lavishly appointed and far beyond the means of a girl who seems to be single and about 23 years old.)  One night, the heroine runs over a white German shepherd.  She picks up the dog and brings him to veterinarian.  The girl nurses the dog back to health.  Unfortunately, the animal is an attack dog that has been trained to maul people with black skin.  After the hound mangles a Black actress during a studio shoot, the young woman takes the dog to a secluded valley in the mountains near LA, "Noah's Ark", a place owned by two partners engaged in training exotic animals for parts in TV shows and movies.  Keys, one of the partners, is a Black man played by Paul Winfield.  Keys takes an interest in reprogramming the dog so that it will not attack people of his race.  After some misadventures, including the dog's escape (the beast kills a Black man who has fled into a little, deserted church), the animal seems to have been successfully re-trained.  The dog's previous owner, the man who brutalized the animal to make it into an attack dog, appears -- the heroine denounces him vehemently in the presence of his grandchildren.  At Noah's Ark, the dog undergoes some additional tests to show that he is no longer vicious.  As it happens, Keys partner, Carruthers, a big fat White man, looks like the dog's previous owner.  The dog goes berserk when he sees Carruthers, lunges at him, and has to be shot dead.  Carruthers is also killed.  Fuller likes aerial shots and the film should end with an image of the bloody dead dog lying in the dust of the arena where the final confrontation occurred, a powerful modernist composition in which the dead animal on its side, white against the yellow-brown dirt looks like some kind of hieroglyph or emblem.  But instead of ending on this striking image, Fuller cuts away to a long shot of the various cages and dome-like bars rising over the amphitheater at "Noah's Ark" -- the image is supposed to show the sun setting over the hills, but it is far less effective then the penultimate image and represents a serious miscalculation.  The film is short, but, in fact, too long for the relatively slender material comprising the picture:  the heroine is given a boyfriend, but he has nothing to do and seems to exist only to issue various dire warnings that the girl ignores.  The dog escapes twice -- once, he flees Kristy McNichols' yard perched on the edge of a steep wooded canyon.  The first escape is primarily an opportunity for Fuller to luxuriate in exterior shots of the vertical landscape -- we look down into the valley and see a bikini-clad woman sunbathing on the roof of her house.  The plunging landscape is interesting, but Fuller doesn't really do anything with it.  The second escape involving the Black man mauled to death in the Church allows Fuller to use some stained glass windows to comment on the action, but the sequence, also, leads nowhere -- one would expect that the police would intervene, after all, this dog has brutally attacked two people, but no one seems to take any interest at all.  (I would think the local news would cover a story involving a Black man's corpse found ripped to shreds between the pews in a country church.)  Fuller's point probably is that "Black lives don't matter" -- that is, no one really cares if some Black folk are gnawed up by a vicious dog.  But you can't tell if the weird disinterest by authorities is symbolic or just laziness on the film maker's part.  In an early scene, the dog attacks a rapist who is assaulting the heroine -- Fuller gins up the suspense by having the assault go on and on while the dog does nothing, presumably because distracted by loud noise on her TV.  But the sound on the TV comes from a big battle scene in a World War Two movie, the kind of film that I doubt that single woman would watch by herself on a Friday night.   The dog's first assault on a black victim, the attack in the movie studio, plays out like something designed by Brian DePalma -- the actresses are in a fake gondola appearing in front of a rear-projection of Venice and the dog's attack has a dreamy surrealistic aura, the animal's bloody fur and bared fangs contrasted with a genteel, flickering images of Venetian canals.  This is very effective but begs this question:  are minor actresses allowed to bring their dogs to movie studios where they are shooting films?  Somehow, I doubt it.  The film has some effective sequences -- images of a dog being destroyed in a Pound have a grim documentary verisimilitude and scenes of pet owners hoping that their dogs will be in trucks delivering strays to the Shelter also have a neo-realist impact.  The dog is not sentimentalized in any way and remains a frightening, unpredictable presence in the film.  Ennio Morricone supplies a mournful adagio score establishing a pervasive mood of tragedy.  Fuller has a small cameo as the girl's agent -- but the entire film making subplot is gratuitous.  In effect, the parable comprising the story is good for about a 40 minute film -- and Fuller has to pad this thing out to 90 minutes.  The padding isn't dull, but it is self-evidently unnecessary to the plot.  The movie's point, I guess, is that if you train an animal for attack, you can change the targets of the attack, but not the instinct to attack.  But is this true?  My guess is that you can, in fact, train dogs not to be aggressive -- after all, dogs are domestic animals, evolved to follow human commands, and, if you can make them violent, you should be able to eliminate that inclination as well.  The film seems to be driving toward  a climax in which the dog heroically sacrifices his life in combat with some other wild animal -- perhaps, one of the lions we've seen being trained at "Noah's Ark" --in order to save Paul Winfield's character from attack.  My guess is that something of this sort was planned but, then, abandoned -- possibly because the battle between the two animals couldn't be effectively staged.   As it happens, the ending of the film turns upon the fact that both Carruthers and the dog's previous owner happen to look like Burl Ives.  The notion of an attack dog programmed to savage Burl Ives' lookalikes is, perhaps, too horrible to countenance but there it is, on the Big Screen.

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