Saturday, November 14, 2009

Movie Notes: White Dog (1981?)

What in the hell was Paramount thinking?

In 1980, they commissioned a film version of Romain Gary's novel about a young woman who brings home a stray dog, only to find that he has been trained to attack black people, and then struggles with the help of trainers to retrain the dog. Samuel Fuller turned in a great movie combining exploitation thriller beats and social commentary, ultimately asking whether the mental illness of racism can really be treated. The film starred Kristy McNichol, Burl Ives, and Paul Winfield in powerful performances. But Paramount worried that African-Americans might protest the film and shelved it.

This was in 1982 and Sam Fuller moved to France in frustration. The film was officially shown for the first time ten years later in New York. In her 1992 review, Pauline Kael also wonders what Paramount execs could have been thinking. The idea that blacks wouldn't get the film is more offensive than anything in the movie. I remember that video pirates were bootlegging White Dog in the mid-80s (it was one of the most-bootlegged films of that era in fact), and I mistakenly assumed the movie was, in some way, racially offensive. It really isn't. It's a pretty strong indictment of racism. It's sort of incredible that Paramount didn't trust the public to possess a modicum of intelligence.

Of course, White Dog is not a pleasant movie. To some extent, it plays as a horror film. McNichols accidentally hits a beautiful German shepherd with her car and brings him home to heal him. In the first section of the movie, she and the audience come to care for the dog, and he becomes her cherished pet. And then we discover that he becomes a vicious killer when he sees blacks. His former master trained him to fear and hate blacks by paying someone with black skin to beat the dog as a puppy. Should she have the dog killed or try to retrain him? Can you deprogram racism?

McNichols decides to take him to a group of professional animal trainers, played by Burl Ives, Paul Winfield, and Dick Miller, in hopes of saving her dog. Winfield's character, Keys, has been trying to retrain white dogs, with little success. His last two test subjects snapped and started attacking all humans. Will he be more successful this time? Is racism an indelible scar? Or will the dog simply go crazy?

Clearly, this is an intense and provocative, and maybe even a bit of a strange film. One scene in a church goes way over the top and the good guys definitely make some serious ethical mistakes- as they do in all of Sam Fuller's movies. Sometimes Fuller's style is a bit crude and he pushes the emotions as far as he can. But it definitely does not play as some sort of racist wish fulfillment movie, like Paramount execs feared. I see it more as a parable in which racism turns a member of the family into a savage beast, a Jekyll & Hyde scenario. It's also very disturbing because Fuller suggests that racism is too irrational and deranged to be "cured".

The Criterion Collection finally released White Dog on DVD last year, so audiences can make up their own minds about it. I think the whole story of its release illustrates a serious cultural problem in North America. When we talk about 'culture' here, especially in the US, what we're talking about are generally things that are mass produced by corporations: music, movies, books, television programs, et cetera. Of course there are some cottage industries that independently release records or whatever, but they usually don't have the same reach or impact. The real advantage that corporations have is that they can broadcast across the globe in a way that amounts to flooding the market. While I was in Paris, I heard the new Madonna single everywhere I went.

The downside to this situation occurred to me while I was standing in line at the convenience store yesterday: Corporations are by their very nature conservative institutions. I don't mean conservative politically; I mean conservative in the sense that they just do not take big chances. When you are spending, say, $20 million to promote a movie or album, you are far less likely to spend that money on something that looks challenging or difficult- something that audiences might not get- when you could spend it to promote something like G.I.Joe that is guaranteed to bring in the crowds.

But, of course, G.I.Joe is not culture. It's a product. When I think of real culture, I think of something that points upward- something that points to something greater than the individual and offers him some sort of transcendence. It doesn't need to be spiritual; it could simply be art that offers us some sort of catharsis. But it requires the audience to come up to its level and connect to something larger and outside of their own experience. White Dog is cathartic in my opinion. But, what you see here is that the corporation (in this case Paramount) simply lacks the balls to release anything approaching art because the public might not be able to rise to the challenge.

And then, when you wonder why America doesn't produce very much of what could be called culture, I think that there actually are lots of American artists who probably do create great works of art, and a handful of corporations that shelve it before it can see the light of day.

Here's a fan-made "trailer" for a movie that never had a trailer or an official release.


Brian Dunbar said...

It's sort of incredible that Paramount didn't trust the public to possess a modicum of intelligence.

Given that they make their living selling the lowest common denominator at the highest price they can, it's only natural.

Persons say, year after year, give us good movies, intelligent movies, movies that make us think! And year after year People vote with their dollars for movies that are sequels of vapid movies and loud explosions with a bit of a plot.

Best selling movies from 1980 include 'The Empire Strikes Back', 'Superman II', 'Urban Cowboy', 'Any Which Way You Can'. The top grossing movie that year was 'Nine to Five'.

Hey, we're as guilty of this as anyone: we went to see Transformers 2. Because the kids wanted to see it, and we like doing things as a family.

No way I would have seen that if I didn't have a kid.

Brian Dunbar said...

Ah - about the actual film.

I watched the trailer and I was not impressed. Based on that it looks like a TV Movie of the week, or an especially good 'ABC After School Special'.

But you say it's good: dang, now I gotta watch it and make up my own mind.

Rufus said...

You know, it was shot in 1980 for little money, so it looks like a movie of the week. And some of it's a bit clumsy. But, I like that they tried to make such a weird story work and I'm still thinking about it a week later.

Rufus said...

Martin Scorsese put it better than I can:
"I think that if you don’t like the films of Sam Fuller, then you just don’t like cinema. Or, at least you don’t understand it. Sure, Sam’s movies are blunt, pulpy, occasionally crude, lacking any sense of delicacy or subtlety. But those aren’t shortcomings. They’re simply reflections of his temperament, his journalistic training and his sense of urgency…There’s a great deal of sophistication in Sam’s movies, but it’s all at the service of rendering emotion. When you appreciate a Fuller film, what you’re responding to is cinema at its very essence. Motion as emotion. Sam’s pictures move convulsively, violently. Just like life when it’s being lived with real passion”

But my advice would be to start with The Big Red One, which I'm willing to bet you'd like anyway, or The Steel Helmet, which is another great war movie.

Here's an article about why his movies are great:

Rufus said...

Lastly, as for the fluff movies, I don't know the answer. I really do understand where the studios are coming from because now they're spending tens of millions of dollars just to advertise the movies. So, if the money is tight and you have to choose between promoting Raging Bull or Star Wars, how can you pour the money into the masterpiece that people might well not come out and see? The Hurt Locker was supposed to be a brilliant war movie this year. Every review I read said it was the best movie of the year. Nobody went to see it. I didn't either. It wasn't playing anywhere near Hamilton, and I was too lazy to drive to Toronto. So, I don't know the answer.

Brian Dunbar said...

It wasn't playing anywhere near Hamilton, and I was too lazy to drive to Toronto. So, I don't know the answer.

Our answer is that we see about one, maybe two grownup movies a month. And we never get to see all the movies we want to see. Example 'The Hurt Locker' came and went between data nights.

For the rest we use a combination of Netflix and downloads and watch movies an hour or two at a time.