Friday, May 13, 2005

Wrestling with a White Dog

The Egyptian, bless their hearts, showed the long unavailable Sam Fuller opus White Dog tonight. It was released in 1981 (or so the copyright says) and got Fuller in quite a bit of trouble. Someone from the NAACP thought the film might be racist (it decidedly isn't), and Paramount scuttled it, sending Fuller and his family on a self imposed exile to France, where he made a couple of films, and then passed on in 1997. As the faithful reader of my blog will know by now, I'm a huge fan. I saw the film originally a good ten years ago on a beat tape from Video Search of Miami, the then paramount of gray market material. The copy was shitty, but I remember liking the film.

The film beings with an actress (Kristy MacNichol) hitting a dog with her car, and then taking the white dog in. After a sequence at the vet's that's poorly acted (partly by Fuller's wife Christa Lang), and a handheld style that feels amateurish, the first third grates as MacNichol makes small talk with her vapid boyfriend. Honestly, I was beginning to worry this wouldn't be as interesting as Rio Lobo, and was worried that I had signed on for an evening of a flawed late director's work that was more famous for it's infamy than quality. But at about the twenty five minute mark, the dog attacks a black actress on a shoot, and there's a slow motion sequence with MacNichol that almost works as poetry. Though the rhythm feels off (it's almost as if - perhaps because of the Ennio Morricone score - Fuller is trying to ape De Palma) it's this sequence where the real story starts to kick in: the dog is racist, and only attacks black people. By this point I was beginning to root for the film. Shortly thereafter the boyfriend and much of the awkwardness of the first act is almost totally jettisoned with the introduction of the black animal trainer Keyes - Paul Winfield struts into frame in an immaculate hero shot. He decides that he wants to break the dog's psyche, which is more important than killing it. Can racism be erased, or is the dog doomed to a life of violence? At this point I could start smelling the old Fuller I know and love. As the film wrestles with race relations, has Burl Ives throwing darts at R2-D2 and eating spoonfuls of sour cream, and includes a cameo with Dick Miller (after appearances by Fuller and Paul Bartel), the film showed enough gusto to get me interested, and invested. When the film starts coming alive is during a sequence where the dog tries to escape, and it shows the dog's thought process on how to get over a barb wire fence. That's fucking filmmaking!

I'm not going to ignore the flaws of the film, they're glaring and Kristy MacNichol is a blank slate who is at her most appealing towards the end when she is bra-less. And I'm not even attracted to her in the slightest (she has the worst case of 80's hair imaginable - it's a sorta mullet with curls... I can't do it justice). I think 1954 Fuller would have directed the hell out of this film, but with the inclusion of his entire family in the enterprise (his daughter Samantha appears towards the end), and the B-movie presences, it may have been a lack of money, and the film deserves slack for being the second most interesting film about race relations for the last twenty five years (I think first would be Do the Right Thing, but I haven't put much thought into this list, I mean what else is there? White Man's Burden?)

I mean I liked it, I'm glad I saw it, but it's more Verboten than Pickup on South Street.