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My Movie Year–Day 15: White Dog

white-dog-uk-quad

Two reviews in the last 24 hours? Yes!

You’ve got to believe me when I say I’ve been trying with this thing, but you’ve also got to understand that this is at least 2 hours out of my day if it gets done and that shit’s hard to manage with a separate writing assignment and a full-time job, not to mention my vague attempts at a social life (I think I used to do a podcast too).

In other words, “waaaah.”

Let’s get on with this thing.

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1/15/09: White Dog

(1982) U.S.A.

Dir. Sam Fuller

Written by Sam Fuller and Curtis Hansen

Starring Kristy McNichol, Paul Winfield, Hubert Wells and Hans

Music by Ennio Morricone

Plot: An aspiring actress (Kristy McNichol) hits a white German Shepard with her car, takes it to the vet and then home. One day while working on a movie set (a set that apparently allows dogs), the dog attacks her black co-star, leading her to seek a trainer capable of curbing the dog’s erratic behavior. She finds out that the dog has been trained as a puppy to attack black people exclusively and hands the animal over to a man (“Keys” played by Paul Winfield) dedicated to deprogramming “white dogs.” The rest is sort of spoilery, so I’ll leave it at that.

Why Now?: It’s been out-of-print for a long time, mainly because it’s been dubbed one of the most controversial movies ever made due to its perceived racial politics. Criterion just released it in a nice little package and that’s always a good sign.

Did You Like it?: I loved it.

Why?: The dog (or dogs, as I later found out) is a better actor than Asia Argento, for one. It’s also an incredibly interesting story, laced with all sorts of tension and anchored by a great performance by Paul Winfield.

Sorry, I’m getting all critic-y here.

It’s a movie about a fucking racist dog! And amazingly the camp value of that premise never really comes to a head. It’s not an exploitation movie per-say (in much the same way that I’m not a sanguinary vampire), because there’s nothing that’s unfairly exploited here. The racial tensions are handled in a surprisingly mature way with great pay-offs in the last act. Actually, one of my favorite scenes in the movie pops up in the last 15 minutes when the original owner of the dog comes back to claim it with his granddaughters in tow. The little kids and the old man seem so sweet before you figure out who they really are and once that worm turns there’s this sad realization that regardless of what Keys accomplishes with the dog, this cycle of hatred is going to keep circling the drain for a long time to come.

There’s also a great twist/subplot late in the film involving the escape of the dog, leading to a murder in a church. Keys finds and subdues the dog but doesn’t kill it once he discovers the crime scene. He’s convinced he can fix this dog and he’s willing to do whatever he must to do so, even if that means becoming an accomplice (of sorts) to murder. It’s a welcome change of pace in a movie that could have otherwise become very stale and it adds an extra layer of depth to a character that seemed otherwise singular in his focus. Fuller’s able to take that trait and delve into it in a way that perhaps a lesser writer/director wouldn’t have and the movie is certainly better for it.

And as far as the racial politics go, yes, it’s difficult to reconcile a movie about a dog trained to kill black people, but the movie at no point glorifies the violence. If you don’t understand that training a dog to hate a certain group of people is a metaphor for some bigger picture, then perhaps you ought not watch this film.

The Good: Paul Winfield, who classes the whole production up if only by drawing focus away from Kristy McNichol for short periods of time. And like I said, the dog is fucking amazing in this.

The Bad: The first 30 minutes or so, when the story focuses on McNichol’s character naively washing blood off of her dog and fighting to get her underwear back. The style (McNichol didn’t survive the 80s and with good reason) is at its most dated in these scenes and it’s unfortunate that they couldn’t have gotten a better, less pixie-like actress to play the role. It’s also kind of a chore to watch a dog bark and snarl for long stretches of time. It puts you on edge in the right sort of way for the first few scenes and then it just becomes tiring.

The Weird: Not much in the way of weird this time.

Nudity?: Believe it or not, this movie was rated PG in the US (it got stronger rating abroad, which has to be a first), so obviously there’s no nudity. The dog is naked, technically. That counts, right?

Deaths?: Yup. Like I said, the dog rips a black guy apart in a church.

Next: You thought Javier Bardem’s hair was fucked up in No Country For Old Men? Try Perdita Durango (aka Dance With The Devil).

350 Days Left.

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