Monday, April 06, 2009


Bite is worse than his bark

By Edward Copeland
Samuel Fuller was one of America's original and longest dwellers in the world of independent cinema. Even though he had achieved a notable reputation, one of his final films never got a real U.S. theatrical release because of perceived controversy over its subject matter, going instead straight to video until getting a proper Criterion Collection DVD release last year. Now that I've seen White Dog, it's hard to see what all the commotion was about, either in terms of the controversy or in the idea that a masterpiece was lost in the hubbub.

Kristy McNichol stars as a struggling actress who accidentally hits a white German shepherd with her car. She takes the injured dog to a vet and pays the expensive bills to save his life. She posts bills reporting the lost dog, but finds herself growing attached to the gorgeous creature.

There are little signs though, that's something is a little off with the canine. She's grateful when he saves her from an attempted rapist. However, the dog seems to have a hair trigger when it comes to attacking people, especially people with black skin. McNichol visits a company that trains animals for movies in the hopes that the dog can be reprogrammed. The main trainer (a rascally Burl Ives blaming his business plight on Star Wars) recommends just putting the dog down but his partner Paul Winfield wants a shot at removing the racism from the dog and making him whole again. That's pretty much the rest of the movie. Winfield works to get the dog not to attack black people until you get the expected twists of the original dog's racist owner turning up and how the deprogramming might go wrong to happen. Everything happens pretty much the way I expected and there wasn't anything I found particularly shocking in White Dog. Ives provides the best moments, but McNichol is a bore as a lead. There also is way too much reliance on slow-motion. The film is only 90 minutes long as it is, take away the slow-mo, you'd probably lose another 15 minutes. Fuller deserves to be remembered for better than this.

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Have you seen a lot of Fuller's pictures, Edward? I haven't seen this one yet but the reason I ask is that so far I've watched the first four films directed by Fuller and I'm unimpressed --as you seem to be here. Brian Darr and I had a discussion about Fuller at PIFF and he suggested that maybe I didn't fully appreciate these early pictures in the director's career because I don't see them in context of his work as a whole.
I haven't seen close to all of them by any means, but of the ones I have before this one, I have liked them, but they all came from his earlier period. By far my favorite is Pickup on South Street. I also liked The Steel Helmet and Shock Corridor. I've heard good things about the reconstructed Big Red One, but have never seen it.
"White Dog" was made at the dawn of political-correctness, and was greeted by the -- If I remember correctly MGM -- marketing department with, "Sam Fuller can't make a movie about this, can he?" Nobody knew how to market it, it didn't have major stars, and its message-ymetaphor about attempts to re-educate racists was dead on arrival. Still, Fuller is a really fascinating filmmaker (and "The Big Red One" is great, as are "Pickup," "Park Row," and "Shock Corridor").
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