Friday, February 7, 2020

White Dog Review: The Criterion Collection

When a film has remained out of circulation almost since the day it was made, it can, with the proper combination of controversy and critical acclaim, attain a mythical status. When the movie also happens to be the last American film by Samuel Fuller, a director and auteur who was a living breathing myth in his own right, expectations are understandably ratcheted into the stratosphere. And these expectations inevitably lead to disappointment.

"White Dog" (1982) was marked (can you think of a better pun-avoiding term than "dogged" or "hounded"?) by controversy before it was even released. In the film, an adaptation of a Romain Gary story, Julie (Kristy McNichol) finds an injured white-furred German shepherd abandoned on the highway. She adopts him, and falls in love with the sweet-natured little guy who also saves her from a conveniently-timed (for the sake of the plot) attempted rape.

Soon she discovers there´s more to this heroic dog than meets the eye. It turns out that he is a "white dog," a term that doesn´t refer to the color of his fur but rather to the fact that he was trained to attack and kill black people. As you can imagine, her discovery does occur under pleasant circumstances but she is determined to save the dog who saved her. She brings him to Mr. Keys (Paul Winfield), a dog trainer who just happens to be black. Keys has tried to break "white dogs" before and failed, but he is bound and determined to keep trying until the re-training works.

As a metaphor, "White Dog" is both blunt and powerful. Race is a social category, not a biological one, and the ability to discriminate among races is a socially learned skill. If dogs, like people, can be trained to be "racists" then if their training can be undone, perhaps the same is true of their human keepers.

As such a simple and open symbol of racism, the white dog (who never receives a name in the film) is infinitely pliable. He stands in as a symbol of generations of children conditioned by their parents´ rhetoric. In a late scene, a sweet, smiling old-man with his two cute-as-a-button granddaughters in tow shows up at Julie´s house. As they stare glassy-eyed while Julie rips into grandpa, it´s clear that they´re at risk for being his next "white dogs."

Fuller, not exactly noted for subtle rhetoric, labors the metaphor even further, turning the white dog into a representation of the authority of Church and state. The white dog chases a black man into a church and kills him right under a stained-glass window of Francis of Assisi surrounded by all of his gentle and devoted animals.

It is one of many over-the-top scenes in the film that come unexpected in a film so heavily praised. Fuller´s direction in "White Dog" is generously described as "eclectic" but sometimes it just feels plain awkward. The cast of McNichol, Winfield and Burl Ives (as Keys´ boss) already gives "White Dog" the feel of a made-for-TV movie. By the time we´re treated to the third or fourth slow-motion shot of the snarling dog jumping through the air, it´s hard not to think of Max the bionic dog. Only the "Bionic" slow-motion soundtrack cue is missing. Some undeniably ham-fisted dialogue by Fuller and co-writer Curtis Hanson doesn´t help matters.