Sunday, January 25, 2009

White Dog

Since I seem to be in a Samuel Fuller mode these days, I decided the time was ripe to finally watch White Dog, his infamous 1982 film about a German Shepherd trained to attack black people.

The film was shelved by Paramount and left unreleased for ten years for no better reason than the studio was squeamish about how the film’s treatment of racism would be received by audiences. If anything, this cowardice should be seen as evidence of the studio’s lack of esteem for the public’s intelligence, rather than a sign of any particular failing in the film itself. True, White Dog’s treatment of racism is complicated and disturbing, but the film is also unambiguously anti-racist (it feels absurd to have to point this out, but if the film’s intentions were misunderstood once, I don’t doubt that they can be misunderstood again).

After hitting a dog with her car, young actress Julie Sawyer (played by Kristy McNichol) takes in the wounded animal temporarily while looking for the dog’s real owner. However, she grows increasingly attached to the dog, a bond that is finally cemented when it saves her from a rapist who breaks into her apartment one night.

But the viciousness the dog displays in warding off the intruder starts to reveal itself in other circumstances. It runs off after a rabbit one afternoon and disappears for a day, savagely attacking a black man before trotting faithfully back to Julie covered in blood. With no way of knowing the blood is human, she blithely shrugs it off as the result of a fight with another dog and washes it away, baby-talking to the animal as she bathes it (in this age of cute, anthropomorphized movie creatures, it's refreshing to see Fuller exploit the gap between the animal nature of our pets and how we tend to treat them as little humans).

It is only once the dog mauls a fellow actress seemingly without provocation that Julie is forced to admit that the dog is violent, but she still refuses to put it down. She holds to her nagging optimism that the animal can somehow be cured of its attack-dog training, and it is this stubborn hope that leads Julie to an animal trainer named Keys, a black man familiar with the phenomenon of white dogs, who accepts the challenge of trying to cure the German Shepherd’s racist conditioning.

Maybe what made the studio uncomfortable was the way the film examines the disastrous consequences of this optimism, even though Fuller is obviously sympathetic to the determination of these people to cure the dog. Still, as emotional as Fuller’s filmmaking may be, he rarely falls for the lure of cheap sentiment. This is neither pious ode to the struggle against racism nor cynical swipe at good intentions gone bad; the film lies somewhere in the confounding terrain between those two extremes, where idealism has to reckon with the fallout of its failures and violence remains in defiance of all of principles. (Notably, the dog’s final vicious assault is provoked by someone resembling its original trainer, suggesting that violence, once unleashed, can never be fully mastered by anyone.)

Although Fuller approaches this story with his full sense of moral indignation, there is also a sense of uncertainty—even despair—as he questions how to overcome the deep roots of conditioning. When the trainer of the white dog finally appears, we see that it is not some ranting caricature of a bigot, but rather an amiable old man bringing his granddaughters to reclaim their lost pet. Even if Keys can break the dog’s conditioning, what can be done about these people?

By the standards of most Fuller films, this is a rather somber, meditative piece, but the filmmaking displays the force and intelligence of an old master. In one of the film’s most powerful shots, the camera circles around as Julie embraces the dog, focusing first on the calm eyes of the dog and then moving to the tender, caring expression on Julie’s face before circling around to the dog again, now with teeth bared at its prey. The transformation is sudden and shocking, and all the more distressing for how it occurs in a single elegant shot. Even more distressing, however, is the combination of cruelty and tenderness in a single creature, which is what makes the film's dilemma so intractable and its conclusion so wrenching.

As a filmmaker who always prided himself on the “multiracial world” of his films, Fuller placed himself on the progressive edge of American filmmaking, even as his politics seemed to alternately draw the ire of the right or the left. A career spent fermenting against inequalities finds its apotheosis in White Dog's allegory, and Fuller explores the complications of his ideals with unflinching directness and intelligence. The result is a masterpiece, and one of the most unique and unsettling films about racism to ever come out of America.

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