A movie that I saw for the first time in 2008, and would like to recommend, is a rarity that was released by the great Criterion Collection on DVD – White Dog.
As you couldn’t possibly have guessed just from the title and the poster image I linked to, this is the story of a racist dog: Basically, a young actress (Kristy McNichol) living in the hills of Hollywood, finds a German Shepherd, white as the blank page, who is sweet and loving, but, she eventually finds out to her horror, trained to attack at the sight of black skin. If the premise sounds like a toss-off joke from a Dave Chappelle sketch, that’s because it eventually became exactly that. But this is a more sober, somber treatment of the concept. White Dog was released in 1982 by Paramount Pictures and was promptly misunderstood by the majority of the viewing public. It was directed by Samuel Fuller, co-written by Fuller and Curtis Hanson.
Now, here is really a case where the IMDB is your friend. There’s a whole world of
But the key name in the credits is Sam Fuller, a name well worth seeking out. His work is generally consistent in taking loud, kinetic, possibly exploitative material and finding moments of depth and poetry within. Honestly, I still am catching up on Fuller’s filmography, but so far, I’d say White Dog fits in there neatly, though sadly towards the end of it. How fascinating that this is the movie he made directly after his World War Two masterpiece, The Big Red One (which you should rush to see if you haven’t yet – one of Lee Marvin’s best-ever roles and a superior treatment of that point in history.)
Fuller treats the pulpy, outlandish-yet-realistic premise just right, I think. Like the actress character, you love the dog and want it to “get better” – to rise above its training. When the dog stops being tender and protective and goes on its vicious attacks, it’s horrifying. It’s amazing how blatant the metaphor is, yet how powerful and affecting at the same time. That is the intangible work of a master filmmaker, although it also has a lot to do with the grounding performance of veteran character actor Paul Winfield (you’d know him if you saw him) as Keys, the expert trainer and “deprogrammer” who takes on the white dog as his mission statement. I don’t have enough superlatives to lay on this performance – he really convinces.
Anyway, most of the joy of discovery is in surprise, so I won’t describe more than I already have. If my recommendation counts for anything, and even if it doesn’t, check White Dog out. I’d be interested to see what kind of conversations it starts.
My five other favorite DVD releases of the year:
1. Inglorious Bastards – Enzo G. Castellari is another director whose work I have been steadily catching up on. In 2009, we’re going to see the Tarantino-ization of this title, but from first looks, the original is a significantly different telling. Besides “spaghetti Westerns”, did you know that the Italians made “spaghetti World War Two movies”? It’s charming and weird and just a little culturally and historically mind-blowing, and this is one of the best there is. It’s like The Dirty Dozen, but with virtually no recognizable faces (on this side of the world at least.) The team is Bo Svenson, who’s something like a super-sized Steve McQueen; a butch guy in an ascot who’s supposed to have the John Cassavetes role; an Italian 1970s Black Sabbath guy; a whiny little dude who’s the most likely to be fertilizer before the end credits roll; a German turncoat guy who rocks the 70s look so hard he looks like the love child Will Ferell and Seth Rogen must never have; and best of all, Fred Williamson, star of numerous blaxploitation movies, who really plays this movie like Bugs Bunny. Fred Williamson rules this movie.
2. Violent City.
3. Blast Of Silence.
5. TV Funhouse.