|by Peter Sobczynski
The long-awaited debut of one of Hollywood’s most talked-about but little-seen dogs is the big news on the DVD front this week--not surprising when the competition consists of direct-to video cartoon sequels, another helping of shape-shifting robots and what is arguably one of the worst movie musicals ever made.
In 1981, director Sam Fuller, the creator of such pugnacious and powerful B-movie classics as “The Steel Helmet,” “Pickup on South Street,” “The Naked Kiss” and “Shock Corridor,” was unexpectedly hired by Paramount Pictures to direct a property that they had been struggling to bring to the screen for several years--an adaptation of Romain Gary’s “White Dog,” a controversial book about a dog that had been trained from puppydom to attack black people on sight. To be honest, Paramount wasn’t exactly being altruistic when they hired Fuller, who had just seen his hoped-for magnum opus, the autobiographical WW II drama “The Big Red One,” released in a version dramatically shortened from his original cut, to take on the project--the studio was trying to get as many projects into the pipeline before being shut down by impending strikes by the WGA and the DGA and Curtis Hanson, who had been working on the screenplay from the start, suggested that Fuller, who he had known for a few years, was one of the few filmmakers capable of getting it off the ground in the short period of time allowed.
Unfortunately for Fuller, what started off like a dream eventually turned into a nightmare. The studio didn’t like many of his stylistic flourishes and began bombarding the production with memos offering suggestions that were largely ignored. However, the real problem came when the NAACCP began lodging protests against the film sight unseen, suggesting that the entire project was racist and that it might inspire racists to create their own white dogs. To anyone who had actually seen Fuller’s films over the years and realized that he was one of the few directors tackling racial issues at a time when Hollywood simply refused to deal with it as a subject, the accusation that he was making a racist film must have sounded absurd. Alas, Paramount, who had already begun to have second thoughts about the project and who were afraid of a potential NAACP boycott of all their films, pretty much decided that enough was enough and after a sneak preview in Seattle did poorly (possibly because the advertising made it seem like a grisly horror film), decided to throw in the towel and even as the film was released to acclaim and box-office success in Europe, they decided to cancel the American release and recut it for television. It was actually sold to NBC for a good sum but it was never broadcast because the NAACP, having gotten word of the sale, once again threatened a boycott without ever actually seeing the film. As a result, Fuller, who never worked in Hollywood as a director again, moved with his family to France and “White Dog” sat on a shelf for over a decade before earning a brief and acclaimed art-house release in 1992. Although no notable protests emerged at the time, the film still made enough people at Paramount uncomfortable that it was never released on home video (although I vaguely recall it popping up once in a great while on, of all places, the Lifetime network). However, as part of a deal that has seen the release of special editions of such films as “Days of Heaven” and “Robinson Crusoe on Mars,” the studio struck a deal with the Criterion Collection to finally release this most troublesome property on DVD for the first time and for Fuller fanatics everywhere (and if you profess to love film, you almost have to be a Sam Fuller fan), it is the merriest Christmas present imaginable.
The film stars Kristy McNichol, then at the height of her popularity (i.e. before “The Pirate Movie”) and in what is arguably her best performance, as Julie Sawyer, a struggling actress who, as the film opens, accidentally hits a lost German shepherd with her car and takes it to the vet to get fixed up. When she learns that the dog will most likely be put to death if the owner isn’t found in three days, she decides to adopt it herself. The two quickly bond and the dog even saves Julie from a rapist who has broken into her home. However, it quickly becomes evident that there is something off about the dog when it runs away for a while and mauls a truck driver, unbeknownst to Julie, and later attacks a fellow actress at an audition. Julie assumes that the dog was raised as an attack dog and assumes that it can be retrained but when she brings it up to a farm used to train animals for the movies, it attacks someone else and Carruthers (Burl Ives), the owner of the facility, realizes that the dog is a “white dog” that cannot be retrained and tells Julie that the only thing that she can do for it is to put it to sleep before it can hurt anyone else. However, Keys (Paul Winfield), the African-American anthropologist who also serves as Carruthers’ lead trainer feels differently--he has dealt with such creatures in the past and is obsessed with the notion that he can undo the dog’s conditioning. Carruthers insists that it can’t be done but Keys insists on trying-- “It’ll take five weeks. If I don’t break him, I’ll shoot him.”
Many times when a once-controversial film is reintroduced long after the arguments have been long forgotten and taken on its own merits, the results are almost always disappointing--even a work as notorious as “Salo or The 120 Days of Sodom” seems a little tamer these days--but “White Dog” is just a powerful of a cinematic experience today as it might have been back in 1982. Perhaps instinctually realizing that he was never going to get a chance to make another film within the parameters of the Hollywood studio system, Fuller threw everything that he had into this one and the result is one of his best and boldest works--a movie that is thoughtful, dramatic, angry, darkly funny, visually stylish and just plain bizarre in equal measure.. Instead of taking the usual cinematic route of loudly declaiming that “Racism is Bad” while showing viewers the need to change, Fuller merely goes about telling his admittedly pulpy story without ever underlining his points about the horror and insanity of racism on the assumption that his viewers are smart enough to understand what he is trying to say instead of spelling it out for them so baldly. Watching the movie again, I was struck by how many great scenes it contains. There are moments of droll comedy, such as when Carruthers rails against “Star Wars” or when he tells Julie that he was John Wayne’s double in a scene in “True Grit” involving a hand being put into a pit of vipers and then offers up “the hand that helped the Duke win the Oscar!” There are moments of pathos, such as the moments when we see the dog at ease and begin to fully realize the monstrousness of what has been done to him. There are moments of surreal horror, such as the bit when the dog breaks loose from the training facility and chases a man into a church where he rips the guy to shreds underneath a stained-glass window featuring the visage of St. Francis of Assisi. Finally, there are quintessentially Fullerian elements to be had as well, the most notable being the one where Julie is greeted at her door by a kindly-looking old man with a couple of adorable grandchildren (one played by Fuller’s daughter) at his side and a box of chocolates in his hand in order to thank her for finding and taking care of his dog-the moment when he quietly and proudly admits that yes, he did train the dog himself, is one of the most chilling things that you will ever see in a film.
Although the disc for “White Dog” is not exactly overflowing with extras--if only Fuller, who died in 1997, had lived long enough to do DVD commentaries (although his posthumously published autobiography, “A Third Face,” contains plenty of juicy stories and is one of the best film biographies that I have ever read)--the ones that Criterion has pulled together quite strong. The centerpiece is “Four-Legged Time Bomb,” a collection of video interviews with co-writer Curtis Hanson, producer Jon Davison (who got the gig thanks to the enormous success of a little project of his by the name of “Airplane!”) and Fuller’s widow, Christa Lang-Fuller that offer up a fairly detailed recounting of the history of “White Dog” from the days when it was being offered to such directors as Roman Polanski and Arthur Penn to its burial and eventual resurrection. The disc also includes a photo gallery and a text-based interview with Karl Lewis Miller, who served as the film’s animal trainer. In addition, the package also includes a booklet featuring appreciations of the film and Fuller from noted critics J.Hoberman and Armond White and a strange and funny interview that Fuller himself apparently conducted with his canine star that was originally published in the magazine “Framework” back in 1982. Whether you are an auteurist looking to see a lost work from a great American filmmaker or you are looking for an antidote to the horror that is “Marley and Me,” “White Dog” is an essential film that deserves to finally find the audience that it should have gotten back in 1982.
Written by Samuel Fuller & Curtis Hanson. Directed by Samuel Fuller. Starring Kristy McNichol, Paul Winfield and Burl Ives. 1982. 90 minutes. Rated PG. A Criterion Collection releases. $29.95.
NEW AND NOTABLE
THE CHEETAH GIRLS: ONE WORLD--EXTENDED MUSIC EDITION (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $29.99): The latest misadventures of the made-for-the-Disney Channel girl group (ask your kids) takes the trio to India, where they think that they have all been cast in a Bollywood film. Alas, once they arrive, they discover that there is only one part available and that they will have to compete against each other for the role. Well, I suppose one of them could sabotage the others by allowing nude photos of her competitors to leak out onto the Internet, but who would believe that?
CRASHING (Thinkfilm. $27.98): After hitting it big with his first novel, author Campbell Scott struggles mightily to complete his follow-up and finds the perfect solution to his writer’s block--a pair of hottie writing students (“Cloverfield” victim Lizzy Caplan and “Coyote Ugly” refugee Izabella Miko) who invite him to move in with them for what I can only imagine to be an endless string of pillow fights. In other news, I hate Campbell Scott.
GENERATION KILL (HBO Home Entertainment. $59.99): Based on the best-selling book by journalist Evan Wright, this seven-part HBO miniseries follows a trio of new Marines who find themselves in Baghdad at the very start of the American invasion of Iraq and who try to muddle their way through a conflict that offers them plenty of contradictory orders, incompetent commanding officers and enemies that they don’t understand but no coherent plan or suitable body armor with which to deal with them. One of the better films to be inspired by the war in Iraq and one that can be appreciated by viewers regardless of where they stand in regards to the conflict.
THE LITTLE MERMAID II: RETURN TO THE SEA (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $29.99): In this direct-to-video sequel to the 1989 box-office triumph that helped inspire the renaissance of animated feature films that would eventually give us the likes of “Fly Me to the Moon” and “Delgo,” Ariel and that bland dreamboat that she married are now the parents of a daughter named Melody (and yes, I am feeling very old right now) who has been kept in the dark about her mermaid heritage in order to protect her from the clutches of Morgana, the equally evil sister of the monstrous Ursula. Alas, that plan goes all to pot and Ariel is forced to return to the sea (hmm. . .that might make a good subtitle) to reunite her family and friends in order to help rescue her daughter. It is passable enough for less demanding kids, though nowhere near as magical as the original, and they may also be reasonably distracted by the various games, music videos and the DVD storybook that have been included as supplements.
MAKE IT HAPPEN (The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment. $19.98): In a film whose premise may sound a little familiar to fans of “Flashdance,” “Save the Last Dance” and “Coyote Ugly,” Mary Elizabeth Winstead (the cutie in the cheerleader outfit from “Death Proof”) plays a girl from Indiana who travels all the way to Chicago to audition for a prestigious dance academy. When she fails to make the cut, she does what anyone else in her position might do--she takes a job at a local burlesque club and finds success and romance as a result. Yeah, I was pretty excited when I saw the words “Mary Beth Winstead” and “burlesque dancer” but I am afraid that there is no Suicide Girls-type steaminess on display here--all the moves are strictly PG-13 and yes, I am as disappointed as you are.
MAMMA MIA (Universal Home Entertainment. $34.98): Look, I have said all that I can say about this big-screen adaptation of the terrifyingly popular stage musical featuring the songs of Swedish pop sensations ABBA--it is so crudely executed that it makes the screen version of “The Producers” look like “Singin In the Rain” by comparison and co-star Pierce Brosnan demonstrates the most dreadful singing voice heard from a leading man since Lee Marvin staggered his way through “Paint Your Wagon.” All I am going to add is that is any friends or loved ones thinks that it would be a funny idea to give me a copy of this film--either the single-disc edition or the two-disc version with all the bells and whistles--as a Christmas present, I will not be amused in the slightest.
OPERATION FILMMAKER (Icarus Films Home Video. $29.99): In a fit of liberal nobility inspired by his reaction to “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” actor Liev Schreiber decided to spring an Iraqi film student from his battered home country and bring him to the West in order to work as an intern on the film “Everything is Illuminated.” It sounds like a heartwarming and inspiring story but as Nina Davenport’s eye-opening documentary shows, things don’t always go as planned. I won’t say what transpires but I will suggest that it might make for an interesting documentary double-bill with “Overnight.”
PETTICOAT JUNCTION: SEASON ONE (CBS DVD. $40.99): The beloved sitcom, a part of producer Paul Henning’s illustrious trilogy of rural-based sitcoms that also included “The Beverly Hillbillies” and the surreal classic “Green Acres,” hits DVD to expose new generations to the wonders of Hooterville, a quaint little burg where the Shady Rest Hotel is the center of town, the Cannonball train (piloted by none other than Smiley Burnette) gets people from point A to point B and no one finds it at all odd that the three town beauties, sisters Billie Jo, Bobbie Jo and Betty Jo (Jeannine Riley, Pat Woodell and Linda Kaye), have a strange prediction for bathing in the town’s water supply.
TRANSFORMERS: ENERGON (Paramount Home Video. $59.98): Yet another collection of the animated adventures of everyone’s favorite transmogrifying robot warriors. This time around, the good Autobots and the mean Decepticons unite in order to search for a rare energy source and wind up doing battle with another mysterious force that wants it for their own nefarious reasons. As I haven’t quite found the time to plow through all seven discs, I can’t quite tell you how it turns out but my guess is that whatever happens, it will be loud and visually garish as
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originally posted: 12/19/08 15:41:51
last updated: 12/19/08 17:11:34