Sunday, July 6, 2008
White Dog, Yellow Audience
I was fortunate enough to catch a screening of Sam Fuller's unreleased White Dog this past week. Filmed in 1981 and based on a magazine article written decades earlier, it's easy to imagine it might have been a better film had the filming begun even 10 years earlier. What would seem unlikely today is the reason for White Dog's unrelease: the NAACP prematurely protested without having seen the film and Paramount caved.
The story doesn't even sound anti-black on paper; the story is the rehabilitation of a stray attack dog found by an actress in the Hollywood Hills, who was abused long ago into attacking black skin on sight. The only hope is the treatment at an animal actors training camp, run by Burl Ives (annoying) and Paul Winfield (black.)
Sam Fuller's theatrical and intense techniques transplanted to 1981 are still often gripping, except the once or twice characters are called on to deliver speeches. As soon as 1981 theatrical-style monologues were a dying skill amongst film actors. Or maybe the writing just isn't up to it. Kristie Mcnichol, the girl who finds the dog, disappears for seemingly half the movie as the "retraining" scenes tend to chase their own tail.
The theater was the elegant Silent Film Theater, which I haven't been to since getting to meet John Kricfalusi at a screening of rare cartoons. The audience was...well. I thought I'd left the crowd behind at film school who need prove themselves superior by tittering at the slightest provocation. Only a few times was it warranted, ie, Mcnichol's hideous 80s outfits or Burl Ives' southern fried comedy "relief." The rest I couldn't understand.
It's not as though this were the New Beverley and we had all just been lined up for the 1980 slimefest Humanoids From The Deep and were ready to laugh for $7. This was 12 dollars for the privilege of giggling at a Sam Fuller film which never even saw the light of VHS and hasn't yet graced DVD. Where's the respect? The woman who introduced the film noted co-screenwriter Curtis "LA Confidential" Hansen's want for 'sploitation grit. Fuller's films always had a bit of that, with genuine compassion and humanity. Unfortunately you can't have a dog tear into black people with vitriol to give the audience "what they want" or at least what they're expecting before Fuller's humanity ponders the cancer of racism. That could have been the NAACP's unresearched original worry. But fundamentally, who were they to keep this film from seeing the light of day?
Audiences today, including and possibly especially LA audiences, seem caught off-guard to the point of liberally applied scorn and laughter. Or righteous outrage, as in a graceless display of immaturity the girl behind me. She didn't look 12 but sounded like it when piping up at the film's true pulling-the-rug-out moment, a throwaway playing on the audience's worst fears.
"What? Nooooo!.....(the moment passes).....Fuck that!"
Fuller, a man out of time whose sensibility to go for the jugular remains out of time amongst the easily placated.