Friday, August 13, 2010

Maggie 2010: Criterion'd, Part I

#94. White Dog

I'm working backwards through my Criterion film reviews, so this piece is also the first film I saw after watching Inception in theatres last week. I mention this because anyone who's seen Inception will understand the way writer/director Christopher Nolan makes viewers pay close attention to the sequencing of shots, and the role they play on our overall perception of the content therein. Thus any film I saw right after this viewing experience was likely to be coloured by that particular critical focus.

I am just so pleased White Dog was that film. The history of this piece's delayed production is quite fascinating, but no less fascinating is how such an obvious -- even blunt -- thematic conceit can still make for very intelligent viewing. Yes, complicated films can be immensely rewarding when done properly, but complexity is by no means the only road to powerful film-making, as White Dog amply shows.

White Dog follows an aspiring actress, Julie Sawyer (Kristy McNichol) who hits a dog with her car and takes him home. Though she's initially resistant to the notion of keeping the white German Shepherd if its owner doesn't claim him, Julie's fealty to the creature changes when he pins down a would-be rapist who breaks into her home. Soon after, though, she discovers that the animal was trained to be an attack dog, and then Julie is inundated by people insisting that she put him down -- that an attack dog can't ever rise above its first conditioning.

Ready for the metaphoric clincher? Not only is this an attack dog, it's also a white dog: an animal conditioned from early puppy-hood to hate people of darker skin, and to attack them without mercy. Julie isn't ready to give up on this animal, though -- clinging to the possibility that he can be re-trained -- and luckily for her, a black animal trainer, Keys (Paul Winfield), feels the same way. A difficult journey lies ahead for everyone involved.

When a film's theme is this brazenly cast in its plot-line, you need the director to play his story straight -- and Sam Fuller absolutely does. There is such an exquisite minimalism to many of his choices that even parts which at first don't seem realistic (two choices the characters make initially struck me as odd, and a third as too convenient) are gently unwoven and integrated into periods of reflection that follow soon after. This is actually where Inception comes in: When White Dog, after holding its viewers on tenterhooks wondering if this mental disease, this racially-motivated proclivity towards violence, is truly incurable, reaches its climax, it does so by relying on viewers to imbue the last act with its full symbolism.

To say any more would give the ending away, but suffice it to say, Fuller orders his shots so carefully that when the credits roll, it's hard to separate what he most likely wanted you to think from the more limited breadth of insight the dog itself would have been capable of at that last, crucial moment. ...That is, unless you'd just seen Inception the night before, and were thus paying more attention than you usually would to the order in which information was given, and the way this ordering of material informs the material itself.

White Dog is a film that never got enough credit when it was in studios, and endured a damnably small release when it was finally put out in 1982. Easily, had this film been given a proper release, I could see it being used in the same, average movie-goer's sentence today as American History X for its troubling and provocative examination of racism. In lieu of that initial claim to fame, I suppose I can only express my gladness that the Criterion collection salvaged and honoured a simple film, about a simple idea, done exceptionally well.

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