On DVD: “White Dog,” Herzog shorts

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12162008_whitedog1.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

At first blush, Samuel Fuller’s “White Dog” (1982) seems to come packing a certain degree of high-hat critic hype — the encomiums have rained down upon it since it finally overcame film maudit-hood and got released to theaters in 1991 — from the sagest voices in the English-speaking critical community. But a “huh?” factor is not uncommon when eager cinephiles sit down and see it for the first time: all that cheap ’80s lighting, those clumsy lines of dialogue, those graceless expository compositions, those overemphatic reaction shots, etc. Fuller himself is something of an acquired taste; what makes him tick (usually lauded as “sensationalist,” a term otherwise employed as a slam) is not what you’d recognize as dynamic filmmaking in other directors’ work. I sympathize — I often wish as I watch a Fuller film (even something as lovably outlandish as “The Naked Kiss”) for more nuance, more grace, more trust in the intelligent viewer to grasp a point without needing to be pounded by it.

But being put off by Fuller’s smacked-face style means missing the brute power of his metaphors and the audacity of his dialogue with society. “White Dog” couldn’t be simpler: moderately employed actress Kristy McNichol hits a white German Shepherd with her car on a dark road, and takes him in. Soon it becomes apparent — after the canine escapes and then returns, simply hopping onto her bed from off-frame, covered in his victim’s blood — that the nameless dog has been trained as an attack animal. McNichol takes him to an animal trainer (Burl Ives), who correctly assesses the beast as not merely a schooled killer, but a “white dog,” a remnant of the early-to-mid 20th century South, where dogs were often trained from puppyhood to attack African-Americans. A black trainer (Paul Winfield) decides to take the dog on — to retrain him rather than simply put him down, to correct this living, irrational embodiment of bigotry rather than simply kill it.

12162008_whitedog2.jpgFamously, “White Dog” is derived from a fictionalized account of a real incident written by French novelist Romain Gary (whose Black Panther-obsessed American wife, Jean Seberg, first adopted the questionable pooch). But the context is all-American, and the expression of this authentic historical monstrosity is Fuller’s primary glory. He iconizes the dog every which way, to the point that you’re aware, deep into the film, of not watching merely a dog but a demonic machine birthed out of America’s knack for self-destruction. Few directors have been as awake to the symbolisms in their own films, and almost every scene of “White Dog” is devised to be deliberately plain and ordinary, just so the unpredictable beast at its center appears all the more resonant. But Fuller’s punctuative images can be extraordinary: the close-up of the open black hand gently approaching the crazy dog’s fire-eyed, snarling face; the men circling around the chained animal as if he were a civilization-jeopardizing contagion (which of course, metaphorically, he is), the dog leaping out of the trainers’ compound in an explosion of electric-fence sparks, like a Frankenstein monster breaking loose from the lab; the virtuoso tracking shot that follows the dog and the hapless black man he’s tearing up across the floor of a church, and diverting away from the carnage to the Christian icons on the wall.

It is a Frankenstein tale. Fuller had little money and less time (a production strike was fast approaching), and “White Dog” is a rough piece of work, full of editing room shortcuts. At the same time, the set pieces speak volumes — the fact that the dog is triggered by surfaces, by skin color, finds its way into a generalized critique of an inauthentic Hollywood, where McNichol’s heroine works on a soundstage in front of back-projected images of Italy (the setting for a particularly bloody attack by the dog, accented by the flickering background movie-in-a-movie), and where Ives’ industry fringer decries the precedent of “Star Wars” and the dwindling need for “real” animals in culture production. It’s all about appearances — but did Fuller go too far, fetishize his message too wildly in the spectacular, near-climactic shot of McNichol hugging the dog, a shot that dollies around them from the right side of the dog’s face (placid, unthreatening), around the actress’ back and to the dog’s left side (twisted in feral rage)? It’s anyone’s call.

12162008_balladofthelittlesoldier.jpgJust as unsubtle in his own, more observant way, Werner Herzog continues to enjoy an autumnal renaissance, to the extent that even some of his little-celebrated German TV documentaries are coming out on DVD. The new New Yorker disc “Herzog Shorts Collection: Volume 2” assembles “The Dark Glow of the Mountains” (1984), a featurette about crazy mountain-climbing legend Reinhold Messner, and “Precautions Against Fanatics” (1969), an incomprehensible racetrack joke. But there’s also “Ballad of the Little Soldier” (1984), which plops down in the Nicaraguan jungle with the Miskito Indians, who have formed their own militia, made up partially of prepubescent children, in order to fight the Sandinistas, who attempted to fold the fiercely independent people into the new government’s Marxist system. Herzog himself is, as usual, unaligned to political forces, and sympathetic only with the indigenous people who get crushed like the grass under two fighting elephants. The politics here are micro, not macro, but Herzog’s attention rarely wavers from the perverse spectacle of nine-year-olds loading mortars and shooting carbines. What’s interesting as well is how consistently throughout Herzog’s career as a documentarian he has sought out people who almost by definition have no knowledge or interest in who he is, or, often, why he’s filming them. Is that why he chooses them as his subjects? Is it an anti-narcissism, or a utopian desire for savage innocence? When is someone going to write a good biography of this myth-heavy man?

[Photos: “White Dog,” Paramount Pictures, 1982; “Ballad of the Little Soldier,” New Yorker Films, 1985]

“White Dog” (Criterion Collection) and “Herzog Shorts Collection: Volume 2” (New Yorker Films) are now available on DVD.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.