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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.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.


IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.



IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on and the IFC app.

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