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.
Famously, “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.
Just 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.