White Dog

December 17, 2008

White Dog(1982); Dir. Samuel Fuller. Criterion Collection DVD(2008)

http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi1016791833/   White Dog Movie Trailer

There are films that gather a certain mystique around them because they have attracted so much controversy, were banned for one reason or another, or were so wildly popular that they become representative of the movies as a whole. Then there is Samuel Fuller’s White Dog. This film was tucked away by Paramount Pictures after it was completed because the studio worried that the subject matter would ignite racial tension across the country. It was criticized for being a racist film and for all practical purposes, ignored for many years. This Criterion release is the first home video release of the film and it was not shown in theatres at all.  White Dog, I believe, touched such a raw nerve  because it is the history that many people have lived through and the sense of shame that we have never quite come to terms with. Fuller himself said that the studio were essentially cowards for not backing the picture and those that have spent any time watching Samuel Fuller films, reading his autobiography “A Third Face” or any of the numerous writings on his work, know the difficulty he has encountered throughout his career in finding support for his films. Fuller not only had difficulty getting some of his movies made but also faced obstacles after his films were completed and with the exception of critics such as Manny Farber, his films were not always that well  received in the United States. There are still many of his movies such as Underworld U.S.A., Verboten!, Park Row, The Chrimson Kimono, China Gate, and The Run of The Arrow that are still not available on video; not to mention the dozens of writing credits that he was never given proper due  for.  One of the great American genre directors along with Don Siegal,  Howard Hawks, and William Keighley, Fuller’s films always championed the underdog and never shyed away from topics such as racism, communism, and an unglorified look at war when those were not such popular issues to be discussing in the manner  which Samuel Fuller chose to present them.

White Dog is the story of a dog that was conditioned to hate black people and viciously attacks them until an african american animal trainer steps in to try and recondition the dog. The dominant image in the film is that of the steel cage, referred to in the movie as the “arena,”  in which Paul Winfield’s character Keys fights against the white dog’s engrained racism. The “arena” not only occurs throughout the film as the center of the action but also as an allegory for the combat our society must engage in on a daily basis in order to fight racism in this country. The dog is not simply a symbol of racism in this country but also embodies the sickness and hatred that has been such a part of America’s history and it is in the “arena” that Keys seeks to recondition this white dog to treat blacks the same way he treats whites. While Keys untangles the white dog’s racist instincts, which were born out of learned fear and hatred, Kristy McNichol’s  character Julie Sawyer must come to grips with the reality that this dog has been twisted and contorted by men who hate and that the racism embodied in this dog is very alive in the United States. But Juile’s answer to the problem is to kill it right there. While she might not understand the racism that is in this dog, she wants it stamped out. Keys wants to “cure” racism by retraining the dog. With these two views, Fuller takes us in a direction that is very cynical and unforgiving, yet sadly realistic.

One of the most shocking scenes in the film is when Julie meets the owner of the dog, who has come with his two grandchildren and a box of chocolates to claim the dog. She lashes out at him for making the dog such a horrible monster but the owner is very proud of the dog being a “white dog” and threatens to go to the police if she does not give him back. It is this scene that really captures the themes of the movie best because it is an extension of the “arena” motif that encompasses all of society and how this racism is passed down from generation to generation. This also is important because it illustrates what Burl Ives character Carruthers says earlier in the scene where he is having a meal with Keys and Julie and a police officer stops in to ask for directions. This comes after the dog had murdered a black man in a church. Their guilt is palpable and this is the type of emotional scene that Fuller is best at.  After the officer leaves, Carruthers says that they can never tell anyone what they are doing because no one would understand. Society is guilty of promoting institutional racism and these beliefs are so deeply entrenched that for them to try and undo this would have great consequences.

Samuel Fuller does not flinch away from the difficulty of this subject matter or attempt to force a resolution to the problem. It is a problem that does not have a solution and though Keys and Julie make an effort to defeat the dog’s sickness, in the end it is not enough. If there is any fault in this picture, it is not the subject matter or how Fuller approaches it but in the hurried feeling of the first ten or fifteen minutes. Dialogue is dissapointingly out of synch in a scene where Julie is almost raped by an intruder in her home and collapses on the floor where she manages to call 911 and have the police come out without ever picking up the phone.  This is supposed to be a key scene where Julie’s relationship with the dog that she nursed back to health is firmly set and that makes what she discovers about the dog all that more horrifying. When you watch this movie it is very evident that this was not intended to be viewed as a horror film, even though the attempt was made to market it as such, but instead as a social commentary. It just happens that this particular social commentary comes from a director whose body of work is as rough and tumble as he was, and not the polished, “do you get it yet?” type of commentary one finds in a movie such as “Crash.” It is that rough and tumble feel that makes this film so endearing and tangible because that is often how life comes at us. It is exactly that which makes Samuel Fuller’s body of work so important to American cinema and White Dog such a powerful movie experience.

Charles Jacob; vanheck123@hotmail.com

Salo or the 120 days of Sodom(1975); Dir. Pier Palo Pasolini. Criterion Collection DVD(2008)

Format:Color, Dolby, DVD-Video, NTSC, Subtitled, Widescreen

Subtitles: English

Rating:

Number of discs: 2

Run Time: 116 minutes

 

 

I have decided to post my review of Salo before I posted the one for Mongol because it was such a disturbing experience that I felt the need to commit to writing my impressions of the film before I moved on to anything else.  Salo is not only notorious for its extremely graphic content and its lack of restraint in showing and speaking about any kind of human depravity that is imaginable but also for the circumstances surrounding the film and the fact that the director, Pier Palo Pasolini, was murdered shortly after completing the film in 1975. I would like to separate the film from some of its notoriety and examine it as a philosophical and social statement.

Salo cannot be viewed in the same fashion that one would view Hostel or any of the Saw movies, where characters are graphically tortured and murdered for the shock value and entertainment of the audience. In those movies, we are supposed to believe that there is some moral compass that has gone horribly off course and we have ended up in a nightmare of torture for torture’s sake. The makers of Saw go so far as to try and convince us that this man murders people who do not appreciate the value of life because he himself is dying and cannot stand people who squander such a precious gift. These are so called “torture porn” films and I also wish to seperate Salo from these films because the purpose and intent of Pasolini was firmly rooted in the history of fascist Italy and the rule of Benito Mussolini. Here, the moral compass has been stomped on and completely discarded.

In this sense the graphic scenes of defecation, urinating into someone’s mouth, anal sex, and the depraved stories told to the group of captives get progressively  worse and worse until they culminate in the brutal scalping, tongue removal, hanging, and burning of the child victims, all play into this philosophy and view of Italy under fascism. What Pasoliniasks us to understand is that the children rounded up by the group of government leaders and imprisoned in a castle where they are subjugated to these acts of brutality is, I think, the way that Mussolini and his government, held Italy captive and both literally and figuratively tortured the country. Each act of violence committed in this film represents a lower and lower level of depravity committed against the minds, bodies, and souls of the Italian people. Taken from the works of the Marquise De Sade, the stories of increasing depravity and violence, I think also illustrate worst aspects of human nature and Pasolini makes it all the more worse but intercutting the violence with scenes of the government officials sitting around for tea, discussing philosophy and their ideas about life. Perhaps the most disturbing scene of the film comes at the end when the government officials are doing a chorus line around the the brutually murdered bodies of the children. It is not whimsical or light hearted in an ironic way, but a revolting dance of death that really highlights the casual disposal of life.

Salo is above all a radical film from a radical and controversial director and to truly understand his films or any of his work, you must understand modern Italian history and the philosophy that Pasolini held as a communist, homosexual, atheist, and anti-fascist. If you are going to sit down and watch Salo then you must also watch The Gospel According To Matthew which is a very personal statement of reinterpreting Jesus Christ as an Italian peasant in a very realistic and stripped down style, or Mamma Roma which is the story of a struggling prostitute. Taking only one of his film such as Salo or even his poetry and novels, and looking at them in an isolated context cannot be done with such a complex director.

As a film, Salo might not be one of Pasolini’s best, but it has such a visceral impact that it has often taken its place at the top of his body of work. While watching the movie it is difficult to remind oneself that you are watching actors portray the monstrous government officials and they are not actually committing these atrocities against the captive children. The violence is pornographic but what is most disturbing is that the camera angles make you feel that you are participating in these atrocities. We are placed as if we are actually sitting in the room where all the children are abused and must listen to the graphic stories of sexual depravity from one of the women and at the end of the film we look through the binoculars with the government officials as the children are being murdered in the courtyard. You have to wonder then if Pasolini’s intent is to implicate us in the atrocities as much as those directly responsible. We, as the audience, must bear the guilt and shame of what was done to these children and by extenstion, what was done to Italy during the rule of fascism and Mussolini. Salo, coincidentally, is the name of the town where the children are captured, and where in real life, a great deal of atrocities were committed by the Mussolini government. While the Criterion Collection copy of Salo is wonderfully remastered and packaged, I am certain that I will never sit down and watch this movie again. But, for those who have never watched the film, it is a work that will challenge you more than most other films can do  and it is undeniably important. But it also demands a lot out of the viewer and I wonder if the notoriety of the film’s violence will always overshadow its purpose.

Charles Jacob; vanheck123@hotmail.com

The Haunted Strangler(1958); Dir. Robert Day. Criterion Collection DVD(2007)

I cannot say that I had very high expectations for this movie but I found myself thoroughly enjoying the story and film making despite a somewhat convoluted plot and some overeager acting. It would be easy to classify The Haunted Strangler as a B-movie horror picture and dismiss it as having a limited scope and all the trappings of its genre. However, that would be overlooking the wonderful performance that Boris Karloff gives as the social reformer/novelist James Rankin who sets out to prove the innocence of the man hanged for being The “Haymarket Strangler” twenty years ago. Karloff’s performance plays on the contrast between the polite and compassionate English gentleman and the murderous monster that literally paralyzes Rankin when he grasps the ominous surgeon’s scalpel which appears throughout the movie as a symbol of terror.

Boris Karloff makes the transition from gentleman to monster with the ease of an actor who is greatly skilled at tapping into the dark recesses of human nature while at the same time remaining sympathetic and vulnerable. What is impressive is that Karloff is able to convey this transition with virtually no makeup and you really feel like you are watching a monster emerge out of this character. There is a scene at the end of the film where Rankin is strangling his daugther Lily and he suddenly comes out of his trance like paralysis and realizes what he is doing. The pitiful look and anguish he conveys is very moving and captures the torment that Rankin feels as he is trapped between these two personas. The fact that no one wants to believe him until it is too late makes his torment all the more palpable and even early on in the film when Rankin is following the trail of the mysterious Dr. Tenent there are cues from Rankin that he might be onto something that could be a horrible truth.

Where the problems in the film seem to arise is from the unclear nature of the “Haymarket Strangler” and his origins. It is never clear whether the knife that keeps disappearing and reappearing in the film has some curse on it that makes the person holding it kill or if holding the knife triggers some psychotic response in the form of murderous impulses and paralysis. What the actual nature of the evil is never really gets defined and that makes it a little hard to keep up with and takes away from the impact of some of the scenes. There is one scene between James and his wife Barbara that reveals where James Rankin came from but this comes so late in the film that rather than moving the story along, it seems to confuse it and leaves the viewer even more unclear of what the “Haymarket Strangler” is supposed to be. It is never really clear if the murderer is supposed to be a split personality or a force of supernatural possession or some strange mixture of the two but it does feel like the film makers can’t decide which it is and this makes things a little muddled as the story plays out.

The way the violence plays out is also an interesting aspect of the film. While it is not overly graphic it is very unsettling the way the camera alternates between close-ups of the victim being strangled and the contorted face of the murderer. These scenes use the point of view shots very effectively to heighten the atmosphere of the killings. Some of the best scenes are those where Rankin lurks in the shadows watching his victim, as he does when he is at the dancehall. The dark presence and heavy breathing establish an unsettling apprehension of what is to come even when it is predictable. Some of the predictability comes from the fact that the story seems to take a lot of cues from the Jack The Ripper story.

Since it is a Criterion disc, there are some great features that are worth watching along with the movie. One is a series of taped interviews with cast and crew of the film talking about the experience of working on the movie and about working with Boris Karloff. It is very interesting to hear about Karloff and how kind of a man he was. Another feature of interest are original radio spots for The Haunted Strangler along with the double billing of the film with Fiend Without A Face. A few of the radio spots feature Boris Karloff and it is really interesting to listen to since they don’t do that type of promotion anymore. From a historical point of view, the features are really very interesting. Being an early example of a slasher film makes this movie very interesting but it also avoids being just a curiosity, mostly due to Boris Karloff’s performance.  

Well, this is not related to the movie at all but here is a link to Stan Lee reading Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.” Something fun for halloween!

http://www.quickstopentertainment.com/2008/10/30/halloween-havoc-2008-stan-lee-presents-the-raven/

Up Next The October Horror Movie gets a little funky with William Marshall and Pam Grier in 1973’s Scream, Blacula, Scream!

Charles;

vanheck123@hotmail.com