(Editor’s Note: White Dog is currently available on Netflix streaming!)
Welcome back to the conversation. This week management has decided that the spoilers included do touch upon many of the major plot points of the movie, including the ending. Management has no idea if this will lessen your enjoyment of the film, but you have been warned. If you decide to abandon reading now, head down to the last line of the post to see your next film assignment. And with that . . .
So, I take it by your tweet last night…
…that you watched White Dog. (and also saw the Spurs lose. So sad to see them go from tops in the league during the regular season to this.)
I reckon you also know my reasons for suggesting White Dog were twofold: first, because of the fleeting reference to Sam Fuller in our discussion of Army of Shadows, and second, like Army of Shadows, White Dog went unseen in America for years before getting a theatrical release, though for entirely different reasons. Paramount thought the film too controversial to release, fearing it may fan racial flames. The 1982 movie sat on the shelf for a decade before finally getting a release in some major markets. It’s hard to know what Paramount was thinking, as the film pretty clearly condemns racism. But let’s hear your opening thoughts.
It’s always fascinating when a corporation succumbs to the pressure of protesters. As you said, the film completely condemns racism. I can see some people complaining about the imagery of a white dog attacking black people. Maybe it was just too much. However, Paramount is the studio that released Friday the 13th, a movie that was much more graphically violent towards young women. My completely uneducated guess would be it was all about money. They looked at White Dog and knew it wouldn’t make a ton at the box office and there were no real stars with clout in it, so it was an easier decision to shelve it. I wonder what the reaction would have been if they thought they had a potential hit on their hands.
So, now that it’s been dusted off and can been seen, was it worth my time. Before saying yes or no (ok fine, no), let’s talk about expectations. I approach this game the same way as you, trying to know as little about a film going in as I can. Ideally, I’d like to know only the title. I knew a little about this film, my impression that it was a B movie that had a little bit more to it. And yes, that was what it tried to be, but there was one major problem in it for me: what Kristy MacNichol represents.
Kristy MacNichol, was one of those darlings of the late 70’s/early 80’s. When I see her, I think TV movie or ABC Afterschool Special. There’s always a moral to be learned when Kristy is around. I kept expecting her to be kidnapped while hitchhiking and then have Burl Ives lecture her about the dangers of hitchhiking. Instead of hitchhiking, Burl pontificates about the dangers of racist dogs.
I’ll take a breath here and let you tell me how you had Kristy’s poster on your wall as a kid.
A ha ha ha ha haaaa!!! No, I was never a young Kristy MacNichol fan, though I did enjoy watching Empty Nest on NBC back in the day. I thought she was all right in this movie; when it comes to acting, I was much more distracted by the laughably bad performance by the guy playing her boyfriend (editor note: the guy from CBS’s Simon & Simon), and a couple of the other minor roles.
I placed myself in the “B movie” frame of mind when I watched this one last summer, but there are several striking scenes and elements that keep the movie swimming about in my head. There’s Ennio Morricone’s mournful score, for starters. Not his best work, but it kind of elevates the movie a bit. Think of the otherwise silent scene of Paul Winfield walking into the church to find what must have been a horrible sight. The photography of the dog and its attacks was also shot well.
There are two standout scenes that I loved in the movie. First of all, shortly after the death of that black man in the church, Julie (MacNichol), who had been caring for and defending the white dog, demands that the animal trainer Keys (Winfield) kill the dog “before he attacks more black people.” Keys responds by saying, “oh, so now you’ve joined the club!” I interpreted the scene as being a metaphor for the way racism is condemned by most, yet few are activists in the fight against racism. Then there’s the memorable penultimate scene, when Julie (MacNichol) finally meets the owner of the stray dog she’s been sheltering, complete with his (presumably) adorable racist grandchildren. It drove home the point that racism is something taught at home, and did so in a more elegant way than Maury Povich dragging idiot Klan members and their hooded children onto a stage.
I thought Winfield really sold the part. The dialogue itself on the page is pretty crazy, but he was believable as a man truly intent on trying to reverse the teachings of racism – albeit in dogs. Like I said, metaphor.
Apparently, it wasn’t public protest, but fears of public protest that kept the movie on the shelf for so long. Paramount sent the NAACP to the set to monitor the production, and Fuller resented Paramount’s actions.
Now you’re the music expert here, but I had a completely different reaction to the score. I thought it leant to the more heavy handed moments of the film. It’s bad enough having to sit through scenes of exposition (my favorite was when Burl Ives proclaimed, “That’s not an attack dog you have, that’s a white dog” followed by three minutes of explanation of what a white dog is, as if watching the dog attack three people wasn’t enough of a clue). The score was so overly sentimental when we’re watching the dog go off and be “a dog”, essentially hitting me over the head with thoughts like, “gee, isn’t he cute, he’s following a bunny.”
Dropping the snark for a second, there were a couple of things I did like. Unfortunately, they didn’t take them far enough. First, there was a shot early from the dog’s perspective as he looked up at Kristy. I liked that, thought we were going to treat the dog as a character. However, I think that was one of the only dog POV shots in the movie.
There was also a metaphor that I liked in there. However, I think it was a larger exploration of redemption and rehabilitation than just the racial bit. Kristy acted like the parent of a convicted criminal. She believed he could be saved. Of course, if the film is a death penalty debate, I guess the writer’s firmly come down on the side of Texas justice.
I got excited by the scene when the kindly old gentleman and kids showed up at Kristy’s door to retrieve the dog. That was the big underlying question throughout the movie, “who could do such a thing?” Again, though, I was let down when they didn’t do anything with it. There was no justice, there was no real showdown. That was the story I wanted. Instead I had a confrontation with the emotional intensity of a parking lot fender bender. I really didn’t care about the dog. You know why? Because it’s a dog, pure instinct. I cared more about why people would do something like this.
Alright, deep breath, and final thoughts. The tone was way too uneven for me and the attack scenes really felt gratuitous, like they were out of a horror movie (wait am I arguing for its suppression? No, it would have been gratuitous if the film was “just” about an attack dog). In addition, not only were the characters stubbornly ridiculous, they were downright immoral. They know the dog has killed, but they still want to try and “fix” it.
And with that I became the film geek I always swore I wouldn’t, overanalyzing a movie that . . . . oh hell, I give up. At least I got to see Paul Winfield wrestle a lion.
How would treating the dog as a character make the movie better? I’m curious. The dog is a dog, like you said. But it is a vessel for the message of the film.
I don’t think the point of the film was to explain why racism exists, but to show how it happens, and how it exists in plain sight. Pointing out the shots of the cuddly white dog with Kristy McNichol bolsters this argument.
White Dog pretty clearly condemns racism, on that we agree. I think it’s ultimately a pretty pessimistic film about racism, too, because it shows:
Racism can exist in those closest to us, even in otherwise beautiful creatures.
Racism is taught, and once taught, it cannot be completely unlearned.
Shooting the dog at the end wasn’t meant to be some form of justice; it was the only way out, as the dog would have otherwise mauled Burl Ives. But there’s no curing the white dog. And no amount of reconditioning will completely reverse our prejudices, which were foisted upon us by family and society when we were all just pups.
I’m not sure using the dog as a character would have made it better, but it would have been something I’ve never seen before. Maybe I’m a junkie and I only get excited by a new experience.
I don’t think there’s any more to be said. We agree on the worthwhile message. I just don’t like dog movies.
So animal lover, ever see Q: The Winged Serpent?
And with that, join Nathan and Dave in two weeks for a discussion of Q? Why Q? You’ll just have to wait to find out.