Sunday, October 17, 2010

Killer Animal Blogathon Entry / Criterion Watching #2: White Dog

The overwhelming majority of titles that could be classified as “killer animal movies” fall squarely under the heading of B-movies. After all, for most people the phrase “killer animals” conjures up images of swarms of insects, jungle cats, or even giant bunnies on the loose, laying waste to human civilization. Hell, even the A-list movies in the lot- Jaws, most obviously- are still mostly about scaring the pants off the audience. I’m guessing that when Steve announced this Killer Animal Blogathon, his primary goal was to spotlight some of the genre’s more entertaining classics.

My selection is not one of these movies. Steve left the guidelines for the blogathon fairly vague, so while many people no doubt picked fun creature features, I decided to go the opposite direction. Not that there are many “serious” killer animal movies out there- in fact, I could only think of one. Then again, when many people hear about Sam Fuller’s White Dog, they mistake it for an especially sleazy entry into the genre. After all, it’s about a dog who kills African-Americans, so it’s got to be KKKujo, right? It was this same misconception that got White Dog withheld from American audiences by Paramount in the first place, and since then it’s gotten a bad reputation mitigated only slightly by the 2008 Criterion DVD release of the film. But then as now, White Dog is a major work by one of American cinema’s most incendiary talents, and it deserves to be taken seriously.

First, let’s just delve into that premise. Yes, this is a movie about a big white German shepherd that attacks and kills African-Americans, or as they still called them back in the early 1980s, “blacks.” But this white dog isn’t your garden variety killer animal. Unlike many killer-animal movies, White Dog never turns its titular character into a plot device who only turns up to maul someone then fade into the shadows until another victim comes calling. If anything, he’s the central character in the movie, around which all of the others revolve. Even when the dog is offscreen, he’s still the focus of the human characters’ lives and relationships with each other. At numerous points during the film, Fuller even adopts the dog’s point of view, in order to show us how he sees the world and to gauge the other characters through his eyes. In other movies, these shots might feel gimmicky, but here they enhance the film’s effect.

Likewise, Fuller allows us to gain further sympathy for the dog by focusing not on people who are against him but rather those who are most concerned. First, there’s Julie (former child star Kristy McNichol), a struggling actress who accidentally injures him with her car and takes him in before discovering his secret. Then there’s Carruthers (Burl Ives), who owns a company that provides animal performers for Hollywood. Finally, there’s Keys (Paul Winfield), the wild animal wrangler who takes it upon himself to re-educate the dog. All of these people care about the dog’s well-being in some way- Julie because she’s grown to love him, Carruthers because of his feelings about animals in general, and Keys (who is African-American) because he hates what has made the dog into a killer.

Julie is ostensibly the movie’s main human character, but Fuller is clearly most interested in and sympathetic to Keys. More than the other two, Keys recognizes that the dog is not to blame for his impulses to kill African-Americans. He speaks of the history of “white dogs”- how they were once used to track down freed slaves, then after the Civil War, escaped black prisoners (“but what about white prisoners?” Julie wisely asks). This dog’s urges are born from careful programming- early exposure to desperate African-Americans who have been paid by white racists to mistreat the animals- and based solely in fear and conditioned hatred. Keys knows that if he is to make the dog well again, he first needs to make the dog learn to trust him and his skin color. The film’s central scenes show Keys alone with the dog, allowing the dog to attack him (under pads, of course), never once retaliating. Once the dog begins to learn that Keys won’t hurt him, Keys begins to feed the dog in order to gain his trust.

Of course, it’s a long and difficult process toward rehabilitation, and at one point the dog escapes and kills an African-American man (Fuller removes any suspicion that White Dog is an exploitation film by avoiding showing both the killing and the aftermath). But even after this happens and even Julie and Carruthers want to put the dog down, Keys wants to cure the dog more than ever, motivated to score a victory against racism. In Romain Gary’s original novel, Keys acted on a need for revenge and re-trained the dog to kill whites, but Fuller wisely deviates from this and makes Keys’ motives more enlightened. The dog, by nature, is ruled by its programming, but humans are able to choose their actions.

And it’s this idea that makes White Dog more than just a killer-animal movie. By presenting us with an animal that isn’t governed by thought, Fuller asks us to consider our own deep-seated urges. After all, we like to think of ourselves as rational creatures, but much of how people self-identify is based in personal taste and bias. Some of these biases are natural and healthy, like what foods we like. Others are mostly harmless, such as the crazy-ass belief floating around nowadays that skinny waifs are somehow more attractive than curvy women (really, guys? Really?). But sometimes, these beliefs- be they religious, political, or social- can turn into a wedge and cause rifts in our society.

For example, look at the way the word “Muslim” is treated by many Americans as a dirty word. Of course, many of these same Americans know little about Islam other than that they bombed the World Trade Center and hate women and America, but that’s enough for them to be suspicious of and hateful to over one billion people worldwide. It doesn’t help that we’ve been bombarded by decades of nefarious big-screen terrorists and images of bearded, glowering men living in caves on the nightly news. But ultimately, it’s up to us whether we want to accept our often secondhand prejudices or come to terms with life’s complexities by using facts and reason. It’s only when we learn to consider their own thoughts and actions instead of accepting them at face value that we can move past our more hateful natures. And that’s what Fuller is saying with this movie- that if you can’t learn to see the world in anything more than simple black and white, you don’t have any more sense than… well, a white dog.

Footnote: I didn’t have room in my review for this, but after watching White Dog I couldn’t help but think back on my own experiences with racism, and more specifically my first experience with it. Back in grade school, I was looking at our class’ globe with one of my classmates when we started pointing out different countries. After a while, he spun the globe around to Africa, pointed at “Niger,” and said… I’m sure you can guess. After he did this, he started chuckling to itself, said it again, and looked at me like I was supposed to laugh too.

That evening, I asked my parents what the word meant, and I was sort of stunned at what they told me. By this time, I knew about different countries and races, but I couldn’t fathom the idea of prejudice based on skin color. For one thing, one of my best friends at the time was African-American, so the idea of looking down on someone for being darker-skinned sounded strange to me. Learning about racism at that age was a rude awakening for me. In fact, I’d say I grew up more that day than on any other day of my life, even more than when I learned the truth about Santa Claus. At least when I found out about Santa Claus, the explanation seemed logical. Whereas racism still doesn’t quite compute for me.

Oh, and I still can’t read the country name “Niger” without thinking of that jackass kid. Thanks a lot, buddy.

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