Archive for October, 2010

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“Shelve the film without letting anyone see it?  I was dumbfounded.  It’s difficult to express the hurt of having a finished film locked away in a vault, never to be screened for an audience.  It’s like someone putting your newborn baby in goddamned maximum-security prison forever.” – Samuel Fuller on his film White Dog being shelved by Paramount

Made in 1982, it was not until the 2008 Criterion DVD that White Dog got an official release in the United States.  While White Dog was being made, rumors were running rampant through Hollywood that Paramount had a racist film on their hands.  The NAACP (who had not seen the film) said, “We would prefer this subject not be dealt with.  It gives people ideas and it’s dangerous.”  Rather than run the risk of boycotts they shelved the picture.  As Fuller writes in his book A Third Face, “Releasing White Dog would risk an ugly controversy that wasn’t worth the film’s profit potential.”  The shelving of this film and the butchering of his previous film, The Big Red One, was enough to send Fuller and his family packing for Europe.  He never made another film in the U.S.

White Dog was dedicated to Romain Gary.  The film is based on the excerpt of Gary’s novel, White Dog, that ran in LIFE Magazine on October 9, 1970.  The excerpt, based on actual events, tells the story of when Gary and his then-wife, actress Jean Seberg, took in a stray German shepherd who they later discovered had been trained to attack black people on sight – a “white dog”.

The rights to the story were optioned in the mid-1970’s and the project went through a number of potential directors (including Roman Polanski whose problems with the law made him suddenly unavailable).  Eventually, in anticipation of a writers strike, the project was pushed forward and Samuel Fuller was chosen to direct.  The final version of the screenplay was written by Fuller and Curtis Hanson (who would go on to write L.A. Confidential among other things).  A classic score was delievered by Ennio Morricone.

The beginning of the film centers on Julie (Kristy McNichol) as an actress who hits a white German shepherd with her car.  She takes the dog to the vet gets the dog patched up and ends up taking the dog home.  Julie attempts to find the dog’s owners but to no avail.  She becomes attached to the dog and makes it part of her life.  Then, unexpectedly, the dog attacks several people.  Julie does not want to destroy the dog and instead decides to take him to a trainer to get him reconditioned.  It is at “Noah’s Ark”, a training center for wild animals for films and television, that she learns that the dog has been trained to not just as an attack dog but specifically to attack black people.  Carruthers (Burl Ives) tells her that “No one can unlearn a dog…nothing I can do for an attack dog gone bad.  But Carruthers’ partner Keys (Paul Winfield) takes an interest and vows to cure Julie’s “White Dog”.  The first part of the film is very B-film – there is really nothing high concept about it.  Paramount president Michael Eisner wanted a “Jaws on paws” exploitation film.

Eisner got what he wanted from the first third of the film – but the film becomes something else when Keys begins his work with “white dog.”  The film becomes an allegory about racism in the United States as Keys tries to unlearn the dog.  Keys, a dog trainer by profession, was “suckled” on anthropology (his mother was anthropology professor and his father, an anthropological writer).   The film keys up two questions in one — Can this dog (and America) be retrained?  To give up on the dog is to admit that racism wins.  When one of the characters wants the white dog shot after a particularly vicious attack (he kills a man), Keys comes back with, “You can’t experiment on a dead dog.”  We witness  Keys’ battle not only with “white dog” and his own demons about race, but with the core root of racism itself.

But one can’t forget that this is an animal movie.  Much of the film is shot/told from the dogs perspective.  And, when you have a movie about dogs, you need real dogs to do things on camera.  This was accomplished by dog trainer Karl Lewis Miller (the man behind Cujo, the Beethoven series, the first two Babe films).  “We train dogs to look untrained.”  Miller used a technique  similar to intelligent disobedience which is used in the training of guide dogs for the blind.  There were five dogs in total – two star dogs and three stunt dogs.  The stunt dogs were former attack dogs and never acted with humans.

There are other Samuel Fuller films I prefer to sit down and watch more than White Dog.  Criterion is re-releasing two of Fuller’s best known works in January – Shock Corridor & The Naked Kiss.  With White Dog, you don’t t watch it so much as experience it.  One would hope things have changed since 1982 (or since 1968, when the events of the book took place) but in a country with at least 932 active hate groups, there are still lessons to be learned here.  And for a sign that the questions dealt with in the film are still on the table today – see this 2003 Slate Magazine article called Can a Dog Be Racist? – it’s worth a read.
The words most often used to describe Fuller’s style would be blunt, unflinching, and ballsy – it was a style born in the trenches.  “Filmed in Headlines,” White Dog is an anti-racist art film filtered through the lens of pulp fiction.

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“There are many ways of becoming a professional beauty, not to say a whore, and one of them is to write noble books, to take inspired, humanistic positions on all the right causes, keep signing those manifestos.  You become a professional of other people’s suffering…” – White Dog

There is just so much out there.  Before preparing to write on the film White Dog, I was not aware that it was based on a book by renowned French author Romain Gary.  I was not even aware of the existence of Gary.  He was a decorated pilot for the Free French Forces during World War II.  He was also a diplomat, filmmaker, and an author.  He is the only author to have won the Prix Goncourt twice (once was under the pseudonym Emile Ajar).  The Goncourt Prize is a prize in French literature, given by the académie Goncourt to the author of “the best and most imaginative prose work of the year”.  He was twice married.  First, in 1944, to British writer and Vogue editor Lesley Blanch and then to actress Jean Seberg (Breathless) in 1962, whom he would also later divorce.  Many of Gary’s thoughts on his second wife, and their relationship, are reflected in White Dog.

“When a movie star uses publicity that surrounds her name to publicize social injustices she deeply cares about, all she really gets is publicity for herself.  And there will always be suspicion that the movie star is using blacks not for the blacks’ sake, and not for her own publicity either, but as a means of breaking away from the label of emptiness and artificiality that is stuck on her.  Indeed, that she uses the ’cause’, Vietnam, the blacks, for her own purpose, to show how ‘human’ she is, to reach a human being’s status… In other words, no matter how sincerely you try, you only seem to be trying to achieve that actor’s ‘sincerity’, and whatever you do for them always looks like something you’re doing for yourself…” – White Dog

Seberg was an American actress from a small town in Iowa.  She was discovered in a nation wide talent search to find someone to play Joan in Otto Preminger’s film of Joan of Arc.  Her only acting experience at the time had been school plays – she was just 17-years-old and when the film was released the critics savaged her.  They were no kinder to her next several films after which she retreated to France.  It was here that she was discovered yet again, this time by the filmmakers of the French New Wave.  Jean Seberg as icon was born.  When she returned to the United States, she returned a star.  She also returned politicized.

“A house is burning, but no one is taking notice.  Yet only fifty yards further on a crowd is watching houses burn on a television screen in a store window…they prefer to watch it on the little screen: it has been specially chosen for them to see, so it’s got to be a better show than the house burning near them.  ‘Media’ culture at its apogee.” – White Dog

“We live in a time of extraordinary psychic contagion… with mass media it’s become instantaneous… Someone should make a study of the traumatizing effect caused by mass media, which dwells on and lives by drama, and creates in turn psychological need, almost an addiction, for dramatic events, until the whole thing keep snowballing, on and on…” – White Dog

Photo of aftermath of riots in Washington, DC 1968 by Burt Glinn.

“With the young, the need for violence is often a creative urge, and if you haven’t got a way to express it artistically…” – White Dog

Whenever this book is discussed, it is only to talk about the part of the book used for the movie.  The couple finds a German Shepherd and through a series of events they find out that the dog has been trained attack black people.  Instead of putting the dog down, they take it to an animal trainer (who happens to be black) to try and get it reconditioned.  But there’s much more to White Dog, the book.  Gary writes of his life in the late sixties – a life set against the backdrop of the Black Panthers, the MLK assassination (and subsequent DC Riots) and the 1968 French Student Riots in Paris.  Gary is trying to reconcile his intellectual thoughts in a black-and-white world, when his thoughts are much more gray. 

White Dog is about how a couple coped with each other while trying to find their place in the world.  To what extent the book is a fictionalized account of events is unclear.  What is clear, however, is that Seberg and Gary’s activities got the attention of the FBI.  Because of her involvement with the Black Panther Party, Seberg became the target of the Bureau’s COINTELPRO program.  You can see actual copies of the FBI documents HERE.  In 1979, Seberg committed suicide.  According to Gary and Seberg’s son Diego, she was driven to the act by the FBI.  A year after Seberg’s death, Gary shot himself in the head, leaving a note saying only, “Nothing to do with Jean”.

“Humor is a passive form of terrorism, of resistance, and of pseudo-aggression that has less to do with changing the world than with mental hygiene.  It is self-therapy… It is so satisfying that it almost removes the need for action…It is a comfortable rocking-chair terrorism – and I couldn’t survive without it.” – White Dog

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To buy a copy of White Dog – click the cover

“This story is based on factual events and real people.”  – Romain Gary

Author Romain Gary pictured with his wife, actress Jean Seberg.  Both are subjects of his book Chien Blanc,whose English translation is titled White Dog.

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 Sweet Jasmine (pictured left, on the Sports Illustrated cover) has those pound puppy eyes that make dog lovers melt.  No wonder she remained the cover girl on Jim Gorant’s book,  The Lost Dogs: Michael Vick’s Dogs and Their Tale of Rescue and Redemption.  (click the SI cover to read the original article). 

The hidden world of dogfighting became front page news in April 2007 when Michael Vick (at the time one of the NFL’s highest profile and highest payed players), along with three other people, came under suspicion for allegedly running a dog fighting ring.  All four were subsequently indicted in July 2007.  After a series of public denials, Vick pleaded guilty in August of 2007.  We know what happened next (Vick was suspended by NFL, sentenced to almost two years in prison, he served his time, was reinstated by NFL and then signed by the Philadelphia Eagles).  But what happened to Michael Vick’s dogs?  That is the tale Jim Gorant tells.

“Our people have evaluated these dogs, and they’re some of the most viciously trained dogs in the country…” – Wayne Pacelle (President & CEO of Humane Society – HSUS)

“He’s not rotten anymore so we can’t call him Jonny Rotten.  Maybe he should be called Johnny Justice instead, since he got his justice from Vick and he could get justice for pitbulls.” Tim Racer of BAD RAP (Johnny Justice, pictured here with his foster parent Cris)

This book is not about Vick (if you are interested in Vick’s side of the story click here to watch his appearance on 60 Minutes).  It is not a discussion on the world of dog fighting or the culture surrounding this blood “sport”.  This is about Vick’s dogs.  The book is divided into three parts – Rescue, Reclamation, and Redemption.  The Rescue section was the most compelling.  Gorant takes us through the dogs’ rescue from a number of perspectives.  For example,  Gorant paints a vivid portrait of Jim Knorr, the Dept. of Agriculture investigator who played an integral role in the investigation of Vick’s Bad Newz Kennels.  Knorr was also involved with the effort to save Vick’s dogs.  While I enjoyed the Gorant’s portrayal of Knorr, I was not a fan of the parts of the story that anthropomorphised the dogs.  It was unnecessary and just got in the way of the story.  I suspect that someone who harbors prejudice against pit bulls is not going to pick this book up and read it.  The rest of us already empathize with the dogs – we don’t need to read about what they were “thinking.”

The rest of the book is padded out with details about the dogs’ reclamation and redemption.  The first time through one these “reclamation and redemption” story is interesting (a true nurture over nature story), even the second one tugs on the heart strings, but as we are told about dog after dog, foster home after foster home, it’s just repetitive.  

As an owner of a rescued dog, I am fully on board with the book’s message.  I understand that when the article first appeared  it generated more responses than any other story in the magazine that year.  One of the issues that Gorant (pictured above with one of the rescued dogs) did not cover in the article was “Why does it matter, they’re just dogs” – something that he initially thought was a given.  So everything he does in the book makes sense.  I get it.  But in the end, for me, I would have been just fine only reading the Sports Illustrated original.  Sometimes less is more.

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