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David F. Walker
Monthly: May 2018

BadAzz MoFo’s Film Review Archive – WHITE DOG

If there was ever a film I thought would never see the light of day on home video, it would have to be director Sam Fuller’s White Dog. Regarded by many as one of the most controversial films of all time—unwarranted hyperbolic exaggeration if there ever was any—White Dog languished, practically unreleased since its production in 1982. Since that time it had a relatively insignificant theatrical release overseas, while never enjoying a legitimate home video release in the United States until 2008, when it was released as part of the Criterion Collection. For more than two decades it had become something of an urban myth, creating around it a sense of cinematic taboo usually reserved for films like Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust or Michael and Roberta Findlay’s Snuff.

Kristy McNichol co-stars as Julie Sawyer, a struggling actress who accidentally hits a white German shepherd with her car. Rather than leaving the dog to die on the side of the road, Julie takes him to a veterinarian, who gives the dog a clean bill of health and sends him home with the actress. Julie posts signs all over, hoping it will help her locate the dog’s owner, but the more time she spends with the dog, the more attached she becomes. By the time a rapist breaks into her apartment and the dog saves her life, it’s pretty much a given that he is there to stay. But when the dog viciously attacks Julie’s actress friend (Lynne Moody), who happens to be black, she suspects that there may be something wrong with the animal. Unbeknownst to her is that the dog has already attacked (and killed) a black person. Roland (Jameson Parker), Julie’s boyfriend, convinces her that the dog must be some sort of attack animal, and therefore dangerous. But rather than send the dog to the pound, Julie decides to try and have him retrained, so he won’t have the killer instinct.

Julie believes that there’s nothing wrong with the dog that can’t be fixed, and takes him to trainer Carruthers (Burl Ives), who warns her that an attack dog is a four-legged time bomb waiting to explode. But when the dog viciously attacks fellow trainer Joe (Bob Minor), who happens to be black, Caruthers realizes there is more to this dog than meets the eyes. This dog is a white dog—a dog trained by a white person to attack and kill black people. Enter Carruthers’ business partner, Keys (Paul Winfield), a super badass animal trainer who wrestles lions like it ain’t no thing. Keys becomes obsessed with the white dog, and is determined to break it of its racism, diligently training it to see past its deadly hatred for people with black skin. But when the dog manages to escape from its cage, and kills another black person, it is up in the air if he can be rehabilitated. With the guilt of the death hanging over him, Keys becomes even more determined to cure the dog.

At the time of its release, because of the nature of the film, White Dog was mistaken by some for being a pro-racism story, and as a result people reacted to the film as if it were preaching hate. The very notion that White Dog is a racist film is, however, completely ridiculous, especially given Fuller’s earlier films like Shock Corridor and Crimson Kimono, which aggressively attacked racist thinking. White Dog is as much of a condemnation of racism as anything else Fuller has done, but it suffered from being misunderstood during its initial release, and as a result languished in obscurity.

An accomplished journalist and outspoken director whose films often sparked controversy and debate, Fuller was never afraid to push the envelope with his movies. Already an established writer, Fuller’s directorial debut with 1949’s I Shot Jesse James established him as a talented force to reckoned with, a reputation that continued through to 1964’s The Naked Kiss. Fuller’s direction became more sporadic and less frequent between the mid 1960s through the 1970s, with 1980’s The Big Red One marking an artistic return to form. Fuller followed up with White Dog, based on a nonfiction book by Romain Gary.

As originally envisioned by Paramount, White Dog was to be little more than an exploitation horror film—a sort of canine version of Jaws. Fuller was brought on to the film after several other directors had already been attached, most notably, Roman Polanski. Under the direction of Fuller, however, with a script co-written by Curtis Hanson, White Dog evolved into something more than a cheap exploitation film. True to the style of his past work, Fuller used the film as a vehicle to explore subject matter other filmmakers were often afraid to approach, in a way that was as hard hitting as it was unflinching. In doing so, Fuller created a film that was a bold examination of racism, and the brutality that it manifests.

White Dog is not Fuller’s best work, and it is uneven at times. Jameson Parker as Julie’s boyfriend disappears at one point in the movie, never to return, and even Julie goes from being a central character to a throwaway supporting personality that has little to offer the second and third acts of the film. The central flaw of the film’s shifting main characters is not as problematic as it could be in any other movie, simply because Paul Winfield’s animal trainer is far more compelling than McNichol’s struggling actress. Winfield is cast as a strange mix of mad scientist and Captain Ahab, out to destroy a terrible monster. But what makes the character interesting, is that Keys views the dog as more of a victim, with the racist training that turned it into a killer as the monster. Although handled at times with ham-fisted dialog and direction, this train of thought is what makes White Dog brilliant. Under the subversive guidance of Fuller, the movie becomes less about a dog trained to kill black people, and instead becomes an exploration of the societal ill of racism; which is a disease that infects everything, even something as innocent as a dog.

There are other problems that surface throughout White Dog, including a script that at times is just plain silly and overwrought. And Fuller’s direction at times makes it difficult to tell exactly what he’s going for. There are sequences that have the feel of the sort of horror thriller Paramount originally wanted, and these scenes throw a bit of a wrench into the rest of Fuller’s artistic vision. And while all of the problems to be found in White Dog are enough to diminish any other film, they can’t hold back Fuller or keep the film from being a great bit of cinema. With the exception of maybe Larry Cohen, there is probably no other director other than Sam Fuller with the balls, talent or ability to infuse profound social commentary where you least expect it, making this film work in the way that it works. Had the movie been made six or seven years earlier, during the blaxploitation era, it would have fit in perfectly with the seemingly radical race politics that was found in many films. But coming in the 1980s, when Hollywood had retreated back into a more conservative approach to dealing with race, it was pretty much doomed.

Despite its noticeable flaws, White Dog is a solid film that serves as a great showcase for a director who was not afraid to take chances. Fuller was 70 years-old when he made White Dog, and could hardly be considered in his prime. Yet he still made a film better and more provocative than most filmmakers before or since could have gotten away with. And for that reason alone, White Dog is worth watching and studying.

T-Shirt Confidential #4

Some people believe you can tell a lot about a person by the shoes they wear. I believe you can tell more about a person by the t-shirts they have worn. This is the story of my life, as told by the t-shirts I have worn.

As with most of the shirts featured in T-Shirt Confidential, it’s pretty obvious that I’m not actually wearing this shirt. In chronicling my life through the t-shirts I have worn, the one hard truth that I have to face is that I have put on a lot of weight over the years. Many of the shirts I own, no longer fit. Don’t get me wrong, I can still put this one on, but it is with the utmost shame and disgust that I must admit how portly I have become over the years, and to see me rocking this bad boy is nothing short of just plain sad.

I got a lot of wear out of this shirt over the years. It was given to me by two of my best friends—Ron and Kevin—back in the summer of 1986, after we all graduated high school. The Meat Puppets were playing in town with two local bands (I think the other two bands were the Hellcows and Napalm Beach) at the Pine Street Theater. I had never been to a punk show, and Kevin and Ron dragged me out for this event—a sort of going away party for me, as I was soon heading off to New Jersey for college. What’s funny is that I have no memories of any of the bands, which is sad because I was neither drunk nor stoned. I did catch some of the first two bands, but by the time the Meat Puppets took the stage I was in the parking lot trying to make time with some chick whose name I can’t remember. All I remember about her is she had a tattoo of a spider, so over the years she has simply become known as Spider Chick.  All of this went down more than thirty years ago. A few weeks after that show I was off to New Jersey.

Me back in 1986, much younger, and not nearly as fat.

I wore this shirt a lot in the summer of 1986. Maybe it was because it reminded me of my friends back home. People would walk up to me and say, “I love the Meat Puppets,” and I would respond, “Yeah, they’re great.” The truth is that not only did I not see the show that night; I don’t believe I’ve ever even heard a single song by them.

Movie Poster of the Week – FIVE FOR HELL

The poster for Italian director Gianfranco Parolini’s Five For Hell is the embodiment of what Movie Poster of the Week is all about.  This is a terrible movie. I mean craptacular to the ultimate depths of crapitude. But the poster is awesome (it is the Italian version). Great movie posters make you want to see garbage like Five For Hell, even though the poster is the only thing worth looking at.

BadAzz MoFo’s Spaghetti Western Archive – THE GREAT SILENCE

French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant stepped into the title role of what is considered by some to be the greatest spaghetti western of all time, Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence (a.k.a The Grand Silence). Trintignant stars as Silence, your typical spaghetti western avenger, only this time with a twist—his vocal chords have been cut out (hence the name Silence—get it?).

The action takes place in and around a bleak, snow covered mountain town that happens to be the hunting ground for a gang of sinister bounty hunters lead by Tigero—or Loco, depending on which version you see—played to psychotic perfection by Klaus “I had sex with my mother” Kinski. These “officers of the law” prey on the outlaws that live in the surrounding region, setting up a clear role reversal that totally subverts the tradition western archetypes of good guys and bad guys. Silence joins sides with the outlaws to protect them from the merciless bounty hunters. But since the outlaws are technically the criminals, and the murderous bounty hunters are technically the law, there seems to be little hope in this brutal deconstruction of traditional storytelling conventions.

Jean-Louis Trintignant as Silence.

The Great Silence is one of only a select few spaghetti westerns that I have watched multiple times, obsessively studying and analyzing it. Over the years, I have begun to see that this is in fact the best film directed by a man responsible for some of the greatest movies in the spaghetti western genre. Django and Compañeros are certainly classics in their own right, but The Great Silence surpasses those films on many levels, just as it surpasses pretty much every film within the genre—except for maybe Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. That said, the film is not an easy pill for some people to swallow. The first time I watched The Great Silence it left me a feeling somewhere between depressed-as-hell, and sick-to-my-stomach. Corbucci pulls no punches with this one, and he delivers those punches full-force with his cynical view of the world.

The Great Silence does much more than turn the genre on its head, replacing the typical dusty, desert locations of so many other spaghettis with a snow-covered wasteland, or literally silencing his hero (who represents the oppressed masses with no voice or power). No, The Great Silence is a decimation of all the sacred conventions of traditional westerns, and Eurocentric folklore with its notions of good and evil, seemingly inspired by the likes of Arthur Penn’s convention-defying Bonnie and Clyde. And even then, there is more to the film. This is, more than anything, an attack on a society that is so corrupt that the keepers of law and order are the villains. Corbucci’s Marxist-esque message is quite simple: the law serves only to protect the rich and powerful—the bourgeois class of morally corrupt elitist. If you are part of the Proletariat—the poor and disenfranchised—justice and equality are beyond your grasp; and you are likely to become a victim of the system designed to “protect and serve.” This message results in one of the most depressing and politically profound endings in film history.

SPOILER ALERT: The Great Silence ends on an incredibly grim note as the “good guys” gun down the hero, killing off any true sense of hope for the notion of justice.

Read this review and others in BadAzz MoFo’s Book of SPAGHETTI WESTERNS.

T-Shirt Confidential #3

Some people believe you can tell a lot about a person by the shoes they wear. I believe you can tell more about a person by the t-shirts they have worn. This is the story of my life, as told by the t-shirts I have worn.

Talk about bringing back memories. This is one of several different shirts for a band called Drunk at Abi’s, which was pretty big in Portland during the late 1980s and early 1990s. I was in my early 20s back in those days, and while it sounds like a cliché to say it, I don’t think there was ever a more vibrant time in the Portland music scene. There was a ton of buzz being generated out of Seattle, most notably by bands like Mother Love Bone and Soundgarden, but no one had really broken big yet. Back in those days you could see a group like Nirvana in a really small club, and even the Red Hot Chili Peppers were only playing 1200 seat venues. It was really amazing.

Some of the hottest bands in Portland at that time included Sweaty Nipples, Hitting Birth, Pond, Crackerbash and Hazel. These were all great bands, but I had a close connection with Drunk at Abi’s, and they were my favorite. The earliest incarnation of the band was formed in late 1988/early 1989 at a party hosted by Abi Lawrence and her sister Valory. I was moving to New York, and my two friends JR Pella and Von Porter got drunk and started jamming, which is basically how it all got started.

By 1990 I was back in Portland, and Von and JR had formed a band. Originally I was hoping they would call themselves Jesus Truck Repair, after a local mechanic shop, but Drunk at Abi’s really made sense. (Eventually some other band called themselves Jesus Truck Repair, but they didn’t last long). At first they were a pseudo power trio with no drummer (?). JR was the singer, Von the guitarist, and a guy named Mike Flick was briefly the bass player before being replaced by Ray Gruen. Tom Peterson was the drummer, and he had gone to high school with JR and me.

DAA had a pretty fast rise in popularity, and for most of that time I was around, helping out in whatever way I could. One of the best shows was a special $1 showcase at a club called LaLuna. The show was completely sold out, there wasn’t enough security, and at any moment it seemed like a riot would break out. Me and some friends jumped in started helping cover security.

It seems like most of my social life revolved around either DAA’s gigs or the video store that me, Von and JR worked at (it was a lot like Clerks). At the height of the band’s popularity they opened for national acts like Rage Against the Machine and The Dead Milkmen. Unfortunately, the band broke up in either 1992 or 1993. It was probably harder on me than the rest of the band—it was like my parents had gotten divorced.

Below is a track from their first EP.

Movie Poster of the Week – EAGLE’S SHADOW

Here we have a true classic, the first major film starring Jackie Chan, Eagle’s Shadow (a.k.a. Snake in Eagle’s Shadow). Chan was a total unknown in America when this film was released, as evidenced by the incorrect spelling of his name. This was not only Chan’s first major film, it was the feature debut of Yuen Woo Ping, who would go on to become one of the greatest kung fu directors/choreographers of all time. They would team up again for Drunken Master, the film that would establish them both as superstars. The artwork for this poster is done by none other than comic book legend Neal Adams. Adams illustrated several movie posters during the 1970s, but he will always be known for his work in comics. He also did some of the best covers for Marvel’s Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, which may explain why so many of his movie posters were for films like this one. Below is one of Adams’s most memorable covers for Deadly Hands of Kung Fu.