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Meakin Armstrong: On Cinema’s Beautiful Blowhard

May 19, 2010

A Fuller film careers between drama and melodrama; it stars scene-chewing actors; it’s low budget and has the subtlety of a machete.


meakin_armstrong-small.jpgWhen I was a kid, I’d visit my cousins in the South. They were excellent hosts, kind to us, and let us ride their dirt bikes, their horses, and use their pool. Their dogs were sweet and I loved playing with them and petting them in my cousins’ backyard. Now and then though, someone would walk by on the sidewalk. The dogs would approach them, wagging their tails, looking for a friend. They’d wag them, that is, if the person walking by happened to be white.

My cousins had what are called “white dogs,” because if an African American happened to walk by, the dogs transformed into something ferocious. They ripped at the chain link fence to get at that black man, woman, or child. In the South, some dogs were (and maybe still are) trained to attack African Americans. My cousins were proud of this; they thought their dogs had taste.

Years later, when I heard film director Samuel Fuller had made White Dog, a film about this phenomenon, I wanted to see it. Badly. But no one had it, not even those collector-types. It was out of circulation completely, even at film libraries.

Fuller had a pulp-fiction mindset and the former tabloid-reporter’s tendency to think in screaming headlines. But he also had a reporter’s unblinking gaze.

Fuller had a pulp-fiction mindset and the former tabloid-reporter’s tendency to think in screaming headlines. But he also had a reporter’s unblinking gaze into America’s ugly side. See his Shock Corridor for an investigation into what society does to its mentally ill (a film that predates Cuckoo’s Nest by a decade). Watch Steel Helmet to find out how war can crush a person and make him vicious and small.

A Fuller film careers between drama and melodrama; it stars scene-chewing actors; it’s low budget, and has the subtlety of a machete. A Fuller film can start out being about one thing (such as in one of my favorites, Crimson Kimono , where it begins in a Noirish vein, with two cops investigating a crime in 1950s L.A.) only to veer off somewhere else (racism against Asians). Watching a Fuller film is seeing the unpredictable. It breaks the rules of “good” writing—and just goes for the jugular.

If these factors don’t make his films an appetizing prospect then perhaps know this: he was a major influence on Godard, and is worshiped by Wim Wenders (who even put him in one of his movies). Fuller has been praised repeatedly by Tarantino. He is a major figure in cinema, an essential.

I knew White Dog wouldn’t be one of Fuller’s better films—I personally think his work looks best in black and white (which perhaps tempers all that spittle-spewing and teeth gnashing), but it took me years to see it. In the early 1980s, gutless Paramount Pictures pulled the film from release, after anti-racist groups said the film was horrible, too horrible, to mention the existence of white dogs. They confused a movie about racism to itself be racist. All that nonsense made Fuller leave the country. He came back to play White Dog at various screenings, using his own film reels.

I finally saw White Dog in a small theater, and Fuller was there. He seemed viscerally hurt by the knee-jerk response to his movie. He was a classic liberal, after all, a man who had once been investigated by the FBI for having communist sympathies. For decades, he had been giving African Americans plum roles in his movies, when that sort of thing just wasn’t done. In the Jim Crow era, if African Americans were cast in a movie at all, they were given the parts of servants. Or if they performed like Lena Horne did, they were given featured parts that could be sliced out of the reels for Southern audiences.

Fuller was an old man by the time I saw him. White Dog had not been viewed by the public for over a decade. It was a cinematic footnote, known only to his biggest fans. But Fuller still wanted to fight for that movie, to make people understand it. Trouble was, only a few people were in the audience—just us freaks.

A few provisos on White Dog: more troubling than its direct look at racism is the fact that it stars Kristy McNichol , that wooden-faced child star of the ’70s.

A few provisos on White Dog: more troubling than its direct look at racism is the fact that it stars Kristy McNichol, that wooden-faced child star of the ’70s. That’s a downer, but Fuller did this sort of thing a lot: taking lesser actors and beating performances out of them. It also has—for god’s sake—Burl Ives. But all of that nonsense is assuaged by the story: Paul Winfield takes the white dog in hand and trains him to love. It’s a parable. It’s a bit crappy around the edges too, but still worth seeing.

If you haven’t seen a Fuller film though, don’t start here—that’s too much to take. See Underworld, USA, Crimson Kimono, Steel Helmet, or The Naked Kiss (which by the way, has the wildest opener of any film I know).

The opener of The Naked Kiss:



Bio: Meakin Armstrong is Guernica’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter at @meakinarmstrong.

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