So Quiet on the Canine Front

Can’t discuss this one without spoilers, so watch out.

WHITE GOD, from Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó is a very impressive dog’s dinner of a film, channeling various influences through some powerful scenes and into a peculiar, visionary but confused parable. An abandoned dog is trained for illegal fights, then escapes and leads its fellow canine oppressed in a revolution on the streets of Budapest.

whhh

The first major influence, name-checked in the title, is Sam Fuller’s allegorical fright film WHITE DOG. Taken literally, that’s a film which doesn’t make sense — we’re asked to accept the retraining of a racial attack dog as a metaphor for racism in general. If the dog can be trained not to attack black people, maybe there’s hope for humans. Of course, it doesn’t follow, in any literal, logical way — Fuller is dealing with metaphor, but doing it via his usual high-impact, tabloid all-caps cigar-chomping way, so that some viewers don’t impute the film with the intelligence to be allegorical. A mistake — it knows what it’s doing.

Despite coming with a dedication to Miklos Jancso, WHITE GOD doesn’t quite inspire the same confidence, partly because it also owes a vast, unacknowledged debt to RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. But while the Hollywood blockbuster has a miracle breakthrough in genetics as plot device, so that the simian revolution, no less an allegory than WHITE GOD’s, can also make sense in science fiction terms, the Hungarian quasi-remake goes from a plausible first half, in which Hagen the beloved mongrel pet undergoes a believable transition to brutalized killer with filed fangs, its second half, showing him suddenly become undisputed alpha male of a whole dog home and leading them to escape and practically take over the city, is quite unbelievable in rational terms, and unprepared-for except by an opening sequence which I think most viewers assume is a dream. When we see the city deserted save for this vast wolfpack, we think “Well, that’s an arresting image, but no way that’s actually going to happen in this film.” But then it DOES — and for no reason.

WhiteGod-Still1

In other words, the early part of the story, which has echoes of AU HASARD, BALTHASAR and CALL OF THE WILD, is more effective because more believable. It’s quite emotional and features amazing dog acting and dog wrangling. The humans are all a bit one-note, though the tough, uningratiating performance of Hagen’s 14-year-old owner, Zsófia Psotta, is admirable. A title at the start states that everything terrible is a thing that needs love — but the filmmaker doesn’t seem to have applied that charity to his human characters, so many of whom are uncomplicated shits, whose bloody death at the jaws of revengeful mutts seem intended to invite our applause.

But all sections of the film are achieved with some visual skill, including the epic scenes of uncivil unrest. The large-scale dog action is jaw-dropping, and the dogs are always credible, apart from a  few shots of them running rampant in the streets where they don’t seem interested enough in their potential human victims. They’re just jolly dogs, running about on a spree.

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The film has one more swipe up its sleeve, achieved with some grace and skill. Zsófia plays her trumpet to Hagen early in the story to calm him, so when the dog army converges on her dad’s place of work at the end (for unexplainable reasons: as John Sayles once put it, these monsters all have some kind of mysterious radar that leads them to their equivalent of Tokyo), she soothes the horde with music, which hath charms to etc. Lots of shots of dogs emoting. Someone wonders whether to call the authorities. No, says dad. Give them a little longer.

Is he aware that he’s quoting the last lines of PATHS OF GLORY? Mundruczó is certainly aware that he’s quoting the last scene, almost shot for shot. Remaking a WWI movie with dogs is not a new idea, however. Take it away, DOGVILLE SHORTS ~

So Quiet on the Canine Front – The Dogville Shorts (1931) from ahorseshorse on Vimeo.

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6 Responses to “So Quiet on the Canine Front”

  1. My favorite dog movie to date is Godard’s “Adieu au Langage”

    I’m not sure what you mean by “allegorical” re Sam’s “White Dog” (whose shooting I was very privileged to observe.) The film regards racism as a kind of mental-illness-cum-disease put into the dog that the black re-trainer (Paul Winfield) does his best remove. Alas his efforts fail. IOW Sam wasn’t sanguine about racism being defeated.

  2. It HAS to be allegorical in the sense that the dog’s illness is regarded as being equivalent to human racism — “If we can cure the dog, we can cure humans.” That equivalence is clearly false in any naturalistic way — it’s easy to imagine that dogs might be curable and humans not, or vice versa — but it works perfectly to allow Fuller to ask the question “Is racism curable?”

  3. Oh I see what you mean now. Yes that’s true. But what’s fascinating about the movie is the way it regards racism as a virus.

    Incidentally Paramount acquired Gary’s book (which is not a novel but a “recit”) as Robert Towne and Roman Polanski were considering making a film of it following the success of Chinatown. Then you-know-what happened. White Dog was made because a writers strike was looming and then Paramount CEO Don Simpson quickly put a group of films into production. One of the An Officer and a Gentleman was a big hit. Another Jeckyl and Hyde Together Again was a big flop.
    Simpson — a truly disgusting individual — thought of the project in terms of a beautiful white girl walking around the city with a dog that attacks any black man who comes near her. He offered it to Jodie Foster, who turned him down. Then line-produce Jon Davison got screenwriter Curtis Hanson on board. It was Curtis’ idea to approach Sam who eagerly got on board. He made an old-fashioned low-budget “socially-conscious” Fuller film out of it — which Paramount hated. So they shelved it.

    I think it’s one of Sam’s best films.

  4. I love it. Never understood why Fuller, who was not averse to making walk-ons, didn’t play the cigar-chomping movie director in the film, who is clearly modelled on him.

    Dick Miller tells a hilarious story about working with a monkey in this movie.

  5. Damn. I already missed Goodbye to Language at the Aero, hoping it would show up at the Egyptian, and meanwhile White God, briefly at the Nuart, seemed, based on the Nuart’s news sheet, to be one this old dog-lover (dog-adorer, actually) should avoid for the same reasons I have continued to avoid Amores Perros. In the case of the Aero/Nuart-as-venues, my reasons are partly an ongoing rationalization, born of my extreme dislike of that aspect of living in Los Angeles which requires me to pile into a car and drive forever in unspeakable traffic solely in order to see a movie which may prove interesting while all around me living in this town becomes unviable, thanks to the Great God Automobile.

  6. It was good on the big screen — if wobbly, the director being addicted to handheld for the human scenes. Dog-centred bits were smoother. I think it’d be fine to see on DVD if it becomes available. It’s certainly spectacular though, so for those seeking a cinematic experience that’s a little different…

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