What a Feeling

An Oak Street retrospective pulls us back to the flashy days of Eighties cinema

Granted, the overwhelming white maleness of the series--not a single movie by a woman or a director of color has been included--is nothing if not representative of the decade's disturbing balance of power. But the retro's phobic Fatal Attraction and House of Games make that point pretty strongly all by themselves. And a curatorial affirmative-action principle could have created space on the roster for, say, Kathryn Bigelow's Blue Steel or Hector Babenco's Kiss of the Spider Woman or Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. The last of these is readily available in 35mm, and offers, by nearly all accounts, the decade's definitive film discussion of race relations in America. (As Right Thing's Buggin' Out would say: "We want some pictures of brothers up on the wall.")

So that leaves the race card in "Cinema 80" to be played by Hollywood vet Sam Fuller, whose long-impounded White Dog (Monday and Tuesday, on a double bill with his war movie The Big Red One) serves as a measure of how unwilling some Americans were at the time to confront racism head-on. Without seeing the finished film--in which a German shepherd trained by a white racist kills several African Americans, prompting a black animal trainer (Paul Winfield) to attempt to "deprogram" the beast--representatives of the NAACP expressed concern in 1982 that it might give ideas to the wrong people. In turn, Paramount, fearing a boycott, shelved the movie for nearly ten years, until it screened as part of a traveling Fuller retrospective. In 1991 I had the privilege of seeing it introduced by the then-seventysomething director at the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square. There, wearing a thick trench coat and a black baseball cap pulled tight over an unruly mane of white hair, the former newspaperman gave his mangy masterpiece a lead befitting a tabloid. "The film you're about to see is called White Dog," he said in between chomps on his ever-present cigar. "It's about a dog that will go completely berserk in front of your eyes."

Without appearing the director's apologist here (the film is difficult, and appropriately so), I'd say Fuller's seemingly cavalier quote reflects the daring of an artist who, throughout his career, chose to approach race issues through the bluntest of metaphors. Simply put, in White Dog, racism is a bitch: rabid, vicious, and ignorantly determined, an animal perhaps impossible to tame. Or is it? Winfield's trainer, haunted by racist violence in his past and obsessed with the challenge of curing the white dog ("He's not a monster. He was made by a two-legged racist!"), literally exposes himself during the course of his experiment, leaving the distinct impression that he has been through this process before. Indeed, one of Fuller's points is that while his white characters' naïveté is born of the privilege of not having to worry much about racism in their own lives, the black characters are immediately familiar with the white dog's particular threat.

Then there's the film's endlessly intriguing depiction of the dog itself. On the one hand, Fuller evokes a fair amount of sympathy for this purebred product of hate. (His tour of a hellish dog pound is as harrowing as anything in his Shock Corridor--and similarly predicated on exposing the fate of those oppressed.) On the other hand, in the creature's snarling face, Fuller shows us the evil we're up against.

When the film was in production at Paramount, executive Michael Eisner wanted Don Simpson to focus his no-doubt-divided attention on Fuller's movie rather than the more Simpsonesque An Officer and a Gentleman. "White Dog is Jaws," Eisner told him. But is it? Having suffered a decade of near-inactivity while the studios were busy making coffer-feeding machines, Fuller made his cinematic sympathies clear. "That's the enemy!" yells an animal trainer in White Dog, hurling darts at a poster of R2-D2.


If Fuller was forced to settle for seeing White Dog premiere on cable, other oppositional artists featured in the series--Oliver Stone, Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch, and Steven Soderbergh--benefited unconditionally from Hollywood's new ancillary markets, particularly home video. The guarantee of at least some money back through worldwide distribution on tape encouraged independent companies to finance some amazingly radical work in conservative times. Stone's Salvador (Wednesday and Thursday, on a double bill with his Platoon) not only dared to call attention to American involvement in the funding of right-wing death squads, but did so with lacerating humor. Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise (Monday and Tuesday, August 20 and 21, on a double bill with his Mystery Train) playfully acknowledged that there actually was a vital cinematic tradition outside our own borders. Lynch's Blue Velvet (Wednesday and Thursday, August 29 and 30) ripped open the curtain that had been placed over sexuality in American movies. And Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape (Friday and Saturday, August 17 and 18) ingenuously signaled the return of provocative and literate Amerindies featuring smart female characters (imagine that!), in addition to turning the Sundance Film Festival into alt-cinema ground zero.

The irony now is that the ubiquity of video threatens to make attendance at "Cinema 80" as sparse as at, say, a screening of a new world-cinema masterpiece such as Flowers of Shanghai or The Wind Will Carry Us (which is another function of enduring Eighties trends, but we won't get into that here). Then again, the Uptown Theatre recently sold 600 tickets to a midnight screening of the Spielberg-produced kiddie flick The Goonies--so what do I know? For generations of kids, the familiar memory of having laughed along to USA Network broadcasts of, say, The Naked Gun and Airplane! several times a year might be precisely the appeal of coming out to do it again in public. (That double feature screens Monday and Tuesday, August 27 and 28.)

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