Saturday, May 2, 2015

White God

Alternate Title:  Barkticus

One sentence synopsis:     A mixed-breed dog forcibly separated from the girl who owns him is subjected to cruelties by human society before inspiring a canine revolution.

Things Havoc liked:  Yeah, you read that right.

So the Doldrums is something I've complained about many a time, but there's another concept in filmmaking which I call the "Rain Shadow". A rain shadow is the tendency for a really big, highly-anticipated movie release to empty the weeks both immediately before and immediately after its arrival of any movie whose audience could conceivably be drawn away by the arrival of such a huge event. This is the reason why Blockbuster season consists of a series of immense releases staggered as far apart from one another as possible with interludes of indie fare between them, as well as why the Doldrums exists at all, as the movies that normally go there cannot compete in any sense with the films that will be landing come May or October. What this means for me though, is that the Doldrums Season, which is bad enough by itself, gets worse before it gets better, as the movies that herald the arrival of Blockbuster season chase away even what few good things Doldrums has in store. In this case, with a certain film some of you have probably heard of on the immediate horizon, the movie world has emptied like the precursor to a tsunami. And since the only movies that do not adhere to this trend are the ones that do not expect that their audience will overlap with that one at all, I was forced, this week, to go and see a Hungarian indie film about dogs.

WC Fields always said to never work with animals or children, and this movie thoughtfully includes both, but to take them in order, the main character here is Hagen, a mixed-breed dog owned by a thirteen-year-old girl named Lili. "Mixed-breed" is the operative term here, as Lili is sent to live with her father in Budapest, where there is apparently a fee in place for mixed-breed dogs, designed to promote proper "Hungarian" breeds (whatever those are). With her father unwilling to meet this sudden hike in the cost of living, Hagan is abandoned on the roadside, and must survive on the mean streets alone. I, at least, have seen this story before, sometimes with more than one dog (Homeward Bound), sometimes with less than one (Oliver & Company), but whoever the canine actor was that was tipped to play this role, he's one of the better dog-actors I've seen. It's not that they can get him to do the big things, the growling or playing or emoting or fake-attacks, but the more subtle actions that really impressed me, getting him to stop on a mark, look out across a river, then continue on to another mark, and so on. A standout section late in the film has Hagan lead his band of killer dog-assassins (more on this later) to the house of the operator of a dogfighting ring, and then sit and watch in the manner of the Godfather as the other dogs rip him to pieces. Of course it's possible that they simply filmed the dog over and over until he accidentally did something they could use, I don't know, but either way, the leading dog manages to be a fairly stable element in a film that simply could not work without him.

Things Havoc disliked:  Pity about everything else, really.

For a movie that debuted at Cannes and was touted as Hungary's foreign film offering for the Academy Awards, White God is a pretty ineptly made film, and a good chunk of the reason for that has to do with the other half of the "kids and animals" duo, child-actress Zsófia Psotta, who plays Lili. I try to be nice to child actors around here, as there's no point in harping on a kid for not being able to skillfully perform a task that eludes most adults, but Psotta is flat terrible in this movie, and given that she comprises half the run-time of the film, this is something of an issue. Her character is a girl whose best friend, her dog, is callously abandoned in front of her by her father, who throws him dramatically out of a car and speeds away, and yet she can't seem to muster up enough emotion to do more than casually protest as these things take place. Were I, at the age of 13, to be faced with someone throwing my dog out of a car like this, I might well have caused a traffic accident with my reaction. This girl acts like she's had her video game privileges revoked for the next three days. And in the aftermath of this loss, as she acts through the obligatory stages of a teenage rebellion (going to parties and hanging out with older boys), this total lack of actual emotion or insight into how kids think only results in us waiting around for the movie to get back to the dogs.

Oh and speaking of the dogs, I appreciate that it's not easy to get one dog to do what you want it to on film, let alone six hundred, but speaking as someone who has some experience with man's best friend, the filmmakers here are deluding themselves if they think this movie is even slightly convincing. The plot of the film requires that we believe that Hagan, due to the terrible abuses he suffers, raises a canine revolution, inspiring hundreds and thousands of dogs to go on a murder-spree. A far out premise to be sure, but one must always be ready to take a movie at its premise. The issue though is that if you know anything about dogs, about their body language and behaviors, you will quickly realize that the filmmakers have not filmed a pack of ravening, savage beasts filled with outrage and malice, but a swarm of happy, friendly dogs, splashed with fake blood and told to run over to the nice man behind the camera who has a bag of dog treats for them. I appreciate that some people are afraid of dogs, and that others simply do not like them, but for me, as a dog lover, there is simply nothing menacing about watching a hundred dogs run happily down a street, tails wagging and tongues lolling. Even the scenes where the dogs are made to fight one another are clearly comprised of two large dogs riled up by their trainers who are wrestling playfully with one another without intent to cause real harm. Perhaps someone who knows nothing about dogs, or who is terrified by their very presence would be fooled. I am not this person. And I was consequently unable throughout the entire movie to understand why people were screaming and running in fear, calling out police firing lines and desperately manning barricades against a seething tide of dogs who had had enough and wanted, nay demanded, to be scratched behind the ears, and perhaps to be taken for a walk.

And that's really the core of the issue here, for White God is clearly not supposed to be about dogs at all, but a parable for how Europeans (I assume) treat the immigrant populations of Europe. And even leaving aside the fact that the dogs fail to act ferocious (it strikes me as I'm writing this that perhaps this was the point all along, and that the purpose of the movie was to show how people are afraid of nothing), but that they are dogs at all. Parable is fine, as is allegory, but the base fact is that we, as people (at least in the Western World), treat our dogs far, far better on average than we treat one another. After all, the days of us requiring dogs to help us hunt for food and ward off wild predators have been over for a while, and yet we are still, as a species, mad about our canine friends, spending huge amounts of money on them, looking after their well-being whenever possible, mourning them as members of our families when they die, and so on. I have more than once been part of a mob of fifteen or twenty people all working to corner a single collared dog that was clearly lost, just so we could find out to whom it belongs. Obviously abuses happen, dog fighting and animal abuse is a thing after all, and Europe's societal rules may be different than ours, but it just stretches the analogy to the limit of credulity to posit that all dogs are destined for abandonment and abuse on the part of truly psychotic humans (the butcher who starts chasing the dogs down the street with a butcher knife, screaming for blood, is a good example). You simply cannot allegorize the plight of immigrants in Europe using dogs, not if you expect to be believed. Most immigrants in Europe should be so lucky to be treated with the levels of compassion and care that most people reserve for dogs. Hell, killing or abusing a dog is so commonly used as a means of signalling the bad guy in movies because of this exact trait. Asking the audience to swallow a sea-change this massive and arbitrary (why the sudden obsession with dog-breed-purity?) just to make an allegory work leaves one wondering unavoidably just why the filmmakers didn't skip all this and make a film about the subject they were actually interested in.

Final thoughts:   Cognizant of the potential for backlash in a movie about killer dogs (imagine what PETA would think!), the filmmakers made it clear both before and after the movie that not only were no dogs harmed during its filming, but that the entire stray dog population of Budapest was recruited for the sake of the movie, every single one of whom was adopted by the cast at the conclusion of the process. This fact, the placing of hundreds upon hundreds of dogs in loving homes, does serve to excuse many of these films problems, as I would gladly sit through a bad two hour movie so as to have a hand in arranging the above. But a good cause and a happy (real) ending do not magically make a bad film good, and White God is indeed a bad film, a film that could never have worked without a radical redesign in tone or focus, one cored around a premise that makes no sense, using dogs that never manage to convince the audience of their intent to harm, and a girl who never manages to convince the audience of her intent to act. It is, admittedly, hard to get angry at a movie like this, a movie made for the best of reasons with the best of intentions, but unlike all of the many, many critics who have praised this movie as some kind of act of staggering genius, I am forced to report to you, my valued readers, that this movie needs to be taken out in the back and shot.

It's for everyone's good, really.

Final Score:  4/10

Next Time: Russell Crowe Fights Round the World

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