Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Fat City Movie Review

From the annals of long since forgotten films comes Fat City from 1972. Every calendar year is overloaded with movie releases that, even if modestly successful at the time, are destined to recede into memory as the years pass. The status of classic or cult classic is reserved fro only a handful of films each year. You need only go back eighteen years to find a Best Picture nominee called The Full Monty, for example. It was a small British film that found great success in the United States. But how many people think of it now? How highly regarded is it by those who do recall it? Now consider that film’s status with another twenty-five years of age. So The Full Monty is no Fat City, of course, if for no other reason than the latter was directed by John Huston, a Hollywood legend. But even his fame never elevated the film above the level of New Wave Hollywood footnote.

The New Hollywood of the 70s marked the final nail in the coffin of the old studio system. It was a time of filmmakers finally seeing themselves as artists. And they wanted, demanded, and often were given creative control. Huston came up through the studio system. He was essentially a hired hand. Nevertheless he brought a particular style and common themes to many of his films. Fat City is not really a departure thematically from his earlier studio gigs, but it is definitely not as commercial in its aesthetic as anything he did before.

Lenoard Gardner wrote the screenplay, adapted from his own novel about two semi-professional boxers, one young and on his way up and the other aging and looking for a comeback. The location is Stockton, California, which earned its nickname during the Gold Rush. The moniker denotes a place of great prosperity, but it becomes ironic in its elusiveness. There is little great hope of fortune and fame for these two men. The younger is Ernie (Jeff Bridges), a good-looking teenager who shows some raw boxing talent that could be honed into something great with the right trainer. Tully (Stacy Keach) is the older one, down on his luck, drinking too much, owing too much money. He sends Ernie to his old trainer Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto).

Huston’s film often centered on real losers, men who just can’t make heads or tails of life or whose goals are never met, whose ambitions don’t match their abilities or actual desire to achieve. There’s the reluctant hero of The African Queen and the men whose only hope for the future is a big score of gold in Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Tully is in keeping within that theme. He missed his shot when he was younger and now foolishly thinks he can turn it around. He doesn’t even have an accurate memory of his own boxing history, telling Ernie that he never lost. But when Ernie tells him differently about once seeing him fight, Tully’s face just drops. Tully shacks up with Oma, a drunk floozy whose other man is in prison. She’s played by Susan Tyrell in one of the greatest performances of an alcoholic. Allegedly, she was twenty-six at the time. If that’s true, it is the most remarkable transformation of such a young woman into someone who looks and feels twenty years older. As a drunk, she doesn’t warrant scorn. She isn’t violent or mean. She’s just clumsy, foolish, and self-deluded. She’s just kind of sad and tragic, but Tyrell doesn’t turn her into a pity case or a joke.

Ernie is a different kind of loser. He’s just sort of cocky and bold and so doesn’t think he needs much more than talent to get by. But he keeps getting defeated because, well, he doesn’t have the heart. A few years later a small movie about a boxer who loses a big fight, but wins the girl and the audience’s love because of his big heart would win the Best Picture Oscar. That should tell you something about the winning formula.

Richard Sylbert was the production designer. This is about the grimiest thing in his list of credits. Conrad Hall was the cinematographer whose camera captures the grit and sweat of the boxing ring. It doesn’t rely on the kind of flash and style used in later boxing movies, especially Raging Bull. The style here is neo-realism. You can feel the streets of Stockton. The bars and boxing gyms and apartments, if they are sets, certainly don’t feel like it. They reek of decades of use and abuse. Fat City has a real New Hollywood 1970s feel to it. The movie I kept coming back to in my head was Midnight Cowboy for the feel of the locations One is New York and the other is northern Californa and so the similarities are truly minimal to non-existent. But still, there’s something about it. I can imagine Fat City’s story transplanted to the Bronx, to Red Hook, to the lower East Sid or Alphabet City without losing anything.

All that said, it is an admirable film if not always exciting. It’s an interesting footnote to Huston’s career, but not hard to see how it hasn’t really lasted. There is a noticeable lack of energy, of driving momentum. And I love movies that are still. Jim Jarmusch and Hal Hartley are two of my favorite filmmakers who specialize in a real lack of drive, but there’s always a sense of something insane or wild under the surface. Fat City just sort of lies there expecting you to follow along rather than demanding it.

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