Friday, July 11, 2008

John Huston, "Fat City" (1972).

Sometimes you watch a movie, and by the end of it you get the feeling that it was rather slight or insubstantial. But then you sit on it awhile after putting it aside somewhere deep in your subconscious, and it starts to resonate. This is particularly likely in the case of films that find their raison d'etre in conveying the mood of a particular environment. Perhaps the plot is circumstantial, and there are no memorable plot twists to occupy the front part of your brain. The actors seem to sleepwalk through the settings and there is no cue to indicate a sudden and startling revelation. Naturally such a film is an anomaly in our modern era of simplistic Hollywood blockbusters. The audience that once existed for such work has all but disappeared.

Such is the case with John Huston's Fat City, which is an obscure flick out of what was once the era of the "New Hollywood". It's interesting to note that this film was in accord with a lot of 70's-era American cinema that was being touted as revolutionary. Perhaps it has been overlooked because it represents an atypical creation from what had been a prototypical old-school studio director. This was not the work of one of the highly-touted Young Lions of the time, like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorcese, Peter Bogdanovich or Billy Friedkin. This was output from an old master that everyone likely expected to fade into irrelevance. However, such assumptions turned out to be unfair.

The narrative of Fat City (loose as it is) concerns the budding relationship between Tully (Stacy Keach) and Ernie (Jeff Bridges). The former is a washed-up boxer that has fallen on hard times. Tully drifts from cold-water walk-up to seedy dive, dreaming of what he has lost and stumbling about trying to reconstitute himself. While making a half-hearted attempt to get back into fighting shape, he meets the youngster Ernie, and ends up playfully sparring with him. He sees a bit of his former promise in the young man and decides to take him up under his damaged wings. What this entails is passing the boy off to his former trainer Ruben (played sympathetically by Cheer's cast member Nicholas Colasanto).

The film proceeds at a desultory pace, as we see Tully fall into further dissolution and Ernie engage the tough world of low level pro boxing. The two threads remain largely disconnected, and Huston introduces a "love" interest for Tully, in the form of the alcoholic barfly Oma (played convincingly by Susan Tyrell). By this point the viewer figures out that every single endeavor pursued by these characters is destined to fail. While this is a depressing realization, it doesn't take away from the sneaky power of Huston's direction. At the time that Fat City was made, it was rare to have experienced such bleak blue collar realism in American film. Flicks like Barbet Schroeder's Barfly and Vincent Gallo's Buffalo 66 were still decades away.

It's easy to see why a modern filmmaker, discouraged by the sensationalism and big-budget gratuity so pervasive on today's movie screens, would feel drawn to the cinéma vérité of Fat City. It's the perfect antidote to Hollywood's candy-coated sensibilities. Huston apparently felt no need to idealize the settings and characters he wished to portray, and the results of this approach are all the more interesting for that fact. There are several moments in this tale that are mystifyingly opaque (an extended freeze frame at the end is the most glaring example), but rather than seeming like evasions or flaws, these choices provoke curiosity and wonder. That's an altogether rare phenomenon in today's media environment.

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