' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Fat City

Friday, June 29, 2012

Friday's Old Fashioned: Fat City

I recorded John Huston’s 1972 film “Fat City” off Turner Classic Movies and TMC host Robert Osborne found himself with co-host Ellen Barkin who explained that the forthcoming film was not only one of the most influential on her as a fledgling actress but a film that found Huston, a pioneer of classic film, leaving behind his classical tendencies to make something influenced by the more rogue and gritty filmmaking that was then populating the art form. This you can tell from “Fat City’s” opening moments which pairs a tough-luck musical score with raw, on-location shots of a Stockton, Calfornia that would seem to have seen better days (if, in fact, it HAD better days).


Eventually the camera moves indoors and finds our main character, Billy Tully (Stacy Keach), laying in bed in a broken down one room apartment. He lights up a cigarette. If the first thing you do upon waking up is smoke a cigarette without getting out of bed, well, you probably have a issues. (It’s like leaving a bar in the middle of the day and declaring “I’m drunk”, which happens later.) At this point Kris Kristofferson’s sorrowful “Help Me Make It Through The Night” picks up on the soundtrack and now the camera follows Tully as he readies himself – sort of – for the day and trudges about town. Yeah, this is a long way from classic film, all right. Long and ponderous takes in that washed out 70s look with pop music for accompaniment. It truly sets the vibe.

The setting, I suspect, is crucial. I remember years ago watching “The Trigger Effect” with a friend of mine and when the characters left behind Los Angeles in the wake of a power outage to find themselves in a more desolate section of California my friend and I both dismissed this: “That’s not how California looks.” Of course, we’d never been there and had no idea what we were talking about. Only when I found myself in central California several years later did I realize, “Oh, that’s exactly how California looks.” It’s climate is not coastal and in the summer it was dry and hot. Set smack-dab between the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Pacific Ocean it lends the feeling of a population that had struck out for the promise of the coast, only to fall short and wind up here instead.

Tully was once a decent boxer, decent enough to make a living at it, but now he’s down and out of shape. He limps to a gym for a little training and happens upon 18 year old Ernie Munger (Jeff Bridges). They spar. Tully can tell the kid’s got somethin’. He recommends Ernie pay a visit to his old coach, Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto). A familiar pattern seems to be emerging – mentor and protégé. But Huston’s film – and Leonard Gardner’s novel upon which the film was based – ignore this pattern. Ernie’s not really as up and coming as he seems, losing his first two real fights. Tully, meanwhile, continually pledges that he’s going to get himself back into shape and get a few fights, like an alcoholic who keeps swearing that this next drink is his last. Or HER last, like Oma (Susan Tyrrell), the local lush with whom Tully begins a rough and tumble relationship that involves a lot of day drinking and a lot of night drinking and, by extension, a lot of verbal sparring which prevents him from actually sparring in the ring. 


Tyrrell, nominated for an Oscar for supporting actress, is perhaps the film’s lone link to the past. It’s a showy role filled with slurred words and extravagant gestures and she plays it to the hilt, credibly earning our sympathy and Tully’s even if her only skills in life seem to be draining a bottle and hurling criticism. There is a magnificent scene in which Tully is lamenting his lot in life to a nameless couple humoring him. Huston includes every shot of Tully with Oma in the frame beside him, a boozed-up vacant look in her eyes that isn’t vacant at all. Her nagging is a means of calling him out.

Eventually he will climb back in the ring with his old pal Ruben in the corner but this fight is literally and figuratively thousands of miles and several years away from Rocky vs. Apollo. This is a back alley brawl set in a boxing ring, two aged, exhausted men hanging on for survival. Tully wins in the end but, of course, whether or not he really wins is open for debate. The victory doesn’t even earn him enough to cover his debts after Ruben takes his cut. He slips. He slides. He’s a man fortunate enough to get “one last shot” and blockheaded enough to blow it in spite of having his arm raised.


The end finds Tully back to being down and out and, drunk, he happens upon Ernie who has gotten married and had a kid and finally won a fight and seeing Tully staggering nearby he tries to flee but his car won't start. (Believable, by the way, in this movie.) Reluctantly, Ernie agrees to a cup of coffee. Tully gives some rambling advice to which Ernie pretends to pay heed. Then they just sit there sipping coffee in another long and ponderous take, and we realize "Fat City", after all, was very much about a mentor and a protégé. The protégé has learned he doesn't want to be anything like the mentor.

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