Sunday, December 29, 2013

You Don't Even Hear It

Thinking about an anniversary that we hit in 2013--Twenty years. I want to say it seems like it was only yesterday, but we all know that’s not true. I was on the Hollywood Freeway when it happened, driving from downtown up to the place in North Hollywood where I was living at the time having spent the day at an all-day horror movie marathon at the Orpheum, one of the longest and most enjoyable times I’ve ever had in a movie theater. Of course, I didn’t know at the time what was happening but I found out soon enough. River Phoenix. Early Halloween morning 1993, right in front of the Viper Room. Such a shame, such a waste. Thinking about it now it’s like the soul of what eventually became known by everyone as Generation X got torn away from us. Just a few months earlier Peter Bogdanovich’s THE THING CALLED LOVE did little business in regional release and I wasn’t able to see it until home video but for whatever reason the film that first comes to mind these days when I think of Phoenix, almost as if it was playing in theaters at the time, is Nancy Savoca’s DOGFIGHT. This particular film actually came out two years earlier in October ‘91 to not much of a response of any kind. I actually saw it in the theater—Yonkers Movieland in theater #3, one of the tiny, crappy ones. I’m not even sure I gave it much thought after a day or so but something about the film wound up burrowing deep down into my brain and thinking back now I suppose it means more to me than any other film River Phoenix appeared in. Even today the film still isn’t widely known although the likes of the excellent blogger Sheila O’Malley, who is probably more passionate about the film than anyone, have certainly proved that it is loved by at least a few. Maybe it’s somehow appropriate that the film still isn’t widely known considering how minor it seems at first, if not outright frivolous, but then sneaks up and knocks you out before you’ve even realized it. And, as others who have seen DOGFIGHT might know, it contains an ending which has stayed with me through the years like few others ever have.
San Francisco, November 1963: Before shipping out with the Marines, Corporal Eddie Birdlace (River Phoenix) takes part in a ritual with his fellow soldiers known as the Dogfight: each of them must seek out the ugliest girl they can find. The one who brings the ugliest girl to the party wins. Birdlace finds Rose (Lili Taylor), a young girl who works as a waitress in a coffee shop and also is a would-be songwriter. Maybe not the ugliest girl he can find, but she’ll do. Even before they arrive Birdlace seems to know that what he’s doing isn’t right and when Rose learns the horrible truth he doesn’t have much to say to defend himself. But when Birdlace seeks her out to apologize for what he’s done the night becomes more than either of them could have possibly imagined.
If we’re lucky in life we’ve gotten to experience one of those BEFORE SUNRISE kind of nights, etched in our brain forever when everything for a few hours was perfect and then it never was ever again. Or maybe it wasn’t quite perfect. Maybe things were a bit messier than we realized at the time or realize even now, with the entire night shrouded in the myth that we’ve created for ourselves to give the illusion our lives make sense. DOGFIGHT makes me think of these things. And it gets me to think about how fucked up what Birdlace and his buddies are doing, four guys who are really only friends because they were standing next to each other in line according to height. As directed by Savoca these are young men too stupid and too angry to know to even try for something good. Even when one of them accidentally has a genuine moment with a girl they’re too thick to realize it. So it’s that much more of a miracle of what happens when Birdlace goes back to Rose and they have this night together. Written by Bob Comfort, DOGFIGHT takes the feelings that come out of its vignettes and they add up. Things don’t necessarily pay off, just like they don’t in life. Birdlace’s buddies go off to have their own night which amounts in not much of anything happening. His own treatment of the snooty maître d' doesn’t pay off in a comeuppance for either side, just a brush off. Even the messiness of what develops between Birdlace and Rose as the night goes on feels genuine and earned. The moments where everything clicks between them when they can laugh about it all almost matters more because of what happens when they’re not quite getting along. Even when he comes back for Rose, when he tries to make things right the lengths to which he does it doesn’t always make him likable. The harshness of his behavior means that just one night with the right girl isn’t going to get rid of all that, as well-meaning as he might be. But the night means something equally to both of them, even if they can’t fully express it and the film means more as it goes on as a result.
Running only 94 minutes, DOGFIGHT isn’t very long at all but it doesn’t need much time to say what it needs to say, to let us go past the period detail and misogyny of the basic premise. It doesn’t underline very much—even the flashback structure is low key you might forget it was even there. The depiction of the 60s feels vivid, yet not unnecessarily overdone (maybe pair this with INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS on a double bill). The night in question is November 21, 1963 which is as much of a sledgehammer as you can get, but the movie wisely doesn’t make a big deal of it. Even with the occasional attention paid to the Marine buddies--the last thing spoken by one of them is the stupidest joke imaginable yet thematically right--the focus stays on Birdlace and Rose, how hopeful they both are in their own ways and what ultimately happens with the two of them that night. Even the most romantic moments between them are endearingly awkward like their first kiss in the piano museum (shades of MAN’S FAVORITE SPORT, also set in San Francisco). And moving past the haunting grace note of River Phoenix running down the middle of the San Francisco street in the early morning light as Bob Dylan plays there’s what it all builds to. Several years back I found myself stumbling across this film late at night on cable for the first time for years and realized that I was watching the entire second half of the film for the sole reason of getting to see that end again. Even when it reaches this point the film delays the inevitable for a few minutes, pausing for a vignette in a bar—films seem to pause for this sort of moment as it approaches the end all too rarely—and a brief display of how the local San Francisco scene has changed in just a few years. But it’s the end that really makes the film. During a roundtable with Sheila O’Malley and Matt Zoller Seitz several years ago they had a lengthy discussion about this with Seitz basically saying that it’s a good film with a final ten minutes that turns it into a masterpiece. I’m tempted to use hyperbole and go further by saying that it’s the last ninety seconds or so that turns it into a masterpiece. Maybe that’s not quite true either but if you don’t have that last scene (even the music playing on a radio feels absolutely perfect, not to mention how much we’re seeing in the eyes of these two people) you don’t have a movie.
Is it really a masterpiece or is it a case where I disregard the occasional awkwardness and flaws—there’s a lot to read in the unspoken behavior of Holly Near as Taylor’s mother but it still bugs me that they don’t resemble each other much at all—and will it to being a masterpiece in my own head, just as maybe sometimes in the past I’ve tried to turn a slight connection I had with certain people into something more. I’m still not sure. I only know that DOGFIGHT is special and if I’m going to be just one of a few people in the world who feel that way, well, I hope that’s enough. And in that ending we don’t necessarily find certain things out. Certainly there is much left unsaid. But for that moment, nothing needs to be said. At that moment both characters are exactly where they’re supposed to be.
River Phoenix as Birdlace takes the uncertain sensitivity we sometimes associate with him and burrows through that as if turning it into an unspoken self-loathing through his character’s behavior and continuous swearing. Birdlace is trying even if he doesn’t know how to put it into words and it makes it ultimately affecting. When she lays into him and he just sputters out an “OK” you can tell that he knows she’s right down to his bones. Lily Taylor, sitting in her bedroom listening to Joan Baez and hoping for something good in the world, is absolutely wonderful every step of the way—her shyness, the excitement in her eyes as she quickly gets ready for the party, up to her anger and desperation later on. I love even tiny inflections in her voice heard in seemingly unimportant lines of dialogue—hell, I even like that look of nervous happiness on her face as she plays Whack-a-Mole. Revisiting this film reminds me of just how great Lili Taylor really is—it’s an unfair association but the nature of her SIX FEET UNDER character was something I frankly hated and seemed to annihilate any residual goodwill I felt towards her earlier roles—it meant she was doing her job, I suppose, but still. Now returning to this film I feel like I’ve fallen in love with Lili Taylor and this girl who is too scared to sing for someone all over again. One close-up of her late in the film is possibly the most beautiful Taylor has ever appeared on film, as if this movie was wresting away its own premise and reminding us of how not only how cruel it was to put the character through it but how ridiculous it was to see her any other way. As Phoenix’s buddies Richard Panebianco, Anthony Clark and Mitchell Whitfield all manage to add touches that makes them ultimately endearing, E.G. Daily is memorable as the toothless ringer in the Dogfight and Brendan Fraser is briefly spotted in his first film appearance as a sailor.
Sometimes in life you know a person. You hope there’s something there. But maybe whatever connection there is isn’t what you want it to be. And then, for just an instant, you feel it. All is well. And then it goes away. This started to be about River Phoenix and how it’s been twenty years, then it was really about DOGFIGHT, now I suppose it’s really about me, twenty years since hitting L.A. but even longer since I first saw this film. And the older I get the more it makes me think about how far away certain nights I once had, certain girls I once knew, now are. Maybe all this is part of why that ending is more heartbreaking now. Thinking about all this, about my own past, about the two decades, DOGFIGHT may be one of the saddest movies I’ve ever seen. Partly because of what happens onscreen. Partly because of what ultimately happened to one of its stars. And, yeah, I suppose partly because of my own life.


Unknown said...

This is a special film and you're by no mean alone in your appreciation of it. I can still remember being one of maybe of handful of people in theater when it first came out and being drawn into the world of this film and fascinated by the characters that populated it right from the first shot.

I really dig Lili Taylor and so few filmmakers seem to know what to do with her considerable talents, but when someone does as with DOGFIGHT, the results are truly something to behold. The chemistry between her and River Phoenix is incredible and the night they spend together... you just never want it to end - much like how I feel about BEFORE SUNRISE - and you want to know more about these characters. Amazing stuff.

Another fantastic review - you really nailed what makes this film so special.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

J.D. --

There's not much to add but thank you for your very kind words about the piece. It means a lot.