Fat City (1972)
Dir: John Huston
Stars: Stacy Keach, Jeff Bridges, Susan Tyrrell and Nicholas Colasanto
For those of you who don’t know, I live in Los Angeles – and frankly, living in this town has its benefits as a self-described film nerd. I was looking forward to seeing one of the many new films in theaters over the weekend of 10/25. As I browsed Fandango (or was it Yahoo movies…), I was distracted by a little double feature offering that caught my eye, which was playing at a theater just three miles west of where I live. If you’re unfamiliar with the Aero Theater, let me advise that as a guy who lives, eats, sleeps and breathes movies, it’s like a cathedral. So many classic films have played there, and the staff does a great job of playing double features, and sandwiching a nice Q&A with stars of the films as the “meat of the sandwich”, if you will. In fact, Friday, October 25 is a perfect example of its typical offerings: at 730pm, they were showing The Ninth Configuration, which would have a Q&A session following with the star, Stacy Keach! Then, as if this treat wasn’t enough, they were screening John Huston’s Fat City, which is an obscure little boxing picture I’d been wanting to see for years – ever since I read one of Huston’s biographies.
How do I even start with The Ninth Configuration? I mean, it sounds like a Ludlum novel, doesn’t it? But in fact, it’s the work of William Peter Blatty: if that name sounds familiar, it’s because he wrote The Exorcist. During the aforementioned Q&A session, Mr. Keach mentioned that Blatty was very interested in faith driven drama, and that The Exorcist was the extreme of evil he was looking for in a story – but Configuration was meant to explore our crises of faith, almost an opposite of The Exorcist. The story of this 1980 film – which he wrote, produced and directed – concerns a U.S. military psychiatric hospital. Essentially, Keach’s character, Colonel Vincent Kane is brought in to ascertain which – if any – of the patients have been faking their psychosis to evade battle.
If it sounds intriguing and like high drama to you, let me warn you – this film most definitely qualifies as a “midnight movie” (see our entry on Zardoz for another great example). Let me give some support to this statement: first off, the damned film has two titles, which will always help a movie towards achieving cult status. The gent who recommended this title to me (thanks again, AC!) sent me this link as a teaser – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sZCcjzOeXlM What’s fascinating to me is that this presentation is completely different from the 35mm that played at the Aero! The version I saw opened with a launch of a rocket with some pretty intense voice over and sound effects – and then “Twinkle Twinkle “Killer” Kane” was displayed as the film’s title. And I’m glad the host, who introduced the film (very old school), mentioned the fact that “this print has a reddish hue to it, I think you’ll notice.” Yeah, like the whole film was dipped in strawberry jam, chief.
Second, Configuration has that scene where you find yourself leaning forward, your hands firmly placed on either side of your face, eyes wide and head slightly shaking side to side as you say to yourself, “what the HELL is going on here??” The scene in Configuration that I’m referring to is in the second act, when Keach’s character has decided to let the patients have full reign over their fantasies: in other words, the patients are literally running the asylum. Imagine a hallway with Keach stepping in on the left side of the screen in a nazi Gestapo uniform, talking to Ed Flanders’ doctor character over the course of all of this: there goes Robert Loggia’s character (entering on the right and exiting on the left) flying through frame on a jet-pack. Here comes Moses Gunn wearing a Superman costume, but with a prominent “N” on his chest in place of the usual “S”. And, of course, there goes a bunch of guys dressed up like female nurses pursuing Loggia’s character. I mean, it’s bizarre, confusing and damned funny all at the same time.
And yet, this description is not to convince you that the film is without substance! Quite the contrary, the discussion between Keach’s Kane and Scott Wilson as Cutshaw is why the film was nominated for writing awards: we all have questions of faith and different ways of expressing those frustrations and confusions. That’s where Configuration is provocative – it makes you wonder how many times you’ve come across as a crazy person when trying to explain what you believe. In the end, despite all of the cult status surrounding the film and the scenes that qualify Configuration as “midnight movie,” I really enjoyed myself. I love these titles with a compelling theme, a veteran storyteller at the helm and particularly all these character actors stuffed into one feature. I’ve said in other posts that one of the marks of a good film is how often you think of it the next day – and I’ve thought about this one numerous times in the weeks since.
Moving on to Fat City, I remember thinking to myself how this title is a true independent film, despite its heavyweight director and incredible cast. There is a level of genuine feel that Huston achieves from the film’s sets to the locations surrounding Stockton, CA, to its genuine supporting cast. You’ve got Keach, starring as Tully, a has-been boxer who has had his share of defeat in and out of the ring. He spends most of his days picking vegetables in the fields surrounding the town, fantasizing about “starting to run again,” then blowing the money he’s earned in the fields on beer and liquor. There’s a terribly young Jeff Bridges co-starring as Ernie, an inexperienced fighter who’s convinced by his would-be mentors that he has the makings of being the next Rocky Marciano. And just to round out this troupe of seemingly real-life, border-line-poverty-ridden caricatures is Susan Tyrrell as Oma. What a job she does….
Tully meets Oma in his favorite bar one afternoon after picking onions, I think it was: she’s sitting there looking kind of sexy, and also kind of like a train wreck. Her hair’s all askew, she’s on her fifth beer and her third “cream sherry” – I didn’t even know there was such a thing – and it takes us about two thirds into her discussion with Tully before we realize that fellow sitting next to her, named Earl, is actually with her. For me, Tyrrell’s performance was one of the reasons I loved this title – there’s nothing this actress did with her character to try and convince you to root for her. That’s a brave choice to make!
Circling back to Tully, I think it’s important to clarify that this is a boxing picture in that you’ve got the main character who insists he’s going to get back into shape. With Bridges, you’ve got the young version of Tully – who may or may not end up like him, which is an element that makes Fat City so interesting to watch. Another character that makes this title a very rich cake indeed is Nicholas Colasanto as the boxing manager, Ruben. This guy acts as if he’s Don King and he talks in a way that convinces you what he’s saying should be included in the Gospel: but yet, he works out of a beat-to-hell gym and smokes his cigars and is always selling someone on something. The conflict between him and Tully – whether it was over the $20 Tully owed him, or what happened in Panama long ago – was palpable and totally genuine in a way many movies today don’t quite capture. As a final note, the “big fight at the end” in Fat City is one of the best I’ve ever seen on film, and the fact that Tully’s opponent was a real life boxer explains part of the man’s performance: watch the film if you get a chance, and notice how he enters the film, and leaves it.
Did I have fun at the double feature at the Aero? Oh, yeah…