Monday, August 16, 2010

Fat City

When I was a college freshman, my screenwriting professor showed us the final scene from John Huston's Fat City (1972). Right after Stacy Keach's Tully tells to Jeff Bridges' Ernie to stay and talk with him, my professor said, "Watch this great conversation."

We watched. No words are uttered. The two men sit in silence as the closing credits roll, a fitting, final lamentation a life of unfulfilled promise. There's nothing left to say.

I don't think it's much of a spoiler to reveal the final scene. In a film tinged with sadness, regret, and hopelessness, it makes sense those feelings continue to the end. Set in Stockton, CA, the movie concerns hopeless people in a downtrodden city. Everyone's on hard times. The movie opens and closes with a song by Kris Kristofferson: "Help Me Get through the Night," a fitting track for wounded characters struggling to get by in life.

Watching Fat City in its entirety for the first time, I was amazed at how clean cut and baby-faced Bridges is playing the 18-year-old rookie boxer, but what's even more astounding is to learn that Tully is only 29, yet he carries himself like a broken old man, a once great boxer who let his career fade because of booze, bad fights, and his wife leaving him. He sees potential in Ernie, a kid with a great reach but not much power. Tully sends the kid to his former manager Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto), who begins training Ernie for low-level fights. Meanwhile, Tully starts a relationship with Oma (Susan Tyrrell), an alcoholic who's man is in prison. All the while, Tully, who's been picking crops with migrant workers, hopes to get back in training for another shot at greatness.

While the final scene shows the art of non-conversation, my professor could have picked any number of scenes to depict one-sided dialogue. Many characters talk and talk, not realizing the person they're addressing isn't really listening. These people have their hopes and fears, but they are utterly alone, seeking human contact which they don't get.

Tully eventually gets a match against a fighter from Mexico with a reputation, Lucero (Sixto Rodriquez), but when we first see him, Lucero is also a shell of his former self. Arriving in town, one of the first things he does is urinate blood, and even though Tully gets the win, it's a hollow one. After all the training and pain, his payoff is $100. Instead of reinvigorating his career, the match is a bitter sendoff.

Director John Huston keeps everything intimate and gritty, and at times, it feels like a documentary. I'm sure Darren Aronofsky watched this before making The Wrestler with Mickey Rourke, another movie about a professional fighter reduced to working small venues as his body and life fall apart.

Fat City is tough, sad, brutal, and honest in its depictions of a has-been boxer and those around. It's strongly acted but also depressing. Just like the end, there's nothing left to say.

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