Tuesday, June 12, 2012
Dogfight is a determinedly small movie, a romantic comedy, and a baby-boomer parable of the '60s rich with period detail. Set mostly in the late fall of 1963, Lili Taylor plays a young wannabe folk singer living at home in San Francisco with her mother above a diner, which they run. River Phoenix is a Marine passing through town on his way to Vietnam. Already that puts a lot of cliché-balls in the air, but the "dogfight" premise enables the picture to successfully stave off Big Chill-style baggage for the most part.
The dogfight is a game the Marines play on their R&R stopovers. They allow themselves a certain amount of time to split up and wander the city, each one picking up the ugliest girl he can find. Then they rendezvous back at a bar with the girls and carry on the competition among themselves. The ugliest girl wins the prize for the Marine who brought her. Mostly this is all hidden from the girls, but the Marines don't particularly care if the game is exposed either.
Dogfight is by-the-numbers boy meets girl/boy loses girl/boy wins girl back, practically in the grand Hollywood formula. But a lot of things conspire to put it over more effectively than the usual romantic comedy. The performances go first on the list. The more I see it the more I appreciate River Phoenix. The section in the clip at the link includes a confrontation with a snooty restaurant maitre d' who won't seat him unless he's wearing a jacket. Phoenix plays the aggrieved peevishness of his character to perfection, hinting at the molten sources of the rage that drives him to war. Taylor's deceptively good-natured ditz is equally sitting atop depths that only glimmer out in surprising moments, such as how resolutely (and creatively) she stands up to Phoenix's loutishness and his anger.
A piece by Sheila O'Malley and Matt Zoller Seitz that I ran across a few months ago reminded me of this movie and how much I liked it, so I'm linking to that too. O'Malley writes: "Savoca manages this material with great heart and sensitivity, and Dogfight ends up being an emotional and true encounter between these two misfits ... [T]he movie has great reverb. It lands, and then just keeps landing. What you think it will be, is not what it is. It goes far far beyond just a Meet-Cute (or, more accurately, a Meet-Ugly), and a romantic pas-de-deux between an unlikely pair. It goes into another realm entirely."
"I want you to stop swearing." [video deleted]
Dogfight: Matt Zoller Seitz and I IM Our Hearts Out
Phil #31: Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling, 1982) (scroll down)
Steven #31: The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)
Another great picture from the past few decades and another attempt on my part to keep them coming. The piece by O'Malley and Seitz is definitely worth a look if you already know the movie. I think Phil may have been trying something similar with Fast Times, or maybe he felt some need to get a woman director into the mix. Steven kept the #31 slot respectable in canonical terms with an infinitely handsome pick and one that arguably also contains Robert Mitchum's greatest performance.