Friday, November 09, 2012

Dogfight (1991)

USA, 94 minutes
Director: Nancy Savoca
Writer: Bob Comfort
Photography: Bobby Bukowski
Music: Mason Daring
Editor: John Tintori
Cast: Lili Taylor, River Phoenix, Richard Panebianco, Anthony Clark, Mitchell Whitfield, Holly Near, Elizabeth Daily, Sue Morales, Christina Mastin, Brendan Fraser

Dogfight is a small-scale romantic drama composed of many familiar elements and with a lot of courage and heart. Arguably it panders to baby boomer types such as myself already prone to lionize even the most insignificant parts of their lives with embarrassing sentimentality. When I finally noticed how much like Before Sunrise it is, the effect was to make me like Before Sunrise more—and to wonder how familiar Richard Linklater was with Dogfight and director Nancy Savoca's work generally when he made it, because the connections are there.

I have some sense now that Dogfight has faded into obscurity, which surprises me if only because of the River Phoenix performance. I see it discussed on the movie blogs I frequent only on rare occasions. It's missing entirely from my Halliwell's (the 2008 edition, which admittedly is a weird book). It made it to a DVD release in 2003, but that's now out of print (and commanding prices north of $100 for a new copy); yet there are no fewer than 80 customer reviews on its Amazon page. It occurs to me that what all this adds up to is Dogfight has become a cult picture and I am a member of the cult. So be it—here's hoping I can convince you to become a member too. Probably spoilers on the other side of the jump.

Set on November 21, 1963—a fraught and audacious choice right there, intruding frequently on the action for me, lurking constantly in the background—it tells the story of a group of marines enjoying a brief stopover in San Francisco on their way to "this little country called Vietnam." They are consumed by Ritual Male Bonding Behavior and one of these is the dogfight game of the title, in which they separate and go out and pick up women around town and then meet later. The girl judged to be the ugliest wins that soldier a cash prize from a kitty they all kick in on.

River Phoenix is one of the marines, Eddie Birdlace, and Lili Taylor is Rose, the young woman he finds and brings to the dogfight, a proto hippie chick who worships Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and the original folk singers of the time. They are an unlikely couple practically by the numbers, thus placing them squarely in a number of traditions of movie romance, and their story is the most interesting thing here by far.

But there are many, many interesting things going on. The period detail (including streaming soundtrack radio hits) is sometimes heavy-handed but more often quietly dazzling. It looks and feels and sounds like the early '60s. The dogfight itself, which occupies most of the first half, is colorful and visual as it plays out. By the time the movie makes the turn from that into the thunderbolt overnight romance that is its greatest strength, you are pretty much in like, if not outright in love, with Eddie and Rose, the two leads. It feels like a privilege in many ways to spend the night with them. And the finish is its own world, the place where everything good here soars.

As a sideline, I'm sure one of the appeals for me is the fun of the Seattle sights, such as the World's-Fair-era Nitelite bar where the dogfight competition occurs, a hangout of mine. Indeed, I remember how the picture's release date in October 1991 coincided with the onset of Seattle's so-called "Winter of Love," which also helped make it feel more to me like a Seattle movie even though it is ostensibly based in San Francisco (and, at the end, in the general vicinity of the summer of 1967 in terms of the time frame). These are more reasons I may be irrationally attracted to it.

Dogfight is reasonably effective as an ensemble piece, particularly in the actual dogfight, but more than anything it is up to River Phoenix and Lili Taylor to carry this and they are everything one could hope for. In many ways it is the role that Taylor was born to play—as it turned out, no matter how likeable she is (and she's always likeable), I've never seen much more range from her beyond variations on this dorky, crunchy hippie chick. Rose is the apotheosis of that but as written and played it's fresh like never before or since.

At the same time, the raw potentiality of River Phoenix is really seen quite plain here. It has to be considered the one main attraction. He had a lot of talent—I won't go any further into the loss than that, many others have been here before me—and Dogfight is one of the best places to get a good look at it. He wholly occupies the role of the brash, cocky recruit who stuffs all his feelings of inadequacy behind a show of bravado, streaming profanities, and "fist city" when nothing else will do, a tender and sensitive person in his own right who recognizes that in Rose, and more, finds in her a safe psychic place that he has never found before (and which terrifies him to his core). He can't take his eyes away from her and whatever abstraction she represents to him.

Their chemistry may feel more strained than natural but somehow that makes it more believable of 18-year-olds in 1963. The screenplay sets up no few transcendent moments: when she shares her dinner with him because he doesn't have enough money to buy his own, when she picks out "What Have They Done to the Rain" on a piano, the expression on her face after he teaches her how to play Whac-A-Mole and she starts to get it.

But as well done as it all is, it's the finish that blows everything wide open and raises it to the level of something special. (Among other things it has a minute or two of Van Morrison's "T.B. Sheets" that is on my short list of greatest movie soundtrack moments.) Dogfight is bold about everything it does. Among the boldest is the way it plays at the end with the central animating ideas in The Searchers, encapsulated in the images of a soldier, a home, and a doorway. Here the soldier is back from war, wounded, and as the scene wanders into focus there is suddenly a simple and profound sense that going home can be as easy and as hard as stepping through a doorway. It is a transcendent moment in a wonderful movie full of them.

Top 10 of 1991
I probably should have said even before this that movies were not that important to me in the early '90s, so there's a fair amount of catch-up work going on here still. I've only seen Veronique once, for example, and that was just earlier this year. It's probably destined to be my ultimate #1 for 1991 in purest cinematic terms. I loved the Apocalypse Now documentary; it's a bit meta, a movie about making a movie, but I liked it enough to overcome that. I love Defending Your Life and JFK with all the obvious reservations but I do love them. Boyz N the Hood I recall as just plain good, though haven't seen since. Raise the Red Lantern and Rhapsody in August are recent viewings. Soapdish is from back then and not since. It left quite an impression and I look forward with some trepidations to seeing it again (currently #422 in my Netflix queue).
1. Dogfight
2. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse
3. The Double Life of Veronique
4. Boyz N the Hood
5. Defending Your Life
6. JFK
7. Thelma and Louise
8. Raise the Red Lantern
9. Rhapsody in August
10. Soapdish 

Didn't like so much: My Own Private Idaho, Naked Lunch, Once Upon a Time in China, Shadows and Fog, The Silence of the Lambs

Gaps: Beauty and the Beast, Cape Fear, Flirting, The Rapture, Slacker

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