September 22, 2015
Fat City (1972) is a major bummer in a minor key, detailing the apathetic lives of a couple of down-on-their-luck boxers in Stockton, California. Director John Huston had been trained as a boxer when he was seventeen, and was still friends with some of his fellow pugs from the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. So he was attracted to Leonard Gardner’s novel of the same name, which captured the lower levels of the sweet science, of callow kids struggling their way up the card and punch-drunk veterans close to washing out. The film is as stuck in a haze as its protagonists, with neither attaining sharpness or clarity, both shot in the dusky glow of DP Conrad Hall’s cinematography. All of which can be seen to devastating effect in the beautiful new Blu-ray from Twilight Time (available exclusively through Screen Archives).
John Huston and his producing partner Ray Stark hired Gardner to adapt the screenplay from his novel, and the film started shooting on location in Stockton, CA in June of 1971. The story, such as it is, revolves around two struggling fighters. The first is Tully (Stacy Keach), a drifter and day laborer who dreams of getting back into shape for another run inside the ring. His initial boxing career was ended by booze, which he hit hard after his marriage dissolved. Broke and almost thirty-years-old, all he has left are dreams and alcohol. One day at the gym he meets Ernie (Jeff Bridges), a painfully young kid with a long reach who Tully encourages to pursue a career in pugilism. Tully directs him to his old coach Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto), an amiable bottom-feeder with delusions of championship belts. His eyes light up when he sees Ernie, a handsome white kid who could bring in box office. Tully and Ernie both get in the ring, winning some and losing some, but never getting ahead. Tully spends his free time with Oma (Susan Tyrrell), a similarly afflicted drunk, who is passing the time until her boyfriend Earl (Curtis Cokes) gets out of prison. Ernie takes up with small town girl Faye (Candy Clark), their relationship made out of conversations in parked cars. Poverty is an endless loop, and as much as Tully and Ernie claw against its grip, they always end up broke and looking for another angle.
It’s a recursive film, with Tully sticking to his routines and hoping for different outcomes that never arrive. He goes from day labor (picking fruits and vegetables) to a grim-looking bar and back home, with an occasional detour to an empty gym. The locations speak more than Tully ever could, as the movie opens with a montage of the town’s poorest neighborhood, showing a Mission house, a burnt-down home, a bum smoothing his hair in front of a Kaopectate sign, while the locals, , blacks, whites and Hispanics, go about the business of daily life next to the bombed-out homes. In his autobiography An Open Book, John Huston recalled the Stockton neighborhood. where he cast many non-professional actors:
We shot most of the picture on Stockton’s Skid Row. It’s now a thing of the past; they’ve wiped it out. I wonder where all the poor devils who inhabited it have gone. They have to be somewhere. There were crummy little hotels; gaps between buildings like missing teeth; people…standing around or sitting on orange crates; little gambling halls where they played for nickels and dimes. Many of the signs were in Chinese because the area had a large Chinese population. The police were very gentle with the derelicts. As long as they stayed within the sharply defined boundaries of the neighborhood, they could sleep in doorways, wine bottle in hand; if they wandered out, the police simply shooed them back. They were completely harmless, defeated men.
Stacy Keach embodies the defeated man, first seen sprawled in bed in old tight briefs, faded polo shirt, and a stringy receding hairline. His most prominent feature is a scar on his lip, which makes him look like he’s snarling before he even speaks. He’s a natural backslider. His first day back in the gym he pulls a muscle, so ends up at a bar. It is there he meets Oma, a a blowsy broad who dresses as loudly as Edina from Absolutely Fabulous. Susan Tyrrell was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance, and it is a fearless one. She is greasy all over, and shows Oma to be so pumped full of alcohol she’s almost sliding out of the film frame throughout the movie. Oma’s rapport with Tully is like recognizing like, two defeated people pretending to be alive again. The flirtation is invigorating, firing those old synapses, in their brief time together they seem like patients awakening out of a coma. But it’s only a flash, and soon they retreat to their own pockets of darkness.
DP Conrad Hall does some wonderful things with shadow, including one moving sequence with Ruben, the boxing coach. In the only shot of him at home, he is sitting up in bed next to his slumbering wife, knuckles on chin. His face is edged with light as he expresses his dreams: “This kid could develop. Aw, you oughta see the reach on him. And he’s tall, you know. He put on some weight he could look like a good looking white heavyweight. He could draw crowds someday, if he ever learned how to fight. Maybe he can if he just listened to me and let me put everything I know into him. Sweetheart, you awake?” She is not awake, having missed his fantasies for what we assume is the umpteenth time. Ruben turns off the lamp, and smokes his cigarette in the dark, the tip of it lighting up just before a cut. Ernie is not much of a fighter, but this is a ritual Ruben clearly most go through to justify his work, one of the many rationalizations that keep these men and women going. Tully constantly claims he can get back into fighting shape while Ernie talks himself into loving and marrying Faye, despite having known each other briefly, mostly by the sides of roads.
Fat City is made up these rationalizing rituals, the little motivational tactics that get us through bad days. It’s easiest when another person is there to hear them, even if they aren’t paying attention. The saddest and most beautiful performance of the film comes from Sixto Rodriguez (not the Searching for Sugar Man guy, but an ex-boxer), whose character is completely alone. He plays Lucero, a veteran Mexican fighter brought to Stockton to face Tully. He arrives on a Greyhound bus, pisses blood, starts the fight, and gets knocked out. After the bout he wordlessly strolls out of the theater hallway, impeccably tailored. The ceiling lights start turning off in succession above him, a theatrical send-off for the end of his career, and quite possibly his life. Rodriguez was an ex-boxer who fought under the nickname “Kid Sixto”. He compiled a career record of 28-12-3, with 7 knockouts. The 6′ 1″ Puerto Rican’s last fight was in 1964 when he was 27, a 10 round victory over Norman Letcher in San Francisco. Rodriguez was 34 when Fat City was being shot, retired for seven years already. So he already knew how it felt on that last walk, when all you had known, all you had trained for, fades to black.