Life is what happens in between rounds
Society is made up of several divergent and yet uniquely linked strata. At the very top are the inordinately wealthy, individuals with old (or new) money burning a hole in their moral soul, able to indulge their every flaw simply because their bank statement affords them the right to do so. Bubbling under the prosperous surface is the entire pantheon of middle classes (upper, upper lower, lower upper, etcetera), each determined to unseat the filthy rich in an aspiration to dirty themselves up equally with ambiguous virtues. Toward the bottom are the poor and needy, wanderers within the great melting pot, the luckless who just cannot seem to find their name at the great social economic place setting. And yet still lower, buried somewhere between the Earth's core and Hell itself, are the hopeless and squalid, people trapped by the undercurrents of greed, corruption, crime, vice, and sin that all the other layers cast down through the collective garbage chute and into their meager, mean lives, creating one huge landfill of dissolution. Still, on every level, all these people are connected in their dreams and desires. For many, it's the pursuit of financial and personal security. For some, it's intellectual or emotional fulfillment. But at the slimy scum-sucking bottom layer of the communal sinkhole, the want is much more uncomplicated. All these lost souls of skid row crave is a chance to walk away from Purgatory and take up residence, if just for one brief moment, in Fat City. John Huston's 1972 movie (now on DVD) tells their story.
Facts of the Case
Billy Tully is the living embodiment of Marlon Brando's Terry Malloy from On the Waterfront, except he could never really have been a contender, not with the life he has led and the company he's kept. A hopeless alcoholic living in a flophouse on the seamy side of town, he was a promising boxer chewed up and spit out by the corrupt amateur circuit. His days are spent hustling jobs from farmers who exploit the indigent, any-manner-of-employment seeking migrant workers. With a few dollars in his pocket, the rest of his time passes in endless crawls into and out of various bottles. Tully longs to get back in shape and box again, but he no longer has the will to keep the flame of desire alive inside himself. Liquor has all but killed it.
One day, while attempting to work out at the local YMCA, he runs into a young boxer wannabe named Ernie Munger. Seeing potential talent in the kid, Tully sends him to see his old trainer Ruben Luna. Ruben puts Ernie through the standard drill and he too sees the possibility of another money making, lower echelon level pugilist. Ruben gets Ernie several fights, and after extensive training, he begins his career in dive arenas off the circuit. Having some success, Ernie's career is sidetracked when his teenage girlfriend, Faye, gets pregnant. Deciding to do the right thing, Ernie leaves the sport and marries Faye. But it's not long before the need for money has him scouring the same exploitative farm work as Tully.
In the meantime, Tully has met up with and taken in a pathetic barfly named Oma whose husband is incarcerated. Oma is brash and loud, so constantly intoxicated that thoughts don't fall from her head so much as they spew forth in order to make additional room for more booze in her sodden skull. Their relationship moves from fascination to co-dependency to sickening disgust, as the lonely Tully slowly realizes that Oma is disturbing and destructive. He runs into Ernie at one of the hired hand cattle calls and they discuss comebacks. Tully decides to give it one more try and starts to train with Ruben. But old ghosts, present addictions, and personal mistakes come back to haunt him as his return to the ring draws near. Tully gets that second chance, that attempt at reclaiming what he thinks he lost years before. But it's just possible that he didn't really know what he wanted or why he ever even tried to recapture it in the first place.
As soon as I get myself in shape…everything's gonna be all right—Billy Tully (Stacey Keach)
By 1969, the career of legendary director John Huston was in an unprecedented slump. Since 1964's Night of the Iguana, he found his name attached to one misguided project after another (The Bible, Casino Royale, A Walk with Love and Death) and it appeared the glory days of his special cinematic gifts were all but gone. But a crucial thing happened along the way to obscurity. Huston vowed to challenge himself, work through the creative drought, and attack projects of varying styles and types, hoping to freshen what had seemingly become stale and stalwart. While he would again find another zenith of sorts in his 1975 adventure The Man Who Would Be King, the Me Decade started out promising for the larger than life director. He followed the current "independent" movement, then in its infancy, with a small, near perfect look at losers at the very outskirts of social, emotional, and physical poverty. The remarkable Fat City was the unpolished and yet spectacular result of an old fashioned Hollywood filmmaker's newfound experimentalism. Based on Leonard Gardner's powerful novel of the same name, the film marked a new era in Huston's career as the former studio player crafted a motion picture that matched nicely with the early '70s filmmaking renaissance, when writers and directors conceived cinema as art, not just a profit making business enterprise.
A simple character study of drunks and bums, the naïve and the jaded in personal freefall Fat City is a film about desperation, about the lengths people will go (and the abuse they will foist upon themselves and others) in the mad desire to break out from the shackles of skid row reality. A small picture in subject but massive in thematic resonance, Fat City explores that lowest of social subsections, visiting (and then staying far beyond) the "wrong side of the tracks" to dwell in the sphere of the truly desolate and downtrodden. This is not a film of sudden epiphanies or life affirming revelations. There is no "big fight" at the end. True, there is a contest between the main character and a washed-up Mexican boxer, a final shot at personal salvation for the more or less useless hero. But this is not Rocky. There is no bag of riches or life-altering resolution at the final sounding of the bell. There is hardly even redemption. Fat City shows us that, even in victory there is potential defeat and that sometimes, in the most horrid and painful of losses, a little human dignity can still be salvaged. The people living on the edge of society aren't just going through the motions; they are being moved, as life size game pieces, in God's own private joke game of Life. Unfortunately, they never seem to come up winners.
The themes of rehabilitation and destiny play a huge role in Fat City. Each character at the beginning of the film has gone to seed in some manner or another. Tully is broken, a horrible lush who still carries the body of a prizefighter, if not the mental concentration. Ernie is a neophyte, an untested specimen in the arena of boxing, love and life. Oma is emotionally and mentally void, using alcohol as a means of killing what little feeling and grasp on reality she has left. And while seemingly well adjusted, Ruben too is dispirited, trading on the bodies and brainlessness of his fighters for a few dollars and the dream of the big time. Destiny is always at odds with the players in Fat City. From how they live to the means of pursuing their dreams, the social circumstances preordain their choices, seeming always to lead to failure and unhappiness. The characters are fated to the fringe, a place where righteousness seldom stops to roost. In their Fat City, a date with a naïve virgin spills into a legal and biological arrangement for life; the failure to follow a potentially profitable fighter to Panama means a trip back to the boondocks for the manager and the bottom of a beer barrel for his could-have-been-champion charge; and the personal desire to interact with another, similar minded and mixed drink companion leads to homelessness and heartache. Try as they might, Dame Fortune has passed over the denizens of Fat City, perhaps because even on her own ethereal level, she too can find no hope for them.
This is truly an actor's movie, and as for the performances, they are flawless. Stacey Keach doesn't "play" Billy Tully so much as he embodies him, transforming his posture and mannerisms into a rye soaked, borderline punch-drunk lowlife whose will to live (and die) comes from whiskey that all but shatters his simple ideals. Keach has never been a superstar, but it's not for lack of talent. His Tully is a fully realized icon, a genuine lost soul with the physical stamina to work the migrant vegetable circuit but the emotional scars and damage to dissolve into a stupor as well. He is filled with conflicting desires but seems destined to slip into a fifth of forgetfulness rather than do anything of substance about them. It is a great acting accomplishment, as is Jeff Bridges' turn as the damned Ernie. In this young idealist you can see how Tully came to this point in his life, and why Ernie seems meant for the same. Not so much a character as a dramatic straight man to the despondency and depravity around him, there is a naïve charm and wistful acceptance in Bridges' demeanor, using his inexperience and vitality to underwrite a slow walk into the fetid underbelly of life. His distance and thoughtfulness allows the audience to enter and interpret the world that he functions within. While not as showy as the other roles in the film, Bridges still captivates the screen with his interpretation of the soon to be walking wounded.
But at the core of Fat City are two performances, wildly dissimilar in tone but equally powerful and telling in their framing of the story. Anyone who remembers the character of Coach from Cheers will be amazed by the stellar work of Nicholas Colasanto as Ruben, Tully's onetime (and Ernie's current) boxing manager. An old time pugilist who wears every fight he's ever had or been involved in on his open, broken face, Ruben is a realist, the epitome of a diehard, even-as-it-is-slowly-killing-you spirit of those scrapping at the very bottom. Crazily optimistic and trying not to give in to the bleakness and misery of his surroundings, Ruben is convinced that he is just one fighter away from success, but also resigned to make his chump change off the sweat and blood of inexperienced street scufflers willing to sacrifice their bodies for a few dollars. On the opposite end of the sullen spectrum is the amazing work of Academy Award nominee Suzanne Tyrrell (for her role here) as the perpetually pickled Oma. Drunken to the point of incoherence and damaged to almost physical immobility, many may find Tyrrell's manner over the top and shrill. But in reality, she is phenomenal. Bitter and funny, she paints a portrait of a woman so lost in liquor and its depressive properties (both emotional and chemical) that any doorway out has long since closed. For now she is left abandoned and misplaced in her own private universe, complete with its own moral codes, lunatic logic, and social graces. Oma represents the very bottom, the dead end to where all the characters are potentially headed. Tyrrell's bravery in making it a very unpleasant, painful place to experience deserves as much credit and recognition as can be given.
While all this may seem too down and out to be entertaining, it's a credit to Huston's long perfected directing and narrative style that the film ends up saying something positive, even as it wallows in the seemingly miserable lives of these characters. Ruben is hope. Or at least help. Oma is gloom. In between are Billy and Ernie. Ernie may be good enough to make a go of boxing, even if with Ruben he can only rise to the level of street hustling fights in off circuit venues. Billy is transfixed by Oma, seeing her as a potential drink and soul mate. Until they move in together, that is, and her near infantile dependency loses its charm and becomes a noose. Billy doesn't want to end up pouring his existence out of a wine jug. But in a stunning shot at the very end of the movie, he has a moment of clarity, a lucid frame in his downward life spiral that indicates exactly where he is and where he will be the rest of his life. Leave it to the old pro Huston to constantly manufacture magic movie moments like that, and always find the proper tone, setting, and performance to underline his themes. From the opening moments where we fly over the urban renovations of the San Francisco/California scenery and slowly arrive in the tenements of Stockton, we understand that we are in the hands of a brilliant, classic filmmaker. Huston explores the landscape, both inner and outer, in Fat City and creates a spellbinding, exceptional motion picture, and a near timeless classic.
Thankfully, Columbia TriStar offers a wonderful DVD package and presentation of Fat City, one that does the movie and its performances proud. The audio and video has been remastered, polishing the sound and vision into pristine, wonderful elements. The anamorphic widescreen presentation (you are given a choice of full screen or letterbox, but don't be stupid: stick with the original aspect ratio) is a tad faded, but it's obviously an age element with the print, not in the mastering. Aside from the muted palette, the movie looks great, especially in 1.85:1 since Huston knows how to frame and compose a shot or scene. Aurally we get a clean, Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack with excellent presence and no distortion. Kris Kristofferson's version of his self-penned "Help Me Make It Through the Night" plays several times over the course of the film, and each time it rings with a richness and clarity. It's just too bad that there are no extras to speak of. The offered trailers are for films only vaguely associated with the movie, either thematically (On the Waterfront) or because of the studio that released them (xXx). With so many of the principals still around, a documentary or interview featurette would have been nice, especially since Huston is one of Hollywood's best, most enigmatic filmmakers. It would be interesting to hear how the actors approached their roles, or what input Huston had in helping them realize these characters. But at least they have preserved this minor masterpiece for future film lovers to enjoy.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Ironweed, one of the feel-good movies of this generation, right? Or how about Barfly? Always considered that an invigorating drama about people whose lives you'd want to know about and indulge in for over two hours plus, correct? The big screen fixation with the lives (or lack thereof) of spirited beverage addicts is understandable as it provides a great foundation for acting histrionics and over the top melodrama ("Dave, the baby's milk money is missing, again…have you seen it?"). But as for generic entertainment factors, films like Fat City are as painful to endure as a post-binge drinking hangover. The grave tone of bleakness does not make for viable drama, but for Prozac craving depression. These are not people living lives of quiet desperation; these are loudmouthed drunks and stupefying dense losers who bellyache better than they can hold their liquor or take a body blow. Life consistently hands these pathetic dumbskulls lemons, but instead of making a refreshing, non-alcoholic libation with the fruits, they squeeze the citric acid directly into their eyeballs and scream like banshees about how painful it all is. You can't sympathize with the characters in Fat City, and it's this fact that makes the movie almost intolerable. Billy Tully and his harpy of a houseguest Oma make The Days of Wine and Roses look like Barefoot in the Park. There is only room for one liquored up louse in the pantheon of Hollywood hooch movies, and his name is Arthur Bach.
Fat City is the dreamer's final destination, a fairytale kingdom laden with prosperity and happiness. Billy Tully and Ernie Munger intend to arrive there on their physical ability and wits, even if one of them constantly drowns theirs in liquor. Ruben Luna sees Ernie as his ticket to pay dirt, a way of getting beyond the dive bars and juke joints and into professional arenas in and around that so called plump paradise. And what of Oma, the loud, lost lonely woman, freely giving herself to anyone who will tolerate her near inert state of inebriation? Oddly enough, she's already arrived at the gate to this merry metropolis, drinking having provided an imaginary highway right up to the front doorstep. But what she, and the rest, will eventually learn is that there are no vacancies in Fat City, no place in the promised land for the lower levels within society. As the old saying goes, in any class system, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Unfortunately, for the characters in John Huston's breathtaking, heartbreaking film they are beyond poverty. They are desperate. And while never an actual part of the maxim, one can't help but imagine the final portion of the phrase being "…and the despondent? They just decay, and then die." That is the fate of these citizens of a town without pity. And not a single person from any of life's other layers will honestly give a shit.
Fat City is acquitted on all charges and is declared one of the lost masterworks of the early '70s, and of legendary film director John Huston's career.
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