Fat City (1972)

Dir: John Huston


John Huston is amazing to me. He defined an entire genre with his foot barely in the Hollywood door, then he kicked the door down and walked in to clear well deserved Oscars as both writer and director, he took his Oscars with him to Africa to get hammered with Erol Flynn and go out on safaris leaving behind him a big production to go to hell, then came back to find they had nailed a new door in place of the one he had torn down so he didn’t bother to knock at all this time, he packed his things and went to a small dingy bar where Mexicans and barflies go to kill their time to make movies about killing time, movies about misfits and people who are dead inside, movies like Fat City and Under the Volcano, to adapt Flannery O'Connor and James Joyce, to soar above and beyond what anyone might have expected from any director of his generation. It’s 1972 and John Huston is still relevant as ever. How many directors can you name who turned out some of their best material in their fifth decade directing movies? Venerable relics like Clint Eastwood move over, American cinema (not simply Hollywood) already had a patriarch in place long before any of you looked through a viewfinder.

It’s also amazing to me how an indomitable absolute badass of a successful director can know failure so well. This is a movie where people box but it’s not about boxing. There’s no triumph to be had here and the crowd gathered in the small suburban boxing hall in Stockton, California, to pass their time is not there to be pleased. Most of them are probably the same kind of deadbeat with no future and a sh-tty job as the third-grade boxers who beat each other for their amusement. We get the young upstart boxer with the fast legs and a bright future ahead of him if only someone could train him right but this character can only make sense when we see him standing next to Stacy Keach, the aging boxer who won’t see thirty again and who maybe had a chance once but blew it for women and alcohol and now he’s desperate for one last throw of the dice.

The sad beauty of Fat City is that we’re not looking at some kind of last defiant stand, we don’t enter the ring for one last moment of triumph with the lights blaring bright and the crowd cheering, this is not The Wrestler anymore than it is Rocky, the lights were not only dimmed long ago but they probably never shone bright enough anywhere except in the protagonist’s head. The closest Stacy Keach came to glory some odd 10 years ago was in itself a failure. Were his eyebrows slashed with a razor or not that fateful night down in Mexico we never find out. For most of its duration Fat City is a beaten man with sunken cheeks and a grim unshaven wan face wearing an expression of incredulous outrage.

Then we’re inside a rundown cafe, the walls are painted in sickly washed-out colors and old men play cards around tables in felt, and we sit down for one last cup of coffee on the cheap formica counter. We see the young boxer standing next to the washed-up has-been one who can’t even be a mentor anymore and an old man, a walking shell of someone “who was maybe young once”, comes over to serve us and it all makes sense. “Maybe he’s happy” says the young one. “Maybe we all are” says the other, and we know we’re not, life doesn’t quite work out that way, but it’s all we have. The old man turns and smiles a toothless smile (senile or knowing, who’s to say) and Fat City fades out into one of the most touching heartfelt endings I’ve seen. Fatalists cannot afford to miss this one, it’s the stuff dashed hopes and broken lives are made of. Rejoice.



Dir: Walter Hill

US, 104m


You know the movie. Drugs across the Southwest border, blasted Texan landscapes, sweaty faces, gas stations in the middle of nowhere, money exchanging hands and gone missing somewhere along the way, maybe a bank robbery. It’s that distinctly American type of crime movie given character by the beautiful western setting, a modern update of sheriffs and Mexican outlaws and doublecrossing between old friends now on opposite sides of the law that goes as far back as Boetticher’s films, done with a focus on high-octane no-holds-barred action cut straight from Sam Peckinpah’s school of blood squibs and slow-mo gunfights.

The story isn’t half-bad but Walter Hill has always been an action nut first and foremost and John Milius was never Cormac McCarthy, so you’ll forgive Extreme Prejudice for not quite being No Country for Old Men. It’s still a good movie, not very surprising truth be told, with some nice dialogue exchanges along the way, a crabby Rip Torn as the old sheriff mentor and Nick Nolte looking mean and badass for most of the film, and if it’s let down in the acting department every now and then when some emoting is required, that’s because both Michael Ironside and Powers Boothe playing the villains were never the greatest of actors.

The low 6.2 rating the movie has as of this posting tells me the movie has suffered at the hands of sleepy viewers catching it randomly on late night TV in crappy pan-and-scan versions or indifferent video club patrons renting it on VHS. A niche audience comprising of fans of action movies and 70’s gritnik crime cinema, the kind of genre Walter Hill has proudly inhabited in the 70’s with films like The Driver, watching a good quality widescreen copy like I saw, will have much different things to say.




Dir: Alan J. Pakula

US, 102m



You will know this as one of our famous conspiracy thrillers, a cornerstone in this field. The exercise is film noir; a world that turns increasingly paranoid the more our paranoid eye in the story keeps looking.

The search has been broadened since the 50’s; here our journalist is looking for ‘truth’ that explains the fabric of an entire world. But it is just a very weird search, as many have noted.

The problem here is not that director Pakula attempts to reconcile Zabriskie Point with North by Northwest and 70’s gritnik action. The whole point is that alienation and paranoia should pervade even in plain sunlight, and that stark modernist architecture should reveal an order of things that outwards appears composed, clean, but masks a more disjointed reality. So we can accommodate some of the weird pieces as part of that. The sudden car chase, that we know as a movie staple. How our journalist miraculously survives the boat incident. That cartoonish off-screen explosion of the plane, as abetting our unstable mind. Did it really?

But that leaves a lot that is just hard to take. The whole Parallax business with lab questionnaires and recruiters visiting you at home seems silly now. Similar offbeat touches in older noir, say Kiss Me Deadly or Decoy, we could accept as the primal, intuitive efforts by grunt filmmakers to improvise a nightmare as best they knew. By 1974 however, and given the sophisticated look of the film that reveals deep knowledge of Antonioni, one expects more clever solutions from Pakula. More adept layering.

But that is what we have and where we have to look for the movie’s strength, which is a noir where the private investigator is merged with the story he’s researching. The device is a powerful indoctrination montage that our journalist makes himself sit through, Clockwork Orange-style, where images are continuously recontextualized to yield 'happiness’ as 'war’, 'mother’ as 'country’, 'me’ as pride and violence. As political message it is overt and heavyhanded, but the technique works as mapping inwards; as in-sight of the workings of the mind looking to assemble 'truth’ from a disjointed fabric, that later yields the disoriented behavior we see.

From that point onwards, the idea is that we coast on pure seeing as context becomes increasingly meaningless. We’re meant to be baffled by small details. We’re meant to imagine our own sinister framework that holds the nightmare together. Now we are co-conspirators in the fabrication.

The broader idea I discern here is that reality can mean anything if you shuffled hard enough - represented here as the different ways we’re tasked to see and provide context for.

How to exemplify this as internal mechanics? The montage again. Obvious political context hurts this, for reasons mentioned elsewhere. But the idea has tremendous power on the abstract level; images that we shuffle and re-shuffle in search of narrative. To get one narrative it’s enough that the outlines of images that make it up match, quite literally in our montage. In film grammar we’ve come to know this as the Kuleshov effect, first developed by Soviet filmmakers in the 20’s. We require images to reveal a broader purpose and destiny, in our case about hidden machinations that explain random cruelty. And we’ll make the association in the gaps between images, if we have to.

The final speech rehearsal in the empty hall with the director fussing over how to put together a 'true face’ is a great piece. They should have done away with the awkward plane scene and prolonged this as the stage where we know our movie about political conspiracy is going to play again (the first time on the Shuttle we weren’t looking close, now we will).

The only problem I perceive is that it insists right to the end on a political angle. It insists we may have gone completely nuts and imagined the whole thing, which never truly convinces in context. It’s less ambiguous than we demand by this point.

I consider this a very near miss and our loss that it’s not a full-blown masterpiece, this is how powerful I think is the material. It’s superb as a pulpy noir nightmare but puts one foot in the higher league of players it doesn’t support very well. Watch Blowup and The Conversation for this thing done with more focus.