Monday, January 28, 2013

My Favorite Movie of 1991 (Adam Riske's Take)

Sometimes a movie finds you at the time you NEED to see it.  I had that experience when I first saw Nancy Sovoca’s Dogfight, starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor. This movie should be required viewing for every male before he turns 18.

Before we get carried away with the title and make Michael Vick jokes or surmise that Dogfight is about Top Gun pilots, let’s get the plot details out of the way: the movie takes place in 1963 San Francisco, on the night before 18-year old US Marine Eddie Birdlace (Phoenix) and his friends are shipped overseas to Vietnam. On their night on the town, they set up a game called a “dogfight,” in which each of them seeks out the ugliest woman to take to a party. The Marine with the ugliest girl wins cash. Eddie meets Rose (Taylor) in a coffee shop. Rose is shy and introverted; she's almost the opposite of Eddie, who is confident to the point of being abrasive. Eddie convinces Rose to be his date for the Dogfight. Rose is pretty dowdy and obsessed with the artists of 1960s folk message music – the things of easy mockery for the Marines. The first half hour is the ‘Dogfight,’ and what follows is what I like to call the ‘walking and talking’ movie (other examples are Before Sunrise and Before Sunset), where two characters get to know and like one another, share borrowed time and, most often, go their separate ways.

I hope I didn’t make Dogfight sound like homework. It’s not. It’s pretty short and moves at a steady pace. What keeps the movie from being maudlin is the dialogue and performances. Lily Taylor is impossible to dislike in this movie. Her character might be too much of a saint (if I give Dogfight any criticism, it's that), but people should be so lucky to see the world through her point of view. River Phoenix is incredible here. He’s so alive (no pun intended) in this character that it’s impossible to ignore him in any of his scenes. He seems to really get what makes this guy tick. Phoenix does a great job of balancing Eddie ‘the asshole’ and Eddie ‘the lost soul.’ The gradual dusting off of Eddie’s hidden decency is what makes the story so rewarding.
The themes are particularly interesting. Dogfight is one of the best movies ever made about the ‘bro’ mentality. The genius of it is that director Nancy Savoca is a feminist, meaning we see the bro behavior through a woman’s eyes, and how stupid and ugly it really is. To Savoca’s credit, she tries to understand the perspective of her male characters as well – they are creeps, sure, but they have their reasons. As a romance, Dogfight works; Rose brings out Eddie’s better nature (the one he is not allowed to show among his Marine buddies), and Eddie gives Rose confidence and belief in herself.  They're an unconventional couple, but they balance one another quite well. Savoca has some other nice touches that you pick up on with repeat viewings; notice how Rose looks more attractive as the movie goes on, mirroring how Eddie’s character sees her. And this was 10 years before Shallow Hal!

Dogfight is comprised of great scenes, including an extended date with Eddie and Rose going to dinner, dropping in on a café at which Rose wants to one day perform her folk music, and sharing a first kiss at an arcade. Eddie and Rose spend the night together (i.e. they make fuck, berserker) and the movie gets little details just right, like the way they put on music, the clumsiness with which they make the decision to sleep together and the push/pull of the morning after, when you know you have to leave but don’t want to. The last scene, though, my G-D! It is absolute perfection, and one of the best final shots in movie history. It involves a gesture that means more thematically than any line of dialogue.

So why do I feel like I saw this movie at the time I needed to see it? I saw Dogfight when I was soon  graduating from college. I had put in four years of being in a fraternity, and the parallels of the “brotherhood” between the Marines and me and my fraternity “brothers” was eerie. I felt very much at the time like Eddie, a good kid lost in heaps of bullshit caused by peer groupthink. Men in their late teens and early 20s often fall into this trap, doing things they would never do on their own in order to feel like they belong to something. Most eventually grow out of it, but to see Eddie mature before our eyes is a relief. I love how Savoca doesn’t just condemn the Marines, either. They are about to go to Vietnam. They wouldn’t be happy; the gallows humor and the attitudes that makes up their personalities are appropriate. They’re scared and clinging to the bonds they developed in boot camp that will fortify them when in combat.
Dogfight left me shaken, embarrassed and a little vulnerable. It was like the movie was telling me to grow up a little and remember who I was before Adam Riske, Frat Douche. Most importantly, I needed a hug and it gave me one.

11 comments:

  1. Thanks for the recommendation. I love Savoca's "Household Saints" (also starring Lili Taylor as a 'saintly' young woman), and it's sad that her best career work happened at the start of the 1990's and never took off.

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  2. I still haven't seen Household Saints, need to check it out. Thanks for the recommendation! She's been working steadily since Dogfight but mostly in If These Walls Could Talk type of movies which are not in my wheelhouse.

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  3. They should have made a mirror movie where what actually happened was a bunch of girls tried to find the biggest, most shallow creeps they could find and slowly Rose starts to discover that there is more to Eddie than meets the eye. Just kidding...I would not watch that. And normally, I wouldn't watch a movie like this one either (unless it WAS a sequel to Top Gun), but it sounds like it has something to it that moved Mr Riske....and so I too will see if it moves me. It will be interesting to see if it resonates with a 42 year old that has been married for 20 years and has (2) teenage children, like it did with a young Frat Douche. It's more likely that it will just leave me yearning for what could have been...A full length Young Indiana Jones Movie where River is handed the mantle for new adventures. I would like to live in a world where Shia LaBeouf can't hurt me anymore.

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  4. Nice write-up, Adam. Now I really want to watch this.

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    1. Seconded. I'd never even heard of it. I'm ashamed.
      *hangs head*

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  5. Thanks Mark! It's on Amazon Instant Video. Unfortunately it's out of print. Or you could just borrow my copy.

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    1. Maybe you could score an invite to Patrick's basement for the Twiter Fest this so you can loan Mark your "Dogfight" DVD. Just sayin'.

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    2. The Warner Brothers Archive made-on-demand DVD program has made the movie available through its website as of January 2013.

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  6. J.M. - Don't worry about it. Go watch Dogfight :-)

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  7. GDiddy - Heald has my copy right now. You're on the list of future borrowers. And don't sully my comments with mentions of Shia! :-)

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  8. I saw this movie a year after I retired from the navy at 43. For the life of me I don't know why I went to see it. But I will tell you that I fell in love with Lili Taylor on the spot!. I'm the kind of guy that likes shoot-em ups, starships, fighter planes, warships, explosions and horses in my movies. This is the movie that made me rethink Romantic movies.

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