Thursday, January 10, 2013

Technical Knockout

Film: Fat City
Format: Video from The Magic Flashdrive on laptop.

I didn’t realize just how boxing-heavy The List was until recently when I noticed at least four of them. Considering that there are very few sports films listed in general, that seems like a lot. Evidently, there is something about the fight game that makes for cinematic greatness that doesn’t exist in hockey (no films), basketball (one documentary), football (no films), or baseball (two films). It’s possible I’m wrong on these numbers, but I think those are accurate.

Fat City is, like most boxing films, filled with the sort of rags-to-riches possibility and rags-to-rags reality that is reality for most pugilists. There’s a definite sense that films like Rocky took something from Fat City. But it’s more than that—it’s not just about boxing, but about life on the skids, down-and-out people and up-and-comers crossing paths. But it’s more than that, too. Fat City feels like an early Warren Zevon song, like a boxing version of Carmelita. There’s a sense of pain and loss, dreams broken through bad decisions and too much drinking, shattered hopes, and resigned suffering. It’s a Tom Waits song come to life.

Ex-boxer and now full-time drinker Billy Tully (Stacy Keach) has toyed around with the idea of getting back into the ring. He runs into a young kid named Ernie (Jeff Bridges) at the gym and spars with him for a few minutes. He decides that Ernie might have the goods when it comes to boxing and suggests that he go see his old manager, Ruben (Nicholas Colosanto). Ernie does, and starts to train for amateur bouts while spending time with his girl Faye (Candy Clark). Billy appears to be all talk, and spends most of his time in bars, where he meets Earl (Curtis Cokes) and Oma (Susan Tyrrell). Billy thinks that he’s hit rock bottom, picking onions for 20 cents a bag to make ends meet and spending what little money he has on drinking.

But when Earl is thrown into jail, Billy hooks up with Oma. Faye gets pregnant and Ernie starts picking crops for extra money, too. When Billy and Ernie meet up again, Billy decides to get serious about boxing, and Ernie gets back into it, too. Billy, pushing 30, beaten up too many times in the past, and well past his physical prime, needs every break. Ernie is looking to make his break into boxing as a professional. And life happens.

There’s a lot to like with Fat City, starting with the honest performance by Stacy Keach as Billy Tully. Tully is the protagonist of his own little noir anti-paradise, caught between is desire to back on top in the boxing world and his need for drink and his lack of ability to pull himself up into the world again. His performance is matched bit for bit by Susan Tyrrell as the perpetually drunk and needy Oma. She is a screen creation like few others. When we first see her, she’s a happy drunk, playful and fun despite being degraded. As the film goes on, she becomes more and more degraded. When we next see her, Earl is in prison and she’s driving a barstool, the top of her dress undone, her hair bows barely hanging on. She’s sloppy, constantly hammered, constantly needy. It’s one of the best performances I’ve seen in a month.

Do I have a complaint? I do. The boxing isn’t very good. I mean, really not very good and obviously not very good. Everyone who gets in the ring in this film punches hard; I will not debate that. But they don’t punch with a lot a style, and in every case a halfway decent fighter would clock them a minute or two into the first round. Even casual fans of boxing will notice this right away. It’s not enough to ruin the story, but it does really affect the way the story plays out. Since a good portion of the third act is a boxing match, it’s a little difficult to take too seriously, but it’s possible to ignore the fact that (for instance) Stacy Keach can’t seem to keep either hand up to protect his face, even right away at the start of the first round.

Regardless of this, this is a film to see, and one that desperately needs a release from somebody somewhere. Fat City is not easy to find, and that’s a terrible shame for a film this good. The fact that the boxing is unprofessional is secondary to the overall tone that permeates this film. It’s almost indescribably bleak, but also perfectly real, as real as the boxing is fake. There’s a desperate pathos to the scene in which Billy cooks for Oma, an obvious desire for something that approaches normality in a situation so far from normal that it can’t even see it on the distant horizon. Fat City is gutting, but gutting in the best cinematic way possible.

Why to watch Fat City: Reality and a few gutting performances.
Why not to watch: The boxing really isn’t that great.


  1. I haven't read your review because I haven't seen the film yet, but your opening paragraph on the lack of sports-related movies on the list made me very curious. I first looked in the 2003 and 2012 books and neither had a genre section for sports. I then took a pass through the list and this is what I saw:

    Boxing - Million Dollar Baby, Raging Bull, Rocky, and Fat City. You might toss in Fight Club, which has bareknuckle boxing in it.

    Baseball - Bull Durham and The Natural

    Basketball - Hoop Dreams

    Football (either American or Soccer) - none, except a sequence in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. If they had included Harold Lloyd's film The Freshman that would have been a good one for this sport.

    Hockey (either ice or field) - none

    Olympics - Chariots of Fire, Tokyo Olympiad, Olympia

    Track and Field (key subplot) - Gallipoli

    Cycling - Breaking Away

    Auto Racing - Senna

    Tennis (key subplots anyway) - The Royal Tenenbaums and Strangers on a Train

    Golf - none, except for some scenes that take place on golf courses. We need to add Caddyshack to the list.

    And getting into areas that some people consider sports:

    Dancing - Strictly Ballroom and Saturday Night Fever

    Pool - The Hustler

    Bowling - The Big Lebowski

    Pro Wrestling - The Wrestler

    Surfing - Surfwise

    Bullfighting (key subplot) - Talk to Her

    Dog Fighting - Amores Perros

    Armed Combat - Gladiator and Spartacus (key subplot)

    Sheep Herding - Babe

    Cock Fighting - No Fear, No Die

    Chariot Racing - Ben-Hur (key subplot)

    There may be others among the films I haven't seen. I had no idea Fat City was about boxing, for instance. By the way, I excluded films with martial arts competitions like Enter the Dragon figuring they would go under the genre Martial Arts as opposed to Sports.

    1. I'd argue against some of those films, as the sport is hardly central. Sure, The Big Lebowski features a lot of bowling, but it's hardly a bowling movie, if you follow that logic. Going only with the "we all agree these are sports" list above, boxing is four out of 15, and I'd probably argue against both tennis entries (we see very little tennis in either one). Regardless, lots of boxing. And there are sports movies that I think could/should be added.

      American football: Brian's Song, possibly The Blind Side (I haven't seen it)
      Baseball: Field of Dreams, Pride of the Yankees, A League of Their Own
      Basketball: Hoosiers
      Hockey: Slap Shot
      Rugby: Invictus, Murderball
      Cricket: Lagaan
      Track and Field: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

      And I agree on Caddyshack without question.

    2. I haven't seen Brian's Song. I have seen The Blind Side. I liked it, but I doubt it's going to be a movie anyone will be talking about 10 years after it was released.

      Completely agree on Field of Dreams and Pride of the Yankees (which is saying something coming from a lifelong Red Sox fan). I liked A League of Their Own, but I'm not sure I'd put it on the list.

      Hoosiers was good, but I don't know if I'd add it to the list.

      I haven't seen Slap Shot. Off the top of my head, the only ice hockey film I've seen is Miracle and the only field hockey film is Chak De India. I liked both, but wouldn't add them to the list.

      Completely agree on Murderball. I consider Invictus like The Blind Side.

      Agree on Lagaan.

      I haven't seen The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. For a fantastic TV movie (back when they were still doing those and taking pride in them) I'd select The Jericho Mile.

      And my niece's husband, who spends weekends watching guys drive in circles for hours at a time, doesn't consider golf a sport because "nothing happens", but does consider stock car racing a sport...where nothing happens until someone crashes. It's telling that when ESPN shows highlights of the races it's all the big crashes, then a millisecond of the winner crossing the line, then a scene where the winner does donuts with his car, like he's in the 8th grade.

    3. Agreed on NASCAR. As a co-worker once put it, NASCAR can be summed up as, "Look at me! I can drive in a circle faster than you can!"

      Of those above, I probably wouldn't include Slap Shot and might not on Invictus. I'll argue for A League of Their Own if only because it's a sports movie from a feminist perspective, and I think that's worth something.