Poetry in Motion: The Merciless Boxing of Fat City, or John Huston: A Love Song

I first saw John Huston’s 1972 slobber-knocker Fat City at Film Forum a few years ago. As I sat in the dark, I began to wince. Not at the film’s oft-brutal boxing scenes, which while not as spurting in its bloodletting as Raging Bull still manages to treat its fighters like slaughterhouse corpses. I began to wince because unbeknownst to me, I was developing a rather vicious eye infection known as an acanthamoeba, which is a fancy way of saying that my left eye had found some bacteria in water, and that a parasite was now living off that bacteria by eating my cornea. So powerful were the rich hues of Conrad Hall’s cinematography, that in my half-blind, excruciating state, his gorgeously lit scenes were actually painful to look at.

Virtually everything in the film comes in gaudy tones of mustard, olive, and chartreuse. There’s practically mildew around the frame. Huston alternates his lens brilliantly: during moments of focused training, the photography is crisp, the camera steady in its pans. Huston was fond of saying that a cut should occur at the moment when one would naturally blink.  This method has most recently been admired for its influence upon Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction of The Master, for which he has said that Huston’s World War II documentary Let There Be Light proved a major inspiration.

On paper, the story is familiar pulp, prevalent in other boxing stories, given the self-punishing nature of the sport. Tully (Stacy Keach, in a role Marlon Brando either lost because he was too old or bailed on it to do The Godfather, depending on who you ask) is a former pro fighter whose penchant for booze and broads has reduced his work ethic to putty and his head to mush. One day embarrassed into getting back into to shape, he ventures to the YMCA, where from a distance he observes the head-strong and quick-footed Ernie (Jeff Bridges), a born natural to fighting who could take it or leave it: he’s a flighty Stockton kid going whichever way the wind blows. The two spar: seasoned old-timer vs. untrained powerhouse. Tully’s so jazzed on Ernie’s potential that he enlists his surly badger of a manager Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto, known to most if known at all as Coach, the bar owner on Cheers) to train the kid.

Along the way we encounter Tully’s sometime lover and fellow alcoholic, the raucous Oma (Susan Tyrell).  Oma is fond of deep red shades and brassy ensembles that match her strawberry blonde ‘do, and fonder still of liquor’s soothing spell. She and Ernie’s knocked up girlfriend (played with doofus serenity by the aptly named Candy Clark) are the film’s only women: a passer of the Bechtel test, this isn’t.

It sounds like pulp because it was pulp, adapted from Leonard Gardner’s novel of the same name. Gardner explains therein that Fat City is African-American slang akin to “La Dolce Vita” – the good life. He’d once seen in scrawled in broad letters across a tenement wall. The depressed and relentlessly downtrodden Stockton seems so not Fat that it’s borderline Anorexic: virtually every extra seems to be hanging their head in woe, their only respites being a night at the fights or drowning their sorrows in booze. Quelling grief seems the objective in Tully and Oma: the notion that life is a slog is never in doubt: the question is merely whether one chooses to burn one’s self in effigy alone on a bar stool, or get beaten up before an audience of bloodthirsty Romans.

Even today, with my parasite long since eradicated, the hues within the film are so rich that they seem buttered. It is a true blue boxing movie – emblematic of sports movies at large – not because of the athletic feats, but because of the eccentrics mad enough to drive themselves into such stupors. When Fat City was released in 1972, boxing movies were in something of a tail spin that would last throughout the seventies. 1962’s Requiem for a Heavyweight, in which manager Jackie Gleason screws over washed up palooka Anthony Quinn, was so over-serious and repellant that studios aimed to glitz up the Sweet Science with films like Every Which Way But Loose, in which Clint Eastwood boxes bare-knuckled to defend the honor of his pet chimp, and The Main Event, a limp bit of nougat that sought to rekindle what Barbara Streisand and Ryan O’Neal had in What’s Up, Doc? by badly miscasting both of them (audiences were asked to accept O’Neal as a badass, and Babs as his Angelo Dundee style trainer/philosopher). 

Rocky signaled the tidal wave in 1977: Stallone’s opus and its humdrum sequels dug a trench and buried boxing wholesale under trumpeted scores and training montages. Both of which are fun, but neither of which carry Huston’s perfect mix of fun, humane spirit coupled with a willingness to do terrible things to his characters.

At the time of my Film Forum viewing, Fat City was out of print on video in the states, or at least so hard to find and so absent from prestige that it might as well have been. It was one of those modern cult classics that you actually had to make an effort to go out and catch when the chance came: a marlin of a movie, rare in the Age of Torrents. Also at the time of said viewing: Stockton remained, as it was on Fat City’s release, one of the poorest, least employed cities in America due to all the under the radar migrant work. A flight of fancy upon seeing the film even had me wanting to go out to Stockton and interview its down-and-out for one of those high-paying think pieces about squalor. But hadn’t those folks been through enough without me pointing a microphone down their gullets?

Sports is a series of bizarre personalities doing near-impossible feats out of sheer will and mechanical repetition: it is a manifestation of all other challenges and adversities. Eventually, everyone retires, but rarely by choice. So to goes the glitz of Tinseltown. It seems a bit cruel to suggest that the trajectories of Fat City‘s actors matched their characters fates, but no one said Hollywood wasn’t meaner than the beating one takes in the span of twelve rounds. Stacy Keach, robbed by the New York Critics Circle for the Best Actor award he’d won fair and square under their voting rules, was subsequently denied an Oscar nod. That same year he turned down the lead role of Father Karras in The Exorcist, and began a slow decline in notoriety with detours into playing the heel in Cheech and Chong movies, the lead in a thousand direct-to-Blockbuster flops, and Bush’s pastor in Oliver Stone’s W.

As for Tyrell? A few fun turns in Tapeheads, John Waters’ Cry-Baby, and Big Top Pee-Wee (as Midge Montana!) notwithstanding, she meandered in TV guest stardom (not a bad meander, all things considered) before suffering the amputation of both of her legs following a diagnosis of the rare blood clot disease called essential thrombocythemia. Perhaps like me, she too once escaped to the movies when she quietly suspected that health-wise, something wasn’t quite right. Tyrell died last June, but her Stop Smiling interview with from a couple years back suggested that her lust for life and good humor remained with her into senior years.

And then there’s young Jeff Bridges, who here begins his habit of doing such graceful work that audiences mistook it as effortless. His endless potential from this very early age – just a year removed from The Last Picture Show – is stark and brave: he personifies his character’s ambivalence, and his willingness to either be great or not be great depending on whatever hand is dealt his way. Ernie isn’t as dumb he looks: he knows that the shattered Tully used to have the same goodly wife and fine dining afforded to all fresh-faced sensational stars.  You can see Bridges turning over his options silently as his eyes circle the room. You can see it in those who share his smile in every shoddy boxing gym in America.  You can even see it with your one good eye, while a parasite chews the bad one.

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