Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Movies You May Have Missed - Dogfight (1991)

When I first saw the trailer to Dogfight in a San Francisco movie theater (most likely closed now), I instantly knew I had to see this film. Not only because it starred River Phoenix and Lili Taylor—enormously talented, artistic actors, even in their early 20s—but because their "meet-cute" was anything but, as you can see in the trailer. I'd never heard of a dogfight in this context, but screenplay-writer Bob Comfort, a former Marine, had partaken in them and director Nancy Savoca says on the commentary track of the DVD that fraternities used to hold them as well. The premise is so sociopathic, regular minds can barely believe it was (hopefully in the past tense) a real thing.

Eddie (Phoenix) and his three fellow Marines are on leave in San Francisco before shipping out to Vietnam. They've pooled funds for a dogfight, a private party where invitees will be judged and given a cash prize for whoever brings the ugliest date. The girls know nothing of this. Eddie strikes out several times before meeting Rose, a shy would-be folk singer. Anyone who has ever felt unattractive and undatable (I'm guessing a large percentage of us) would be intrigued by this in a sick, sinking way. And then, over the course of a night, it becomes a completely believable love story. It shouldn't work, but it does. Here's why:
  • Great screenplay by Comfort, featuring realistic people, not caricatures, with a sensitive ear for dialogue and moral character.
  • Director, Nancy Savoca, fresh from a Sundance Grand Jury Prize for her first feature, True Love (a clear-eyed, funny slice of Italian-American wedding-planning in the Bronx—see it if you can), knows how to work with fine actors and did much research on San Francisco of 1963. It shows in her choices for costumes, set design, locations (few actually shot in San Francisco, but well-chosen for a low-budget period shoot), and that subtle thing that great directors have for where to place the actors in the frame, especially in a dialogue-heavy story like this one.
  • River Phoenix and Lily Taylor—best movie couple ever—just beautiful and perfect throughout. I tear up to this day, thinking about the lost potential in River Phoenix. I very much wanted him to keep acting into his old age. He could flat-out emote on the screen, projecting so much while saying so little. Lily Taylor is one of my favorite actresses—who acts from the heart. She has a confrontation scene in Dogfight that's a master class in direct emotion-to-action. It gives me chills every time. You'll know it when you see it. (Danny Peary, writer of Alternate Oscars, thinks she should have won that year for best actress, and I agree.)

I find most movie romances rushed and unrealistic because of the truncated time frame of feature-length storytelling. Dogfight is one of the few where the emotions seem to come naturally, because of the (often very awkward) circumstances of the characters, the time period, and location. And it's resolved in a way that respects the characters and you, the audience. You can fall for somebody in one night, especially in San Francisco, but it's not easy to show that. It's a perfect little film, packed with humor, sorrow, and other universal emotions.

Eddie and Rose are about to meet. River Phoenix is excellent as a 19-year-old, immersed in an all-male world of training, fighting and defending, but seriously out of touch with the more sensitive issues of life. Glimmers of a potentially "nice boy" who got lost in a macho environment keep peeking throughout his performance. A lesser actor couldn't make us believe that Eddie would truly appreciate Rose.

Rose is naive and idealistic, but stands up for herself and others, and has a good sense of humor. You can see the mischievous little girl beneath her awkward late adolescence. She's coming of age in a brutal way, but she faces it and makes the most of her chances. She's a humanitarian and a true mensch.

Rose learns an ugly truth from fellow dogfight attendee, Marcie (Elizabeth Daily). Savoca excels in showing women communicating with each other, especially in public restrooms. The way of the artist is mysterious.

A reference to long-gone Playland at the Beach. There was enough in the budget to imply San Francisco in the 60s, but it's San Francisco in close-up.

Rose's folksinger-hall-of-fame. Odetta is one of her very favorites. Rose has great taste in music. So does Savoca, whose soundtrack picks are pristine choices for every scene.

I heart Rose. How could I not?

Minor quibbles: It's not easy portraying San Francisco when most exteriors were shot in Seattle. No place on Earth looks like San Francisco, but unfortunately it's very expensive to shoot there. Because I was born and lived in the city for many years, these little location glitches jar me a smidgen. How I wish I could have been hired as "City-by-the-Bay Consultant" in 1990. I could have used the money too. It won't ruin any aspect of the film for others, but allow me to share.

Rose's address doesn't exist, but if it did, it would be on top of a hill between the Noe Valley/Diamond Heights neighborhoods, off of Market Street (and would be a multi-million-dollar property today). I lived five blocks away from this imaginary place from 1964 through 1968. True, I was only four, but I remember San Francisco of the 60s very clearly. I had family there, so after we moved away, we came back to the city all the time. This area is very hilly. The street where I lived was on such a sharp angle that I still have marks on my knees from all the times I fell down it. Falling down my street was an almost-daily occurrence and lots of band-aids on skinned knees were part of my early childhood.

But as you can see here, Rose's street is as flat as a pancake.

The cultural and political changes in the U.S. caused by the Vietnam War are a major plot point but the army of hippies in Rose's neighborhood is overkill, in my opinion. This neighborhood was, at the time, working class, full of families, and not a counter-culture meeting spot. It's very subtly shown in the film, mostly with sound cues (that I just discovered after multiple viewings), but this scene is the after-math of a music festival, hence all the long-hairs. But this real-life neighborhood is too hilly and congested to hold a festival, plus the nearest park (Dolores) is too far away to make geographic sense. The majority of musical events in the 60s took place in the panhandle in the Haight, and in Golden Gate Park, a few miles from here.

Personal aside: I used to beg my Dad to drive us over the hill to see the hippies, and he often would. I just loved them—like giant muppets—so colorful and free. Remember, I was just a toddler.

Hippies galore!

Here's some San Francisco. Pretty distinct—the crammed-together architecture, the weird hill-top angle, the feeling of "how did this get here—it was technically all sand dunes and swamp and earthquake faults." It's a true gold rush town, even today with the invasion of the techies, who I would never have begged my Dad to see. No offense, but San Francisco isn't doing it for me lately.

The most jarring (to me), yet visually arresting shot: Eddie running toward the Bay Bridge, which is nowhere near Rose's place, but that's not my issue. The pretty lights on the cables weren't installed until 1986—23 years after this scene takes place. But I don't care—Savoca reports that her DP noticed the beautiful view and suggested they take advantage of it at that moment during production. And she made the correct artistic decision and did so, shouting "Run, River, run!" as they filmed. It's a perfect shot to depict San Francisco and I'm glad it's there.



Richie Unterberger said...

The DVD commentary for the film is pretty good, by the way. If I remember right, it talks about how Lily Taylor had to gain a lot of weight for the role, and even then couldn't quite do it and needed some padding. Again if I remember right (it's been almost ten years), it's revealed that a lot of it wasn't shot in San Francisco, in common with many other movies set in San Francisco. I think they said much of it was shot in the Northwest, maybe Canada, where US-set films are often shot because it's cheaper.

Miss Lisa said...

Thanks for pointing this out, Richie. I was going to mention it and forgot. Yes, according to Savoca's DVD commentary, they had auditioned Taylor early on, loved her, but she was so physically tiny and Rose is written as fairly obese. Savoca then auditioned actresses who physically looked the part, but she said it became more about the weight at that point, less about the acting. They called Taylor back in and she agreed to gain some weight (about 20 pounds) but it's obvious to me that they padded her--it's not the best image of weight I've seen in a movie.

What I find interesting is Rose's scene where she's trying to find something to wear for her date and several dresses are too small, meaning, she must have gained weight fairly recently in this story. It's a nice costuming choice to give her a little back-story without words.

Also, Savoca had to audition actresses for the Dog Fight party scene and she said that was one of the hardest aspects of making the film--having to explain to them what they were auditioning for. She made it about universal fears of appearance and that helped ease the process. Being judged on our looks--I think most of us, especially actors, understand.

Most films set in San Francisco are filmed there as little as possible, due to costs--it's unfortunate. I really should have started a San Francisco consulting business when I was working production. I could have advised the actors in "Party of Five" to pronounce the street, "No-ee," not "No." I coulda been somebody, I coulda been a contender...

Richie Unterberger said...

I haven't seen "Party of Five," but that's a pretty egregious mispronunciation to slip through quality control.

Miss Lisa said...

I know! Look at me--still holding on to the fetid memory!