Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 39: Dogfight (1991)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Dogfight (1991) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “I don’t care much for movies that get all serious about their love affairs, because I think the actors tend to take it too solemnly and end up silly. I like it better when love simply makes the characters very happy, as when […] Lili Taylor thinks River Phoenix really likes her in Dogfight.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “To fully appreciate Dogfight, it helps to see it as the record of a particular time. In November 1963, John Kennedy was still president, ‘Vietnam’ was not yet a familiar word, hair was short, and the counterculture was still idealistic and tentative – more concerned with realization than revolution. And also, more in 1963 than today, male bonding sometimes consisted of the real or imaginary humiliation of women.” -from his 1991 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

Reductively speaking, it’s always a little counterintuitive to praise a work of art for leaving me heartbroken or otherwise emotionally devastated. Why should I celebrate the accomplishment of a stranger making me feel like shit? There’s always something admirable about witnessing a job done well, though, which is exactly what Lili Taylor’s performance in Dogfight conveys: a wondrous display of craft. As the craft in question is destroying my emotional well-being, you’d think the instinct would be to cower from Taylor’s tragically vulnerable presence in Dogfight, but her work was too magnificent not drink in with every available moment. It helps that Dogfight’s brand of emotional havoc wasn’t akin to the sadism of a provocateur like Lars von Trier. Director Nancy Savoca handles the film with an unmistakable kindness, something that’s apparent as soon as Taylor is introduced sweetly playing folk music on an acoustic guitar in her frumpy diner waitress drag. She isn’t afforded the authorial command of a protagonist’s POV, but rather her kindness & delicate wit is observed from an emotional remove, softening the sadism she encounters in an increasingly hostile, unforgiving world. Sacova & Taylor break hearts in Dogfight, but not with deliberate maliciousness. They do it by contrasting the sadism of modern life with a vulnerable sweetness & optimism for change, a kind of personal resolve that makes you weep for the cruelty of the world surrounding it, threatening to grind it to dust.

The majority of Dogfight is set over the course of a single night in 1963, the day before JFK’s assassination. In their final night of freedom before shipping off to a tour of duty in Vietnam, a rowdy group of boneheaded Marines stage a competition to see who can woo the ugliest date into attending a private party in an underwater-themed tiki bar. The rules of the competition require the men to be polite, never cluing the women in on the fact that they’re being paraded & mocked for their supposed ugliness, but the cruelty of the “dogfight” remains painfully clear throughout. When Lili Taylor’s lonely diner waitress is first charmed by the invitation to party with River Phoenix’s handsome Marine, her pure joy is devastatingly tragic. In an especially telling dress-up montage, her initial bliss devolves into self-deprecating scrutiny as she tries on several unsatisfying outfits to a Woodie Guthrie tune in her bedroom mirror. Her mood drops even lower when she discovers the true, hideous nature of the tiki party, naturally, but she chooses not to recoil from Phoenix’s thoughtless brute entirely. The two embark on an unlikely Before Sunrise-style Linklater romance (years before that much more frequently-praised work), talking through their attractions & differences as they casually roam the late-night streets of 1960s San Francisco. As she pokes at & challenges the baffling displays of toxic, unbridled masculinity barking from her military-man date, her openness to seeing good in the world only becomes more heartbreaking in its optimism & vulnerability. She’s a heartbreaking figure not because anything especially tragic happens to her, but by the way she contrasts with a world that doesn’t deserve her.

There’s a sensual pleasure to Dogfight’s historical tour of San Franciscan nightlife. From the wholesome arcades & second-hand clothing shots to the all-night tattoo parlors & adult theaters running nudie cuties like The Immoral Mr. Teas, the movie covers a wide portion of a city that would later transform dramatically after the Vietnam War inspired the protest culture of the hippies. I even found myself immensely pleased with the tiki bar setting of the titular dogfight; although the circumstances were obviously cruel, it’s easy to mistake that underwater, neon-lit Ugly Women Dance Party for a kind of real world Shangri-La. The meandering, conversational rhythms of the plot allow for small bit players like Elizabeth Daily (“Dottie” from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure) & Brendan Fraser (in his first big screen role!) to drift through these environments with lasting, even if narratively inconsequential impact. What truly outweighs any of these momentary concerns, however, the philosophical clash between the hopelessly infatuated couple of a brutish, impulsive jarhead with terrifying anger issues & a desperately lonely diner waitress with a delicate passion for political idealism. Because the actor died three years later, still in his early 20s, you’d think that River Phoenix’s performance would the heartbreaker of that pairing, but it’s Lili Taylor’s divinely empathetic presence that overwhelms the film’s pathos. Dogfight is an expertly crafted heartbreaker, but not in any flamboyant or cloying way. Its emotional devastation is as soft & delicate as Lil Taylor quietly playing folk songs on her acoustic guitar, glumly staring out the window. It’s a sadness that corrodes & lingers instead of hammering you with its intent, to the point where you hardly notice how much it hurts.

Roger’s Rating: (3/4, 75%)

Brandon’s Rating (4.5/5, 90%)

Next Lesson: A Night at the Opera (1935)

-Brandon Ledet

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