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

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 3: Apocalypse Now (1979)

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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 Apocalypse Now (1979) is referenced in Life Itself: In the first edition hardback, Apocalypse Now is referenced on page 2. Roger mentions that when “The Ride of the Valkyres”plays during a helicopter attack in the film, he got a rare, tingling sensation of “reality realigning itself,” the same feeling he had when he proposed marriage to Chaz & the day his father announced he was dying of cancer. In the film version of Life Itself, Ebert is shown arguing the merits of Apocalypse Now to a nonplussed Gene Siskel on two separate occasions. He seemed especially aggravated that Siskel enjoyed Full Metal Jacket more than Apocalypse Now.

What Ebert had to say in his reviews: “Years and years from now, when Coppola’s budget and his problems have long been forgotten, ‘Apocalypse’ will still stand, I think, as a grand and grave and insanely inspired gesture of filmmaking — of moments that are operatic in their style and scope, and of other moments so silent we can almost hear the director thinking to himself.” – From his 1979 review for the Chicago Sun Times

“Other important films such as ‘Platoon,’ ‘The Deer Hunter,’ ‘Full Metal Jacket’ and ‘Casualties of War’ take their own approaches to Vietnam. Once at the Hawaii Film Festival I saw five North Vietnamese films about the war. (They never mentioned ‘America,’ only ‘the enemy,’ and one director told me, ‘It is all the same–we have been invaded by China, France, the U.S. . . .’) But ‘Apocalypse Now’ is the best Vietnam film, one of the greatest of all films, because it pushes beyond the others, into the dark places of the soul. It is not about war so much as about how war reveals truths we would be happy never to discover.” -From his 1999 review for his “Great Movies” series

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It’s near impossible to tell whether or not I’ve seen Apocalypse Now before. Surely, there are plenty of scenes in the film that are vivid to me out of context, but I might’ve picked those up incidentally by catching them on a Greatest Movies of All Time clip show or playing on television while channel surfing. The reason I’m unsure if I’ve ever watched Apocalypse Now in its entirety before is that I feel like I’d more clearly remember a viewing experience as weighty as the film’s 3+hour runtime. I hate to be the kind of cinematic philistine who knocks a slow-paced “classic” for testing my patience, but Apocalypse Now is too damn long. There is a wealth of individual scenes in the film that carry a forceful impact in isolation, but when they’re broken up by a slow trudge upriver & Batman-gritty narration about “the horror, the horror” of war, Apocalypse Now reveals itself to be a huge commitment of time & effort that might not deliver everything it promises. As a literary adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness I think the film is a fresh, interesting take that reveals new truths about its source material by shifting its setting & narrative detail, but the truth is I found Heart of Darkness to be just as much of a chore as consuming Apocalypse Now in one sitting. This is a great adaptation of a novel I don’t care for & a runtime that spiraled out of control even before its extended “Redux” treatment. There’s no denying that the film is packing several powerful punches, though, and it’s all too easy to see how someone could fall in love with the film as a massive whole.

A lot of Apocalypse Now‘s imagery & one-liners are perhaps a little too over-familiar after years of reverent repetition: the ceiling fan blades fading into helicopter sounds, Martin Sheen’s mud-painted face emerging form the bog, the utterance of “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”, etc. However, it’s clear as day with two stretches of the film still play freshest in 2016. I feel like I’ve seen a lot of the film’s war-is-Hell grittiness covered thoroughly in other works. the alcohol-fueled PTSD, overbearing narration, and off-hand soldier quips like, “You’re in the asshole of the world, Captain” all feel like old hat at this point, whether or not they were groundbreaking representation in 1979. What does feel important & unique still is the film’s approach to representing madness among soldiers. Robert Duvall’s colonel might be remembered most for what he likes to smell in the morning, but his emotionally detached obsession with surfing under fire is what stands out most in modern viewings. While dodging bombs & bullets from the Viet Cong, Duvall orders his terrified young men to surf the incoming tide as if they were kicking back beers on a California beach instead of fearing for their lives under fire in Vietnam. It’s a perfect representation of how the war left many men emotionally detached & downright deranged.

Of course, Duvall’s colonel is just a small taste of wartime madness before the main feast: Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz. It takes a three hour effort for Martin Sheen’s broken shell of a captain to make it upriver to meet Kurtz & decide whether or not to complete his mission of assassinating the defected madman. A lot of anticipation is built by the time Martin Sheen & Marlon Brando share their infamous face to face in the film’s third act and it’s amazing just how much Brando delivers under that pressure. His intensely weird performance as Kurtz is a tangible, skin-crawling kind of madness that feels inseparable from Brando as an actor, especially in light of the recent documentary Listen to Me Marlon that hits a lot of the same deranged, hypnotic notes. A lot of audiences in 1979 believed that, like Kurtz, Brando “had gone totally insane & that [his] methods were unsound.” However, if his performance were indeed a work of madness, it’s undeniably of the mad genius variety.

As Ebert points out in this review, any movie is lucky to have one or two great scenes & Apocalypse Now has many. The film gets on a particular roll in its final sequence once Kurtz’s mania graces the screen and the imagery & music combine to create a sort of wartime tone poem that just screams “art house darling” in every frame. There was a lot made of the troubled, over-budget production that plagued Apocalypse Now at the time of its release & there was indeed enough snafus during filming to support a feature length documentary, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. The prevailing wisdom of the time is that director Francis Ford Coppola, was in the middle of a winning streak that included titles like The Godfather & The Outsiders might’ve bitten off more than he could chew with Apocalypse Now & the resulting film was somewhat of an untethered mess that couldn’t quite match its ambition with a unifying sense of discipline. Discerning critics like Ebert, who heralded the film like a masterpiece, had a completely different take, lauding the film as an impeccably visualized descent into madness, an entirely new & powerful way of representing war’s savage effect on the fragile human mind.

I think the truth probably lies somewhere between these two takes. The third, Kurtz-focused hour of the film really does feel like it taps into a troubled soldier’s plight in a way that few film scan claim to do, with much of the credit for that accomplishment resting firmly on Marlon Brando’s beyond mad shoulders & Coppola’s eye for haunting visuals. However, the film’s sprawling runtime & three separate versions (including the “Redux” & an infamous bootleg of a workprint) point to a director who may have flew a little too close to the sun to fully realize his vision. I respect Apocalypse Now‘s ambition & find its messy approach to Vietnam War cinema to be a lot more satisfying than more cookie-cutter examples of the genre, but I also find the idea of the film being a masterpiece to be a somewhat flimsy argument. It really does have more truly great scenes than most movies could dream to bring to the screen, but the film itself never feels like more than the sum of its parts. Much like Sheen’s protagonist, Apocalypse Now goes on a dangerous, mind-threatening journey upriver to seek great existential truths, only to discover it’s not sure what to do once it reaches its destination.

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Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

fourstar

Brandon’s Rating: (3.5/5, 70%)

threehalfstar

-Brandon Ledet