Matt Zoller Seitz (Salon’s staff television critic) and I share a love of Nancy Savoca’s Dogfight, and in that, I know we are not alone.
Dogfight, written by Bob Comfort, and directed by Nancy Savoca, starred Lili Taylor as Rose Fenny, a shy frumpy (at first) waitress in San Francisco in the early 60s, who dreams of being a folk singer like Joan Baez, and River Phoenix, at his very best, playing Eddie Birdlace, an angry coiled-up Marine, about to ship over to Vietnam. The “dogfight” of the title is a contest held by the Marines over who can bring the ugliest girl to a party. Savoca had an adviser on the film who was a Marine, and he said he had been to a couple of “dogfights” himself, only they were called “pig parties”. I think for some potential audiences just hearing what the movie was about might have been a turnoff. Will it be some sort of glorification of misogyny, do we really want to see “ugly” girls humiliated like that? But Savoca manages this material with great heart and sensitivity, and Dogfight ends up being an emotional and true encounter between two misfits – Rose and Birdlace – as they navigate one strange night in San Francisco before Birdlace goes off to Vietnam. The acting is superb, and the movie has great reverb. What you think it will be, is not what it is. It goes far beyond just a Meet-Cute (or, more accurately, a Meet-Ugly), and a romantic pas-de-deux between an unlikely pair. It goes into another realm entirely, something transcendent and redemptive.
Last night, Matt and I chatted about Dogfight over IM, and I am happy to share that unedited conversation now. We talk about the final moment in the film, so consider it a spoiler.
Matt Zoller Seitz: I am so happy to find somebody who’s as enthusiastic about Dogfight as I am. I know there’s a cult of fans out there, but you almost never hear this movie mentioned except in conversations about River Phoenix and how everybody misses him. But it’s a really extraordinary film all the way around.
Sheila O’Malley: I so agree. It’s one of a handful of movies I’ve seen over 20 times. I’m not sure what it is that is so damn effective about it (in all its particulars), but that mystery – of why it so consistently works – is what keeps me going back to it. And, for me, one of the things that really made me want to talk more about this with you was your comment to me on Facebook that: “The movie would have been terrific even without the last ten minutes. But the last ten minutes make it a masterpiece.” I can’t tell you how much I agree with that statement, although I hadn’t quite put it into those words. I’d love to hear you talk more about that.
MZS: Well, I should address that by backing up and telling you about the circumstances under which I saw the film. It was 1991 or 92 when the movie played Dallas — I don’t remember exactly when. I was just out of college. Twenty-three year olds may have many fine qualities but maturity is generally not among them. And what really knocked me out about that movie was how the ending sort of put the rest of the story in its place — put it in perspective if you know what I mean. This movie showed me a future perspective that I myself would one day have, and that all functioning adults eventually have, on love, on relationships, on the mating dance. It’s a great relationship movie, a great love story, a great two-hander drama, and a great movie about the fundamental, even primordial differences between men and women, and how that difference is laid bare when they interact, flirt, try to get something romantic going. And incredibly, the last ten minutes doesn’t inflate all that, it diminishes it, in a really interesting and wise way. But maybe we should talk about the other stuff, the central relationship and the performances and Nancy Savoca’s direction, before we get to that amazing ending?
SOM: I recently watched the film again and loved listening to Savoca’s commentary track, and was surprised to hear how nervous and insecure she felt going into this project. It was a period piece, first of all, and it wasn’t strictly in the world she had already explored so beautifully in her other films. She said she over-researched it, she felt like she needed that permission to tell the story. I really appreciated that about it, because when you tell people what this movie is about (and I generally try to avoid that – I just say, “Just see it”) many people balk. They don’t want to see a movie about a bunch of Marines who hold a “dog fight” party where the contest is to see who can bring the ugliest girl. It sounds horrible.
SOM: It would take very gentle hands to take this and really turn it into a deep and tender love story, about two young people on the brink … on the brink of so many things. One of the things I love about the two characters in this film (played by Lili Taylor and River Phoenix) is that the stakes are SO HIGH for both of these characters – and yet … and yet … neither of them are aware of it. Or, to qualify that: the stakes that they think are the highest (he is about to go off to Vietnam, and she wants to “go help out in the South or maybe join the Peace Corps”) are not actually the highest. Those are just circumstantial stakes. What is really at stake is who they are as human beings on this planet, and who they are in RELATION to the opposite sex. Both of them would have taken very very different paths (I mean romantically) if they had not had that encounter.
MZS: Birdlace Eddie, the River Phoenix character, seems to be playacting machismo, in the way that so many young men do, except in his case it’s a lot more pronounced because he’s (a) a Marine and (b) about to get shipped off to Vietnam. Phoenix really nails this part, and it’s not necessarily a part I would have thought he’d have in him; the only time I recall him showing this kind of hardass coloration was in “Stand by Me,” and in that film we were aware from the very beginning that his character was a wounded soul, a 12-year old boy on the inside bluffing and pretending manhood with the curses and the cigarettes.
MZS: Eddie has the curses and the cigarettes, and he denigrates women and objectifies them just like all his buddies — it’s his way of holding them at bay, holding his fear of women at bay. But Rose’s reaction to realizing she’s participated in a dogfight — that she was brought there because she’s so “ugly” that Eddie thought she would win a prize — touches something in Eddie, some humanity that was buried. This could be so maudlin and easy were it not for the unsentimental edge both actors bring to the scene. Rose looks as though she’s been kicked in the heart.
MZS: And the only reason Eddie is touched and shamed by her reaction is because almost from the minute he started latching onto her, buttering her up and setting her up to end up at the dogfight, he liked her! You could SEE that he liked her. It was involuntary, just a reflexive reaction, an attraction. So almost from the minute he met her he was living a lie, this lie of the detached macho hunter taking the prey to the slaughter. There’s a lot in this film that speaks to acting as a condition of being alive — to the idea that masculinity and femininity are performances, that identity is a performance, you know?
SOM: Yes! Brilliant point! Because one of the necessary things that has to happen in order to grow up – for men and for women – is that we are able to easily and comfortably segue between who we are with our friends of the same sex, and who we are with our lover/mate or potential lover/mate. The people who can’t do that – who bring the hostility of the world with their friends (which is often a very valid response to feeling powerless) into the world with their potential-beloved – are often very unhappy bitter people indeed. Birdlace might have been on that path. But yes, you are so right: I love the moment where he tries to dissuade her from going into the party. This happens after the awful moment when he suggests that she put on more lipstick, and then, terribly, takes the lipstick and draws it all over her mouth. This is a fantastic moment, very difficult, and beautifully played by both actors. In another movie, the film would never recover. We could never forgive Birdlace. But watch River’s face, as he watches her giggle and check her compact, and say to him, embarrassed, “You put on lipstick almost as good as I do.”
SOM: A deep gong sounds in him. A gong of: “This is wrong.” And not only “This is wrong” but “I am wrong.” And somehow the whole moment is played without underlining it, without making a “big moment” of it. It’s his own process of discovery – and the movie allows him to have it. He cannot bear what he was about to do to this girl. And his response to her is not one of pity. It is: “This is WRONG. I LIKE this girl and what is wrong with just telling my friends that I LIKE this girl?”
MZS: Birdlace does try to dissuade her from going to the dogfight party…but he doesn’t try hard enough. He can’t overcome his conditioning. He hasn’t achieved his full potential as a human being yet. He’s not there. Inside he’s too much the guy who defaced Rose with that lipstick.
SOM: In the commentary track, Savoca mentioned that in the original script it went from them starting off to the party straight into the party, without that scene in the middle, with the lipstick and his lame attempt to dissuade her from going in. But they realized they needed another beat there, something else. Something that would be more revealing about him, and who he is – and also provide an opening for later in the film. I think that was a very smart choice. It’s a tough scene, and it still makes me uncomfortable to watch, but you can see them both, struggling under the weight of gender roles, and also just your basic date behavior, which is true in any generation. And it is my belief that Birdlace has never been on a date in his life. He’s 18 years old. He has only been with whores. That’s his ONLY experience of women. Anyway, that’s my theory. This is as much a “first” for him as it is for her. He may have had sex, unlike her, but he’s never had to seduce someone, or make a nervous girl feel comfortable, or even had to be gentle. Their first kiss is so tentative that I actually get nervous for them BOTH.
MZS: I like that theory. Hey, I want to go back to something you said earlier, because I was hoping you would clarify it. “What is really at stake,” you write of the characters, ‘is who they are as human beings on this planet, and who they are in RELATION to the opposite sex.” I agree that those two things are important, but I wonder what order you place them in. For me, the five-sixths of the film that takes place on that one night is about the characters’ respective identities as men and women and how that colors the way they exist in the world and see the world and interact with the opposite sex — how it’s the umbrella that covers every other aspect of their identities. But I think the other part, their identity as human beings PERIOD, is even more important than the man-woman thing, and for me that’s the real intent of the last sequence, the postscript. They connect as human beings. The years and experience, the suffering, have burned all the bullshit out of them. I get the sense that the final hug is between two human beings, not a man and a woman — that they have transcended the conditioning, transcended the flesh. Which is what true love really is anyway.
SOM: Okay, I have a lot to say about this, so let me get my thoughts together. I think it is connected to the music choices in the film, which are so specific. But I’ll get to that in a minute. So. We have Rose, a wallflower who lives with her mother, works as a waitress, and listens obsessively to folk music and wants, vaguely, to be connected to that movement. Somehow.
SOM: And then we have Birdlace, an angry kid who believes in what he is doing, who is proud he is a Marine, and proud that he has been chosen. Okay. This is the early 60s, remember, not the late 60s. This is before President Kennedy died. When Birdlace tells her he is shipping out to Vietnam the next day, she says, “Yeah, I think I’ve heard about that place. Aren’t they fighting there?”
SOM: Now. Why I think the film is so good, or one of the many reasons (and it goes back to my “high stakes” comment) is that these two people are “types”. As we all are, like it or not. They are well-drawn and well-played, but they are also TEENAGERS and often teenagers assume “roles” that they will end up playing for years and years to come. This is where these two are at. Rose needs to feel that folk music will “change the world”, bless her heart, and Birdlace believes “if you want to change the world, pick up a gun and start shooting.” Because we now know how the rest of the 60s played out, and what Vietnam ended up being, we can easily imagine or guess where these two characters would be if they hadn’t met one another.
SOM: I can easily imagine that if Rose had NOT met Birdlace, she might have been one of those vicious hippies that we see later in the film, the jackass who says to Birdlace on the street, “How many babies did you kill?” A terrible moment, a beautiful moment: the tolerance of the hippies seen as what it really was, in many ways: total intolerance. I can see that if Rose had not met Birdlace, she might not have had her heart opened up to ALL of humanity, not just the folk singers singing about peace and the downtrodden, but the American boys fighting a horrible war. This is one of the huge strengths of the film, because it is entirely unspoken and also un-shown. What I imagine is that during the horrible years following, as Vietnam heated up, as the rhetoric heated up, there was something in her – a quiet still center – that resisted the dogma of the San Francisco neighborhood she lived in. She may have wanted peace, but it would have never never come out in a mean-spirited way like “How many babies did you kill?” And I believe that Rose, in her idealistic and in some ways naive world, COULD have gone down that path. She COULD have become one of those hateful people. But she didn’t. How could she? She had known Birdlace. Whether or not they end up together as a couple is irrelevant in the face of her realization that EVERYONE deserves peace and understanding, especially those boys in uniform returning home. There was a heartlessness to the 60s. She might have succumbed. But because of Birdlace, she will not. She is a better PERSON for having known him.
MZS: And yet that postscript, if memory serves, sticks with Birdlace until that very last scene. This leads me to something else I wanted to ask you about. Do you feel that Rose is slightly more advanced, more mature, than Birdlace? I certainly do, and I think the film thinks that, too. Bob Comfort’s screenplay does suggest that while both characters might have misconceptions about each other and themselves, Birdlace is more fucked up, more limited, and his pathologies more toxic than Rose. He’s the one who needs to get his consciousness raised, slightly more than her, I’d argue. And…What were you going to say about the use of pop music in the film?
SOM: Well, I’m not so sure about that. This might be the interesting situation of a man and a woman seeing the film and having different responses, based on our own experiences. I think Rose is emotionally more mature. And he eventually recognizes that, too. But she is a child in many ways. I mean, she has this hot Marine in her room and she suggests they play musical bingo? (His reaction to this is one of my favorite moments in the film.)
SOM: I don’t think she should be shamed for that. We all mature at different speeds, and she is quite fortunate that she found this unlikely person to usher her into being a woman. But I certainly agree that the film is, in many ways, about men. About what happens with men in PACKS, and how deadly that can be. So yes, he needs to grow up, and be able to choose the woman he wants to choose, and also to have the freedom to not see women as either dogs or whores. But she also needs to realize that she is not a little girl, she is a woman. He somehow, weirdly, awkwardly, helps her do that. That scene in the bedroom is a masterpiece. Not only is it acted brilliantly, but Savoca made the choice to not do close-up to close-up – they are filmed in medium shot, making out on the bed, and it just plays out in real time. It is agonizing to watch.
SOM: And what I love about HIS role here is that … he steps up. This is a woman who needs to be drawn out. He doesn’t “draw her out” to manipulate her, but because he senses that’s what she needs, and he wants her to be happy and comfortable. In that way, he is further along on the maturity path than she is – but I still think this movie represents a GIANT leap forward for both of them. Now to the music, which is connected to all of this: When she comes back from the “dogfight”, devastated, she sits in her room, and plays Joan Baez’s “Silver Dagger”. That’s the one that has the line “I decided to sleep alone all of my life.”
SOM: Later, when she and Birdlace come back to her room, she asks him if he wants to hear some music. He says sure, and she puts on a record. The song that comes on is “Shake Sugaree” – written by Elizabeth Cotten and sung by a 12 year old girl. Birdlace and Rose talk, awkwardly, and try to play musical bingo, and she tells him about the folk singers on her wall – all as the 12 year old girl sings in the background. Finally, the sexual vibe starts heating up and they get into bed together. At that point, the Shake Sugaree song ends, and another record drops. The song that starts then is “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right”, Bob Dylan.
SOM: The energy changes. It is now Birdlace who is in charge. They’re kissing, and he’s whispering in her ear, making her laugh, and kissing her on the forehead, her cheekbones … When I write all this out, it seems way too obvious, but it’s really all just an underlining in the scene, not too on the nose. When it comes time for him to take charge, Bob Dylan is there. They don’t make love for the first time listening to Joan Baez. That’s too exclusionary, too much HER world. In that moment, after a whole night of him learning to soften, to relax … it’s time for the male-ness to come back into play. It’s time for him to take charge. I may be making too large a claim for the music choices, but I honestly don’t think so.
MZS: I hadn’t thought about that — the way the soundtrack alternates female and male singers and there’s a reason why it does that. It’s the Greek chorus effect. Not to get too meta here, but I think the soundtrack doesn’t just work with the storyline, it certifies in a larger sense exactly what sort of movie we’re watching. It’s a dialectical film, with the male and female perspectives talking to each other through these characters, and it’s all in service of ultimately transcending gender roles and getting at something deeper. And since we’re going here, isn’t is great, and doesn’t it help tremendously, that the film is written by a man but directed by a woman? I would imagine that dynamic contributed mightily to some of the qualities we’re appreciating here. To me it seems likely that if a heterosexual man had directed this film — especially somebody who was of Birdlace’s generation — it might be too much about the hero’s maturation, with Rose serving as a catalyst. But I don’t get that sense at all. That sense of Rose as a person who is hiding from adult relationships, from adulthood generally, in naive attitudes and a kind of weird girlish affectation comes through very strongly, and I suspect that having a woman in the director’s chair probably contributed to that sense of vividness, that sophisticated and tender appreciation, that the film has for Rose.
SOM: I love your comment. I think it’s right on. How awful would it have been, how typical, if it had only been Birdlace’s story. That would have cheated Rose of her own growth, of her own story. This is a two-person movie, make no mistake. One would not work without the other. And yes, I think the female director guided the project through some pretty treacherous waters. She mentions in the commentary track auditioning the women for the “dogfight”, and suddenly realizing, on the day they were seeing actresses, what she was actually doing: “I am admitting to these women that I find them less than attractive.” She said it was a very emotional day, for everyone, and that the women she ended up choosing as the “dogfight girls” had a lot of fun with it, getting into the spirit of the project, and I can’t help but think that that had a lot to do with Savoca herself.
SOM: The gender roles here are very toxic, and set-in-stone, and you can see how both sides are trapped by that rigidity. Birdlace rips up Rose’s address on his way to shipping off to Vietnam, and while I imagine that people sometimes gasp in pain at seeing that gesture, I thought, “Yup. Of course he would do that.” Where he’s going, he can’t afford to be looking back like that. He has to go completely into the male world. But look at what happens in those final 10 minutes, as you mentioned. When he returns, who does he go back to find? We need each other. We don’t even know why. But the entire world depends on us needing each other like that. That’s what Dogfight honors, in the end. That’s what it’s all about.