BLOG: Punching In at the Watering Hole: Fat City and the Alcoholism Film

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Peter DragovichJohn Huston is no stranger to the crime film fan.  He directed The Maltese Falcon and The Asphalt Jungle, films that defined the private eye and heist films, whose influence is felt even today.  He played Noah Cross, the snarling creepy millionaire villain of Chinatown, which in the Nerd’s decidedly un-humble opinion is the best crime film of all time.  Hell, even people who’ve seen only a handful of classic films probably know him as the director of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen, two of the most sub-fucking-lime entertainments to be enjoyed in front of a screen.

But his directorial work following the collapse of the old studio system is less treasured, and though that work is kinda spotty, some of his most ambitious and beautiful films came late in life for the legendary filmmaker.  Yeah, he still made some pretty great, straight-up Old Hollywood-style movies with a capital “M” late in life too like The Man Who Would Be King and Prizzi’s Honor, but he also did subtle, off-beat stuff like Wise Blood, Under The Volcano and The Dead.  One of my favorites of the latter category is 1972’s Fat City, a movie remembered as a boxing pic but is really an alcoholism film, from a screenplay by Leonard Gardner adapted from his 1969 novel.

It’s the story of two boxers in Stockton, CA whose paths meet only occasionally in the film but their encounters are always something meaningful.  The film opens with Billy Tully (Stacy Keach), a once strong local fighter, deciding to go the Y and get back in shape.  There he comes across Ernie Munger, an eighteen year-old goofing around in the gym, and asks him to spar.  The two of them have it out just briefly before Billy claims he pulled a muscle and calls it quits, but not before telling Munger to go see Ruben, his old trainer, and to tell ‘em Billy sent ya.

Munger goes to Ruben’s gym and agrees the kid has promise, takes him on.  He also says that Billy is sadly a flake, always promising to get back in fighting form only to quit out of the blue and go back to the bar.  While Munger goes on to have a hugely unspectacular career with Ruben, Billy takes work picking crops and shacks up with a belligerent drunk named Oma (Susan Tyrrell, who sadly passed just a few days ago).  After a few months Billy comes to recognize how numbing his foggy life with Oma is and actually agrees to move in with Ruben and train for a decent comeback fight.  But even though he beats a pretty strong opponent, Billy gets pissed at Ruben, goes back to his dreary life of boozing and day labor, his excuse this time being the crummy payout.

Billy is that guy you see when you go to Happy Hour after work, the guy sitting alone but willing to turn on the charm if you look his way or offer him a smoke.  He’ll brag about his grand past and his big plans, maybe bitch about his ex-wife or current old lady, but no matter the talk you just know that you could swing by the joint a year from now and he’d still be at that same stool, not remembering you and insisting on telling the same tall tales.

As you can tell from the rundown thus far, Fat City isn’t exactly a joyous film, but it is far from miserable.  Shot in Stockton itself, every location and actor (outside of the fresh-faced Bridges) looks lived-in…languished-in, more like.  This isn’t a nice world by any means but it doesn’t seem dangerous either.  And that’s what makes Fat City such a special flick in the sub-genre of alcoholism films: It depicts the life of an alcoholic not as something harrowing and desperate so much as it is a life of cheap comfort and quietly crushing inertia.

The last time Billy and Ernie meet Ernie is going home after a rough fight and Billy, already drunk, catches him on the way to his car.  He asks Ernie to grab a drink with him and Ernie turns him down, saying he’s gotta get home to his new wife and kid, his family that he day labors and boxes around the region for.  Ernie talks Billy down to getting a cup of coffee and the two men sit in a crowded cafe, neither with much to say to the other.

Ernie seems comfortable, his life no doubt hard-scrabble but ultimately satisfying.  Billy begs Ernie to just sit with him for a while longer, to share in the boredom just a few minutes more.  It’s clear from this final image that neither man will ever achieve great things, but at least one of them might approach something resembling happiness, and that man will just have the coffee, thank you very much.