The 1972 boxing picture Fat City is one of those films that may not make sense to you right away. Truth be told, it took me all the way to the perfectly composed, heartbreaking final scene to understand exactly what it was I had just watched. This isn't your standard sports story; it is not a rise-and-fall narrative. Rather, it's one where the fortunes of its characters gather steam, stand up, and crash repeatedly, like waves on the ocean. It is a movie about carrying on, about finding reasons to get up in the morning, about how men seek pursuits where they can imagine themselves happy.
Fat City was directed by veteran filmmaker John Huston, whose credits already included The Maltese Falcon and The Misfits, and who would go on to an old age of poignant movies about the end of life like Under the Volcano and The Dead. Fat City finds the cinema pioneer fully embracing the times. It is not a throwback to the Golden Age of Hollywood, but is in step with the maverick artistic aspirations of 1970s American moviemaking. Based on a book by Leonard Gardner (who also wrote the script), it stars Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges as two boxers, one an old has-been and the other a young could-be. The tale traces their intersecting paths. Keach's Tully randomly encounters Bridges' Ernie at an empty gym. Seeing something in the kid, he recommends he go see his old manager (Nicholas Colasanto, best known as "Coach" from Cheers). Ernie gets a few fights while Tully works as a day laborer. Tully has a drinking problem and shacks up with a barfly (Susan Tyrrell, Cry-Baby); Ernie knocks up his girlfriend (Candy Clark, American Graffiti) and has to get serious about earning a wage. Both men eventually find themselves in the same place again.
The predictable thing to do here would be to have the boxers fight, young vs. old, the student taking on the master. Luckily, Gardner and Huston avoid such an easy out. The tragedy of Fat City is there is no great victory, neither fighter is anything special, they are just working men struggling to get by. One maybe sees his hope in the other, but they both deny their shared pain. Particularly Tully. He could stare in a mirror and say, "There but for the grace of God go I" and not realize it's his own reflection. Keach plays him masterfully. He is essentially a kind and even tender man, but life's disappointments have buried a rage in him. It comes out in explosive ways every once in a while, but mostly it eats away at him from the inside out. One of the best scenes of the movie is when Tully is chatting up Oma (Tyrrell), listening to her stories and bearing her insults, but eventually he provides an able body for her to lean on as he walks her home. As Fat City rolls on, it's clear no one is going to give Tully a similar break.
Like a good fighter, Fat City is lean and in shape. It dances around its central theme, drawing the punches, using each minute wisely. Huston is creating a naturalistic fight movie here. He wants to show how common life is on the lower end of the profession. The cinematography from Conrad Hall (Cool Hand Luke, Road to Perdition) captures the real scenery--the bars, the onion fields, the rundown gyms--without adding any extra glitz. The texture of the old film stock, and even the somewhat dilapidated DVD transfer, makes Fat City look like a perfectly preserved moment in time. There are no frills, no great sweeping camera movements. The boxing is raw, sometimes confusing and distant, and not at all graceful. It's dirty and cheap, the visual equivalent to the gravel in Kris Kristofferson's voice in the movie's theme.
And so it is that you come to that ending: two generations sitting together and pondering the misery of a third. Each one thinking, "I don't want to be that guy." Which is exactly when it hits you: everyone ends up as "that guy." You survive, you keep breathing, and just hope it turns out to be enough.