Bird Watching – Nancy Savoca’s “Dogfight”
Discovering a great, previously unknown performance from an admired actor is one of the joys of watching little-known films. Discovering a pair of great performances from actors you never knew worked together is even better. This was just part of my delight while watching Nancy Savoca’s 1991 film Dogfight, starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor.
With our opening scenes set in 1963, we meet Phoenix’s character, Eddie Birdlace—a very young man about to ship off to a war of yet-unknown horrors, called Vietnam. He and his three best buddies, also about to ship out in the same unit, carouse as if it’s just the last night of summer before returning to classes. They’re crass boys with a cruel running joke: competing to see who can find the ugliest date in one night. (I’ll add here, unnecessarily, that the pale-faced buddies are not exactly a crew of George Clooney lookalikes, themselves.) This is the “dogfight” of the title, and it casts an admirably tricky challenge to getting the viewer to want to go along with Eddie for the rest of the film.
The man-boys in uniform spread out to find their victims, and Eddie has more trouble finding a suitable target than the rest. Finally, he goes into a diner, where a big-haired, awkward waitress on her break strums a guitar in a dark corner. This is Rose, played by Taylor. (I’ll add here, unnecessarily, that Taylor is not exactly a Gorgon in her natural state.) Though she resists at first, Eddie clumsily woos her by showing an interest in music, and poor Rose puts on her best (hideous) dress and sets off into the night with him.
An interesting thing happens to Eddie at this point. He doesn’t want to go through with it. It’s not that he’s truly intrigued by Rose just yet—that bit will come; this is an indie dramedy, after all—but more like as they walk through the streets of San Francisco talking, the smallness and stupidity of what he’s about to do dawns on him. But that realization is perhaps related to his knowledge that Rose isn’t ugly enough to win the contest (he tries at one point to encourage her to put on more messy lipstick, because she looks too normal), so it’s a shallow bit of backtracking at best. It’s to both Bob Comfort’s script’s and River Phoenix’s credit that Eddie’s exact thought process doesn’t need to be spelled out. We just know something’s going on with him, and by the time they reach the dive bar, it’s as if he’s the one who’s walking into a trap, rather than her.
This tiny twist from similarly-themed stories—that Eddie is already regretful before Rose inevitably finds out about the deception, and before he really admits to liking her—contributes greatly to the film’s success. It means that the protagonist’s journey does not rest entirely on the promise of romance; Rose may be odd, but she’s no Manic Pixie Dream Girl existing only to illuminate and expand the male character’s sense of self-worth. As the two characters continue their adventure through the bizarre night, they stand on an unexpected kind of equal footing. Neither has an assured knowledge of how to proceed, and each must trust the other to move ahead with good intentions.
Director Nancy Savoca handles the delicate tone of the film wonderfully. With so much cruelty and painful awkwardness at the core of the set-up, and with the specter of war’s doom on the horizon, one might not expect that there are many lighter, funny moments that work very well. This is a hard thing for films to do, even though life so often thoroughly mixes pain and laughter. Films that succeed in this always earn my admiration. And they are real laughs, based in the interactions of the two main characters—this indie sees no need for them to come across, say, a pontificating stoner who spells out the wisdom of the night in quips. The proceedings, even having begun with such a contrived situation, are too genuine for that sort of nonsense. I wish more filmmakers would put in the work it takes to build such characters, layering traits upon emotions, rather than stringing together a bunch of quirks.
I do very much admire the deft avoidance of cliché, and that’s part of why I liked this film so much. It’s also just one of those too-rare films where every element is solid: the acting enhances the script; the direction enhances the world; the music enhances the emotion. This film belongs in the canon of ’90s indie classics, and I’ve no idea why it doesn’t seem to be on that list. I highly recommend seeking it out.