An all-black inner city school has to become an integrated school. Few dozen white kids are transfered there, but the black students are aggressively opposed to this. The school then approaches a tough black teacher for help.
'Fat City' has an solid and hard-won reputation. It was released to the cinema in 1972 with little fanfare. It got good notices but was one of those films that could not expect immediate success with a fickle public prone to more showy attractions; today it has a loyal following amongst those not oblivious to its virtues. As embarrassing as it is to admit, on discovering 'Fat City' I clasped it to my heart in gratitude: I had found something worthy of my attention that was not Hollywood vulgarity nor mindless escapism for the great unwashed. It was a film with backbone, a film with brain. 'Fat City' is an unforgettable portrayal of lost and lonely people quietly losing what is left of their lives. They struggle to survive but the struggle is pointless and they are left at the mercy of an unyielding fate that can only be guessed at, because of the film's refusal to pander to audience expectations of mindless resolutions and resolutely happy endings. Winning isn't the issue, but how much it's going to cost merely to survive. But most of all 'Fat City' is a film with its heart in the right place. The characters are not remarkable, they may not even be bright, but they are real and breathing people being photographed as their lives are disintegrating in front of us. Such an approach was relief from the stifling boundaries of Hollywood notions of entertainment when I first saw the film on ex-rental VHS and remains so today.
The characters in this story are played by Jeff Bridges as Ernie, and Stacy Keach as Billy. Ernie and Billy are both going in opposite directions in their lives one up (supposedly) and the other down. They make a connection with each other for the purposes of mutual support and camaraderie, both scarcities in the world of small time boxing in Stockton California where the movie is set. Billy has already begun his downward trajectory towards oblivion for personal and professional reasons. He meets Ernie, an inarticulate young man with some talent and sets him on his way to what they both hope will be a successful boxing career. Things however, don't go entirely to plan. Candy Clark plays Jeff's girlfriend, a lost soul, who seems incapable of making her own decisions. A relatively unknown actress Susan Tyrell received an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress for her part as Oma, Stacy Keach's mentally unstable girlfriend. Both give standout performances, but Tyrell's is more showy, and it's understandable why the Academy took notice. The film was shot on location in Stockton, and the rest of the cast appear to be locals who effortlessly give the film an authenticity which is so rare for a mainstream American film. Finally, the Kris Kristofferson ballad 'Help Me Make it Through the Night' is prominently featured to excellent effect, in order to illustrate the desolation and loneliness of the main characters.
The lack of a driving narrative is actually one of the virtues of 'Fat City', It makes up for this with lots of atmosphere and interesting and believable people. It takes it's time to tell what story there is, and is almost Thomas Hardy-like in its sense of fatalism. I could be facetious by describing 'Fat City' as a hybrid of Thomas Hardy, with a bit of 'Barfly' thrown in. The two films are strikingly similar in their portrayal of the working class streets of an anonymous, American city, and its characters, largely inarticulate and living on the fringe, which is a polite way of saying that they're poor. It strikes me with these kinds of films which don't wish to be seen as mainstream, how bold they are in depicting the reality of poverty in America as if being poor is a crime. I think this kind of approach is more of a reality now than it was when 'Fat City' was originally made.
Boxing is portrayed in 'Fat City' as a nasty, unpleasant business that scars the lives of the men and women who inhabit it and suffice to say, this isn't your conventional Hollywood boxing film. It's not remotely like any other and to compare 'Fat City' with 'Raging Bull' is like comparing aesthetics to real human engagement. Huston has an interest in the characters both as human beings with the ability to act freely (at least once), as well as victims of a corrupt society which really doesn't care for them. The fetishisation of two men pounding it out in the ring is of no concern to Huston, but rather the dubious morality of feeding unrealistic expectations to the poor and disenfranchised when their lives are not enriched but destroyed by the notion of an American 'success' which they crave for themselves but can never achieve because of an unjust economic inequality entrenched in the American system. If this seems like an overly didactic interpretation of the film, it's because the realism it displays is endemic and one cannot help, if one respects a film, to treat it on its own terms instead of offering a critique that is not adequate to its purpose.
According to other critics more influential than I, 'Fat City' is right up there as one of John Huston's best films, and is believed by many to be his crowning achievement. There are some who even rate it as one of the best films of the '70s, but the fact is that this has been far less seen, than other, better known and more familiar titles, that it could be argued, are not nearly as good. For so many reasons, 'Fat City' deserves to be seen by a larger audience who I am sure would appreciate it as much as those who have been lucky enough to see it in the past. For anyone reading who hasn't, you won't fail to be captivated by the lyricism and meaningful human truths of 'Fat City'.
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