Though Nostalgic and Sweet, ‘Dogfight’ Reminds Us Not to Romanticize the Past

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Rose is dressed for the party.

In 1963, a  group of young marines spend a night in San Francisco before being deployed to Vietnam. When one invites a shy, frumpy girl to a party called a “dogfight,” he has no idea that he will have fallen for her come morning. Director Nancy Savoca captures a moment of love and tenderness during a time of political upheaval. Historical context in Dogfight (1991) adds a further layer of nostalgia while inviting the audience to look at the past through a more critical lens. (RMM: 4/5)

Review by FF2 Associate Roza M. Melkumyan

The year is 1963 and young marines “Eddie” (River Phoenix), “Berzin” (Richard Panebianco), “Oakie” (Anthony Clark), and “Benjamin” (Mitchell Whitfield) are ready to have one last night of fun before their deployment to Vietnam. As their bus arrives in San Francisco, the best friends start their bets. Tonight they will each be competing in what they call a “dogfight” – a competition in which each participant tries to bring the ugliest date for prize money.

The marines spend the day searching for girls they deem ugly and trying to convince them to come to a party with them. After several rejections and with time running out, Eddie is desperate. When he meets the awkward waitress and aspiring musician “Rose” (Lili Taylor), he pulls out all the stops in enticing her to the party, even pretending to like her favorite folk singers. After some hesitation, Rose accepts Eddie’s invitation and quickly changes. 

As Rose chats about how she wants to leave the cafe where she works and instead make a difference in the world, Eddie seems nervous. At the party, he tells her to finish her drink. As the other marines and their dates get up to dance, Eddie urges Rose to stay seated. She doesn’t know that the dance portion of the night is the official judging period, where other marines will decide whose date is the ugliest. She rushes to the bathroom and vomits in a toilet, where she overhears Benjamin arguing with his date “Marcie” (Elizabeth Daily), who later tells her that the party was really a dogfight.

An angry Rose finds Eddie and slaps him across the face, calling him a “cruel, heartless, ignorant creep,” among other insults. The other marines call her a bitch, but Eddie is clearly affected. Later that night, he comes to her house – which is just above the cafe where she works – and asks her out on a real date to make up for his hurtful actions earlier. He reveals that he was trying to talk her out of the party once he realized that he didn’t want to hurt her. Though Rose is skeptical of Eddie’s sincerity, she agrees to dinner. While the other marines spend the rest of the night getting tattoos and blowjobs, Eddie and Rose find themselves slowly falling for each other. Before Eddie leaves for the harbor, he promises to write Rose.

Despite its premise, Dogfight (1991) is a rather intimate film. Director Nancy Savoca wonderfully encapsulates the sweet earnest of two seemingly different people coming together both mentally and physically. They not only find comfort in each other’s physical company – via touch – but in their conversation as well. Both are rather awkward, practically stumbling into a kiss at one point. But this lack of grace feels so much more real than all the other perfectly scripted and choreographed romance movies out there. 

Marcie tells Rose about the dogfight.

Keeping in mind that this is a movie made in the 1990s about the 1960s, I cannot ignore the tendency to romanticize the past here. It may not do so at quite the level of, say, Grease (a film made in the 1970s which glorifies the late 1950s), but it does carry a note of nostalgia. When Rose vocalizes her dream of singing at the now-famous City Lights Bookstore, maybe we think of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and other Beat movement writers whose ideas were considered new and rebellious during their time. On a personal level, I enjoy seeing the period’s fashion trends.

I do think, however, that Savoca wants us to maintain a somewhat critical gaze. And frankly, in 2020, it is difficult not to do so, especially regarding the film’s treatment of women. I mean, the concept of a dogfight in and of itself is sexist and cruel. Eddie’s friends often refer to the women they meet as sluts or bitches, and they very overtly objectify them. Thankfully, Savoca gives us some satisfaction when Rose publicly and pointedly calls Eddie out for his behavior. Still, before falling into the spell of flower power nostalgia, I am reminded that the 1960s weren’t all that. Women were second class citizens in many ways, and people of color were third class. It reminds me of the disparities in human treatment that still exist today.

While I enjoyed the film, I often wanted its characters to open up a bit more and talk about their ideas and internal struggles. I wonder if this is because I watched its musical adaptation first. Inspired by the film, Dogfight (the musical) premiered Off-Broadway in 2012. Though it never actually made it to Broadway, it remains a beautiful production with thoughtful and well-crafted songs that explore both the interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships of its characters. The musical works as the perfect companion to the film, I believe, because it expands and builds upon the themes and relationships introduced in the film. If the film introduces me to both Eddie and Rose, then the musical’s songs deepen my understanding of their characters.

For instance, let’s look at Rose’s solitary after-party scene. While the film features a heartbroken Rose listening to a sad record track, the musical includes an entire song called “Pretty Funny.” Rose sings about having felt ugly and inadequate her whole life, about feeling pretty for the first time when Eddie invited her out, and about her subsequent disappointment and acceptance that she will never be desirable. The song allows us to empathize much more fully with Rose and her insecurities because we maybe recognize them in ourselves.

In my favorite song, “Come Back,” Eddie has just returned from Vietnam. In the film, a wearied Eddie grabs a drink at a bar before finding Rose again. A hippie on the street, seeing his uniform, asks how many babies he killed. So we know that this unfavorable opinion of the war will, at times, extend to Eddie himself. But in the musical, Eddie sings, “they scoff, they spit, no parade, all you get is shit when you come back.” Here is a person who left for war a boy eager to feel the pride of victory and recognition, and came back a disillusioned and tired man. His assimilation back into American society will be excruciatingly tricky after the travesties he witnesses. We feel his pain and confusion as he begins to experience the PTSD that will likely stay with him for years to come.

For this reason, if you watch Dogfight, I highly recommend listening to its sister musical counterpart’s soundtrack alongside it. It will offer a more enriching experience overall. 

© Roza M. Melkumyan (10/10/20) FF2 Media

Rose and Eddie share a hug.

Featured Photo: Rose and Eddie are about to share a kiss.

Photo Credits: Bob Marshak

Q: Does Dogfight pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test? 

Yes… but barely.

Rose briefly talks to her mother about work at the restaurant, and later about the party.

Tags: Dogfight, FF2 Media, Nancy Savoca, Roza Melkumyan, TCM, Turner Classic Movies, WomenMakeFilm

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As a member of the FF2 Media team, Roza writes features and reviews and coaches other associates and interns. She joined the team as an intern herself during her third year of study at New York University. There she individualized her major and studied narrative through a cultural lens and in the mediums of literature, theatre, and film. At school, Roza studied abroad in Florence and London, worked as a Resident Assistant, and workshopped a play she wrote and co-directed. Since graduating, she spent six months in Spain teaching English and practicing her Spanish. Most recently, she spent a year in Armenia teaching university English as a Fulbright scholar. Her love of film has only grown over the years, and she is dedicated to providing the space necessary for female filmmakers to prosper.
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