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The Finishing Touches: I Left My Love in San Francisco                                                              Taylor Grieshober



(Dogfight, dir. Nancy Savoca, 94 min.)



First, let me confess something. I’ve always had a huge soft spot for films made in the 80’s/90’s that are set in the 60’s. They bring to life the photos from my high school history books in a way that isn’t overly stylized like the films from the ‘00s and beyond. The last thirty years brought us Stand By Me, The Sandlot, Mermaids, This Boy’s Life, Peggy Sue Got Married, and Now & Then. (Full disclosure: I had such an affinity for the latter that I wore saddle shoes, peasant tops, and what I sentimentally referred to as “pedal pushers” on every warm day of the fourth grade.) There is one 90’s take on that tumultuous time in history that I missed and it’s called Dogfight.


        Starring fresh-faced River Phoenix and Lili Taylor, Dogfight is a star-crossed love story set in late 60’s San Francisco. Eddy Birdlace (Phoenix) is an eighteen-year-old marine who has a layover in the city for one night before he ships out for Vietnam. Eddy and his pals embark on what has become a yearly mission. The boys must find the ugliest girl they can and bring her to a club, where they’ll pull their bets on the homeliest one. The guy with the ugliest date wins.


        Eddy meets Rose (Taylor), a diner waitress who sings folk songs on her break. Her frizzy hair is cartoonishly piled atop her head like Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray and she’s so earnest it makes you ache. She happily agrees to accompany Eddy to the party and we’re off.


        We watch Rose tear through her closet for a suitable outfit. We are wrapped up in the excitement and terror of a first date and pity Rose for her naiveté. This scene captures what is most effective about Savoca’s lens: her keen ability to evoke the mood of a moment.


        Much like Rose’s crazy hair, the party scene is reminiscent of John Waters. All the “dogs” don vibrant costumes, pastel make-up, and big do-s. There is the fanged brunette smiling wildly and a busty transvestite a foot taller than her shrimpy date. Paired with swaggering rock tunes that recall Pink Flamingos, these women could be the sisters of Divine and Mink Stole, and Rose is definitely our Ricki Lake. The scene is interesting because our feelings of pity for these seemingly foolish women mingle with an overwhelming sense of attraction. These girls are having a blast being themselves, and are, unlike their “Jarhead” counterparts, interesting to watch. Beneath all their kitsch, they seem to have larger-than-life personalities and they don’t even have lines. Meanwhile the Marines are portrayed as one-dimensional misogynists. With their crew cuts and smug grins they feed into an inner-changeable stereotype: the aggressive, hyper-masculine oaf. It’s a probing study into the gender paradigm where men fall prey to the pressure of keeping up macho appearances. Despite the fact that the movie is bursting with tulle and counter-culture slang, it remains relevant in this regard.


        You probably see where this is going. Eddy’s wicked attempt to ensnare Rose into the dogfight serves as the catalyst for their unlikely romance. The story is electrified as the two spend the night walking all over town. It’s the kind of spontaneous night you have with someone new that you never want to end. The most thrilling of their discoveries is a museum of automata.


        Though Eddy is initially the focal point of the story, it is Rose I was most captivated by. When we first meet her in the diner, she is a timid, generically vulnerable target for the ensuing “dogfight.” But by the time she walks into the party, Rose is alive. She grows more bold, open, and opinionated as the story takes shape. Her evolution from mouse to firecracker is slightly jarring at first. It’s difficult to tell if Eddy, with his differing politics and ethos, brings out the feminist badass in Rose, or if it was in her all along and she was faking her demure until she felt safe to be herself, until she had nothing to lose. This is the common ground between Eddy and Rose. In what is probably the most insightful scene of the film, Eddy lets his guard down with his buddy after lying about spending the night with a busty older woman. He keeps up the charade until the rest of the guys fall asleep and then asks his friend, “How’d we get to be so full of shit like this?”


        Dogfight is a movie predicated on the idea that authenticity, whether in the form of a bright, bold statement or a mumbled confession, is more interesting than faking it.






Taylor Grieshober is a waitress to the stars. She also co-directs The New Yinzer Presents and The Belleville Sunday Night Fireside Series, a performance series in Wilkinsburg.