Reader’s Request Week: Fat City (1972)
I was supposed to write about Fat City and this is what happened instead.
THIS ESSAY IS NOT ABOUT FAT CITY.
by Elizabeth Cantwell
“Lots of people have asked me about the title of my book. It’s part of Negro slang. When you say you want to go to Fat City, it means you want the good life. I got the idea for the title after seeing a photograph of a tenement in an exhibit in San Francisco. ‘Fat City’ was scrawled in chalk on a wall. The title is ironic: Fat City is a crazy goal no one is ever going to reach.”
— Leonard Gardner, on the title of his book, Fat City, adapted into a movie by John Huston.
John Huston’s Fat City (1972) is one of those movies that leaves you feeling kind of empty inside. The credits roll and you’re still staring at the screen, not really seeing anything. But not wanting the credits to end, necessarily, because if they end that means you’ve got to go back out into the world, to go put on a smile and attempt to feel positive and gung-ho about living in this world that has just been revealed, through countless inches of celluloid, to be corrupt and thankless and angry and sad.
Okay, let’s back up. Can we back up? I have to tell you something.
I haven’t seen Fat City.
I stand by that opening paragraph, though. Based on quick research consisting of imdb.com and Wikipedia, I bet it would be sort of accurate to my experience of the film, if I were to watch it. I thought I was making that paragraph up as I went along, out of thin air, but as I reread it I realize that I was thinking about the 1974 Gene Hackman film The Conversation while I wrote it. That movie is really dark. Really, really dark. In fact, it’s been described as “neo-noir,” which same term also seems to be frequently used when discussing Fat City, so perhaps if there is anyone out there who has seen both films he can confirm my suspicion that they share a certain tone.
I want to apologize to the reader who requested that someone watch and write about Fat City. I’m not going to get into why I didn’t watch the movie here. It’s not very interesting, and it’s the same old shit we all go through, the same old shit which I suspect Fat City may also be about. Look, we all know this, it’s not revolutionary, but I’ll say it anyway: Sometimes life is a series of workouts that leave you tired. Of small victories that turn out to be the prelude to large setbacks. Of power outages, literal and metaphorical. Of the endless return of personal demons who sometimes seem to be playing around in a sort of revolving door in your head, leaving just long enough for you to feel elated at their departure and positive about your new forward momentum—your new demon-free existence—and then swinging back in, laughing and waving some shopping bags in their hands and announcing themselves as heartier than ever.
But anyway, I want to apologize to that reader, because it’s a sacred thing, the request. Especially the request to experience some work of art that the requester holds dear and to—let’s be real—express an opinion about it that is essentially the same as the requesters. I mean, that’s what we all want, isn’t it? When we give someone a book we love, and say “I want you to read this – let me know when you’ve finished it so we can talk about it!” or when we sit someone down to watch a movie with us that we love but they’ve never seen, or when we take someone to a museum that has our favorite artist’s works up in an exhibition. We want them to read the book or watch the movie or look at the artwork and turn to us with something new in their eyes and say yes, I see what you saw.
We want confirmation that we’re not alone. That it is possible to have a truly shared experience with someone else. Usually this seems unlikely. Even in romantic relationships, even with someone you really love. If I am at a restaurant and you are at a restaurant and we both order the same exact dish, we may still have different experiences. Maybe yours was taken out of the oven a little earlier. Maybe mine got a tiny bit more garnish. Even if we are having sex we are not having the same sex because our bodies have completely different nerve endings in completely different places. For some reason, though, with art this idea of having a perfectly shared experience seems possible. Art seems fixed enough that it should work, me watching something and you watching the same something and us both having the same images and understandings in our brains at the same moments. It seems like there might be a chance that someone else will momentarily have the same exact experience as you.
That’s the Fat City of art, though. The crazy goal no one will ever reach.
While I’ve been thinking about all this, though, I’ve also been looking for stills from Fat City online to put into this essay. And I think I might have something to say about these stills. I think it’s hard to lie on a bed when you’re alone. I think it’s hard to want something very badly. Sometimes it is a mistake to want something very badly, but in those cases there is nothing you can do about it anyway. I think it’s too easy to be young and too often when you’re young you think you’re fighting the real fights when all you’re fighting are pretend fights, practice fights, preludes to fights. I think many of us are quiet about what we think blood tastes like. I think it’s bad to want an escape and worse to need an escape.
And most of all I think it’s terrifying, the moment you turn around and look out of the ring and realize that there are all these people out there watching you, rooting for you maybe but also ready to root for the other guy if things look like they’re swinging that way. To realize that all of them are looking at you as a way to have a shared experience with the person next to them—to watch you fall down and know that the person next to them has also watched you fall down and has taken the same exact pleasure or pain in it as they have. To realize that they are all going to fail. That it’s hard enough just to be coherent to yourself, let alone to an arena full of people. To taste the blood and welcome it not as some symbol but just as what it is.
To think of punches as kisses. To look at the person next to you in the bar and know that neither of you really has anything to say.
Elizabeth Cantwell has not seen Fat City. She tumbls here. She once saw Stacy Keach as Lear in King Lear and loved him.
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