Dogfight: In Love and War

<em>Dogfight: </em>In Love and War

In 1960, folk singer Joan Baez released a rendition of an old ballad called “Silver Dagger.” The song is thought to have originated in nineteenth-century England, and though its lyrics have changed since then, every version revolves around the same central idea: the untrustworthiness of a suitor. “All men are false, says my mother / They’ll tell you wicked, loving lies,” trills Baez in her recording. “The very next evening, they’ll court another / Leave you alone to pine and sigh.” Lyrics like this might give one the impression that, since time immemorial, trusting men has been a dangerous business.

Rose (Lili Taylor), the teenage protagonist of Nancy Savoca’s Dogfight (1991), learns this lesson the hard way. In a pivotal scene, she sits on her bedroom floor in despair, listening to the Baez song on her record player. She has just discovered that she has been named runner-up in a “dogfight,” a soiree sponsored by a group of rowdy marines whose goal is to bring the ugliest dates they can pick up, in hopes of winning a cash prize. It’s an incredibly cruel conceit, and Savoca sees Rose, a shy aspiring folk musician, as the heart of her story, which is set in San Francisco in 1963. Much like the Baez song Savoca chooses to highlight at this important juncture in her film, Dogfight is a trenchant critique of misogyny. But it also goes deeper, ultimately becoming a humane examination of the conditions that shape American masculinity.

At this point in her filmmaking career, Savoca had already shown herself to be a sharp chronicler of dating culture. Her well-received 1989 debut feature, True Love, is a lacerating view of romance in an Italian American community in the Bronx, where the director grew up. Focusing on the curdled possi­bility of a happy marriage between two increasingly uncertain people, that film examines the damage inflicted on women’s lives by traditional patriarchy. But Savoca—who cowrote True Love with her husband, Richard Guay, a frequent creative partner—never fails to imbue her male characters with psychological light and shade.

Nancy Savoca

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