Arts & Resistance theme semester to engage campus, community
By Lilian Varner
Nancy Savoca, a celebrated director, producer and screenwriter whose archive is part of the University of Michigan Screen Arts Mavericks & Makers collection, has been selected to be a part of the Turner Classic Movies annual TCM Classic Film Festival 2021.
The festival will take place virtually on TCM and HBO Max May 8–9, and will feature a screening of Savoca’s 1991 film “Dogfight,” a coming-of-age drama starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor. Based on Bob Comfort’s novel, the film, set in late 1963 just prior to the assassination of JFK, centers on a group of Vietnam-bound army recruits who decide to play a prank on unsuspecting women by hosting a dance at a local bar on the eve before their departure. As part of the premise, whomever brought the ugliest date to the dance won the contest—or the “dogfight.”
“Savoca’s take on the heartless, cruel and misogynistic behavior of the male characters belies what most might have done with the story,” said Philip Hallman, curator of U-M’s Screen Arts Mavericks & Makers collection. “Savoca does not dismiss them or relegate them as buffoons or one-dimensional characters. Rather Dogfight shows off her innate ability to find the humanity within all her characters, to understand what drives and motivates them by concentrating on what makes them authentic—warts and all.”
According to Hallman, the film was critically well-received at the time of its initial release, however Warner Bros., its distributor, failed to market it in a way that connected with audiences.
A veteran filmmaker, Savoca became the first female “maverick” to join the popular collection when she donated her personal archive, which spans more than 25 years of her career, to U-M in Feb. 2016.
Her work exists alongside the papers of notable independent filmmakers including Orson Welles, Robert Altman, Alan Rudolph, John Sayles and Jonathan Demme, as well as distributors Ira Deutchman and Robert Shaye.
Savoca’s papers, which include photographs, storyboard sketches, budgets and other items related to the making of “Dogfight” are part of the U-M Library Special Collection Research Center. Her work was the subject of a class in the LSA’s department of Screen Arts & Cultures in 2019 which concluded with a student-curated exhibition and screenings at the Michigan Theater’s Cinetopia Film Festival.
“Kudos to TCM for including Savoca’s unsung and underrated gem in their annual film festival,” said Hallman. “You can see through her papers in the archive how hard Nancy fought to make it her film. She was hired by Warner Bros to direct a script by someone else but over and over again you see edits, changes and tweaks that show her push to make it more genuine, more authentic and overall a more moving and touching film.”
This is the second year that Turner Classic Movies, which has held a popular four-day classic film series every year since 2010 in Los Angeles, has presented their festival virtually. As part of the “extras” that will be made available alongside selected films, Savoca will join TCM festival host and author of The Female Gaze Alicia Malone and Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu for a discussion about the themes and the making of it.
Dogfight will be available to watch throughout the month of May.
Jamie Sherman Blinder