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By Pete Vonder Haar | May 15, 2003

“That car’s afflicted.”

Drinking soon turns to regret, as I’ve often…heard it does. Before too long, Phil is making noises about returning to Austin so they can be ready for their Army physicals. Gardner and Waggener, on the other hand, want to head down to the Mexican border to visit Chata Ortega’s, their favorite border town whorehouse (who doesn’t have one of these? Mine is El Diablo Azul in Terlingua), and dig up their old buddy “Dom” (I won’t spoil anything here, but if you really don’t know what “Dom” could possibly be referring to you need to drink more, or drink better stuff). Phil is against this – big surprise – and the battle of wills is soon on.

Phil is woefully outmatched, as it turns out.

As the five embark on their hero’s journey to the Rio Grande, doubts start to creep into Waggener’s mind about abandoning his coming nuptials. He searches for affirmation from Gardner, who assures his friend that he’s “never been serious about a woman” in his life. However his reminiscences and dreams, about the same ex he was throwing darts at earlier (Suzy Amis), belie this statement.

The dream sequence comes a bit later in the film and is not exactly graduate level psychoanalysis, but it’s effective nonetheless. In it, Gardner is shown flying a kite in a desert. The ex (Amis) shows up, and Gardner hands her the string and runs off, turning around every few yards to indicate he’ll be right back. He recedes further and further into the distance, leaving the dream girl alone and dejected among the dunes.

Aw, he’s just a big softie after all.

He’s also a manipulative jackass. Gardner is the kind of friend you love to have when a party has to be organized, or when you need someone to put in a good word for you with that hot chick at the end of the bar, but putting your trust in him otherwise is highly ill advised. Before long, and thanks to Gardner’s poor navigation (illustrating my point nicely, don’t you think?), the Groovers run out of gas. I feel compelled at this juncture to declare that any self-respecting Texan who can’t tell the difference between a paved road and an unfinished highway on a map should turn in his boots right now. Stranded and in desperation, they attempt one of the more inspired ideas in modern moviemaking: train skiing.

Reynolds directs this scene perfectly: the imminent arrival of the speeding train, the mounting tension as Dorman lassoes the last car, and Gardner’s final question, “How’re we gonna stop?” That the train pulls the front end of Phil’s car off instead of dragging them to their inevitable deaths is a fitting punch line. They end up pushing the car into Marfa, where they are forced to hole up for the night when the gas station attendant (played by Reno Nevada himself, Pepe Serna) informs them the mechanic is out “honky-tonkin’.”

“Someday Philip, when you’re old…”

Their layover in this sleepy town is mostly unremarkable, except to highlight the conflict between Phil and Gardner and to exaggerate Waggener’s increasing hesitance about his decision to break it off with Debbie, his fiancée. The group does meet a couple of high school girls (one of whom, Elizabeth Daily, is the current voice of Buttercup from “The Powerpuff Girls”) who join them for a Roman candle fight at the local cemetery where Gardner and Waggener, the two soon-to-be draftees, have a rather haunting interlude at the freshly dug grave of a young local man who was killed in Vietnam. In that moment, the amusing (if mildly dangerous) fireworks conflict takes on a more sinister tone, as Gardner and Waggener see it transform from childish game to harrowing battlefield. The transition from “playing war” to actual war is very effective here, and lends some weight to what occasionally threatens to be a lightweight film. It also leads the two of them to seriously consider heading across the border in order to dodge the draft.

It doesn’t get too heavy, though. The next morning Phil is back to his incessant bitching, prompting Gardner to call him an “ROTC weenie” and Waggener to hit him with that statement nobody wants to hear from their friends: “We never really liked you, we just felt sorry for you.” One suspects at this point that a little too much 1970s encounter group sensibility seeped into Reynolds’ script. I say this because no matter how much Phil pisses and moans and screams at his fellow Groovers, nobody ever just hauls off and belts him. I can guarantee that if one of my so-called bosom chums whined about how immature I was and screamed at me like, well, Judd Nelson over the course of what is conservatively a 450 mile road trip, I believe I’d have to pop him one. At the very least, I’d dump him off at the Greyhound depot in Alpine and never look back. As it is, they’re about to turn the car around and drive the weenie home when Phil’s chance for redemption arrives, in the form of the Pecos Parachute School.

The skydiving scene is “Fandango’s” most recognizable set piece. It is, in fact, based on “Proof,” the student film Reynolds shot at USC (“Proof” was seen by none other than Steven Spielberg, who agreed to help fund “Fandango” afterwards). The school is run by ex-hippie Truman Sparks (Marvin J. McIntyre) who, like most of his ilk, gets blinded by dollar signs as Gardner promises big bucks from possible resort development. Truman falls for the scam and agrees to waive his fee, and Phil – after extracting a promise from Waggener that he won’t dodge the draft – soon straps on a parachute and almost ends up plummeting to his death. The experience is just the epiphany he needs, and we see none of the old Phil for the rest of the movie. Hopefully he learned his lesson and doesn’t revert to his old ways in ‘Nam. I’d hate to think he pulled a Niedermeyer and got fragged by his own troops.

He’s right about one thing, however: Chata Ortega’s has burned to the ground, proving Thomas Wolfe’s cliché once again. Gardner makes a last plea to Waggener to come with him to Mexico, but Waggener holds true to his promise. There’s nothing left for it but to go dig up Dom, which they do.

Get the rest of the story in part three of FOOTAGE FETISHES: “FANDANGO”>>>

Discuss Pete Vonder Haar’s “Footage Fetishes” column in Film Threat’s BACK TALK section! Click here>>>

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