The Loser Canon: Why We Need More Movies About Bums, Deadbeats, Drifters and Barflies

When actor George Segal (1934 – 2021) passed away last month, I thought immediately of two performances he gave during the height of his ‘70’s leading-man phase: first as a New York City hairstylist turned heroin junkie fast approaching rock bottom in Ivan Passer’s Born to Win (1971), and then as a Los Angeles magazine editor turned degenerate gambler in Robert Altman’s California Split (1974). Both films are about addiction, but they are also more than just addiction dramas. Despite how disparate they are in tone—Born to Win is a saturnine descent into doper hell, while California Split is rollicking buddy comedy infused with sunbaked melancholy—both make for key entries into what I call ‘The Loser Canon’.

The term ‘loser’, when applied in broader social context, is used almost exclusively as a pejorative, a harsh summation and simultaneous dismissal of one who has either wasted their personal potential or else lived down to the low expectations set on them by others. They are someone who’s either fallen through the cracks of respectable society or else resigned themselves to float by on its fringes. Often, as is the case with the aforementioned films, the loser has to contend with addiction and/or financial anxiety, although neither is a defining feature. Instead, their trouble stems beyond chemical dependency or socio-economic factors, into an existential or even spiritual realm. 

As such, there is an inherent dignity, even grace, to the archetype of The Loser, who occupies a similar space in our collective mythology as the Horatio Alger type or The Cowboy. Like those figures, The Loser–be they bum, boozer, burnout, junkie, te deadbeat or drifter–embodies the concept of rugged individualism, albeit in a funhouse mirror way: their commitment to nonconformity doesn’t elevate them above the masses, but casts them underfoot in scorn, dooming them to lives of recrimination, pity and regret.

Yet, for as grim and depressing as stories focusing on such characters often are, they just as often result in something viscerally transgressive, darkly comic or even achingly romantic, as evidenced by both Born to Win and California Split–both thrilling films from top to bottom–as well as any number of movies from the same period.

That period, known today as New Hollywood, was spurred by the violent social upheaval of the 1960s and continued through the malaise-ridden ‘70s, conveyed not merely a cynical and fatalistic ethos, but an outright defeatist one. Said ethos is summed up succinctly in an iconic scene in Easy Rider (1969), when Peter Fonda’s nomadic biker, after scoring a big payday on a successful dope deal, sadly declares, “We blew it.” California Split ends on a similar moment of clarity, with Elliot Gould, who plays Segal’s running buddy and partner, noting how the jackpot they’ve just hit in Reno, “Don’t mean a fucking thing, does it?” This is one of the key tenets of Loser Cinema, which holds that victory is an entirely ephemeral concept, whereas loss is something you can count on and with which you therefore must reckon.

We find this same sentiment echoed throughout ‘70’s cinema, often in films that revolve around more immediately mortal concerns–as seen in the addiction sagas The Panic in Needle Park and The Gambler (which came out the same years as Born to Win and California Split, respectively), as well as the bottom-rung gangland thrillers Mean Streets, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Mikey and Nicky (all three of which are connected by the involvement of John Cassavetes, American cinema’s patron saint of masculinity-in-crisis)–but most fully explicated upon in a handful of smaller, character-driven stories. These include the drifter odysseys Five Easy Pieces (1970) and Scarecrow (1973)—both of which see young men flee to the open road when faced with the prospect of fatherhood—and especially the boxing-and-boozing drama Fat City (1972).

Directed by John Huston and based on the masterful novel by Leonard Gardner, Fat City is possibly the great American movie about losers. The men and women at its center—a washed-up middleweight turned field hand (Stacey Keach), his washed-out lover (Susan Tyrell), and his naïve young protegee (Jeff Bridges)—take harder losses outside of the ring than in, and the film ends on an even more brutal moment of clarity than California Split, with both boxers sitting at a shabby dinner counter, reading their sad future in the cracked faces of all the other broken-down old timers hanging around the joint.

By the end of the ‘70s, audiences rejected such bleak worldviews, flocking instead to a very different working-class boxing drama: Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky (1976). While that film’s underdog bruiser loses the big fight, he still catches his big break and makes the most of it, scoring a moral victory in the end. Not content with such small potatoes, those same audiences would follow Rocky Balboa through the next decade as he racked up fame, fortune and championships, until he ultimately took to the world stage to win the Cold War on behalf of America. 

But before the cartoonish optimism, hardlined jingoism and black-and-white morality that carried the day in the time of Reagan fully tool over,  New Hollywood made its last stand with a trio of films about losing, starting with 1980’s Heaven’s Gate and Raging Bull (in which its own Italian Stallion pugilist loses the big fight alongside his dignity and his soul), and concluding in 1981 with Cutter’s Way, a devastating neo-noir from Born to Win director Passer, in which three psychologically and spiritually unmoored burnouts—a violently unhinged and badly disfigured Vietnam veteran (John Heard), his emotionally detached beach bum friend (Jeff Bridges), and his long-suffering, clinically depressed wife (Lisa Eichhorn)—sift through the psychic and physical wreckage of the previous decade quickly while careening towards doom. Between Born to Win and Cutter’s Way, Passer managed to bookend the decade with two of the greatest films ever made about America’s loser class.

While the remainder of the ‘80s produced a couple of great movies that would fit nicely within The Loser Canon—Martin Scorsese’s pitch-black media satire The King of Comedy (1982), the grimy but sentimental barroom romance Barfly (1987), and the endlessly entertaining gambling farce Let it Ride (1989) (which basically picks up where Fat City left off), they all end on notes of triumph for the losers at their center, even if, as in the case of King of Comedy, said triumph serves a deeply cynical indictment of our larger society. 

The 1990s saw young filmmakers pick back up on many of the anxieties and themes that prevalent in the work of New Hollywood, through movies centered around a new generation of losers–or, as they had come to be called, slackers. But while several of these early examples contained the harder edges of those ‘70s examples—namely, Richard Linklater’s creepily eerie Slacker and Kevin Smith’s proudly profane Clerks—by the middle of the decade Hollywood had wholly appropriated their surface style for uninspired, mainstream fare like Reality Bites, Mallrats and Empire Records

(Linklater would attempt to return to that earlier darkness, first in 1996 with his unconvincing adaptation of Eric Bogosian’s long dark night of the slacker soul play Suburbia, and more successfully ten years later with his rotoscoped adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly— one of the essential texts in a literary Loser Canon.)

However, the second half of the ‘90s did produce three all-time great movies about losers with Citizen Ruth and Trees Lounge in 1996, and The Big Lebowski in 1998. The first of those, Citizen Ruth, which marked Alexander Payne’s directorial debut, stars Laura Dern as an utterly hopeless addict–her high of choice is huffing paint–who unwittingly finds herself transformed a public figure when activists on both sides of the abortion debate decide to use her as a pawn. One of the purely blackest satires of it’s–or any–decade, Citizen Ruth is the ultimate middle finger to the sanctimony of our entire political apparatus, one that presents its conniving, utterly remorseless loser as having more dignity than any of the sanctimonious bastards surrounding her.

A much lower-key story, Trees Lounge sees Steve Buscemi (who also wrote and directed) star as a bitter Long Island barfly half-assedly attempting to fix the mess he’s made of his life, only to end up fucking it up even worse. Trees Lounge is a sneaky film—it’s such breezily funny, shaggy hangout film that, even as its sharper edges draw closer and closer in, you don’t fully feel them until they stab you in the gut for the final haunting scene, an homage to Fat City that fully cements Buscemi’s film as it’s spiritual heir.

The Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski (which also prominently features Buscemi) is, in its own way, an updating of Cutter’s Way—a neo-noir mystery in which a California burnout (played by Jeff Bridges) lets his unhinged, hair trigger-tempered Vietnam vet best buddy pull him into a careless blackmail plot against a local tycoon that quickly and irrevocably spirals out of control. Bridges’ The Dude is arguably the most iconic and beloved loser in all of cinema, the deadbeat bum turned knight errant whose lack of purpose and expectation approaches Zen philosophy (if there’s one thing that argues against The Big Lebowski being included within The Loser Canon, it’s the way in which it has been so grossly commodified by the mass culture).

The next several years saw a few films come out that undoubtedly deserve entry into the Loser Canon–most notably Alison Maclean’s excellent adaptation of Dennis Johnson’s junkie picaresque Jesus’s Son, as well as a couple efforts from directors Todd Solondz and Noah Baumbach—but they proved few and far between. While there were no shortage of movies about young depressives floating through life–see the glut of unbearably twee Wes Anderson and Garden State rip-offs, which eventually gave way to the brotastic stoner comedies of Apatow and co.—few if any of them contain the same jaundiced eye, let alone the spleen, of earlier examples.

This was undoubtedly the result of massive shifts within our political and cultural landscape: following the Great Recession in 2008, stories about people on the edges of society tended to focus more on the socio-economic forces at work than on the acutely personal struggles of single individuals. While films like Born to Win, Fat City, Cutter’s Way and Trees Lounge never shy away from the subject of class struggle, neither can their characters’ dire circumstances be wholly or even mainly laid at the feet of capitalism. Similarly, widespread calls for diversity have greatly reduced peoples’ interest in films focusing sad white men—which, as should be obvious from the selection of films mentioned so far, make up the vast majority of The Loser Canon—searching meaning and purpose in a society that already prioritizes their struggles. (To be fair, it was during this time that the Coen’s came out with another all-timer entry into the canon with Inside Llewyn Davis in 2013, even if it was set half a century in the past.)

Over the last few years, we’ve seen an overwhelming selection of movies about rootless Americans struggling keep from falling through the holes in our paltry social safety net  (see this year’s Oscar winner Nomadland), but it would be entirely incorrect—not to mention deeply inappropriate—to describe them as films about losers. Rather, they’re films about victims. But while that may sound like an empathetic improvement in our collective understanding, I find that it often has the opposite effect. Whereas films like Born to Win or Trees Lounge imbue us with empathy–if not always sympathy–for the type of self-destructive individual we might otherwise disdain, movies about societal victims tend to merely to reinforce whatever preconceived political ideas we already hold about said society (see again: Nomadland).

At the same time, it is possible to make a film that covers all this ground, as proven by the true best film of 2020: Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. A faux documentary from brothers Bill IV and Turner Ross about the last day in the life of a dingy Las Vegas dive bar, BN,EP a socially conscious look at the state of America’s underclass—a realistic cross-section of men and women, young and old, white and POC, straight and LGBTQ—as well as a deeply specific study of characters reckoning with the disappointments and sense of loss which have come to define their lives. 

Like other great films within The Loser Canon, it is both a moving eulogy to universality of failure and a harsh and beautiful paean to its individual peons, conveyed not through rote sentimentality or pedantry, but all the two-fisted gravitas, narcotic romanticism, gallows humor and vicious clarity that its subjects deserve.

Zach Vasquez lives and writes in Los Angeles. His critical work focuses on film and literature. He writes fiction as well.

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