“Let’s Go Dig Up Dom”
Thirty years of Fandango fandom.
Saw it when it first came out. Liked it just fine. Went on with my life.
That pretty much describes the history of my own involvement with Fandango, the 1985 movie, starring a young Kevin Costner, about five University of Texas students on a berserk, beery graduation road trip to the Mexican border. Financially, Fandango was a meteoric failure, streaking in and out of a paltry 27 theaters in a few weeks, making less than $100,000. Its fate was foretold by a blunt Warner Bros. interoffice memo after a disastrous test screening: “The movie does not provide an adequate degree of audience satisfaction or enjoyment to moviegoers.”
But the box-office oracles of thirty years ago had no way of taking into account the seeping impact the movie would have over the decades on people like Bruce Hickman, an F-14 pilot laid up with a sinus infection on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf in 1987, transfixed by Fandango as he watched it over and over again until he was healthy enough to be put back on the flight schedule. Or on Jesper Lisberg, a teenager in Aarhus, Denmark, whose friend had just gotten a VCR circa 1989. They used the marvelous new invention to record the first movie they came across on Danish national television. They had only one tape and hence only one movie to watch. But Fandango, a rowdy paean to lost youth, was a perfect story for kids who were approaching the end of folkeskole, when Danish compulsory education is over and childhood friends begin to scatter. By 2006 the movie had its hooks so deep into Doug Mitchell, a private investigator from Warrensburg, Missouri, that he showed it to his fiancée, Laura, as a premarital test. “If she didn’t like Fandango, it probably wasn’t going to work.”
And here they all were in Alpine on a recent July evening, swatting the flies off their tater tots at the local Sonic. It was the second day of Ultimate Fandango, a not-quite-annual pilgrimage to various homely locations in the Trans-Pecos, where the movie was shot in 1983. About forty people—some of them veterans of the first gathering, in 2008, others here for the first time—had flown in from around the world to view an unremarkable gas station in Marathon, where the self-styled “groovers” (the road-trip buddies in the movie) stop for a front-end alignment after their car’s bumper gets torn off in a train-lassoing misadventure. The devotees had stared in wonder at an abandoned, falling-down bracero’s shack off Interstate 20 that the filmmakers had long ago painted to resemble an abandoned, falling-down Mexican cantina named Chata Ortegas. They had huddled over satellite maps to pinpoint some of the more obscure, though no less crucial, cinematic landmarks. (“There’s that concrete stanchion right there. And nestled in these bushes is that rock I was telling you about.”) The pilgrims had come to Alpine to worship at the shrine of the Sonic, where once was uttered a line of dialogue—“Give me three chili dogs and a malt”—that in Fandango world is as immortal as “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.”
This year’s Ultimate Fandango was the fourth UF and the biggest yet, and everybody thought that it really was the ultimate one. Though it was later decided there would be a 2018 UF, at the moment there were no plans to convene it again. This was mostly because it’s a lot of trouble, and Fandango fans tend to have real jobs and real lives and are only—to borrow a description of the film itself from the Internet Movie Database website—“mildly cultish.” And anyway, this year would have been an appropriate time to call it quits, since 2015 is Fandango’s thirtieth anniversary, a wistful milestone for a film whose theme—embedded in a raucous road comedy—is the fleetingness of youth. Notably absent from the festivities at the Sonic, as they had been at all previous gatherings, were the two Kevins. Kevin Costner was, presumably, busy being a movie star. No hard feelings. Kevin Reynolds, the Waco native and Baylor graduate who wrote and directed Fandango and went on to direct other Costner vehicles, like Waterworld and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, had taken a pass as well (as had Costner’s fellow groovers Judd Nelson and Sam Robards).
“I guess my feeling about it was that it was my first film, the quintessential coming-of-age story that every director has to get out of their system before they can move on to anything else,” Reynolds told me over the phone about his hesitation to jump into the Fandango mosh pit himself. “Like most of my pictures, it’s hard for me to watch. It’s just too painful to go back and revisit the things you wish you’d done differently. Each one of them sort of marks a time in your life, and you can’t go back to that place.”
Fandango began as a thirty-minute short that Reynolds made when he was a graduate student at the University of Southern California. It was a very funny and technically ambitious comedy about a carful of dissolute fraternity boys and their adventures at a parachute school run by a zonked-out hippie in the middle of the desert. The movie so impressed Steven Spielberg that he hired Reynolds to create a full-length feature. The uproarious parachute sequence—recreated almost shot for shot—is at the center of the full-length version, but Fandango, Reynolds says, “became a little more heartfelt than zany.” The movie is set in 1971, and beneath the hijinks is a desperate awareness of lost love, lost innocence, and Vietnam. In the movie, the five groovers are on a mission to dig up a bottle of Dom Perignon they buried during a previous, less-freighted trip. They scramble down a steep hillside to a boulder with the word “Dom” chiseled into it. When they unearth the bottle, Costner grabs it, leaps up onto a rock that is vertiginously perched above the Rio Grande, and proclaims with the world-weariness of youth, “Here’s to us and what we were.”
The revels at the Sonic were over well before dark, and at eight o’clock the next morning the Fandango fans were all gathered in the parking lot of the Maverick Inn, getting ready to caravan the hundred or so miles to the most resonant and uncorrupted of all the sights along the Sacred Way, Dom Rock itself. Driving the lead car was 66-year-old Jeff Brookings. The burden of Ultimate Fandango leadership had fallen to him after Alex Musson, the editor of the UK humor magazine Mustard, decided that with two young kids he could no longer afford to hop the pond from London to Alpine every few years. Brookings lives in Midland and is semiretired from the automotive-parts business. He had missed Fandango’s theatrical run—in fact, I was treated like Neil Armstrong at UF because I had actually participated in history by seeing the movie in a theater when it was released—but he’d happened across it several years later on Showtime. He had grown up in the landscape and among the sorts of characters that populate Fandango and was still reverberating from the shock of recognition. “I always tell people that I knew everybody in that movie. They just had different names.”
A couple of hours later, we arrived at a turnout on FM 170 a few miles past Lajitas. “We’re surprised at how normal everybody is,” Ben Soltesz, a forty-ish software executive from Pittsburgh, told me as we walked downslope to the site of Dom Rock. He and his wife, Megan, had left their three kids with Megan’s parents, and both seemed equal parts delighted and mystified to be here. They were normal themselves and weren’t even wearing “Let’s Go Dig Up Dom” T-shirts. But the movie’s themes had clearly sluiced right into the ion channels of Ben’s brain. “Good music,” he said. “Being on the road. Beer. And friendship. I’ve lived my life by those four tenets.”
Thirty years of wind and weather had not eroded the word “Dom” that the filmmakers had incised into the boulder. It was still eerily visible and, to anybody who was not a Fandango-head, would have seemed as mysterious as an ancient petroglyph. Even though we were less than a hundred yards from the highway, the location appeared thrillingly remote and dangerously scenic, high above a canyon with the narrow muddy strip of the Rio Grande far below. Several dozen people stood there at the edge of the abyss among thorny ocotillo branches. Some of them had brought their own bottles of Dom and uncorked them at the base of Dom Rock.
They weren’t all civilians. Three castmembers from Fandango were proudly in attendance, including Marvin J. McIntyre, whose performance as the genial but brain-dead parachute instructor—in both the short-film prototype and the final version—I had vividly remembered lo these thirty years. Chuck Bush, who plays the hulking and unflappable groover named Dorman, walks with a cane—he suffered a stroke a few years ago—and had prudently decided to remain near the road and not scramble down the slope. In the early eighties he was working as a bodyguard for a rock-concert company when Reynolds and his production assistant, Mark Illsley, spotted him walking out of an Austin 7-Eleven. “They were looking for the biggest guy they could find,” he says. That’s because a large part of Dorman’s role in the film involves carrying around the drunk-atose and seldom-glimpsed “fifth groover,” who has only one brief moment of consciousness at the end of the movie.
The fifth groover was played by Brian Cesak,* who, when he was a student at UT, answered an ad in the Daily Texan that read, “Do You Want to Be a Star?” The casting people told him they were looking for a “diminutive business student,” and that was what he was. And he sort of did become a star, in the sense that every now and then a patient in his Houston chiropractic clinic will notice the Fandango poster in his office and exclaim, “Oh my God! You’re the one they carried around!”
The rock aerie that Kevin Costner leaps upon for his climactic champagne salute is perched at the end of a short, narrow ridge a few hundred feet away from Dom Rock. One by one, the participants of Ultimate Fandango inched out onto the ledge to have their photos taken sitting next to McIntyre as they held up a bottle of Dom. It was more or less a sheer drop down to the river. That night, at a screening of Fandango at the Rangra movie theater, in Alpine, we would watch Costner, in a dusty tuxedo and cowboy boots, run heedlessly across the narrow ridgeline and stand at the summit of this rock. Reynolds told me that Costner had been afraid of heights, but in the movie he looks afraid of nothing. Standing silhouetted against the Mexican canyons, in the full glory of his soon-to-be-movie-star self, he certainly looks unafraid of time.
But thirty years have passed anyway. Since Costner wasn’t here today, it fell to Cesak to cautiously creep onto the top of the rock, recite Fandango’s most self-consciously resonant line, and reenact the movie’s core ritual. “Here’s to us,” the groover turned chiropractor said, just before McIntyre launched a bottle of Dom Perignon toward the Rio Grande, “and what we’ll be.”
*Correction: An earlier version of this story identified Brian Cesak as Bryan Cepak. We regret the error.