A Lone Star State of Mind: Films About Texas
Pajiba's Guide to What's Good For You / Daniel Carlson
Guides | October 17, 2006 | Comments ()
As I’ve mentioned on more than one occasion, I grew up in Texas, and despite the unbearable summers that stretched through September and the fact that way, way too many of my friends and contemporaries liked to hunt, I loved living there. Since relocating to the West Coast, I’ve found myself ever more willing to sing the praises of the Lone Star State. There are a number of reasons for this, not least among them the whole “Nobody picks on my kid brother but me” mentality. But that’s superseded by a desire to explain to people who’ve never been there just what the state is like. When I was a boy, the state sponsored an ad campaign with the slogan “Texas: It’s like a whole other country.” I knew back then they weren’t going far enough, because Texas is a whole other country, a weird, sprawling land of extremists and moderates, where Minutemen patrol the border and U.T. students get blazed next to Dobie Mall, where rural farms and metropolitan cities dwell in unlikely proximity, and where tiny glimpses of the best and worst sides of humanity become writ large under an impossibly domineering Polaroid-blue sky.
It’s that indefinable sense of purpose, of a life as frighteningly wide open as the endless plains of West Texas (and believe me, they are endless), that finds its way into even the most innocuous films set in the state. So many films function independently of their location, which is why most of them seem to be set in New York or Los Angeles, America’s twin cities for living out a created identity in a sea of fellow happy pretenders. Yes, some filmmakers have the ability to tell a story that rises above the generic — I’m thinking mainly of Woody Allen, whose love for New York is its own character in his movies — and there are more than a few films that take place in Texas for no real reason. But there are some films set in Texas that fully embrace the state’s mythos and become fused with a unique balance of slow movement and quick thinking, films that take place in a variety of times or cities or situations but that never stray far from car wheels on a gravel road. And it’s those films that I’d like to pay tribute to here.
Dazed and Confused
Writer-director Richard Linklater’s debut, Slacker (1991), explored a day in the life of disparate Austinites, but it was his follow-up, Dazed and Confused (1993), that cemented his status as an important filmmaker of the 1990s independent movement. More importantly, the film perfectly captured the aimless wandering that would later haunt so many of Linklater’s characters, from the love-stuck couple in Before Sunrise/Before Sunset to the pontificators of Waking Life to the eternally juvenile Dewey Finn in The School of Rock. (OK, the last one’s a bit of a stretch, but deal.) Set in a small town not unlike Huntsville, near Linklater’s native Houston, Dazed and Confused followed a group of high school juniors and a few upcoming freshmen on the last day of school in 1976. The film is full of loving flourishes that recall a youth full of the odd rituals of coming of age, and the cast of then-unknowns — including Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, and Parker Posey — lent the film an additional layer of reality. It’s one of the best teen films of all time.
Despite never actually naming its setting, Mike Judge’s cult satire of cubicle life benefits hugely from its location shooting in Dallas and Austin, where the filmmaker is based. The urban sprawl that dominates Los Angeles and New York, specifically the filmic representations of those cities, is all wrong for Office Space (1999), where the threat is not just an unfulfilling job but a homogenous, boring lifestyle. When Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) postulates in horror that he could be working at his company when he’s 50, Samir’s (Ajay Naidu) reply that it “would be nice to have that kind of job security” is only a half-joke. There’s nothing better than the expansive acres of strip malls, manicured lawns, and passive white people of north Dallas to convey the true terror of never graduating out of that temp job.
An enjoyably genre-busting sci-fi film from 2004, Primer is a truly independent film about four weekend hobbyists in Coppell who, after weeks of futzing around with electronics in their garage, construct a working time machine. Written and directed by Shane Carruth, who also starred, the film makes full use of its setting without invoking it outright: From the older Chevy Silverado one of the characters drives, to the scene where two characters meet one morning at a Sonic Drive-In, the film moves at the state’s leisurely pace. It’s a stark contrast from the increasingly convoluted story line, which involves so many twists I won’t begin to untangle them here. It’s a fantastic, overlooked, underrated film.
You knew it was inevitable; somewhere on this list, country music would rear its boozy, pomade-slicked head. If it had to happen, though, you couldn’t pick a better film than Tender Mercies (1983), a quiet, earnest film about Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall), a washed-up singer who winds up living and working at a gas station/motel in the middle of nowhere. He marries the proprietor of the place, Rosa Lee (Tess Harper), and sets about living his life and kicking the bottle, and it’s the towering achievement of Horton Foote’s script and Bruce Beresford’s direction that there is no simple solution to Mac’s problems, no easily identifiable conflict that externalizes his pain for him to vanquish. He’s been dropped from his label, but doesn’t sign a new contract, and only performs on stage once, with a local band at a honky-tonk. The film is an honest, unbiased look at a legitimate way of life and culture, right down to Rosa Lee singing in her church choir and Mac’s eventual baptism, a shockingly personal moment that could never make it today. Sonny’s ex is a pop country singer, riding to stardom on the hits he penned, and the film’s glimpses of her strident performances manage to act as an indictment of the entire commercialization of country music and the pursuit of financial gain at the cost of personal integrity. When the action shifts back to the open plains surrounding the motel, the film finally gets a chance to breathe and revel in its simplicity. It culminates with Mac’s diatribe against life’s injustices and his doubts about theodicy, followed by a genuine closing scene that eschews easy answers but also clings stubbornly to a sense of hope.
The Last Picture Show
Long before Peter Bogdanovich was just some guy in a scarf hosting movies on TCM or popping up in cameos, he was a promising member of the film-school generation whose members ranged from Spielberg to Coppola. His third feature, The Last Picture Show (1971), would wind up being his best, evoking the fading, fleeting glory of the ’60s and projecting it onto the backdrop of the fictional Texas town of Anarene in the 1950s. Based on the novel by Larry McMurtry, the film was shot in McMurtry’s hometown of Archer, and followed the reluctant coming of age of Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges) over the course of a year, as well as the closing of the town’s movie theater. The film featured the screen debut of Cybill Shepherd, who would later go on to ruin Bogdanovich’s personal life, but here she’s all innocence and danger as the girl with the power to ruin a young man’s life. The desolate plains of northern Texas are eerily perfect reflectors of the dying way of life Bogdanovich is mourning. Two years before George Lucas would offer up his superficially dutiful but spiritually cold American Graffiti, it was Bogdanovich’s Picture Show that showed what it truly meant to grow up.
The Coen brothers’ debut film comes roaring onto the screen like a semi barreling down the Texas highway, a swampy mix of sex, murder, and sweaty neo-noir that announced the presence of a gifted writing and directing team. (Not to mention the career boost it gave to then-cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld.) Borrowing their title from Dashiell Hammett, Blood Simple (1984) laid out a tale of betrayal and revenge that takes place in the Texas desert, existing on the psychic outlands between civilization and wilderness. Frances McDormand made her first screen appearance as Abby, who’s married to bar owner Marty (Dan Hedaya) and sleeping with his employee, Ray (John Getz). Marty hires a private eye (M. Emmet Walsh) to spy on the illicit couple, and Walsh steals every scene he’s in. He oozes through the frame, his face furrowed under a constant film of perspiration and wincing from the flies that never seem to stop buzzing around him. The film is packed with suspenseful sequences, but the winner is one character’s struggle to bury another one in the middle of nowhere, only to realize the body has a little life left in it after all. The film falls squarely in the “Texas is its own country” mindset, as Walsh greasily intones the opening lines that set the tone for the whole affair: “What I know is Texas, and down here, you’re on your own.”
I suppose I should do my best to qualify the inclusion of Varsity Blues (1999), a testosterone-addled guilty pleasure that does nothing but revel in cheap stereotypes for two hours while the Foo Fighters blast in the background. For starters, the mid- to late-’90s were a heyday of modern teen films to rival the Hughes-era 1980s, and just as before, it seemed that the same half-a-dozen kids were in every movie. Granted, having James Van Der Beek play a football hero was a bit of a stretch, but his anointing on “Dawson’s Creek” made him a natural fit for a film about an angsty teen. (Van Der Beek had already played a bullying jock in 1995’s Angus, so at least he was familiar with the territory.) It instantly launched into the teen stratosphere by playing up horribly broad stereotypes and offering up moments of such inanity they were destined to become iconic. Who could forget Ali Larter’s whipped cream bikini? The high school sex-education teacher who moonlighted as a stripper? Jon Voight’s off-the-charts nutjob of a coach chewed scenery like there was no tomorrow, but it was Van Der Beek’s impassioned plea to his father that was seared into the hearts and minds of a generation: “I. Don’t want. Your life” became an automatic catchphrase. Overall, it’s a cheesy, clunky, almost insultingly dumb look at Texans and their pigskin culture. So why does it make the list? Well, because people in Texas love their high school football. Legions of kids claimed the film was based on their towns, a not unreasonable claim because, deep within the film’s wild fictions, there’s a streak of fanaticism for the Friday night lights that was dead-on. After the film’s release, people aspired to live up to the fervor of Varsity Blues. That’s something.
Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984) could be misinterpreted by the impatient viewer as being boring, when it’s really anything but. It is slow, though, the kind of luxuriously paced film that demands your attention. At 147 minutes, Paris, Texas is long enough in its running time and obstinate enough in its unfolding to create an authentic, textured world that wraps around the viewer like the heat baking off the hardtop. A man wanders out of the desert as if God put him there: It’s Travis (Harry Dean Stanton), an amnesiac. He moves in with his brother (Dean Stockwell) and begins to put his life back together, which means reconnecting with his son and tracking down his wife (Nastassja Kinski). Wenders and cinematographer Robby Müller (Down By Law, Dead Man) exult in the simmering expanses of Texas wasteland, and the formal framing and lengthy takes underscore Travis’ spiritual isolation. After half an hour, what once felt slow feels perfectly natural, as if the film had been waiting for you to calm down and slip into its own gentle but constant rhythm, waxing and waning with the Texas sun, building to a heartbreaking reunion. Ry Cooder’s score is fantastic, his slide guitar evoking the mournful strains of Blind Willie Johnson, one of the greatest Texas bluesmen who ever lived. It’s a calmly dazzling film.
Wes Anderson’s first two films are also his best, and it’s no accident that they were both filmed in the director’s native state. Born in Houston and schooled at the University of Texas, where he met future collaborator Owen Wilson, Anderson brings a decidedly unique perspective to the wide open spaces and endless possibilities that only seem to crop up in Texas. Rushmore (1998) owes a great debt to Anderson’s youth at St. John’s School in Houston, where the Rushmore scenes were filmed. The low-hanging trees, the wet streets, the palpable humidity, the overbearing greenness are all wonderfully familiar hallmarks of the coastal plain. However, it’s Bottle Rocket (1996) that best encapsulates the wild Texan urges Anderson would repress in his later works. The film ambles through suburban Dallas but doesn’t start to really find its legs until it explodes onto the road and winds up in Hillsboro, where Anthony (Luke Wilson) and Dignan (Owen Wilson) hole up for a while. Anderson takes full advantage of the vast countryside as a mirror for his heroes’ endless ambition; it only makes sense that the film was produced by Polly Platt, who also worked on The Last Picture Show. The film is a heady mix of foolhardy arrested development and a sense that somehow things will be okay again. Anderson summed up the story thusly: “It’s about a group of guys who have lots of energy and the urge to do something. They are always planning and trying things, moving around. They have a lot of ambition and grand aspirations; it’s just that their direction in life happens to be a little unconventional. They are sincerely trying to accomplish something, they just don’t know what.”
I guess that’s about all I have to say. I’ve been racking my brain for some brilliant little way to sign off at the end of this little tangential field trip through a flawed and dangerous and beautiful state, but I can’t come up with a thing. I could end with all manner of written wisdom from men and women much smarter than I am, or I could just shut up and mosey like the Stranger. I’ll settle for something in between: There’s a lot more to Texas than many of you might think, and it’s my modest hope that one of the movies on this list changes your mind or gets you to think just a little more positively about the state. Unless, of course, that film is Varsity Blues. Then, like the man said, you’re on your own.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald>.