Sunday, June 19, 2016
Talking Heads Watch: True Stories (1986)
I've written here and there about my love of the Talking Heads. I don't know exactly when I decided I liked them, but my interest in them goes back to middle school, and I started picking up an album here or there in high school, really becoming interested my Senior Year when Sand in the Vaseline hit the shelves and gave me more of an overview of their "greatest hits". I've seen both Byrne solo and "The Heads".
My first memory of the existence of True Stories was a subway poster for the film I saw hanging in a deli in Dallas while on a church youth retreat when I was 15, but I never came across a copy of the film (kids, there was a time in the long, long ago when all media was not instantly available just because you thought about it). But circa 1996, I located and rented True Stories (1986) and gave it a whirl on the ol' VHS player I shared with my two roommates at the time.
Living in a place, sometimes you have a hard time knowing what it is that makes that place unique or special. It can be the outsiders perspective, what they see as the difference that can really resonate in its own peculiar way. I don't think a non-local could have made Slacker and captured the particulars of Austin in summer in the late 1980's, but it's hard to imagine anyone local to Texas seeing Texas in the light True Stories captures - a ridiculous cartoon of a film that still, somehow, seem absolutely true.
The movie is a film by David Byrne, vocalist and guitarist for the Talking Heads from the late 1970's through the band's dissolution in the early 1990's. Comprised of art school refugees, The Talking Heads had explored video and visuals as soon as budgets allowed, their first videos on MTV memorable works of art, and they made one of the best concert films on record with Stop Making Sense. Somehow Byrne parlayed that concert film (directed by no less than Jonathan Demme) into someone letting him have creative control over True Stories, and while the film certainly doesn't feel slick in any way, the awkward pacing, delivery and management of the film capture something unique, making the understated comic performances of the film make all the more sense, side-by-side.
Byrne himself plays a narrator, or himself, a visitor to the small West Texas town of Virgil that is preparing to celebrate the all-too-real Texas Sesquicentennial (something anyone around in Texas in 1986 recalls), and will culminate in Virgil's celebration of "specialness" (or, "special-ness", as Byrne keeps pronouncing it). It's a modern Texas town with a huge mall and a factory making silicon chips that most of the folks working in the plant don't understand or care much about - a feature of Texas back in that same era when IBM, Texas Instruments and Motorola were all here just in Austin.
The main character, if there is such a thing, is Louis Fyne, played by a young John Goodman, who is seeking love and matrimony, but isn't having any luck finding the right person. Others include "the Lying Woman" who claims careers as a pop star, a former lover of Elvis, a world traveller with top secret connections to political leaders. The Cute Lady. Swoosie Kurtz as a woman so rich she never has to get out of bed.
The film is episodic, with Byrne investigating how a town such as Virgil is changing, how the people are modern, how they define their lives through consumerism, self-expression, and how they view the news and media landscape. Everyone can be a star for 5 seconds at the karaoke bar. Fashion can be a wide array of increasing insanity with growing applause for the ever raising tides of inanity.
The music of the Talking Heads is performed in many places by folks other than the band, although they do appear in various disguises in the karaoke scene and in some scenes on television in the film.
Frankly, there's not much plot, but there is a snapshot of America in a place and time and it's parallel to the cool Hollywood images that have been embraced by Gen-X as recollection and Millennials as a history lesson. And, as America changed (and Texas changed) during this window, it's interesting to see Byrne was right there witnessing the passing of the settled West for the arrival of the silicon chip, brought to town by a man (Spalding Gray) who sees not people but glorious systems working in concert.
Walking across an all-too-familiar open field with homes being built out (a sign of so many things in Texas), Spalding Gray cheerfully states "Here's a field... take a look out. Picture a house... Picture a lot of houses. What else is a field good for but building houses?" A sincerely held belief here in Texas, but stated aloud, along with the notion that "of course these days not everyone is having kids, what with the end of the world coming up and all."
A herd of kids comes into view, the same age I was when this movie was being made, wandering the barren landscape in a pack, the face of what's coming.
It's as perfect a depiction of how I recall growing up in the burbs of Texas as anything I'm like to ever see.
I can't really recommend the movie enough, but I also can't promise it's fit to everyone's tastes. It reminds me deeply of the sense of absurdity that felt such an undercurrent to the primary narrative of the 1980's - an open criticism of every day culture that the 90's turned into the primary narrative, and which was productized itself by the late 1990's and was just another option online by the early 00's. But finding artifacts of either the examination and satire of the 1980's in something like True Stories, or the antithesis of the driving narrative in something like Repo Man, is always an interesting cultural touchstone.