Tag Archives: John Goodman

361. TRUE STORIES (1986)

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“It’s like ’60 Minutes’ on acid.”–David Byrne describing True Stories

“What time is it? No time to look back.” –The Narrator, True Stories

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: David Byrne, John Goodman, Swoosie Kurtz, Spalding Gray

PLOT: An eager outsider (Byrne) visits the fictional town of Virgil, Texas as they prepare for the state’s 150th anniversary with a “Celebration of Specialness.” Acting as narrator and tour guide, he meets various folks around the area, learning about their relationships, their work at the computer manufacturing plant, and their personal hobbies. The most prominent of the “true stories” is would-be country singer Louis Fyne’s search for love.

Still from True Stories (1986)

BACKGROUND:

  • After directing several early Talking Heads videos and learning technical aspects of filmmaking from when assisting on the editing of the Heads’ concert film Stop Making Sense, David Byrne wanted to try his hands at making his own narrative feature. Though he knew he wanted to do something involving music, he first created hundreds of drawings of scenes and characters, thinking purely in visual terms. He then added a story with the help of Stephen Tobolowsky and Beth Henley (and some advice from Joan Tewkesbury), inspired by tabloid stories from the Weekly World News as well as the landscape and communities of small town Texas.
  • Though the film is very much Byrne’s baby, he was collaborative in his working method: he and cinematographer Ed Lachman studied recent American photobooks for inspiration and together established a specific visual style centered around flat landscapes and balanced compositions. Actors Jo Harvey Allen (“The Lying Woman”) and Spalding Gray (“Earl Culver”) ad-libbed many of their lines, and most of the talent show and parade were real-life local performers. Byrne’s then-wife Adelle Lutz created the larger-than-life costumes for the shopping mall fashion show.
  • Byrne sought to showcase the talents and creativity of so-called “consumers,” those whom elitists would shut out of the larger cultural conversation because they didn’t have the “right” background or status.
  • American photographer William Eggleston, who is known for elevating color photography as an artistic medium in the 1970s, was invited to the set by Byrne, as his work had inspired the look of the production. Eggleston produced a photo series while visiting the areas of Texas where they were filming and it was released as part of a (now out of print) book featuring the movie’s script and related ephemera.
  • While the album “True Stories” features Talking Heads versions of the soundtrack songs, and “Sounds from True Stories” includes instrumental music from the film, Byrne had always wanted the original cast recording to be released in full. Only with the Criterion release of the film in November 2018 has the album finally been made available.
  • True Stories is Alex Kittle’s staff pick for a Certified Weird movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Over an idiosyncratic family dinner, Spalding Gray provides an enthusiastic monologue about the problems of modern life, using various colorful entrees and sides as visual aides for his explanations. As the plates inexplicably light up and the music of a string quartet builds, Gray, in his heavy Rhode Island accent, expounds upon the merging of work and play, and the rapidly developing tech industry in Virgil, ending the speech in a dimly lit family tableaux as he and his children bow their heads in prayer.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Avant-garde mall fashion show; conspiracy theory sermon at the Church of the SubGenius; David Byrne aimlessly talking to the audience while driving around Texas

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: His goofy, gangly persona—so out of place in the rural Texas setting—is already weird enough, but really Byrne is exposing the weirdness of everyday life, with eccentric characters, loud costumes, eclectic musical numbers, and a lot of fourth wall breaking. It’s a strange merging of artistic experimentation and down-to-earth themes; the combined effect is both charming and bizarre.


Original trailer for True Stories (1986)

COMMENTS: After imparting a brief overview of the history of Continue reading 361. TRUE STORIES (1986)

TRUE STORIES (1986)

Ed. note, 12/2018: True Stories has been officially added to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies.

True Stores (1986) is one of the quirkiest and most original movies of the 1980s. That is not altogether surprising, since the Talking Heads were perhaps the most authentic and original rock band since Velvet Underground. Their concert film Stop Making Sense (1984, dir. Jonathan Demme) is justifiably considered to be the most perfectly filmed musical performance to date. That film, like the Talking Heads themselves, was birthed from the New York New Wave underground scene, with true-blue eccentric David Byrne as the front man, driving force, and genius of the group. The remaining members of the band supplied a down-to-earth quality which prevented Byrne from totally succumbing to art-school loftiness. Further proof lies in the Heads’ True Stories (1986), and more pointedly in the fact that post-Heads Byrne, while still compelling and clever, has been decidedly uneven in his work, and unable to retain that sorely missed folksiness he had with the band.

Byrne writes, directs, narrates and stars in True Stories and it is his congenial presence which edifies all the quaint idiosyncrasies inherent in American mythology. Byrne sheds his oversized dinner suit for a black cowboy hat, hops in a red convertible, and escorts us to the fictional Virgil, Texas just in time to celebrate its 150th anniversary. Not surprisingly, what follows is hardly a linear narrative. Rather, it is an anecdotal slice of postmodern myth informed by banality, fashion, and consumerism with Byrne as our gnostic Thorton Wilder guide. Although Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens, True Stores never descends into all-too-easy cynicism. For the free spirited, Virgil is as easy to take as chocolate covered Talking Heads. Some, including the late Roger Ebert, claimed True Stories is not a musical. I disagree. Like any good musical, this film makes no claim towards pretentious realism. In ‘s musicals, the directors always attempted to mask the eccentricities of the characters, and the choreographer. Byrne’s approach is to romance his characters, with the Talking Heads lip-synching to Byrne’s nine songs via good-humored abandon. The result is a refreshingly original choreography that gives the film its whimsical quality. The studio didn’t know quite what to do with True Stories and, predictably, nothing like it has been attempted since, making it a standalone effort with a texture solely of its time and place.

Still from True Stories (1988)A young, awkward, and infectiously charming plays a bachelor whose life goal is to get married. The “Wife Wanted” neon sign in his yard never seems out of place in Virgil. A preacher (John Ingle) begins his sermon with a discourse on Elvis, and you do know that those newfangled barcodes are going to be used by the antichrist? I recall very similar sermons from my own childhood in the 70s. True Stories astutely captures those beautiful, real moments of unintentional, inspired surrealism.

Among Virgil’s inhabitants are: a married couple who haven’t spoken in 15 years (Spalding Grey and Annie McEnroe, who are quite happy with the arrangement), the laziest woman in the world (Swoosie Kurtz), a pathological liar (the delightful Jo Harvey Allen) who claims Rambo was one of her sexual conquests, and R&B musician Roebuck “Pops” Staples and Mexican punk singer Tito Larriva (both of whom prove that Byrne and company are not Virgil’s only musical inhabitants).

There’s no evading the ghostliness that palls over True Stories, but it is as perfectly natural, edifying, and American an idea as Norman Rockwell providing illustrations for the National Enquirer.

51. BARTON FINK (1991)

“And the king, Nebuchadnezzar, answered and said to the Chaldeans, I recall not my dream; if ye will not make known to me my dream, and its interpretation, ye shall be cut in pieces, and of your tents shall be made a dunghill.”–Daniel 2:5, the passage Barton reads when he opens his Gideon’s Bible (Note that the Coen’s actually depict it as verse 30, alter the wording slightly, and misspell “Nebuchadnezzar”).

“Writing is easy:  All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”– Gene Fowler

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Joel Coen

FEATURING: , , , Judy Davis, John Mahoney, Jon Polito, Steve Buscemi

PLOT: Barton Fink is a playwright whose first Broadway show, a play about the common man, is a smash success; his agent convinces him to sell while his stock is high and go to Hollywood to quickly make enough money to fund the rest of his writing career.  He arrives in Los Angeles, checks into the eerie art deco Hotel Earle, and is assigned to write a wrestling picture for Wallace Beery by the Capitol pictures studio head himself.  Suffering from writer’s block, Barton spends his days talking to the insurance salesman who lives in the room next door and seeking writing advice from alcoholic novelist W.P. Mayhew, until deadline day looms and very strange events begin to take center stage.

Still from Barton Fink (1991)

BACKGROUND:

  • At the time, it was widely reported that the Coen brothers wrote the script for Barton Fink while suffering from a mean case of writer’s block trying to complete the screenplay to their third feature film, Miller’s Crossing.  The Coens themselves have since said that this description is an exaggeration, saying merely that their writing progress on the script had slowed and they felt they needed to get some distance from Miller’s Crossing by working on something else for a while.
  • Barton Fink was the first and only film to win the Palme D’or, Best Director and Best Actor awards at the Cannes film festival; after this unprecedented success, Cannes initiated a rule that no film could win more than two awards.  Back home in the United States, Barton Fink was not even nominated for a Best Picture, Director or Actor Oscar. It did nab a Best Supporting Actor nom for Lerner.
  • The character of Barton Fink was inspired by real life playwright Clifford Odets.  W.P. Mayhew was based in part on William Faulkner.  Jack Lipnick shares many characteristics, including a common birthplace, with 1940s MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer.
  • Following a definite theme for the year, Judy Davis also played an author’s muse and lover in another surrealistic 1991 movie about a tortured writer, Naked Lunch.
  • According to the Coens, the final scene with the pelican diving into the ocean was not planned, but was a happy accident.
  • In interviews the Coens have steadfastly disavowed any intentional symbolic or allegorical reading of the final events of the film, saying”what isn’t crystal clear isn’t intended to become crystal clear, and it’s fine to leave it at that” and “the movie is intentionally ambiguous in ways they [critics] may not be used to seeing.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Barton Fink is full of mysterious images that speak beyond the frame.  The most popular and iconic picture is John Goodman wreathed in flame as the hallway of the Earle burns behind him.  Our pick would probably go to the final shot of the film, where a pelican suddenly and unexpectedly plummets into the ocean while a dazed Barton watches a girl on a beach assume the exact pose of a picture on his hotel wall.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A nightmarish, expressionistic, and self-satirizing evocation of the difficulty of creation, Barton Fink pokes a sharpened stick into the deepest wounds of artistic self-doubt. A pure mood piece, its amazing ending achieves the remarkable triumph of leaving us with nothing but unanswered questions, while simultaneously feeling complete and whole.

COMMENTS: The most accurate word to describe Barton Fink is “enigmatic.”  It’s a work Continue reading 51. BARTON FINK (1991)