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Just Slightly Off: True Stories

True 02

By John Duncan Talbird.

My friends and I loved the Talking Heads when we were in college. You could not go a week in our house without hearing at least one of their most recent albums: Speaking in Tongues (1983), Stop Making Sense (1984), Little Creatures (1985). (Even today, I don’t let much time pass between listening to their Brian Eno-produced records, Fear of Music [1979] and Remain in Light [1980], two still-classic records that emerged out of the wreckage of the New York punk scene of the 1970s.) Understandably, in 1986 we were ecstatic to learn that David Byrne, the genius songwriter and front man behind Talking Heads’ music, had written and directed a movie, True Stories, that it was not another concert movie like their Jonathan Demme-directed Stop Making Sense (1984) which we had on pirated VHS and which, though we didn’t play as often as the records, returned to more than once in the time we all lived together. True Stories would have real actors! David Byrne would star! The movie poster – Byrne in cowboy getup reading the paper – suggested that there would be a plot! We went to see it on opening Friday that October, giddy with anticipation.

Let me emphasize that, though none of us were religious people, we worshipped Byrne. He was up there with Lou Reed and David Bowie to us. So, of course, after watching True Stories we nodded and agreed that the film was something. It was different, a little odd. But we were nonplussed, just a bit. It was less rock-and-roll than we would have anticipated. Some of the music, which Byrne had also written, sounded like country, easy listening, even polka. We knew there was something weird going on here, but it wasn’t as edgy as we had expected. We expected a little bit of violence in our edgy: Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) and the just-released Blue Velvet (1986), the dark sci-fi movies of David Cronenberg, the zombie films of George Romero. We sensed that this film should belong in this esteemed company, we just weren’t completely sure how yet. After all, it was rated PG. Luckily, our roommate Jess worked in the movie theater that was screening True Stories, so we went to see it again. And then again. When we finally saw it under the influence of a mind-altering substance, watching tracking shots of brown scrub grass, metal buildings, and ranch style houses, we thought, Ah-ha, that’s it. We get it now. And so, “it” firmly grasped in hand, we didn’t need to see it again.

Those friends and I have since drifted apart. And so I approached re-screening it recently, under no other influence than the intervening thirty years, with curiosity and also nostalgia. In celebration of the thirtieth anniversary, Criterion has released a Blu-ray edition accompanied by a new retrospective documentary, a CD with the complete soundtrack (collected for the first time!) and essays published in an insert in the style of the pulp stories one finds in the tabloid Weekly World News which was a major inspiration for Byrne’s film. In the 1980s, the Weekly World News could be found in US grocery stores next to the more respectable National Enquirer and Star tabloids. Sample headlines were “500-Ft. Jesus Appears at U.N.” “Surgeons Cut My Head Off – and Sewed It Back On!” and probably the most famous, “Bat Child Found in Cave!” accompanied by an illustration of the scary little tyke with his razor-sharp teeth. But these aren’t the stories of True Stories. The weird stories from Byrne’s film – a few of which are reprinted in the tabloid insert in the new Blu-ray – were the minor tales buried inside, the ones that were off just a bit: “Happily Married Couple Hasn’t Spoken in Years,” “Lonely Bachelor Hungers for Love,” “World’s Laziest Woman Never Gets Out of Bed.” They are stories that are odd, but believable, most likely true. Hence the name.

True 01Byrne views these stories as latter-day folktales, tall tales that have morphed from real events into collective wisdom. The stories that make up the film are like ethnographical narratives arising out of the sites that Byrne scouted when he first went to Texas to decide if he would make a film there or not. He approached creating a film in much the way that he approached making music – seeing what is out in the world, listening to what he liked, putting it together in odd and pleasing ways. He contacted Joan Tewkesbury who had written Robert Altman’s classic multinarrative and ensemble cast film Nashville (1975), a favorite of Byrne’s. He hadn’t written a script yet, but he had drawn a lot of pictures. This approach was influenced by work he had done with The Knee Plays that he had written for Robert Wilson (1985). Tewkesbury felt that he was already on the way and didn’t need her help, but she sent him to North Texas and connected him with the burgeoning (non-union) film production industry there.

All of this info and more is in the essays that Rebecca Bengal and Joe Nick Patoski have contributed to the Blu-ray along with the new documentary. But the real joy of this package is returning to this thirty-year old film with its new digital transfer, especially if, as with me, you haven’t seen it in a very long time. David Byrne plays the Narrator of the film, a cowboy-hat-wearing out-of-towner. Throughout the film, he will be the only character to appear in a getup like this as if he has brought along all of our preconceptions about Texas to this locale. In a large convertible, he drives us over the freeways around the fictional Virgil, TX, a small town in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area of North Texas, shows us the metal buildings littering the landscape, takes us inside a factory making computer parts, takes us to a mall and a singles bar, takes us to dinner in people’s homes. Along the way, we’re introduced to Louis Fyne (John Goodman), the earlier-mentioned “lonely bachelor.” Louis has created a TV commercial advertising for love. He has a “wife wanted” sign in front of his house. He advertises that he is “panda-shaped” and lovable. He is so very much the John Goodman character we love from Rosanne and various Coen Brothers films that we might be forgiven if we didn’t realize that Rosanne wouldn’t appear for two more years (1988-2018), that Goodman wouldn’t appear in Raising Arizona until a year later, 1987. In fact, Goodman isn’t the only thing that Byrne seems to be unearthing for Americans and the world. He shows us, the tone a mix of tongue-in-cheek and real earnestness, the soon-to-be integral role that computers will play in the average life of Americans, years before everything tech would automatically be associated with Northern California, nearly thirty years before Halt and Catch Fire (2014-2017) examined the place of computer tech in the so-called Silicon Prairie of Northern Texas. In the week in which Byrne’s narrator visits Virgil, they are celebrating the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of the town’s founding with a Festival of Specialness, a nice metaphor for the late-20th-century brand of American exceptionalism as embodied in a Texas which would go on to offer us the post-Reagan worlds of Presidents George H.B. Bush (1989-1993) and George W. Bush (2001-2009). There’s a fire and brimstone preacher (John Ingle) offering us apocalyptic sermon-hymns (“Puzzlin’ Evidence”) and a voodoo priest (Roebuck “Pops” Staples) casting funky love spells (“Papa Legba”). Although Byrne’s narrator and our own preconceptions have made us expect country music in this music film, there is very little of that genre here, excepting the final song of the talent show celebrating the Festival of Specialness, a great version of the Talking Heads’ “People Like Us” in a band fronted by Goodman’s Fyne. Throughout the film we have, in addition to a couple rock songs performed by the Talking Heads (“Wild Wild Life” and “Love for Sale”), gospel, elevator muzak, Tejano, polka, funk. Anyone familiar with Austin, TX’s South by Southwest (SXSW) yearly festival of music (and film and tech) in which rap bands perform alongside alt country bands alongside punk alongside indie will have no problem reconciling these various sounds. But again, Byrne is an oracle for the cultural future. The inaugural festival didn’t happen until a year after Byrne’s film premiered.

But to re-see Byrne’s only feature-length film is not only to see all of this cultural sediment being unearthed, it is also to see cinematic approaches that would become common currency in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. To watch True Stories is to see Middle American quirk in that sweet spot between nostalgia, condescension, and bafflement, the kind of weird America that Twin Peaks (1990-1991) made viewers so comfortable with. In fact, Byrne’s narrator – discovering this secret, often charming America, delivering his lines in a strange, robotic fashion – could be a prototype for Kyle MacLachlan’s Special Agent Dale Cooper. And Byrne’s Virgil, TX is not far removed from John Waters’ Baltimore, Md, especially the just slightly off Baltimore that Waters introduced mainstream America to in his big-budget films like Hairspray (1988) and Cry-Baby (1990). Finally, the cinematography – masterfully executed by Edward Lachman, who would go on to film some of Todd Haynes’ best work (Far from Heaven [2002], I’m Not There [2007], Carol [2015] and others) – makes one think of the flat, centered shots of Wes Anderson films like The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).

It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who had been listening that David Byrne had his finger on certain aspects of American pop culture pulsing just beneath the surface. He wrote about the people who work in buildings (“Don’t Worry about the Government” [1977], “Once in a Lifetime” [1980]), about the effluvium of our pop culture (“Found a Job” [1978], “Electric Guitar” [1979]), and that late-20th-century paranoia which would make so many of us ripe for Madison Avenue advertisers and pharmaceutical companies once the perfect anti-depression pill, or pills, was created (“Psycho Killer” [1977], “Life During Wartime” [1979]). One of the reasons that my friends and I loved the Talking Heads so much, and therefore loved David Byrne, was because they never sold out. Some of the punk and postpunk bands from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s just kept doing the same thing until we, and they, got bored. And some, as soon, as they got a budget, made a record that was polished and a little bland and generic. And so we stopped listening. But the Talking Heads continued to evolve from 1975 until 1991 when they abruptly broke up. Not including a couple live albums, they only put out eight records in that time, each one different from the others. And yet, they were all the same, like Byrne’s film, slightly off. Like Byrne’s narrator in True Stories, the Talking Heads were visitors to America from somewhere else, perhaps another planet. They were trying to fit in, “get things done” (“Don’t Worry about the Government.” Or “What a Day that Was” [1984], take your pick). Byrne was always getting things done. He’s continued to make solo albums and collaborations (as both performer and producer). But he’s also published books, made visual art, composed operas. It’s easy to forget he won an Oscar (for the score for The Last Emperor [1987], shared with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Cong Su). And, unfortunately, it’s also been easy to forget True Stories. Like so many other Criterion reissues, this is worth the reminder.

John Duncan Talbird is the author of the limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have appeared in PloughsharesJuked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, Ambit and elsewhere. He is an English professor at Queensborough Community College.

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1 Comment for “Just Slightly Off: True Stories

  1. Reading about this “misfit” cowboy narrator, I can’t help wonder if the Coens have offered another cinephile insider’s joke with their recent Tim Blake Nelson character.

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