People Like Us

For a little bit of meta-blogging, I’m phasing myself out of a facebook group I’ve been in and some of my contributions to that group involved some long-form writing that I’m a little bit proud of and would like to share outside that group’s confines. As such, below is the first of what will be several posts this month migrating my writing from there to here.

Depending on the results at the night of which I write these words (Author’s Note 1 Dec 2022: this was written the night of the 2020 Presidential Election), who knows if we’re in the mood to think about some small utopic town in Texas? But somethings just have to be grappled with for some and I’ll wrestle with your conscience while you wrestle with your partner.

Just to get full disclosure out of the way: I’m barely certain that David Byrne’s 1986 movie True Stories – the only movie that the frontman for the former band Talking Heads ever directed – is actually a good movie and don’t have any illusions of it being a great one by the metrics I go by. Byrne, co-writers Stephen Tobolowsky & Beth Henley, and editor Caroline Biggerstaff don’t seem to have spent enough time thinking about how to connect all the wonderfully fascinating ideas and concepts they have about this one isolated Americana town of Virgil, Texas. More particularly, Byrne appears to see making a feature film as no different that making a bunch of music videos and though those music videos are marvelous eye candy as shot by the great Ed Lachmann with subtly depressive tones of bright blue and pink and of course Byrne is a phenomenal songwriter (and anybody who needs to see the light on Talking Heads must run to the masterpiece Stop Making Sense immediately), it doesn’t make for feeling like we ARE watching a whole. Just pieces.

And this kind of prevents me from feeling like the creation of Virgil as a place – the very raison d’etre of True Stories – is as complete as I could be satisfied by. The knowledge that we are watching setpieces instead of living in an environment and the full lack of even atmospheric thoroughline between those setpieces.

And yet… True Stories is a movie that I am deeply in love with ever since I had first seen it 3 years ago, coincidentally a few months before I visited Dallas in flee from Hurricane Irene (and funny enough almost bought a DVD copy from the Movie Trading Company in Beltline before reminding myself a Criterion edition was being hinted at the time). Another visit to Dallas years later would see me deliberately visiting locations where I knew it to be shot.

Works about America as a concept interest me greatly (the Western lover in me insists on this) and works especially about America as a concept made by foreigners interest me most of all (such as Wim Wenders’ work or Garth Ennis’ Preacher comic series). They make me recognize that as somebody who isn’t born of this land, there is a way to examine it while feeling of a part of it in all but birthright. Calling David Byrne a foreigner is something of a stretch given that he’d moved to Baltimore by the time he was 8, but that is a couple of years older than I was when I came here and her took much longer to get his American citizenship than I did (in fact, he was still solely a Scottish citizen at the time he made this movie). More importantly, the energy and attitude of this movie looking in on the town of Virgil is explicitly that of an outsider and that’s what encourages us to have an exploratory attitude. Byrne’s music had already by this point given away his desire to dissect what is in motion about a community or a society or even just a connection between two people with a sense of distance that somehow doesn’t feel tragic (in one of the rare instances of Armond White’s mouth not spewing reactionary bullshit, he observed a yin and yang between Prince’s desire to turn the sexual into intellectual and Byrne’s desire to turn the intellectual into the sexual, which I absolutely believe songs like “Wild Life” lead into and hey look at that… there’s a Prince homage in that scene). True Stories has given him an opportunity to apply that fascination – something that almost always spilled over to interrogating modern life’s focus with consumerism and Rockwellian domestic fantasies – to a different medium and try to see what that medium allows him to do. Apparently, it allows him to turn it on its head by choosing as a subject a land ostensibly rural that also ends up indebted to a single computer company Varicorp, something I feel could be treated as more cynical than it is (though at the very least, Byrne, Lachman, and Biggerstaff treat Varicorp as a sterile environment) or to have long dolly shots through the malls that Byrne’s lyrics so previously had curious musings on.

It also allows him to populate this community with quite a crew of characters, like John Goodman’s breakout performance as the gregariously yet melancholy Louis Fyne or late monologuist Spalding Gray’s chattering civil leader Earl Culver (who will apparently talk the head off of everyone but his wife, played by Annie McEnroe) or Tejano musical icon Tito Larriva’s suave psychic, not to mention a bed-resting Swoosie Kurtz or Jo Harvey Allen’s compulsive liar. I expect that most of Tobolowsky’s background as a phenomenal and deservedly beloved character actor went into creating these people, but apparently they also came from a bunch of eccentric news clippings that Byrne collected and put against a wall from his time touring with Talking Heads and his wondering about what if… these stories were all true? And even with performances that distinguish and live in these characters – Allen and John Ingle’s conspiracy theorizing preacher in “Puzzlin’ Evidence” particularly hint at the darker side of Virgil (though I honestly think the playfulness of “Puzzlin’ Evidence” as a setpiece weaken and muddle this) – that core allows the people of Virgil to feel like extensions of what Byrne is trying to put together about the town as a conduit for a community.

In any case, I find the loneliest moments of True Stories where those characters are nowhere to be seen the most compelling to me: the shots of Texan landscapes in sad blue dusk light and horizons that feel more like they’re going than coming, gas stations with no cars stationed at them, buildings with the lights out. Moments like this find ways for Lachman to play with the lines of architecture that clash Virgil’s modernization against what this land used to be, an attitude Byrne opens the film with discussing with unexpected candidness compared to Earl’s later platitude about God’s wisdom in making people who would like Virgil how it is. Virgil as it is is not what it was. But most importantly, it stresses both the isolation of Virgil as an environment and us within Virgil looking into it. It gives us the same outsider energy that Byrne has making this.

Given both Louis and the Culvers’ familiarity with Byrne’s nameless narrator, there’s not much reason to assume the Narrator’s much of a stranger to Virgil. But the way that the Narrator drives in and out and especially musing as he exits with the film behind him on how he loves forgetting the details of a place so that he can see the place “as it really is” makes it feel like he’s just passing through. Maybe he’ll always be passing through. As somebody who finds myself at my most free when I am just driving a long distance – and I mean long… cross state lines, cross country lines sometimes even – and deciding to just figure out where I landed, I like to think I’ll always have that manner of just passing through no matter how familiar I get when I go “I guess that this must be the place”.

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