Lone Star Losers

More than most kinds of nostalgia, Texan nostalgia is absurdly easy to overdo. That helps to explain why Eagle Pennell’s first two feature films—The Whole Shootin’ Match and Last Night at the Alamo—are such special things. Both movies are intricately, almost embarrassingly, familiar with certain Texan types and attitudes, yet manage to explore them without either sentimentalizing or condescending to them. To this pair of eyes at least, Pennell’s movies, even with their rough edges (and some of those edges are really rough), present a truer picture of Texas than all of the Hollywood colossi striding through Giant, the dirt-kicking mumblefucks of Tender Mercies, or the upscale hot-house symbols and tropes swarming like locusts through Hud, Lone Star, and The Last Picture Show.

I first saw Last Night at the Alamo on television around 1985. It definitely stood out from the other cable fare of the time, if only for the humble place it occupied in the world. Its miniscule arena extends no further than the premises of a mildewed Houston dive—“The Alamo”—on the night before it’s to be bulldozed and replaced by condos; its action consists of about a dozen of the bar’s regulars acting out their nightly rituals one last time before losing what for most of them is their real home. In places the movie feels like an artistic commando raid, rescuing characters—a henpecked husband, a perpetually pissed-off redneck kid—who are usually confined to the background of movies, and dragging them front and center where we can take a good, long look at them.

The movie’s brazenly foul-mouthed dialogue also made it memorable, for Last Night at the Alamo has a case of potty-mouth like few other movies do; Deadwood by comparison sounds like the Gettysburg Address. One character in particular—the almost metaphysically miserable Claude, played by Lou Perryman—delivers a graduate seminar in framing life’s dilemmas using only four-letter words. Yet for all its rambunctiousness, Last Night at the Alamo remains focused, mostly on the travails of “Cowboy” (Sonny Carl Davis), the bar’s most celebrated regular. Cowboy is a balding, sawed-off John Wayne wannabe who gets through life by posing as a grinning, strutting good-time-charlie. A little man revered by the other barflies only because they themselves are so small, Cowboy claims to have a secret plan to save The Alamo, and it comes as no surprise when it works about as well as Nixon’s secret plan to get us out of Vietnam. (Because of their relative sizes Perryman and Davis resemble a redneck Mutt and Jeff, but in terms of what they mean to Pennell’s movies it’s more useful to think of William Demarest and Preston Sturges or Elliot Gould and Robert Altman—as living, breathing manifestations of the filmmaker’s personality.)

Last Night at the Alamo’s finest accomplishment is recognizing its characters as the misogynistic alcoholic losers they are without ever giving up on them as human beings. Celebrations of the pathetic are rare enough in art, but they’re nearly unheard of in contemporary America, where normal human concerns about status and self-esteem have blossomed into full-blown psychotic obsessions, and people act as if spending time with even fictional failures brings bad juju. Yet Pennell and his co-scenarist Kim Henkel don’t bother giving Cowboy & Co. any synthetic little touches to redeem them or make them “worthy” of our interest. It’s simply assumed that their very existence is reason enough to care about them—a notion which, if it’s good enough for democracy, ought to do for a movie.

Pennell’s 1978 ode to scrapers and battlers The Whole Shootin’ Match is even purer than Alamo. It follows two Austin lowlifes, Loyd and Frank (Perryman and Davis again), who fill their days working as common laborers and dreaming up fanciful get-rich-quick schemes. Again Pennell (this time sharing writing duties with Lin Sutherland) doesn’t shy away from his heroes’ darker patches—at one point Frank, his manhood stung by his cousin’s flirting with his wife, mindlessly takes a belt to his young son—yet the movie’s overriding tone is affectionate and understanding. When one of their schemes seems certain of a big-time payout, Frank treats himself to a leisure suit and cowboy hat, and his shopping spree is a delight to watch even though we know he’s setting himself up for a fall. The last scene, in which the two old friends make a long quixotic trek across the Hill Country in search of Spanish treasure and wind up making some peace with their jimmy-rigged lives, is memorable both for its easygoing pace and the physically convincing vibe of a long day spent outdoors. (Robert Redford has often cited Shootin’ Match—the archetypal regional, independently financed production—as a primary inspiration for the Sundance Film Festival.)

Pennell made three more movies after Last Night at the Alamo, all of them unavailable on home video, and all of them reputedly awful. After his early successes he suffered a long, sad decline, eventually drinking himself to death in Houston in 2002. Earlier this year Watchmaker Films released The Whole Shootin’ Match on DVD, along with a documentary by Pennell’s nephew which, in the course of tracing his rise and fall, touches on filmmaking, Austin in the ’70s, and terminal alcoholism—and it’s superb on every count. (Last Night at the Alamo has never made it to DVD but remains available via used VHS tapes, occasional cable broadcasts and YouTube.) Perryman, Davis and their splendid co-star Doris Hargrave, about whom I haven’t said anywhere near enough, provided a commentary track for Shootin’ Match that’s colorful and informative, even if it doesn’t reach the uproarious heights of The A.V. Club’s fabled 2008 interview with the two men. In an agonizing postscript, Lou Perryman was murdered in his Austin home in April 2009. It remains a mystery why he and Pennell had to meet ends so much harsher than anything they wished on their characters.

Dog Canyon 2009

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