Bonus Features: Home of the Brave (1986)

Our current Movie of the Month, the 1986 concert film Home of the Brave, is only a small glimpse into the profoundly peculiar mind of performance artist & avant-garde musician Laurie Anderson. Home of the Brave is a streamlined, 90min distillation of Anderson’s United States I-IV stage show: a four-part, two-night concert series in the early 1980s that combined lectures, digital projections, absurdist dance, and bizarre new wave compositions to abstract & deconstruct the nature of modern living in the Western world (and America in particular, as the title suggests). It’s a sprawling “Who are we?” existential crisis for The Reagan Era, abstracting basic modern concepts as varied as America’s national identity, the nature of rock music, the absurdism of gender performance & 80s workout routines, basic human interactions, technology, language, etc. Even as only a small portion of that magnum opus, Home of the Brave clearly registers to my eyes & ears as one of the greatest concert films of all time, a wonderful introduction to Anderson’s consistently exciting & confounding genius.

While there is only one wonderful mind like Laurie Anderson’s, she’s not the only philosophically minded musician who’s used filmmaking to document & bolster her art. Here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to see more pop music cinema on its profoundly peculiar wavelength.

American Utopia (2020)

Full disclosure: the only reason I recently sought out Home of the Brave in the first place is because last year’s David Byrne concert film American Utopia reminded me so much of Anderson’s work in United States I-IV. In American Utopia, Byrne’s parade of solo & Talking Heads hits are bookended by short lectures that examine the function & the soul of American culture from an abstracted outsider perspective – a kind of spiritual sequel to his Small-Town America portrait True Stories. American Utopia is an honest but optimistic temperature check of where America is today, both acknowledging the horrors of racially motivated police brutality that have long been a stain on this country’s honor and pointing to our current moment of change as a possibly transformative turning point towards a better future. Meanwhile, everything onstage is rigidly uniformed & regimented like a dystopian sci-fi film, with the traditional rock performers’ instruments & colorful costuming stripped away to mimic the minimalism of modern performance art. Like Home of the Brave, it’s the kind of existential national identity crisis that you can dance to.

To be honest, I do have a small chip on my shoulder about how much praise is heaped on Byrne’s American Utopia & Stop Making Sense films while Home of the Brave never even made the jump from VHS & Laserdisc to DVD, much less Blu-ray. Although she’s less of a household name elsewhere, Laurie Anderson was very much an equal & contemporary alongside David Byrne in NYC art snob circles in the early 1980s. Stop Making Sense might have preceded the concert film version of her United States act by a few years, but she was already pushing its more out-there ideas to their furthest extreme in her own stage work at that same time. If anything, American Utopia finds Byrne leaning further into the Laurie Andrersonisms of his own work, to the point where it feels like it’s turning Home of the Brave‘s idiosyncrasies into a concert film subgenre all of its own. Both films are great, but only one is being left to rot in the wasteland of fuzzy YouTube uploads.

Björk: Biophilia Live (2014)

While David Byrne collaborated with the distinctly American auteur Spike Lee on his own pop-lecture concert film, Björk outsourced the filmmaking duties on her 2014 concert piece Biophilia Live to two eccentric Brits. Unrepentant fetishist (and one of my favorite living filmmakers) Peter Strickland handled the direction of the film, while famed naturalist David Attenborough contributed the lecture portions of the performance (and expanded on its ideas in a bonus feature titled When Björk Met Attenborough). Biophilia Live beings with Attenborough making wild, unrealistic declarations over breathtaking nature footage, urging the audience to “Forget the size of the human body. Remember that you are a gateway between the universal and the microscopic, the unseen forces that stir the depths of your innermost being and Nature, who embraces you and all there is.” He goes on to claim that “We are on the brink of a revolution that will reunite humans with nature through new technological innovation.” That abstract, philosophical subject is a Laurie Anderson-scale ambition for a mere concert film. Björk nearly delivers on that majestic promise too, finding a unique visual language that combines “nature, music, and technology” into one cohesive whole.

This union of “nature, music and technology” is accomplished through a layered visual collage that matches the on-stage aspects of the concert being filmed to the beautiful nature footage & pixelated CGI that swirls around and above it. During the opening song “Thunderbolt” Björk appears in the Earth’s stormy atmosphere, her backing band’s synths (and a specially rigged Tesla coil) seemingly controlling the lightning that illuminates the air around her. The imagery then shifts from the earthly to the celestial, the rhythm of the music correlating to the phases of the moon and the glacially shifting lights of stars and galaxies. The focus then shrinks from the heavenly to the microscopic; Fantastic Voyage-style close-ups of blood moving through veins fade to pixelated bacteria attaching to strands of DNA before the images finally devolve into distorted television color bars & computer monitor static. These phases of the imagery are cleverly allowed to bleed into one another instead of remaining isolated, which leads to some transcendent juxtaposition: a lightning storm in outer space, the moon perched on a spinal column, crystal formations melting into prism light. Even Björk herself looks like a combination of two ostensibly separate natural phenomena: her gigantic wig like a colorful galaxy & her asymmetrical dress like an underwater growth.

Attenborough’s opening monologue defines “biophilia” as “the love for Nature in all her manifestations” and Biophilia Live tries desperately to capture all those manifestations in one definitive catalog. Conceived as a single facet of a multi-media project alongside a studio album, music-composition computer apps, and the aforementioned conversation between Björk & Attenborough, the film itself is more than just a document of a single concert. It’s also an attempt to tie years of far-reaching ideas spread across various art forms into a single product, the same way it tries to tie all of Nature into a single entity. It’s the only concert project I can think of that matches the hyperbolic ambition of United States I-IV, and it’s not at all surprising that effort came from an artist as daring & eccentric as Björk.

Heart of a Dog (2015)

While I greatly respect both the American Utopia & Biophilia concert films on their own terms, neither can truly scratch the itch of wanting more art on Home of the Brave‘s peculiar wavelength. Laurie Anderson is just too distinctive of a philosophical mind to find that need satisfied in another artist’s hands. That’s why I’d also recommend pairing Home of the Brave with her essay film Heart of a Dog (her only subsequent feature-length work as a director) even though it’s not a concert film. While Home of the Brave is a snapshot of Anderson going as broadly, abstractly philosophical as possible, Heart of a Dog finds her at her most intimate. Presented as a meditation on the nature of Death following the loss of Anderson’s beloved rat terrier Lola, the film mostly functions as an act of self-therapy after the also-recent death of her husband, Lou Reed. In the film, Anderson mixes stock footage, digital photography, home movies, and animation to bring her trademark spoken-word work to vivid, visual life. Anderson’s intense soundscapes & language play hadn’t changed much in the decades since Home of the Brave, but they’re presented here with the immediacy & intimacy of listening to her narrate a private family photo album instead of a sprawling stage show.

Of course, Anderson can’t help but process her familial grief through prodding at larger, more abstract concepts; that’s just who she is. The losses of Lola & Lou inform every frame of Heart of a Dog, but they’re part of a larger tapestry of ideas that cover everything from the modern surveillance state to living in New York during 9/11 to the tenants of Buddhism to the existence of ghosts. Lou Reed’s absence weighs heavily on the proceedings, cropping up in an occasional image or song or dedication, but speaks volumes as Laurie Anderson instead discusses the process of accepting loss in terms of her dog, her dog’s sight, the twin towers, a world before the omnipresence of modern technology, and a mother she feels she never genuinely loved. As with all of Laurie Anderson’s work, Heart of a Dog is a writer’s delight, an intense meditation on the bizarre nature of language, but it stands as her most fiercely personal work to date. It not only covers the whirlwind of painful change & transition she’s survived in recent years; it also lays out in simple, clear terms how she sees the known world & the unknown one that follows. Nearly every word, sound, and image in the film was created by Anderson herself and by the end credits the film feels like a snapshot of her very soul, as opposed to the snapshot of America’s soul presented in Home of the Brave.

-Brandon Ledet

The NYC Art Gallery Concert Film

I recently found myself falling down a hyperspecific rabbit hole watching live performances of bands that meant a lot to me in high school. It started with the David Byrne concert film American Utopia, which I caught up with on HBO as part of the late-in-the-year hunt for potential Best of the Year list-toppers. Even more so than the landmark Talking Heads documentary Stop Making Sense, American Utopia is a unique specimen within the concert film genre. Unlike most rock concert docs, it doesn’t aim to energize or throttle the audience in any discernible way. It’s an upbeat but gentle work, staged with regimented, clinical precision within the rigid confines of a Broadway theatrical setting. Spike Lee directs the film with a controlled, observant formalism that only appears in flashes in his messier, more idiosyncratic works. As a movie, American Utopia is more like stumbling across a performance art piece in an NYC art gallery than attending a rock show or even a typical Broadway musical. It’s not the only concert film of that exact ilk, though, and I soon found myself seeking out more heady art gallery concert docs on its wavelength to keep the arty party going.

I was lucky enough to catch the traveling American Utopia show live at the 2018 Jazz Fest, but it was a lot more of a traditional rock performance than what’s captured in the movie version. Watching Byrne perform for the first time live in the afternoon sunshine, I found myself crying while dancing in a rare moment of ecstatic happiness – maybe the second time I’ve ever experienced such euphoria at a concert. That Jazz Fest set was an abbreviated version of the show, one that cut out a few songs and, more importantly, abbreviated the spoken monologues that act as the show’s thematic throughline. In the movie (and, presumably, most live performances of the act), Byrne’s parade of solo & Talking Heads hits are bookended by short lectures that examine the function & the soul of American culture from a distanced outsider perspective; it’s a kind of spiritual sequel to Byrne’s small-town America portrait True Stories in that way. It’s an honest but optimistic temperature check of where America is today, both acknowledging the horrors of racially-motivated police brutality that have long been a stain on this country’s honor and pointing to our current moment of change as a possibly transformative turning point towards a better future. Meanwhile, everything onstage is rigidly uniformed & regimented like a dystopian sci-fi film, with the traditional rock performers’ instruments & colorful costuming stripped away to mimic the minimalism of modern performance art.

American Utopia has earned plenty accolades as one of the best cinematic experiences of the year, but it’s not the only NYC Art Gallery Concert Film that was recently highlighted as a Cultural Event. In an effort to stay visible as a cultural institution despite ongoing COVID-lockdowns, the Brooklyn concert venue St. Ann’s Warehouse has been periodically broadcasting past shows on YouTube, free-to-the-public. A recent one that caught my eye (thanks to write-ups on sites like the New York Times) was a 2007 concert film version of Lou Reed’s Berlin. The follow-up to Reed’s cult solo record Transformer, Berlin was a critical & financial flop in 1973, a failure that broke the rock ‘n roller’s heart to the point where he refused to play songs from the album live. The 2007 performance at St. Ann’s Warehouse is a decades-in-the-making event, then, finding Reed performing the proggy concept album in its entirety with a sprawling backup band that included contributions from Sharon Jones, Antony, and a full children’s choir. It also translated Berlin into the world of Visual Art, layering in dramatic visualizations of the album’s loose “narrative” (as projections on the stage and interjections on the screen) as if they were fuzzy memories bubbling up to the surface of the songs. The film’s director, fine art painter Julian Schnabel, does his best to turn the concert film experience into an instillation piece, achieving an art gallery aesthetic in a much uglier, more somber way than Byrne’s work. Weirdly enough, both movies also happen to share a cinematographer in Ellen Kuras.

After watching Berlin & American Utopia in short succession, I caught myself wondering what the ultimate NYC Art Gallery Concert Film would be. The answer was immediately obvious, although I had not yet seen the film myself because of its limited availability. Laurie Anderson’s 1986 concert film Home of the Brave is a 90min distillation of her two-night concert piece United States I-IV. Having now only seen a fuzzy rip of the film that’s lurking on YouTube (as it unforgivably has never made the format leap from VHS & laserdisc to DVD), I’m fairly confident in calling it The Greatest Concert Film of All Time. I know that title has been communally bestowed upon Stop Making Sense, but Anderson’s piece certainly belongs in that conversation, if not only for highlighting how her work pioneered a lot of the more Conceptual Art elements that goes into Byrne’s stage shows. Anderson also observes the soul & structure of America in a series of abstracted, outsider-POV lectures the way Byrne does in American Utopia, but those monologues are interwoven into her avant-garde new wave songs to the point where there’s no boundary between them. Projectors, voice modulators, newly invented instruments, and guest appearances from William S. Burroughs of all people are prominently featured in her show as if they were the hallmarks of a rock ‘n roll music video instead of weirdo outsider-artist eccentricities. While American Utopia & Berlin evoke the mood & setting of an art gallery, Home of the Brave is an art gallery, and it’s a shame that it’s the only film of the three that you can’t currently access in Blu-ray quality.

Although she’s less of a household name elsewhere, Laurie Anderson was very much an equal & a contemporary alongside David Byrne & Lou Reed in NYC art snob circles (and Reed’s spouse in the final years of his life, a pain explored in the experimental essay film Heart of a Dog). Stop Making Sense might have preceded the concert film version of her United States I-IV act by a few years, but she was already pushing its more out-there ideas (especially its use of projectors) to their furthest extremes in her own stage work at that same time. If anything, American Utopia finds David Byrne leaning even further into the Laurie Anersonisms of his own work, to the point where it feels like it’s turning Home of the Brave‘s idiosyncrasies into a concert film subgenre all of its own. The only other concert doc I can name that approaches these films’ shared NYC art gallery aesthetic is Bjork’s Biophilia project, which is great company to be in. They might not be the most raucous or chaotic specimens of rock ‘n roll hedonism, but they collectively strive to elevate the concert film to new artistic highs; and Anderson clearly stands as the mastermind of the medium.

-Brandon Ledet

Bonus Features: True Stories (1986)

Our current Movie of the Month, 1986’s True Stories, is a one-of-a-kind oddity. David Byrne’s directorial debut is part sketch comedy, part music video, part essay film, and part experimental video art. Mostly, though, it’s just a 90-minute visit inside the Talking Heads frontman’s wonderful brain as he puzzles at the basic nature of rural Texas and—by extension—America. Only Byrne could have written & narrated the picture as it is; its worldview is fine-tuned to a frequency only his mind operates on. Watching humble, everyday Texans interact with Byrne’s exuberant, wonderstruck POV is like watching Fred Flintstone chat with The Great Gazoo. He practically functions as a figment of their imagination, which is essentially how his eternal-outsider Art Punk spirit feels in the real world too.

Because True Stories is so specific to Byrne’s idiosyncratic worldview, it’s exceedingly difficult to recommend further viewing for audiences who want to see more films like it. Luckily, it’s not the only film around that heavily involves Byrne’s peculiar input. Nor is it the only film in which a left-of-the-dial auteur attempts to construct an abstracted portrait of American culture. Here are a few suggested pairings of movies you could watch if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to experience more cinema on its bizarro wavelength.

Stop Making Sense (1984)

The biggest no-brainer endorsement for a True Stories double feature is to pair it with the Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense. A collaboration between the band and beloved director Jonathan Demme, the concert doc covers four live dates from the Stop Making Sense tour in 1983, when Byrne & his art-punk buddies were at the height of their national popularity. While some of Byrne’s engagement with the everyday common folk of America is lost as he’s distanced from the audience on a barricaded stage, much of the visual language & thematic concerns that would later snowball into True Stories are present here. The video-art displays, consumer culture iconography, and puzzled fascination with the modern Western world that abstracts Byrne’s version of Americana in True Stories are all present in Stop Making Sense; they’re just filtered through song & dance and other collaborator artists’ POV. You even get a small taste of how Byrne’s peculiar presence clashes with the aura of Normal People in Demme’s last-minute choice to turn the camera on dancing members of the audience.

Not for nothing, Stop Making Sense is also worth a watch because it happens to be the pinnacle of the concert film as a medium – regardless of its tenuous connections to True Stories.

John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch (2019)

Until Stop Making Sense is updated with a spiritual sequel in David Byrne’s upcoming American Utopia concert tour doc (directed by the over-qualified Spike Lee, of all people), its closest substitute might be a sketch comedy showcase hosted by John Mulaney. Overall, the Netflix comedy special John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch doesn’t have much to do with Byrne’s peculiar persona in True Stories. Most of the special involves Mulaney interacting with semi-scripted children in a post-ironic spoof of Sesame Street era children’s programming – like a softer, more sincere Wonder Showzen. One of the special’s stand-out sketches just happens to feature Byrne: “Pay Attention,” a song the musician performs with a small child.

The playful number is about children’s frustrations when performing artistic songs or skits they’ve worked really hard on in private but adults ignore as frivolities when presented to “the public.” Byrne & his pint-sized bandmate chastise a living room full of dull, middle-class adults for ignoring children’s art as if it were background noise, even when it clearly means the world to the performer. Not only is the song funny & endearing on its own terms, but it’s also another chance to see Byrne interact with normal, aggressively un-special people as a kind of ethereal outsider who’s confounded by their behavior.

The Straight Story (1998)

Of course, David Byrne isn’t the only erudite Art Freak of his era to attempt an abstracted portrait of modern Americana. Laurie Anderson’s United States Live series even paralleled his New Wave video-art aesthetic while tackling roughly the same topic in the same year as the Stop Making Sense tour. What’s really hard to come by in works of this nature, however, is Byrne’s wholesome enthusiasm for the subject. While Anderson’s similar work can be often eerie or sinister, Byrne mostly comes across as genuinely fascinated with modern American culture as a curio.

The only other film I can think of that adopts that same wholesome outsider’s fascination with America as a people is a Walt Disney Pictures production . . . of a David Lynch film. The Straight Story is a simple retelling of a reportedly true anecdote about an ailing man travelling hundreds of miles to visit his dying, estranged brother via a John Deere tractor. It’s an incredibly patient film that hides away all the horror & obfuscation of Lynch’s typical nightmares until all that is left is his fascination with humbly eccentric Characters. The resulting film is just as bizarre as anything you’d see in Eraserhead, but somehow still carries the endearingly wholesome exuberance as True Stories.

Lynch’s film is not as excitingly paced nor, frankly, as good as Byrne’s Americana masterpiece. Few films are. When looking for supplemental material to approximate the heights of True Stories‘s singular accomplishments, you invariably have to settle for slightly less than the ideal.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: True Stories (1986)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Britnee, Brandon, and Hanna watch True Stories (1986).

Boomer: “Look at it. Who can say it’s not beautiful?”

On tour, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne used to keep clippings and cutouts from various tabloids, and imagined a place where all the stories from them were true. Out of that thought experiment, True Stories was born. Starring David Byrne as a visitor to the fictional small Texas town of Virgil, True Stories is (technically) a musical featuring nine new songs written by the Talking Heads, performed in-story by various eccentric characters in and around the utterly banal Virgil as they gear up for the town’s sesquicentennial, to be marked by a “Celebration of Specialness” that includes a parade and culminating in a stage show.

There’s not really much of a narrative here, but the closest thing to a traditional story is the arc of Virgil citizen Louis (John Goodman in his first feature role), a consistently panda bear-shaped man seeking matrimony. Louis is a clean room technician at Varicorp, the computer manufacturing corporation that employs most of the town (housed in “an all-purpose shape,” Byrne’s narrator observes, “a box”). Over the course of the film, he finds himself on dates with some of the town’s eligible women, including The Cute Woman (Alix Elias), who loves and adores cute things and can’t bear sadness, even for a moment, as well as The Lying Woman (Jo Harvey Allen), who attributes her nonexistent psychic powers to the vestigial tail she was born with and claims to be responsible for both the death of JFK and the writing of “Billie Jean;” none are a good fit. Other citizens we encounter include a conspiracy theorist preacher (John Ingle), a woman who got so rich from Varicorp stock that she no longer gets out of bed (Swoosie Kurtz, making her second MotM appearance after previously being seen in Citizen Ruth), and Varicorp founder Earl Culver (monologuist Spalding Gray) and his wife Kay (Annie McEnroe), who no longer speak directly to one another despite being perfectly civil.

Years ago, when Lindsay Ellis did her review of Freddy Got Fingered under the Nostalgia Chick banner, she dismissed that film with the following: “See film students? You want your auteur theory? It’s right […] here: Fellini’s 8 1/2, Godard’s Contempt, Green’s Freddy Got Fingered: all shocking insights into the souls of their creators.” I think that this applies to True Stories and David Byrne as well: a fearless peeling back of Byrne’s public persona (as unobtrusive as it is) to lay bare the core of this being called “David Byrne.” It’s truly a celebration of the specialness of the mundane, and even the specialness of something as ugly as suburban tract housing. Who can say it’s not beautiful? There ought to be a law.

Hanna, infamously the studio forced the Talking Heads to re-record the songs written for this film as a band, and a lot of the meaning gets lost in that translation. Like, the Heads version of “Dream Operator” is great, but it’s missing some of the magic that comes from the inherent sweetness in McEnroe’s version, which didn’t exist separate from the fashion show sequence until the soundtrack got an actual release in 2018. Which songs, if any, do you think would actually benefit from being sung by Byrne, outside of the context of True Stories? Which do you think would lose all meaning divorced from the context of the film?

Hanna: I’m probably not the right person to answer this question. I love David Byrne and Talking Heads, but I am embarrassingly late to the party; I saw Stop Making Sense for the first time within the last year, and I literally just learned that the band is not called “The Talking Heads.” I think the soundtrack works best as a delightful little showcase for each surreal voice of Virgil (I especially enjoyed “Dream Operator”, “Puzzlin’ Evidence”, and “People Like Us”); the Talking Heads re-recordings take the individuality out of those voices. I have more investment in those characters’ stories than I do in hearing the Talking Heads record the songs, so I think it’s a shame that it took so long (34 years!) to release the soundtrack as it was originally recorded, and I’m glad David Byrne eventually got to put out the version he envisioned from the beginning.

The cast of lovingly painted, idiosyncratic characters was my favorite part of this movie. Last summer I visited the Texas State Fair, which housed the winning entries of Texas’s Creative Arts contest in a large gymnasium. The walls were lined with glass cases overflowing with hundreds of Texas oddities, which were neighbors by virtue of their proximity and their shared point of origin. Yards of quilted cotton pastures meticulously embroidered with lowing longhorns was draped two cases away from a demented carving of a hand, crudely sculpted from pure Texas butter; on the opposite wall, a doomsday-proof abundance of canned pickles, jams, and relishes loomed over ceramic souvenir plates. The haphazard collection of crafted artifacts embodied a particular kind of tender strangeness that never fails to delight me; that same feeling is threaded throughout True Stories.

The citizens of Virgil (including the aforementioned rich woman and Mr. Culver, who bursts into an ecstatic dinner demonstration of the spiritualization of capitalism, among other things) coexist in intimate isolation, seeking recognition from one another through brief encounters in well-worn public spacesthe one mall, the one bar, the one factory floorwithout any real expectations, because everybody inevitably believes they already know everything there is to know about every other person. Louis is an especially sad character, and especially isolated; he works in Varicorp’s clean room, which is totally shut off from the friendly bustle of the assembly line floor. He goes to great lengths to find a wife for himself, including installing a marquee indicating his bachelorhood outside his home and taping a two-minute personal ad on a local TV station. Despite his unfortunate circumstances, he seems to be immune to any negative emotional state beyond hapless ennui; he doesn’t take it too personally when his dates don’t go well, and he is absolutely unflappable in his quest for love. This appearance of stability belies a disturbing loneliness that’s reaches its zenith at the Specialness showcase, where he sings “People Like Us”, a jaunty country-western tune that is terrifying in its desperation for human connection; he happily throws away any claim to freedom and justice for the chance to be loved by someone. This display of vulnerability pays off big time for Louis, but the expectations for his existence and his estimated self-worth are so cruelly distorted that it still feels like a loss, a reminder that things are very often nice and bad at the same time.

Tell me, Britnee: what did you think of the characters? Who stood out to you, and who faded into the background? Did you think they formed a cohesive picture of Virgil, Texas?

Britnee: There are quite a few eccentric characters in True Stories, which isn’t a rarity among films of this sort. There’s just something about this particular gaggle of wacky characters that set them apart from other similar casts. The unique folks of Virgil really make the town feel like its own universe, and each individual is an important piece of the town’s puzzle, no matter how big or small their role may be. Everyone was such a pleasure to watch, and each character brought something special to the film. Specifically, there are two characters that I would get super excited about whenever they graced the screen: Miss Rollings and Ramon. Miss Rollings is everything. She’s glamorous in a very psychobiddy way, and she has rigged up her bedroom with all sorts of gadgets to make her life as easy as possible. This includes a robot, a feeding machine, and a mechanical page turner. She would own so many Alexas if this film was set in modern times. Her sloth was so over-the-top, and I loved every minute of her screentime. As for Ramon, his smile and zest for life was so contagious. Not only does he gift of reading people’s tones, but he is a super passionate musician. I loved watching him do anything.

Something that I really admired about True Stories was how its bizarre events clashed against such a bland setting. Take for instance the shopping mall fashion show. In a very basic mall, there’s an audience of very basic people awaiting what one would expect to be a very basic fashion show. Well, as time progresses, the fashion becomes more and more insane. Astro turf dresses, oversized suits, loofah dresses, and mile-high headpieces grace the runway while “Dream Operator” is being sung by the soft voice of Mrs. Culver. Another example would be the family dinner at the Culver residence where the upper-middle class table setting includes oddities such as raw bell peppers stuffed with raw mushrooms and Japanese fish cakes atop sliced cucumbers surrounding a lobster. Mr. Culver proceeds to use the raw vegetables from the spread to explain the future of microelectronics in Virgil. It’s like the suburban American version of the Mad Hatter’s tea party.

Brandon, how important is it for the fictional town of Virgil to exist in Texas? Would this film still carry on the same if it were to take place in, for instance, a suburban town in the Mid-West?

Brandon: I absolutely believe Virgil’s Texan setting is essential to the movie’s abstracted portrait of American culture, as Texas is maybe the most stereotypically American state in the union. When other countries mock American sensibilities from an outsider’s perspective, it’s usually a parody expressed through explicitly Texan iconography. The cowboy costuming, Southern drawl, and Conservative Values of Texas are a perfect distillation of American culture at large, even though this is a vastly sprawling country with endless localized quirks. David Byrne is himself an American, but he’s studying our peculiar ideology & social rituals here as if he were a total outsider – which he kind of is, considering that he’s an art school weirdo who was born in Scotland and accidentally made it big with an NYC punk band in his 20s. It’s outright alarming when the citizens of Virgil start interacting with his onscreen narrator as if he were just a normal person just walking among them, as he initially reads as an omnipotent spirit who exists in an ethereal realm outside their earthly existence. Watching the aww-shucks, panda bear-shaped John Goodman directly interact with the strange, alien spirit of David Byrne is like watching Fred Flintstone chat with the Great Gazoo. He’s so far outside their quaint, small-town American way of living that he’s practically a figment of their imagination. Yet, he seems to have a genuine affection for Virgil even though he finds their ways deeply strange, and the movie functions almost like a love letter to the surrealism of Americana through that abstracted outsider’s lens.

I was impressed that this awestruck outsider’s portrait of American culture doesn’t shy away from our country’s more brutal history. Before the modern American absurdism of the shopping mall & channel surfing sequences light up the screen, the film opens with a crash history in the state of Texas’s establishment. We watch in a blur how the land was seized from Native cultures by white colonialists, which is an ugly undercurrent that colors the more frivolous parking lot hangouts & talent show frivolities later staged on the same land. Byrne manages to find beauty & wonder in the modern American consumer culture that replaced Native people’s own lifestyles & customs before they were ransacked. Supposedly, the occasion for the film’s celebration of Americana (through the climactic talent show) is the 150th anniversary of the founding of the state of Texas, but it’s really an abstracted portrait of America at large. The effort wouldn’t be a complete picture without that ugly colonialist history, and I admired the film for starting there before gushing over our more adorable eccentricities.

Lagniappe

Hanna: I was disturbed by my soul’s unequivocal resonation with The Lazy Woman; her slowly reclining bed, sumptuous silk sheets in pastel pink, and little robot dutifully spooning scrambled egg into her mouth filled me with wonder and vicarious ennui. I don’t think I’ve seen a clearer representation of my deepest desires.

Boomer: If you’ve been driving yourself crazy trying to figure out where you’ve seen the fantastic preacher from the “Puzzlin’ Evidence” sequence before, put your mind at ease: John Ingle was the principal in Heathers.

Brandon: Boomer’s dead-on about the overwhelming auteurism of this picture. True Stories is part sketch comedy, part music video, part essay film, and part experimental video art, but it’s mostly just a 90-minute visit inside David Byrne’s wonderful brain as he puzzles at the basic nature of rural Texas and, by extension, America. He has a childish, exuberant sense of wonder for the world that I very much wish I had left in my own dull, jaded POV. Decades later, we’re still surrounded by this same iconography every day, but we rarely prompt ourselves to consider its basic nature or value. I wish I could live in David Byrne’s America, and the only thing really stopping me is my own mental roadblocks.

I specifically wish I could live in the America depicted in the “Wild Wild Life” karaoke dance party sequence, where every member of our local communities has a chance to share the stage and be celebrated for their unique personality & sense of personal fashion. I’m afraid that I instead live in the America of the fire & brimstone pulpit sermon “Puzzlin’ Evidence”: an increasingly insular, reactionary pitchfork brigade rife with paranoid conspiracy theories & fear of the unknown. In either instance, I’m sure I’d find more joy & adoration for the sprawling concrete monstrosity we’ve built if I could just better absorb some of Byrne’s abstracted, endlessly delighted worldview.

Britnee: Usually, when famous musicians make movies, they tend to be vanity projects or just sucky failures with the only redeeming quality being the musician’s contribution. I was delighted at how David Byrne did not make this film to glorify himself. It is heavily influenced by his style, but one doesn’t need to be a David Byrne fan or even know of his existence to enjoy True Stories.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
April: Britnee presents Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)
May: Hanna presents Playtime (1967)
June: Brandon presents Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)

-The Swampflix Crew

True Stories (1986)

The RedLetterMedia boys launched a new series on their youtube channel last year called Re:View, in which they discuss films that hold a special significance for them. One of the episodes I had overlooked on its original upload was their discussion of True Stories, David Byrne’s 1986 film that he wrote, produced, and directed (unlike Adulterers, this turned out to be a good thing) as well as starred in. It’s a forgotten gem, even among Talking Heads and David Byrne fans, despite being the origin of one of their hits, “Wild Wild Life,” as well as being the first major role for John Goodman and also featuring Spalding Gray and Swoosie Kurtz. I was instantly taken with the idea and searched for the movie online in the hopes of finding a cheap copy of the out of print DVD, only to discover that the Alamo Drafthouse was going to be screening it only a couple of weeks later, as part of its Essential Texas Film series. I bought tickets faster than you can say “this is not my beautiful wife.”

Byrne plays a nameless cowboy who visits the fictional town of Virgil, Texas, an eccentric place full of quirky people, like a woman who is an outrageous liar, another woman who is so rich she never gets out of bed, a conspiracy theorist preacher, and a benevolent tech tycoon who hasn’t spoken to his wife in years. The town is preparing a celebration of specialness (the final syllable is stressed by all those who speak the word) in honor of their sesquicentennial, with such features as a mall fashion show, an unusual parade, a lip-sync competition, and the final, strange performance that one could call a talent show, but probably shouldn’t. If there is a main character other than the drifting cowboy, it’s Lewis (Goodman), a clean room technician at Varicorp, the local tech company that employs most of the people of Virgil. Lewis is a man looking for “matrimony with a capital ‘M’” who loves life, country music, and women, although what he wants more than anything is a wife who will appreciate his “consistent panda bear shape” and odd fashion sense.

The lifeblood of Virgil is its motley assortment of citizens, but the town’s economy is supported by Varicorp, manufacturer of microchips and other gadgets. Earl Culver (Gray) is the CEO and a local civic leader who loves the little town, and supports its growth philosophically as well as financially, and delivers some of the more socially intriguing dialogue in the film. Throughout, various characters provide their different viewpoints on (then) modern life, all of it charmingly endearing and prescient, although some monologues (like Culver’s dinnertime speech about the changing economy as the result of technological development, including the announcement that “there’s no concept of ‘weekends’ anymore!”) have aged better than others (like the Cowboy’s musings on the way that shopping malls have replaced downtowns as the cultural and social center of modern life). Many characters lack proper names, like the Nice Lady, who interrupts the parade of newborn babies to coo and fawn over every one of them but cannot tolerate even the mildest shadow of sadness, rejecting Lewis because of the formless melancholy of the country ballad he’s composing for the Celebration. There’s also the Lying Woman, a notable town figure who claims to have been at the center of the conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy, that she rejected Burt Reynolds despite his obsessive devotion to her, and that she has psychic powers born from having spent so much of her time as a child staring at the her own surgically removed vestigial tail (her mother later sold the oddity to LBJ, who in turn sold it to the Smithsonian for a pretty penny, so she claims).

Many would read this description and feel like the film is predicated upon mocking small towns and the people who live there, but the movie is actually utterly sympathetic to every character that appears on screen, even those who are in conflict with others. Byrne has admitted that the film’s inspiration came from reading tabloids while on the road and imagining a place where all the weirdos from these pages lived in a kind of harmony, which would also lead one to think that there would be a maliciousness in the voyeuristic peeks that we get into the lives of the citizens of this town. But no; life in Virgil has a melody and a magic, and no character is ever made out to be a fool or is treated with anything other than genuine respect by other characters as well as Byrne’s lens. Even ugly and featureless housing developments are gifted with an air of mystery and treated with a gentle tenderness. As the Cowboy drives through one and the camera pans slowly past discarded newspaper billowing in the wind like a tumbleweed across several balding lawns in front of featurelessly utilitarian brown brick homes, he asks “Who’s to say it’s not beautiful?”, and the every member of the audience must admit that, when viewed this way, none of them can make such a claim.

Uproariously funny, effortlessly poignant, and endlessly quotable, True Stories is the true celebration of specialness, a time capsule of unapologetic warmth and unconditional fondness for an oft-disparaged way of life. If you can track down a copy, sink your talons into it and never let it go. Watch the trailer here.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

This Must Be the Place (2012)

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Like a lot of thrifty New Orleans music nerds, I recently stumbled across an opportunity to see goth legends The Cure perform for cheap at my alma mater’s lake shore campus. It was a wonderful experience that unfortunately inspired me to embark on a disappointing one immediately after. I’ve been curious about the Sean Penn indie dramedy This Must Be the Place since it was first released four years ago and the option of it conveniently streaming on Netflix combined with my post-bargain bin Cure show glow to finally push me into pulling the trigger. The gun backfired. On paper, a movie starring an aging Sean Penn as a Robert Smith stand-in on a quest to murder his father’s concentration camp Nazi tormentor sounds fascinating, if not mind-blowingly incredible. Throw in some cameos from the always-welcome David Byrne & Harry Dean Stanton (with only the former portraying himself, unfortunately) and you have a must-see proposition. Like a lot of The Cure lyrics will explain to you, though, the reality is a much gloomier, more depressing experience than that romantic ideal. This Must Be the Place is one of those thorough letdowns that teases you with all the puzzle pieces required to make a great film, but leaves them messily scattered across the kitchen table, never bothering to carefully slap them together.

It’s possible the most important missing or ill-fitting piece in this particular production is Sean Penn’s lead performance. Although Penn is dressed in Robert Smith’s hairspray, make-up, and legacy, he plays the part with the quietly obnoxious energy he brought to the ill-advised mental handicap melodrama I am Sam. Every weird, lispy, half deaf sound Penn makes in this film is a singularly bizarre choice that just doesn’t pay off. The most enjoyable moment in his performance is the opening credits sequence of him wordlessly applying make-up in a mirror. It’s all downhill from there. The performance is even more baffling if you’re familiar with the real Robert Smith’s speaking voice. In interviews the aging goth rocker sounds like a perfectly normal British man, just as he always has. Penn instead sounds like David Sedaris made faint by a bout with pneumonia. He gives a delicately odd, grandmotherly performance that’s arrestingly bizarre, but never recommendable the same way, say a Nic Cage train wreck might’ve been. There’s no pleasure to be had in it, only confusion.

The real shame is that Penn’s distinct awfulness feels completely out of sync with what everyone else is doing on camera. As mentioned, Harry Dean Stanton & David Byrne are their usual wonderful selves in trumped up cameo roles that serve as desperately needed breaths of fresh air in a film that could use a little more charisma along the same lines. Byrne is especially welcome here, bringing some much-appreciated Lynchian energy into a scene where plays a bizarre musical instrument of his own invention an an entirely unearned, but pleasant moment when he sings the Talking Heads song the film borrows its title from. Frances McDormand is also wonderful as always, playing an entirely thankless role as Not Robert Smith’s divinely patient wife whom he doesn’t deserve. Only Penn stands out as a sore thumb annoyance here and a lot of the film’s faults lie squarely on his apparently incapable shoulders.

It’s really no wonder this film bombed so miserably at the box office, but I guess it’s not entirely Penn’s fault that it failed to find an audience. Much like its soft-spoken weirdo protagonist, This Must Be the Place is entirely unsure of itself. It floats between so many tones & genres that it’s difficult to pin down exactly why it feels so off other than it has no idea what it’s doing or what it wants to be from minute to minute. This is a first draft work in need of a severe revision, either swinging hard to the character-based indie dramedy or the Nazi-hunter revenge thriller directions it flirts with or, hell, swinging to both. It instead hovers like a Ouija board reader hesitating to decide on a path. There’s some really interesting imagery on display, finding surreal details in unlikely sources like an above ground swimming pool, a buffalo, and a naked old man roaming the desert. There’s also some interesting sources of internal conflict, like Penn’s retired musician’s guilty over two dedicated fans’ suicides or his quest to avenge the tormentor of a father who disowned him due to his gender androgyny.

These individual pieces, again, never amount to a cohesive whole. Even if they did, though, Penn’s choices in his lead performance might’ve been enough to sink the ship on their own. Everything feels half-cooked & out of place here, just as self-opposed as Penn’s Robert Smith image vs. his non-Robert Smith demeanor. I’d even argue that the parenthetical half of the title of its Talking Heads source material, “Naive Melody”, would’ve made for a better choice in moniker. Everything at play is just exactly off & ill-advised in that way, except maybe David Byrne. He can do no wrong.

-Brandon Ledet