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

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

In the abstract, the concept of a 2010s CG animation Spider-Man origin story sounds dreadful. In practice, prankster screenwriter Phil Lord explodes the concept into a wild cosmic comedy by making a movie about the world’s over-abundance of Spider-Man origin stories (and about the art of CG animation at large). Into the Spider-Verse is a shockingly imaginative, beautiful, and hilarious take on a story & medium combo that should be a total drag, but instead is bursting with energetic life & psychedelic creativity. I wouldn’t believe it myself if I hadn’t seen the feat achieved onscreen with my own two eyes – which are still sore from the vibrant, hyperactive swirl of interdimensional colors & spider-people that assaulted them in gloriously uninhibited 3D animation.

Even if Into-the Spider-Verse had stuck to a single, straightforward Spider-Man origin story, it chose the exact one that could have kept the formula fresh for a modern audience. Afro-Latino teen dweeb Miles Morales is a welcome deviation in representation from the countless white-boy Peter Parkers who have swung across the screen over the years. Miles inhabits a hip-hop centric version of NYC that’s largely missing from the rest of the Spider-Man canon- represented in graffiti bombing, boomboxes, earbuds blaring legitimate radio-rap tunes, and a social pressure to code-switch when attending a predominately white school for the gifted. It’s a refreshing perspective for a Spider-Man universe NYC . . . until the obligatory machinations of the Spider-Man origin story take over the plot. When Miles is bitten by a radioactive spider, the audience has an all-too-clear idea of where his story will & should go as he transforms into an unlikely, geeky superhero. Except, Phil Lord immediately dislodges this story from that well-established groove to chase something much more unpredictable & self-aware.

Two distinct narrative deviations disrupt the typical Spider-Man origin story trajectory once Miles is bitten by that spider. First, he becomes aware that he’s living in a comic book. His inner thoughts become deafening narration he cannot escape, and his world is suddenly contained in Ben Day Dots and sectioned-off panels. Second, he becomes aware that his is not the only Spider-Man comic book. In fact, there are countless variations on the Spider-Man origin story that exist in a vast multiverse that begins to perilously overlap with his own. These variations include novelty spider-people like Spider-Man Noir (Nic Cage) & Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), whose outlandishness could not be further from Miles’s grounded hip-hop version of reality. Miles’s first-act run-in with a radioactive spider (and subsequent heartbreak with the tragic death of a family member) may be as consistent with Spider-Man lore as the NYC setting, but the comic book environments & quest to reconstruct the multiverse in proper order that result form that bite feel wildly imaginative for the material.

Those comic book environments & psychedelic multiverse overlaps do more than just open the Spider-Man origin story to exiting new avenues; they also allow for experimentation in CG animation that feels like a huge creative breakthrough for the medium. Where most modern animation pictures feel flat & unimaginative in their design, Spider-Verse is overflowing with ideas. The Ben Day Dots, panel divisions, and deliberately off-set screen-printing effect of its comic book design afford it a distinctly retro visual style, one enhanced by the claymation effect of its off-kilter frame rate. The endless possibilities of its collapsing multiverse also invite a total surreal meltdown of psychedelic colors & shapes, transforming Miles’s grounded NYC into a melted-candy nightmare. I usually dread CG animated kids’ movies even more than I dread the latest needless reboot of Spider-Man. Both of those well-worn mediums subverted & exploded my expectations for what they could achieve in this out-of-nowhere visual stunner, often multiple times in a single scene.

The only arena in which Into the Spider-Verse falls a little short is in eliciting a genuine emotional response for Miles’s journey from geek to hero. It’s a little difficult to lose yourself in his story when the visual language of the film is so (literally) flashy, and when other Spider-Men are on-hand to make self-aware, Deadpool-lite references to things like the character having “an excellent theme song & a so-so popsicle.” Every time a new, outlandish spider-person appears to announce, “Let’s start from the beginning one last time,” it’s an amusing joke at the expense of the character’s endless parade of reboots. However, by extension that also means it’s at the expense of Miles Morales, who likely deserved to have a straight-forward, gimmick-free Spider-Man origin story more than any other version of the character we’ve seen in the countless live action adaptations before him—one that’s likely to never arrive now.

The most emotional I got in Into the Spider-Verse was in an end-credits acknowledgement of the character’s creators – Steve Ditko & Stan Lee, who both died last year. Whether or not its boundless creativity left room for genuine pathos, Into the Spider-Verse feels like as perfect of an encapsulation of everything that collaboration inspired as you’ll ever see – both in its scramble to gather every variation of the character it can and in its vivid graphic artistry. I went into Spider-Verse expecting a humorous, satisfactory reboot of a character who’s been through the ringer too many times to yield any true surprises. I was frequently surprised and more than merely satisfied by the psychedelic, playfully meta spectacle that unfolded, then imploded before me instead. By the end of the film I could only cite one unturned stone that felt like a true missed opportunity, and then that exact gag ended up being a standalone scene after the end credits. The movie is that good.

-Brandon Ledet