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