By S.T. VanAirsdale
When Eagle Pennell died in 2002, he left behind a brilliant if brief legacy of uncompromising independent films shot on microscopic budgets in his home state of Texas. His earliest, the short A Hell of a Note (1976) and his debut feature The Whole Shootin' Match (1978), helped stir an interest in the work of regional filmmakers flourishing around the United States; a screening of Shootin' Match at the USA Film Festival reportedly inspired Robert Redford to start the Sundance Film Festival, and the film came to New York as part of the eighth New Directors/New Films series. Pennell would reach his creative peak in 1983 with the talky barroom saga Last Night at the Alamo, but he had set the template years prior with Shootin' Match's down-and-out Austin schemers Loyd and Frank and a striking lilt that contradicted the pair's stark destitution. A restored print of the film screens with A Hell of a Note for a week starting Friday at the Walter Reade Theater.
Among the filmmakers Pennell inspired was a 20-something Austinite named Richard Linklater, who went on to make landmark Texas indies of his own (Slacker, Dazed and Confused) while also adapting to the Hollywood game that so vexed Pennell for much of his career. The Reeler spoke with Linklater this week about Pennell, his films and his troubled legend.
THE REELER: You've said before that growing up in the '60s and '70s, there was really no such thing as being "a filmmaker from Texas." How did that perspective change when you saw Eagle's films?
RICHARD LINKLATER: It kind of hit me at just the right time. I had just gotten interested film; in the last couple of years before that I was watching hundreds and hundreds of films a year, spending all my free time in a movie theater or reading about film. I had thought maybe I could write; I was just starting to shoot my own shorts. And then I went to the Houston Film Festival. I'd read an article in the paper that day about a Houston filmmaker who'd just made something. It was Eagle Pennell. He had just gotten an NEA grant. That film was actually Last Night at the Alamo; I hadn't seen Shootin' Match yet. That intrigued me. He made his film for like $35,000. So hell yeah -- I went to the Houston Film Festival and saw this beautiful black-and-white, 16-mm, dialogue-crazy. It was amazing. I think every filmmaker has those films that inspire you, and here was this guy who just went out and did it. You need that example. And it's a personal film -- something in his own backyard.
R: Slacker in particular seems to mine the rambling, discursive quality of Last Night at the Alamo and The Whole Shootin' Match. Was that a reference you had in mind while writing?
RL: I don't know. Eagle and I always fashioned ourselves as opposites even though we were pretty close. He was dealing with more of the country; those actors -- Lou Perryman and Sonny Davis -- are stereotypical Texans. I grew up around them, and I love that. But I was going for something totally different in Slacker. You don't see a cowboy hat in Slacker; you don't see boots. It was a much more urban, postmodern attempt at narrative. Yet I don't disagree with you; there's a certain pace and a certain quality that's innate to the air we breathe down here. I totally appreciated the authenticity of his dialogue and those characters. That's what really kind of turned me on and made it OK to portray people I know the way I know them. But that's what people everywhere do; it was just rare in Texas.
R: In contemporary cinema we often see labels and movements conjured from whole cloth, usually for the sake of marketing or convenience. What do you make of the idea of "regional filmmaking" breakthroughs like Pennell's in the late '70s?
RL: It's a pretty convenient package, and pretty condescending, too. The notion that I always resented was: "Oh, how quaint -- they’re making movies in Pittsburgh, or North Carolina, or Texas. They'll never match up to what we're doing in the big city, but... ." Why can't you make art anywhere? What's the difference? As someone who doesn't live in the media centers of Los Angeles or New York, you have to make your peace with that. But it is a real thing. It happens less now because there are so many films being made everywhere, but in the '70s, when Eagle came up, there were these great films being made in places we never thought of. And people were excited. Independent film as a business, specialty releases, Sundance -- all of those came of out of that excitement and realizing there was a whole nation of filmmakers out there. It wasn't just some hipsters on the coasts.
R: Yet despite being such a profound influence on those movements, Pennell never was able to capitalize on them in his lifetime. Why do you think that was?
RL: That was my own personal disappointment with Eagle. Being so excited about his early films and hearing he had a development deal at Warner Bros., it just seemed like Eagle would go on to reinvent the Hollywood Western, or he would bring that kind of humanity and his humor to a bigger budget. I know he loved Peckinpah and John Ford, and he aspired to that to some level; he didn't have an attitude against it. I just think that as he got closer to it, it became a personality thing. He was a pretty stubborn guy who couldn't work with a lot of people. He had zero, zero tolerance for sitting in on a meeting with people he didn't think were artists. He went in with a huge chip on his shoulder, and he could smell that they didn't like him. He had no savvy toward the business at all. I wrote a long obituary where I said that sadly, I learned a lot from Eagle just watching him not proceed and make so many mistakes. He had so many chances that he blew. But that's kind of a Texas tradition, too: If you're going to fail, fail big.
But we all had ambitions for him that maybe he didn't totally feel aligned with. I hate to project tragedy on someone. He worked where he felt comfortable. He was kind of a folk artist who liked doing things in his own backyard. That can be as inspiring today to a 20-year-old thinking about making films as he was to me way back when. Here's a guy who saw something unique about what was right in front of him. And for me, to this day, that still makes the best independent film. Eagle can still be a constant inspiration in that way; the few films he left behind still have that ability.
Posted at November 15, 2007 11:13 AM
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