A Q&A With Christopher Kelly

The film critic on archetypes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the quintessential Texas film.

June 2011By Comments

Texas boasts one of the most iconic and recognizable cultures on- and off-screen. With an extensive cinematic history of cowboys, the Wild West, violence, crime, the dichotomy of good versus evil, and, of course, John Wayne, Texas has undeniably left a lasting imprint on the world of film. But when it comes to deciding which films deserve the top accolades, the task is not as easy as it seems. From such classics as Bonnie Clyde to newer inductees like No Country for Old Men, the range is vast from plot to cinematography. We invited five experts to discuss the pros and cons and attempt the seemingly impossible: narrowing decades of rich cinema down to a meager list of the ten best Texas films. The results are in, and we talked to film critic and moderator Christopher Kelly about what went on at the roundtable. Here’s the story behind the story.

The panelists gave their opinions on what makes the quintessential Texas film. What about you? What do you think characterizes Texas on the big screen?
I agreed with the panelists basic conclusion, which is that in order for a movie be a definably “Texan” one, the state must feel like a character, and the filmmakers must capture something real and unmistakable about living here. Still, I think my personal definition might be a little looser than the other panelists. I admire movies that use a specific Texas experience—coming-of-age outside of Houston circa the 1970s, say, in Dazed and Confused or going to work in the expanding corporate parks of Austin, circa the 1990s, à la Office Space—to touch upon a more common American experience. Yes, Dazed and Confused and Office Space could theoretically have taken place anywhere, but they are set in Texas, and they capture truths both regional and universal. They both would have been in my personal top ten.

It became pretty clear based on the discourse that Texas films encompass very distinct archetypes of the good, the evil, crime, the Wild West, or the overall thrill of life. Would you say Texas has formed any new archetypes or new character traits over the years? Or will Texas always be known on the big screen as a state of violence and dangerous outlaws?
The list, probably inevitably, doesn’t have a great deal of cultural or social diversity: These movies mostly chronicle the Texas experience as its lived by white men and women, most of them living in rural settings. That’s hardly the fault of the panelists: It takes Hollywood decades to catch up to the changes of a place. As a Texan, though, the movies that have most intrigued me in recent years explore the changing face of the state: Primer (2004), a science fiction curio about three suburban office wonks who build a time machine; Tarnation (2004), an anguished documentary about growing up gay in Houston in the 1970s and 80s; Towelhead (2007), a sexually-charged coming-of-age story about a Muslim-American girl in Houston, circa the first Gulf War; and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), which so effectively captures the strange and nervous racial tensions of life in a border town. In the future, I’m excited and hopeful to see more movies about big-city Texans, Latino, Muslim, and black Texans, and gay and lesbian Texans.

Of all the movies discussed, which one is your personal favorite?
Of the movies that made the cut, my vote goes to Giant—a grand, sweeping soap opera the likes of which Hollywood can’t (or simply won’t) make any more—that brilliantly captures the state’s shift from a cattle-based economy to an oil-based one. Of the movies that were discussed, but didn’t make the cut, I’ll again cite Office Space—a deeply humane comedy that I like to think of as a kind of spiritual sequel to Giant, showing us how we got from an oil-based economy to one in which we’re all trapped in soulless corporate parks.

There was plenty of deliberation about which films were Texas enough to make the list. Which film do you think best portrays Texas?
I tend to respond most to movies that show me a part of Texas that I’m not already familiar with and make it vivid and real, like The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, which takes us deep into west Texas and a border town rotting beneath the blistering sun. Conversely, I love Texas movies that take a look at places and things we think we already know, but approach them with freshness and immediacy and quickly make us realize we don’t know anything. That to me is the great wonder of The Last Picture Show, which starts with a notion everybody is familiar with—a dying small town—and conjures up a rich and moving vision unlike any we’ve seen before or since.

Most of the directors of the films aren’t from Texas. Do you find it odd that some of the best Texas films were envisioned by non-natives?
I agree with our panelists on this one, which is that sometimes it takes the clarity of an outsider to see the truth of a place. Also, it’s worth noting, many of the movies that did make the cut were written by Texans or onetime Texas residents, including Larry McMurtry (Hud and Last Picture Show), Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men), and Robert Benton (Bonnie and Clyde). Maybe the real revelation here is that you need a non-Texan to bring a Texan’s vision to new heights.

You talked about how some of the movies could be mistaken for a Tennessee, Mississippi, or Kansas film. What exactly separates a Texas film from a film originating from any of the other Southern states?
I think the one thing that the movies selected have uncommon is a kind of stubbornness and unsentimentally: The great Texas movies, I think, are essentially tough, unforgiving visions that don’t flinch from the harshest aspects of life here, and that don’t try to coddle the audience. Think of Bonnie & Clyde, The Searchers, Hud—there aren’t many happy endings there. Meanwhile, I tend to associate Southern, non-Texas filmmaking with a certain degree of gentility. To frame it another way: You don’t see movies like Driving Miss Daisy or Steel Magnolias coming out of Texas.

The panelists come from very different film backgrounds. How did being a critic, an academic, or a screenwriter affect the discourse? Did anyone offer opinions that simply didn’t go along with the group, or were most of the panelists pretty much on the same wavelength?
Honestly, I don’t think you could conjure up a more perfect mix. Each of these folks comes from a different corner, but they all share a passion for movies, and they all have intense likes and dislikes. That’s all you need for a great debate.

We placed virtually no restrictions on the panelists, and let them decide questions for themselves: Did they want to include documentaries (they ultimately decided no)? Was it okay to have multiple films from the same directors (yes—and two Coen brothers pictures made the cut)?

It’s interesting, though, because personal biases inevitably come into play: Kyle Killeen, for instance, doesn’t like horror movies, which set him against Chainsaw from the start; John Bloom thinks Horton Foote (the screenwriter of Tender Mercies and The Trip to Bountiful) is vastly overrated, whereas Anne Rapp worked on Tender Mercies and is presently directing a documentary about Foote; Tim League was a rabid advocate for Chainsaw and I think would have been willing to sacrifice a limb to make sure it made the last.

Ultimately, though, they settled on the final list through a mixture of consensus and compromise, and I think they were able to see past personal biases.

What do you hope that viewers will get from watching any of these ten films?
The simple pleasure of experiencing great movies, especially if these are titles they haven’t encountered before. But I also hope they see the sheer diversity of Texas filmmaking—geographically, tonally, and thematically. Our state has inspired scores of artists, in so many different and intriguing ways, and it’s exciting to see those many inspirations up on the big screen.

What was the most difficult part of deciding on the final list?
How do you choose between a groundbreaking, if not especially pleasant, underground horror movie and a slick Hollywood football drama? The debate for the final slot was between The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday Night Lights, and it’s apples versus oranges. If we’re talking about which film has been the more influential, of course you go with Chainsaw. But if you’re talking about which movie you’d probably want to watch this weekend on DVD, I think most of us would opt for Friday Night Lights.

Ultimately, the biggest challenge is that there are too many worthwhile movies to choose from: When movies like The Apostle (which I personally would have voted into the top ten), Dazed and Confused, Rushmore, and True Grit are also-rans, you’re dealing with some terrific movies and impossible decisions.

Are you happy with the list? Were there any films that you think were wrongly ignored or any films that were overhyped?
I’ll speak heresy here: I actually think the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is better than the original—more formally inventive, more elegantly made, and just plain scarier. So I was definitely pulling for Friday Night Lights to take that final spot over Chainsaw.

The other movie I’ll mention is Brokeback Mountain, which probably isn’t Texas enough to make our list, even though it has a Texas screenwriter (Larry McMurtry) and one of the characters (Jake Gyllenhall’s Jack Twist) lives in Dallas as an adult. That movie shows me a type of Texan I had never seen before on film, a gay man who is married with kids but cheating on the side, and is ultimately crushed by the dictates of society in 1960s and 70s Texas. Plus, it’s a just a great movie that you can watch again and again—the criteria, ultimately, by which any Texas film should be judged.

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