Reel Time: The Texas Documentary
Documentary film-making in Texas.
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People are interesting (sometimes heroic) and government is bad (sometimes evil). As sweeping a generalization as that may be, it is precisely the kind of Big Truth that is at home in Texas, and valid—if you are to believe the picture of our state that emerges from this hodgepodge of documentary films.
Texans don’t trust their superiors much, for one thing: from Abraham Zapruder locking his newly-shot footage in a safe instead of simply handing it over to the Secret Service as many of us might have done, to the calm old folks of Amarillo keeping tally of cancer deaths even though the government and its partner Pantex have assured them they have nothing to fear. Texans aren’t afraid to fight, whether the adversary is a thousand-pound bull or the Dallas police department.
We’ve focused here on the big stories, because that’s what documentaries have traditionally been about. But recent films like Hands on a Hard Body tell us that the documentary medium is changing. The widespread availability of camcorders and the advance of digital technology allow for perfect, infinite reproductions and electronic preservation of footage, thus we can expect to see many more independently produced, personal stories told by individuals about themselves. In the future, we will learn about the state through its anonymous residents as much as through its infamous ones.
Beyond JFK: A Question of Conspiracy
Barbara Kopple and Danny Schechter 1992
Beyond JFK: A Question of Conspiracy
Beyond JFK: A Question of Conspiracy is a companion piece to Oliver Stone’s fictional film, JFK. Released around the same time, the documentary is in many ways a plug for the film, speaking of it and Oliver Stone in extremely reverential tones.
Although crammed full of compelling news footage and other information, the documentary makes the mistake of tugging too much at the heart strings rather than just presenting its case. Another unfortunate aspect was the choice to include the actors who starred in JFK alongside historians, witnesses, and other people directly connected with the tragedy. It is almost humorous to watch Kevin Costner and Gary Oldman speaking on the assassination with such certainty and acrimony, almost as if they are waiting for Stone to shout “cut”.
The strongest portions of Beyond JFK: A Question of Conspiracy are those dealing with Jim Garrison, in particular the footage of Garrison addressing the nation on NBC. Often labeled a crackpot, Garrison comes across as a man suffering from the Cassandra syndrome: he knows all the lies his leaders tell, and heºs banging at the gates of Eden, not because he wants back in but rather to help the rest of us get out.
Chasing the Dream: A Bull Riding Adventure
Harry Lynch and Jeff Fraley 1997
The most light-hearted of the documentaries in this group, Chasing the Dream: A Bull Riding Adventure is Harry Lynch and Jeff Fraley’s foray into the bull riding profession. Filmed primarily in Texas, the documentary provides an in-depth study of the sport, taking us from a class for novice riders all the way to the national championship in Las Vegas.
Featuring a wealth of exciting footage of riders experiencing the hard-won successes and unbelievably painful failures of bull riding, Chasing the Dream discusses what compels them to keep getting up on the back of an angry bull. We are introduced to some of the icons of the sport, including the appropriately named Tuff Hedeman and the ridiculously large bull “Bodacious”, the owner of which hopes to turn him into a cottage industry (cryogenically frozen bull semen anyone?). But the film momentarily turns serious when discussing the untimely death of one of the sports’ young stars.
It is clear that the filmmakers have established a comfort level with the subjects which allows the bull riders to appear genuine. Chasing the Dream: A Bull Riding Adventure is tightly edited, has a quality soundtrack, and is funny without making fun.
Hands on a Hard Body
S.R. Bindler 1998
Hands on a Hard Body
Still enjoying a successful 8-month run at Austinºs Dobie Theatre, Hands on a Hard Body is a hilarious look at an East Texas town’s annual ritual. Shot exclusively in Longview, Texas, the film focuses on a local car dealership’s contest—a 2-3 day endurance test in which the only rule is that contestants stand with at least one hand resting on a brand new, fully-loaded Toyota truck; the last person standing wins the truck.
Revealing too much about the characters would spoil the suspense, but suffice it to say that many types of Texans are represented: the religious contestant singing hymns aloud as she competes, the seasoned vet who won the contest two years before (who everyone resents for trying again), the rookie who figures his military training has sufficiently prepared him for this challenge, and the nonchalant contender who takes it all in stride while scarfing down Snickers bars. The setting of the contest provides a considerable amount of drama to accompany the down-home hilarity of it all. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Hands on a Hard Body is the way people quickly infuse even the simplest of contests with a host of rules (and even a governing body) to ensure fair play. (Next time you play a board game with your friends, take note of who adheres to the rules of the game and who makes it their mission to identify any deviation from those rules.)
S.R. Bindler, a Longview resident, and his crew really hit paydirt with Hands on a Hard Body, which fulfills all the most grandiose dreams of the personal documentary: It takes even the simplest and silliest human endeavor and reveals it to contain all the tragedy and comedy of Greek drama, Shakespearean theatre, or a least a movie of the week. Look for it in video stores soon.
Image of an Assassination: A New Look at the Zapruder Film
MPI Productions 1998
In stark contrast to Beyond JFK, this documentary offers unbiased, scientific presentation of the facts. Focusing solely on the Zapruder film itself, it presents a 45-minute chronicle of the history of the infamous film from creation to restoration. It is the story of a piece of evidence within a mystery, and as such is distinctive.
The graphic 22-second film would never have existed at all had Abraham Zapruder’s co-workers not persuaded him to return home for his camera. But as it was, in a format known as double 8mm, with perfect exposure, good focus and framing, Zapruder just happened to capture one of the most defining moments in modern American history. Zapruder, perhaps sensing something the rest did not, was extremely careful from that point on, keeping the film under lock and key and obtaining affidavits at every step of its processing and duplication.
Eventually, Zapruder gave the Secret Service a copy of the film and he quickly sold the rights to Time-Life, Inc. A pirate copy was broadcast on national television for the first time by Geraldo Rivera in 1975 (he called it “heavy”), who was criticized for his decision. The original film was turned over to the National Archives, where it has remained ever since. Using digital technology, photographers and archivists were able to re-shoot every frame of the Zapruder film, digitize it on to a computer and recompile the footage frame by frame. The result is a film of much greater quality and clarity which alone makes this video a worthwhile rental.
David Grubin (for PBS) 1992
This engrossing biography of the most famous Texas president was originally produced for PBS as part of The American Experience series. Directed by David Grubin and running four hours in length, it is an exhaustive and riveting look at a man, and his love/hate relationship with his times.
From a Texas perspective, the first hour of LBJ: A Biography is the most interesting of all. Starting with his election to Congress during the New Deal, when he worked to bring electricity and indoor plumbing to Central Texas, the shape and size of Texas politics are measured. We learn about ballot box stuffing and other questionable practices which cost LBJ his first Senate seat. (His campaign manager inadvertently revealed LBJ’s vote tally to his opponent, who promptly saw to it that he emerged with 150 or so more votes.) LBJ took great strides to ensure victory the next time around, and once he returned to Washington he never left, becoming what some call the most effective president in our history, until Vietnam brought him to his knees.
Perhaps the most chronicled and studied president of the 20th century, LBJ is as fascinating and complicated a character as you’d hope to find in the White House—or in all of Texas for that matter. But one can’t help but imagine how miserably LBJ would fare in the current climate, where we expect the power-hungry egomaniacs who actually make it all the way to the White House to also project a lily-white and pure image.
George Ratliff, 1994
George Ratliff’s look at the West Texas town of Amarillo’s relationship with its biggest employer, the Pantex Plant, is a humorous slice of Texana mixed with a case of nuclear fear. Pantex, one of the biggest producers of nuclear weapons (now the primary disassembler of weapons in the post-Cold War era) looms over Amarillo like a boisterous brother-in-law.
Kids used to grow up with a sense of pride that Amarillo was one of the targets the Russians would take out if they ever pushed the proverbial button (take that, Lubbock!) but now many have come to question the benefits of Pantex. Specifically, they wonder what effect having so much plutonium lying around their town is having on their health. The usual argument of providing jobs for the town is tossed around, while the threats to the ecosystem and the inhabitants—seen most recently in Texas in the debate over the proposed Sierra Blanca waste dumpsite—are presented as valuable counterpoints.
In a style reminiscent of director Errol Morris, Plutonium Circus cuts back and forth among a set of characters without labeling them with titles or narrative introductions. Instead, the audience is left to discern identities from context and from the subjects’ own words. We follow an erstwhile country singer with a smile as bright as an oncoming night train who has become the Pantex mouthpiece, an elderly couple tracking cancer deaths in the area around the plant with straight pins and a homemade map, and Amarillo celebrity Stanley Marsh, opinionated proprietor of the Cadillac Ranch. Although the character we spend the most time with seems like an Amarillo inside joke, Plutonium Circus nonetheless amuses and informs, providing an extremely human face to the still very salient debate over how much a town should remain in debt to its biggest industry, and vice versa.
Texas Blues Guitar
Vestapol Productions, 1998
A brief look at four famous Texas bluesmen, Texas Blues Guitar features performances by Albert Collins, Freddie King, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Mance Lipscomb. Comprised wholly of performance footage, the documentary provides examples of four very different styles of playing, while doubling as a time line spanning over 30 years of music history.
The video opens with four pieces of the Chicago-esque bombast of Albert Collins, captured at Austin City Limits in 1991. Next up is the gritty John Lee Hooker-style bump and grind of Freddie King (1972), where one can almost imagine ZZ Top and George Thorogood in the audience taking notes. But the highlight of the video is easily the 1960 performance by seminal Houston bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins. The premiere acoustic bluesman and one of the fathers of Texas’ own flavor of blues, Hopkins strums, mumbles and taps his foot through the grainy black and white footage, salvaged from some television station archive. As for the 1968 performance of Mance Lipscomb, well, he’s playing in someone’s living room from the looks of it. Still, he gives a stellar performance despite the lack of an audience.
A must-see for blues aficionados, Texas Blues Guitar is a bit like a time capsule unearthed from behind the walls of contemporary rock and roll.
The Thin Blue Line
Errol Morris, 1988
Perhaps the most heralded of the Texas documentaries on my list, The Thin Blue Line is Errol Morris’ look at a good old fashioned Texas railroading: the case of convicted murderer Randall Adams. Adams was sentenced to life in prison for the 1976 shooting of a Dallas police officer at point blank range in the course of a routine traffic stop. The only problem was that all evidence in the case pointed not to Adams but to David Harris, who had met Adams the day of the killing. But Harris, being a juvenile at the time, was not the most appealing perpetrator to the investigators of the case, so they settled on Adams (with a little persuasion from Harris, of course). Harris’ admission of guilt is a powerful moment in the film, and eventually led to Adams’ release.
Filmed while Adams was still behind bars, The Thin Blue Line is mesmerizing. Featuring a score by Phillip Glass and composed without the use of narration or titles, Morris lovingly studies the stuff of crime, his camera caressing the evidence, the paperwork, the photographs and the newspaper headlines. Morris also makes extensive use of the re-enactment, showing the crime from the point of view of every one of the witnesses and participants. But The Thin Blue Line is no television crime show, its meandering style allows the interviewees to talk about things outside the case and includes long sequences without talking: techniques that have never caught on in television.
Waco: The Rules of Engagement
William Gazecki, 1997
Waco: The Rules of Engagement
Recounting the 1993 tragedy at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco with painstaking detail, Waco: The Rules of Engagement is as haunting a documentary as you’ll see. If the film is to be regarded as truth, the fact that the gross miscarriage of justice unfolded here at home while most of us sat back and took the government’s word for it only makes it that much more disturbing.
The documentary cuts back and forth between footage of the Senate trials on Waco, footage the Davidians shot with cameras provided by the FBI during the standoff, and news footage that aired throughout the saga. The directors give the FBI and the ATF a chance to voice their side of the matter, but an overwhelming amount of the evidence presented suggests the raid was botched from the get-go and only got worse from there. Regardless of personal perceptions of the Davidians (and they don’t come off too badly here), it’s apparent that they might not have been the blood thirsty fringe element portrayed by the media.
Watching the testimony of the survivors mixed with the explanations of independent experts, one feels a building sense of nausea waiting for the final outcome. Unlike the events of that fateful day when the standoff came to a fiery and quick end, the recounting of the tragic climax is carried off slowly and deliberately. The filmmakers spend a good 30 minutes making a very convincing case that the FBI lied in reporting the fire was set by the Davidians.
The militant religious group is one of the more recent Texas stereotypes, but in this case, they seemed like the sane ones.
Feature films with a Texas twist.
Featured titles available on VHS or DVD from Amazon.com
Chasing the Dream—VHS
Texas Blues Guitar—VHS
LBJ: The American Experience (1991)—VHS