Unreality Bites

If the movies love texas so much, why can’t they get it right?

PITY THE PLIGHT OF MODERN-DAY New York city. its police commissioner recently complained to the New York Times  that the Big Apple is the “safest large city in America, and movies and television shows are giving the wrong impression.” The same point can be made about Texas in the nineties. For all of our urban skylines and high-tech yuppiedom, we can’t shake our movie-disseminated mythology as a state of cowboys, hicks, and small-town gaucheries.

From the birth of the movies a century ago until now, Texas has loomed large in moviemakers’ imaginations: large and largely inaccurate. Whether they were made in Denmark before there was a Hollywood, like the first Texas film, Texas Tex (1908), or churned out on studio back lots, the movies have nearly always gotten it wrong. They have depicted a desert and tumbleweeds two miles from Beaumont ( Walk on the Wild Side, 1962), removed the Alamo to the banks of the Rio Grande ( The Alamo, 1960), situated Galveston a short horseback ride from the Sierras ( 4 for Texas, 1963), and given the High Plains some lovely monoliths that look suspiciously like Monument Valley ( The Searchers,  1956).

They’re still getting it wrong. A Perfect World (1993), a chase film that ostensibly ends in the flatlands around Amarillo, never leaves the Hill Country, and Flashpoint (1984) paints San Antonio as a desert town surrounded by mountains (Tucson?). In D.O.A. (1988), which stars Dennis Quaid as a university professor, something even funnier happens: The La Brea Tar Pits are renamed and relocated to Austin, just down the hill from St. Edward’s University.

The capriciousness of landscapes aside, the movies play fast and loose with the realities of actual life in Texas. Check out the send-up of Texas friendliness in A Perfect World, where clerks in a small-town dry goods store compete to win a bonus for friendliest employee of the month. Then there’s Bruce Willis’ Last Man Standing (1996). A remake of the 1961 Japanese samurai classic, Yojimbo (which had already been remade as A Fistful of Dollars ), Last Man Standing  posits bloody Depression-era enmities between rival Italian and Irish mobsters in a dusty little burg in West Texas. So what you have is a bunch of well-dressed Chicago-style ethnic mobsters imported into a typical Texas town that seems populated with about five ordinary people.

All the early distortions and misrepresentations of landscape sprang from ignorance of Texas history. Outlanders believed that cattle were the key to Texas mythology, and cattle meant cowboys, and cowboys meant Indians, and there you were: westerns. Zane Grey located the heart of Texas “west of the Pecos,” and Hollywood did too. In point of fact, cotton, not cattle, was the driving force of Texas’ economy in the nineteenth century. Livestock didn’t surpass cotton until around 1950, which meant that for all those years, in reality the typical Texan was not a colorful cowboy astride a prancing pony but a cotton farmer clad in unpicturesque overalls following the south end of a north-bound mule.

After the cowboy faded from center stage in American filmmaking and all the great Texas movies— Red River, Giant, Hud, The Last Picture Show —were musty “classics” at video stores, what was left for Texas-based films was the diminished afterglow of the cowboy legend: Bud and Sissy slow-dancing at Gilley’s in Urban Cowboy (1980), Robert Duvall as a worn-out country and western singer in Tender Mercies (1983), Kris Kristofferson’s mean-edged lawman in the mythic (and racist) past of Lone Star  (1996).

With a few exceptions, the movies produced in and about Texas in the nineties seem not to have noticed that the state’s booming population is 82 percent urban, nor that except for two-stepping or attending rodeos, cowboy duds are not de rigueur but lifestyle choices in the closet of one’s night-on-the-town options.

Movie companies may shoot their films in Texas and the actors hang out in Austin’s cigar bars and jazz venues, but when the klieg lights are turned on, Texas remains Hicksville, a place of rural doings and Western ways—its permanent address on the Internet of Hollywood’s imagination, www.shitkicker.com. Some cases in point: Texasville (1990), which updates the characters of The Last Picture Show and suggests that small-town Texas has gone even farther downhill, a parodic descent into eccentricity and farce; Pure Country (1992), a George Strait vehicle about a smoke-and-glitz country and western star who rediscovers his roots by working on a ranch and falling in love with a good ol’ cowgirl named Harley Tucker; The Apostle (1998), the story of a Bible-thumping Pentecostal preacher; and the much-ballyhooed The Newton Boys  (1998), which takes us back to the thrilling days of twenties-era bank robbers.

Does any of this have anything to do with Texans today? Not much. In Austin the two men most representative of the New Texas are probably George W. Bush and Michael Dell—both exemplars of corporate-style management. On the national scene the drawls of Phil Gramm (from Georgia) and Ross Perot (from Texarkana) are about all that remains of old-time Texas mythology. LBJ is long dead, and does it really matter that Dick Armey wears boots? The only people still making a living from Texas shtick are Molly Ivins and Jim Hightower—and Hollywood, of course, where mythology trumps reality nearly every time. For every Slacker, with its grunged-out, street-savvy portrait of a university town, and every gritty, redneck-honky-tonk-noir Blood Simple, there are a dozen tired retreads like Walker, Texas Ranger. Meanwhile, TV’s Dallas is still playing around the world around the clock, and generations yet unborn will base their ideas of modern Texans on J. R. Ewing.

In 1983 the director of the Texas Tourist Development Agency reported that “our studies show that Americans still think of Texas as a John Wayne movie set—cactus, cattle, and cowboys.” As we near the turn of the century, the appeal of Texas’ past remains strong, deep in the heart of Hollywood.

Don Graham wrote about Katherine Anne Porter in the May

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