A Q&A With Christopher Kelly

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

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

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