If one wanted to travel to New York through film, there’d be obvious roads to take: The Godfather, for one; Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Taxi Driver; Breakfast at Tiffany’s comes to mind too; and of course every Woody Allen picture ever made. These are films in which the city plays as big a part as the direction, characters, or plot—movies whose strong sense of locale can practically transport you right into the middle of the bustling berg. Texas too has an equally rich history of films in which it serves as subject, and the state’s expanse—Texas is bigger, wider, and more open to the sky—is directly proportionate to the number of tales it embodies, urban and rural, set inland and on the coast, in the rolling hills and desolate desert. We even have our own actors (at least, I like to think of them as belonging to Texas): Sissy Spacek, Harry Dean Stanton, Sam Shepard, Frances McDormand, Matthew McConaughey, James Dean, and Paul Newman among countless others. Heck, Kevin Costner appears all over Texcentric film—he’d easily replace Kevin Bacon in our own Texas version of the six-degrees-of-separation game.
So what follows is a primer of sorts—a list to give your Yankee friends, or one we can use to test the Californians as they cross our border by the carload. Watching these films will give you a sense of our beloved state, albeit a pretty romantic one. (For the unromantic vision, tune in to the Mike Judge animated TV series, King of the Hill.) Don’t miss the chance to view them on the big screen (frequently resurfacing at the Paramount in Austin, the Inwood and through the Dallas Film Society in Dallas, the River Oaks in Houston, and the Crossroads in San Antonio), but all are available on video.
BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS
Directed by Colin Higgins; with Burt Reynolds, Dolly Parton, Dom Delouise, Charles Durning, Robert Mandan, and Lois Nettleton. 1982
This musical comedy has been watered down from a local history lesson that made its way to the pages of Playboy magazine and later on to Broadway. The story is based on a legendary Texas brothel called the Chicken Ranch which authorities shut down in the seventies following a fervent campaign rallied against it by an obsessive TV newsman. Here, Dolly = charm + decolletage. And Burt, well, he’s Burt (remember: this is the early eighties). Maybe there’s a little sexual chemistry missing between these two smilers, but believe it or not the acting’s not half bad. It’s actually Charles Durning, in his role as the Governor of Texas, who steals the show with his little song and dance about corruption. We Texans all have our guilty pleasures, consider this bawdy enterprise one of them.
Directed by Joel Coen; with John Getz, Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya, M. Emmet Walsh, Samm-Art Williams, and Deborah Neumann. 1983
The debut film of the Coen brothers, a noirish mystery in which a Texas Roadhouse owner hires a private dick to off his wife and her lover, is full of stylized, almost self-conscious shots that bring black comedy into the mix. Since this film was made, we’ve seen the Coen brothers revisit these themes again and again, fine tuning their unique style—a propensity for intricate plots and grisly murders—which they took all the way to the Academy awards in 1996 with Fargo. Blood Simple was filmed on location in Austin, Round Rock and Hutto, Texas, so keep your eyes peeled for familiar scenery.
BONNIE AND CLYDE
Directed by Arthur Penn; with Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Michael J. Pollard, Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Evans Evans, and Gene Wilder. 1967
A West Dallas waitress and the petty thief son of a sharecropper are Bonnie and Clyde, Texas’ most famous outlaw team. The movie’s tagline, “They’re young, they’re in love, and they kill people,” should also include, “and we like them anyway.” Not only did the crime duo that led the infamous true-life Barrow gang become a folk legend due to their media-fueled bank robbing spree during the Depression, but the film has spawned numerous homages over the years from Terrence Malick’s Badlands to Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. Stylish and more violent than moviegoers at the time were used to, Bonnie and Clyde brought the mythic wild West outlaw into the modern world. The film was uniformly panned on its first release and Warner Bros. was actually thinking of dumping the film to a chain of Texas drive-ins. On its second release it was nominated for ten Oscars and a Golden Globe, and took home Academy awards for Best Supporting Actress (Parsons) and Cinematography. A favorite scene with local relevance is when Bonnie first seizes the opportunity to become a cultural icon: instead of killing Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, she insists the Barrow gang pose for a photo with the stone-faced lawman and send it around to all the newspapers.
Directed by Wes Anderson; with Luke Wilson, Owen C. Wilson, Ned Dowd, Shea Fowler, Haley Miller, Robert Musgrave, Andrew Wilson, and James Caan. 1996
Sort of a family project of the Wilson brothers, Bottle Rocket is a quirky little comedy about a group of disaffected twenty-something pals—Dignan, Anthony, and Bob—who at Dignan’s urging embark on an ill-orchestrated and ill-fated life of crime. But the plot isn’t what makes this film so attractive; it’s the characters and their conversation, a sort of everyday loquaciousness that captures the heart well. Perhaps the brotherly ties are responsible for the natural performances; glimpses of unconditional love show through the ever-present rivalry between the two head-butting principals, who after a run-in with a serious criminal (Caan) discover they really just need each other. Especially nice slices of Texas present themselves when our heroes, on the lam, wind up at a hotel near the Mexico border where Anthony falls in love with an Hispanic chamber maid. And Bottle Rocket makes for a good local story, too: Filmed in and around Austin, director Anderson met the writer and co-star,