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.