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Wednesday, April 18, 2018

NO ENCORES: True Stories (1986)

1. True Stories (1986)
Director: David Bryne

I think I've liked every Talking Heads song I've ever heard but I've yet to dive very deeply into the band's music. I've heard all the big radio hits and saw “Stop Making Sense,” which was exactly as dynamic and excellent as everyone says it is. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by what I had heard about “True Stories.” To cover the film for No Encores is a bit of a cheat. David Bryne, the lead singer of Talking Heads, also directed a feature-length concert film in 1994 called “Between the Teeth.” (In addition to several music videos and short films.) However, “True Stories” shows up on many lists devoted to great films that are also their director's only films.

“True Stories” is a loosely plotted film centered around the fictional small town of Virgil, nestled deep in the heart of Texas, and narrated by Bryne. The movie tracks the lives of several eccentric people that live there. Such as a rich woman who never leaves her bed or a civic leader, who works for Varicorp, a computer manufacturing company heavily involved in the town's local events. Eventually, the story comes to center on Louis Fyne, a Varicorp employee who is looking for love and has dreams of becoming a country/western singer. The various plot threads come together at a talent show meant to celebrate the town's 150th anniversary.

“True Stories” seems to be a lightly mocking ode to small town American life in the mid-eighties. Bryne's film frequently examines the intersection between community life and consumerism. Bryne's cowboy hat wearing narrator begins the film by dryly explaining the history of the area, starring with the dinosaurs, winding his way through the various wars and massacres that occurred there, and ending with the businesses that have brought people here. Early on, the Narrator walks through a shopping mall, detailing how these temples to capitalism have become the modern town centers. The “Love for Sale” musical number has the band interacting with various television commercials, some real, some fictional. Miss Rollings eats up these commercials as if they were films, criticizing or congratulating each one.

Other scenes are more quietly critical. Some of Bryne's connecting sequences has him driving through an empty stretch of countryside, noting how it'll be full of houses in a year. This scene is soon followed by shots of empty, identical houses for sale lining the street. Yet despite holding these things up for examination, Bryne does not seem to be actively satirizing them. As in the Talking Head song “(Nothing but) Flowers,” Bryne is equally critical and fond of these things. “True Stories” plays like a slightly detached, bemused observation of where commerce and small town life intertwine.

David Bryne is not from Texas. He was born in Scotland and grew up in Maryland. Neither is anyone else from Talking Heads, the members hailing from Wisconsin, California, and Kentucky.  So it's tempting to look at “True Stories” as a bunch of outsiders making fun of life in the deep South. And parts of “True Stories” is definitely poking fun. The film portrays Virgil as a fairly ridiculous place. A fashion show in the mall involves people dressed in goofy costumes, made up to look like lettuce or buildings. The talent show at the film's end features a bizarre lasso/yodeling performance. There is a degree of smirking at these small town eccentrics.

Their beliefs and behavior especially. “True Stories” was partially inspired by wild stories from supermarket tabloids. So the film takes a look at the some of the odd beliefs flourishing in Virgil. The musical number, “Puzzlin' Evidence,” has a preacher in a packed mega-church delivering a ranting, conspiracy theory-filled sermon about the Trilateral Commission. There appears to be other religions in Virgil, as Louis visits an apparent voodoo priest before one of his dates. A prominent reoccurring character is the Lying Woman. She claims to have slept with Burt Renyolds, to have served in Vietnam with the real Rambo, to have written Elvis' songs, and half a dozen other whoppers. It seems Virgal is a breeding ground for eccentricity. Like any small town, its isolation allows odd beliefs to take hold.

As much as “True Stories” is making fun of weirdos in weird small town, it's also undeniably fond of them too. Even the jokes in the film are laced with warmth. The film presents some of these characters as odd but is very sincere about it. Such as the Cute Woman, who swoons over adorable babies. Or Louis' quest to find a woman who understands him. Yes, the fashion show in the mall is weird and goofy. But there's also something sweet about it, especially when accompanied by the wistful song “Dream Operator.” While it's easy to laugh at some of the talent show performances – like a giant model of a man eating corn? – it's also homemade art, earnestly created by people trying to express something. This sweetly appreciative if giggling attitude is maybe best summed up by a scene where a loving couple hug and kiss in a field... Before the woman asked if the man has farted.

Despite the title, “True Stories” is not attempting to realistically portray the world. There is a heavy edge of surrealism to movie. In an early scene, Bryne's Narrator steps up to a screen projecting a freeway. He then steps inside it and is next seen in a car, driving before an obviously rear-projected screen. Surreal sights like this are peppered all throughout the movie. The “Love for Sale” scene features the members of Talking Heads being transformed into candy bars, which are then eaten. Another musical number features the band interacting with models of buildings, appearing like giants. Among Miss Rollings' house staff is a chattering robot. There's a deliberate artificial edge to many of the movie's scenes. So it's no surprise when the film concludes with Bryne talking about forgetting things, as if he's awakening from a vivid but fleeting dream.

As a director, Bryne's influences are obvious. European art cinema obviously had a big influence on “True Stories,” with its Godard-like white-on-black title cards or neo-realist documentary approach. You can see wisps of John Waters or David Lynch in its love of small town eccentrics  (Though “True Stories” actually came out the same year as “Blue Velvet,” so the resemblance is unintentional. Either way, it's pretty clear the two Daves share some of the same interests.) Considering his past directing music videos, it's not surprising that “True Stories” frequently resembles one. The song sequences could've been clipped out and shown on MTV and few would've noticed they were intended for the network. Even non-musical scenes, like Spalding Gray's dinner table speech about modern life, are choreographed like a dance. Bryne likes to frame large buildings on empty fields in wide shots, making them look like tiny models. All of “True Stories” maintains this perfectly arranged aesthetic.

By focusing more on a whole town, instead of one person, “True Stories” is not truly an actor's movie. Most of the cast members only have a few scenes. Spalding Gray and Annie McEnroe, as the Culvers, give intentionally exaggerated performances, playing oddly inhuman seeming humans. Jo Harvey Allen and Roebuck 'Pops' Staples are cartoonish as the Lying and Lazy Woman. Bryne himself plays the Narrator as an extension of his stage persona as the lead singer of Talking Heads. He's like a curious alien, watching and commenting on the people and their lives without ever feeling like one of them. All of these choices were obviously intentional.

The closest thing the film has to a protagonist is John Goodman's Louis Fyne. Goodman, it turns, is perfectly cast as Bryne's version of a small town working stiff. Goodman, of course, has a marvelous gift for projecting warmth. He plays Fyne as a slightly ditzy – he does share a last name with one of the Three Stoodges – but well meaning man. He hopes to find romance because he hopes to settle down. Yet his dreams of becoming a singer also set him apart from some of the people around him. Thus, Goodman becomes an everyday guy longing for dreams that seem out of reach. There's not a single thing trite or vulgar about the character, who is as sincere and oddly lovable as the movie around, qualities Goodman is an expert at playing.

“True Stories” is also an unusual take on the musical. When the songs kick in, a further sense of unreality takes over. During “Wild Wild Life,” the break-out lead single on the soundtrack, people from the town walk on-stage to sing and are transformed. Bryne assumes the guise of Billy Idol and a mustachioed Latin lover. Another man becomes the spitting image of Prince. The film frequently uses its music to express dreams and illusions. “Dream Operator” is a sincere ode to the goofy models on the runway. When Goodman steps on-stage to sing “People Like Us,” he fulfills his dream of becoming a singer. The music isn't just catchy but its lyrics and melodies are also in line with the movie's oddball sensibilities.

“True Stories” was not a commercial hit in 1986. I can't imagine anyone expected it to be. A movie like this was always going to be a cult oddity. (The Talking Head album of the same name, which featured the band re-recording the movie's songs, was more successful.) Accordingly, the film has attracted a passionate following, some considering it an overlooked classic. It's an enchanting film, full of life and energy, utterly sincere in its love and humor. Bryne mixed his particular interests together to create a lovable motion picture. After your first viewing, it's likely you'll want to visit Virgil again. It's just such a nice place to live. [9/10]

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