Indie Cinema: Country Movies in the 1980s

Jonathan Demme's work set the tone for a number of idiosyncratic comedies. Eccentric personalities in seemingly ordinary locales served as premise for a number of films, both indie and mainstream: Francis Ford Coppola's Peggy Sue Got Married, Bruce Berseford's Crimes of the Heart, based on Beth Henley's stage play, and David Byrne's True Stories, co-written by Byrne, Henley, and Stephen Tobolowsky. Henley's comic characters, in both Crimes of the Heart and The Miss Firecracker Contest (filmed as Miss Firecracker by Thomas Schlamme in 1989), are marked by wild individuality, a trait more applauded in the South than in other regions.

Crimes of the Heart

Despite Beresford's attempts to “open up” Henley's play, the sensibility of Crimes of the Heart remains theatrical. The film offers a vivid portrait of three Chekhovian sisters in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. Lenny MacGarth (Dianne Keaton), the oldest, is a modern version of the spinster (her problem is a shrunken ovary). The family's black sheep, Lenny has grown bitter but not entirely devoid of humor. Meg MacGarth (Jessica Lange) is the small-town girl whose acting ambitions have carried her to L.A. Life in the Big City, where she suffered a nervous breakdown, has made her harsh and she is now working for a manufacturer of dog food. Babe MacGarth (Sissy Spacek), the youngest and most eccentric, is a child-bride in the mold of Tennessee Williams's heroine in Baby Doll. Babe shoots her husband in the stomach–because she hates his “stinking looks”–then gracefully offers him an iced lemonade.

The sisters spend their time reminiscing about their childhood and sharing sexual secrets. They are actually three faces of the same women, three sides of female sexuality: shyness and asexuality (Lenny), ripe, overt sexuality (Meg), and childishly naive sexuality (Babe). In another era, their naughtily crazed behavior would be offensive, but here, as the title suggests, they are presented as all heart and feeling.

Babe is mostly concerned with the media coverage of her murder case. When her mother committed suicide, she received national attention in the National Enquirer, but married to a prominent politician, Babe worries that her story might get only local coverage. Obsession with fame and celebrity and acknowledgment by the media, particularly through TV appearances, was a new issue in the late 1970s. Christopher Lasch, in his seminal study, The Culture of Narcissism, observed: “All of us, actors and spectators alike, live surrounded by mirrors. In them, we seek reassurance of our capacity to captivate or impress others, anxiously searching out blemishes that might detract from the appearance that we intend to project.

David Byrne's True Stories

Similar narrative logic, carried to a more schematic extreme, prevails in True Stories, produced by Karen Murphy, who's also the co-producer of the sublimely goofy, This Is Spinal Tap. The film pays homage to the boundlessly inventiveness that small towns– here Virgil, Texas–inspire. The occasion for celebration is Virgil's commemoration of the state's Sesquicentennial, an idea that will also be used by Christopher Guest in Waiting for Guffman (1997).

True Stories opens and closes with the image of a narrator (played by David Byrne), dressed in stetson and string tie, and driving a fire-engine red convertible against a flat and barren horizon. The austere landscape magnifies the quirkiness of the characters, which derive from tabloids' human interest stories. The narrator performs the same role as the druggist in Our Town, wandering through town and observing its habits. But unlike Our Town, where the narrator encounters the commonplace, Byrne never ceases to be surprised by what he sees. Above all, True Stories is a glorification of kitsch as it invades the commonplace, a democratic celebration of the unique qualities that transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.

Following a montage encapsulating the history of Texas, the characters, all icons of pop culture, are introduced: The Cute Woman (loosely based on a TV show hostess who likes to paint pictures of puppies); the Lying Woman, (who claims to have written half of Elvis Presely's songs); the Lazy Woman (a TV addict who never gets out of bed), the Innocent (in constant search of Love), the Computer Man, the Visionary Businessman, and so on.

Everybody's looking for America, a quest that appeared in many works of pop culture as the country was nearing the millennium. The implication is that we have lost our identity, our direction. Of the contemporary questers for the national soul, Byrne, author of some quirky American lyrics, was one of the cleverest. Byrne said he was attracted to the characters “because they had their own eccentricities but they weren't ashamed of them.” In films of the 1980s, America has a center, a Main Street, but it's looser, less confining, allowing for the co-existence of alternate lifestyles. An “appreciation of people and things,” Byrne's film is a tribute to “openness and willingness to see things differently, to try things, to experiment.”

Byrne attests that “there are a lot of places like Virgil,” but True Stories is not so much about Virgil as about consumerism, the way pop culture is reflected in every aspect of our lives. The centerpiece is a “Celebration of Specialness,” which consists of 130 unusual talent acts: disco-dancing goldfish, glass harmonica players, yodellers, precision dance team, the Tyler Junior College Apache Belles. A fashion show at a shopping mall is staged with a life-sized wedding cake, living grass suits, trompe l'oieled brick wall suits, local clubs with matching uniforms.

The film expresses Byrne's postmodern sensibility, a “high-tech cum postcard America, well-stocked supermarket shelves, tract houses under the sky, rat-a-tat-tat TV channel zapping.” Influenced by Ken Graves and Michael Payne's “American Snapshots,” cinematographer Ed Luckmann gives the movie the quality of a snapshot, mixing styles of the corner drugstore, the Bauhaus functional imagery and Japanese calligraphy all in one film.

If you want to know more about this issue, please consult my book, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film(NYU Press, paperback 2001)