Pennell, Eagle: Texan Director, The Whole Shootin’ Match

Although Richard Linklater is Texas’s premier filmmaker, the big state that has given American culture the Alamo, the popular TV show Dallas, and oil fortunes, has also produced a number of idiosyncratic directors, such as Eagle Pennell, who has made some interesting, low-budget pictures before indie cinema hit its stride in the late 1980s.

Shot on a budget of 30,000, Pennell’s The Whole Shootin’ Match (1978) is a humorous portrait of two hapless Texas buddies, who grasp at life and constantly come up empty, yet still maintain their hopefulness.

His second feature, “Last Night at the Alamo,” (1983) is marked by the simplicity and ease with which he brings ordinary blue-collar existence to vivid screen life. Sonny Carl Davis and Louis Perryman, who played similar characters in The Whole Shootin’ Match, are cast in this film as Cowboy and Claude.

Shot in three weeks, “Last Night at the Alamo” was produced for $50,000, half of which was provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, and the rest by the Southwest Alternate Media Project (fondly known as “SWAMP”) in equipment and office space.

The first shots of Houston’s glass-and-steel skyscrapers represent a vision of high-tech at its most inhumane, but the people themselves still live in buildings where it’s possible to open the windows. The Alamo’s regulars gather to celebrate the bar’s last night, which means drinking beer and awaiting the appearance of Cowboy, a favored son who may be able to save the place from destruction.

The customers speak of Cowboy with awe, especially Ichabod, a hotheaded youngster who wishes he had a “neat” nickname like Cowboy, instead of Ichabod (his real name is William). Cowboy’s major admirer is Claude, an unhappy middle age man who spends much of his time arguing on pay phone with his wife, Marcie, an off-screen character. When he receives another furious call from Marcie, he says, “I guess I better be getting home, I aint’t never going to hear the end of this.”

The vulgar, down-to-earth dialogue, as the critic Vincent Canby, has observed, rings utterly true. Claude’s friend, Mary, thinks he shouldn’t blame people for being fat, which leads to a serious discussion of whether someone with a beer belly can accurately be called fat. Later, mad at Ichabod’s behavior, Mary screams, “When you talk to me, keep that eye open. I don’t want it twitching at me!” Abstract notions never enter the mind of the characters, who are completely absorbed by things and events of the present.

Cowboy finally appears as a good-looking, smooth-talking guy, who has just told off his boss and is once more out of a job. Cowboy’s plan to save the Alamo, by contacting a Texas legislator with whom he roomed during his one year at college, fail. But nobody gets upset or disturbed for too long. The old Alamo gang simply shifts its gathering to another bar, the B&B, and life goes on in the same laid-back, uneventful manner as it did before.