True Stories: David Byrne’s Tale, Glorification of the Commonplace

David Byrne’s True Stories represents a glorification of the commonplace and kitsch.

On another level, it pays homage to the boundless spirit and imaginative lifestyles of Americans living in small towns. The characters, inspired by human-interest stories in tabloid newspapers, are placed together in a narrative format that features a narrator who observes the citizenry of Virgil as they are about to celebrate Virgil’s joining Texas in commemorating the State’s Sesquicentennial.

The film is symmetric, opening and closing with the same image, that of the narrator (Byrne), dressed in Stetson and string tie, as he drives a fire engine red convertible against a flat and barren horizon. The austere landscape makes the characters and their houses stand out even more sharply.

The narrator performs the function of the druggist in Our Town; he, wanders through town, observes its habits. But unlike the narrator of Our Town, who encounters the commonplace, Byrne does not cease to be surprised by what he sees. Taking the liberty of free commentary, he makes comic asides, distancing himself from the narrative.

Following a montage of the encapsulated history of Texas, the viewers get to know the people, not as flesh-and-blood but more as icons of pop culture. Consider some of the types: The Cute Woman loosely based on a TV show hostess who likes to paint pictures of puppies; the Computer Guy; the Lying Woman who claims to have written half of Elvis Presely’s songs; the Lazy Woman, a television addict who never gets out of bed; the Visionary Businessman; the Innocent in constant search for Love.

“I was attracted to the characters,” Byrne says, “because they had their own eccentricities, but they weren’t ashamed of them.” None of the characters in True Stories is alienated, lost, or guilty, which is a major difference from eccentric characters in movies of previous decades. In the past, individuals usually felt ashamed of their eccentricities and tried to get rid of them, or keep them as secrets, since they were perceived as obstacles to their integration into mainstream society.

However, in films of the 1980s, America still has a Main Street but it’s looser and less confining, permitting the existence of alternate lifestyles that might not be condoned by dominant culture. Byrne’s film is an “appreciation of people and things,” a tribute to “openness and willingness to see things differently, to try things, to experiment.”

Jonathan Demme, who directed the concert documentary Stop Making Sense (1986), said in a recent interview: “This is brand new. If anybody can bring cinema narrative out of the bog it’s in, it’s David Byrne.”

True Stories is a democratic celebration of the unique qualities that make the ordinary and bland appear special and extraordinary. The movie’s centerpiece is the “Celebration of Specialness,” which consists of more than 130 unusual talent acts: disco-dancing goldfish, glass harmonica players, yodelers, precision dance team, the Tyler Junior College Apache Belles. And the fashion show at the shopping mall is staged with a life-sized wedding cake, living grass suits, trompe l’oieled brick wall suits, and local clubs with matching uniforms.

The film is not about Virgil as small-town or even Texas but about Pop Culture, as reflected by TV and consumerism. Byrne says he wanted to show that “there are a lot of places like Virgil–the way people live, the places they work and the kind of community they experience when new industry is taking over.” However, as the critic Jim Hoberman observed, True Stories mostly reflects Byrne’s “distinctly postmodern sensibility,” showing “high-tech cum postcard America, well-stocked supermarket shelves, tract houses under the sky, rat-a-tat-tat TV channel zapping.”

In the press notes, Cinematographer Ed Luckmann says he was influenced by Ken Graves and Michael Payne’s American Snapshots. The whole movie has the style of a snapshot with aesthetics that mixes the styles of the corner drugstore, the Bauhaus concept of functional imagery, and Japanese calligraphy.