Page Two: Roger Ebert Added a Star to His The Whole Shootin' Match Rating
Last Night at the Alamo restoration revives Eagle Pennell's early promise for posterity
As you read this, the 30th year of SXSW launches, and there is no way I could be prouder of the leadership and team. The SXSW Film Festival is offering an extraordinary lineup of films; I try not to promote too many, lest I be accused of playing favorites, which is what the whole recommendation thing is about. Obviously, there is the premiere of Richard Linklater's Everybody Wants Some, as well as Richard Linklater: dream is destiny, Karen Bernstein and my American Masters documentary on him. But let me suggest Keith Maitland's Tower and his ACL doc A Song for You, as well as Clay Liford's Slash, on which I'm an executive producer. There are so many other wonderful films! So many!
Including a restored print of Last Night at the Alamo, Eagle Pennell's 1984 indie classic. Beginning at a beginning, if not quite the beginning, specifically: Robert Redford was inspired to start Sundance after seeing Eagle Pennell's The Whole Shootin' Match at the Egyptian Theatre on Main Street in Park City, Utah, at the first film festival held there in 1978.
When talking about Eagle Pennell, you always concentrate on the gloriously promising beginning – The Whole Shootin' Match in 1978 and Last Night at the Alamo in 1984 – not the long, tragic decline. Sadly, appropriate to SXSW Film, we screened Doc's Full Service, a later film by Eagle, at the very first film festival in 1994. Writing about the film, I said that it looked liked such a promising first feature but unfortunately it was the filmmaker's fourth or fifth, so even what had once been charming no longer was. Running into Eagle before the screening, I expected him to turn on me. Instead he started crying, saying that I was right. Which only made me feel so much worse.
When John Irving was my undergraduate writing teacher he used to say that real artists in person should be so much less than their work (because they should put everything into it). In some ways, the rest of Eagle's life was an attempt to bury the legacy of those first two films. Two decades of bad films and far worse behavior diminished his contemporary standing. And good prints of his two best films were hard to find.
As independent film mutated into existence, its growth, as of that of mainstream film, owed much to the drive of individual creators. Those with existing, culturally focused constituencies – gay, female, minority – had some support structure. (But I don't want to try to overplay that in an attempt to create too much of a contrast.) Even John Sayles' Return of the Secaucus Seven coming out a year later in 1979 was a celebration of a certain generation's nostalgia (of a sort), which was the core audience for all these films. But rural redneck Texan comedies?
In Texas, working with a talented crew Eagle Pennell directed The Whole Shootin' Match and Last Night at the Alamo, two iconic American independent classics. Pennell was lucky to work with some very talented people, behind and in front of the camera, including Lin Sutherland and Kim Henkel.
The first film inspired Redford. Both films attracted mainstream critical attention and some arthouse distribution. They helped shape the infrastructure of the emerging generation of indie films.
Importantly, as with Sayles' Secaucus and Linklater's Slacker, the films are deceptively simple. It becomes easy while watching them to think, I can do that – make my own movie. Thus were a number of outstanding careers launched, as well as any number of bad movies made.
The Whole Shootin' Match appeared to be a lost film, with no complete watchable prints existing when Eagle died in 2002. Contacting everyone who distantly knew him, we couldn't find even a passable one. Mark Rance finally found one in Germany. Working together, we restored and released that film a few years back to a very sweet critical reception. Currently, the DVD box set is available through the UT Press.
Richard Linklater, Mark Rance, Jonathan Sehring, and I have now produced a restoration of Eagle's Last Night at the Alamo, widely accepted as his masterpiece, which premieres Monday, March 14, at SXSW.
Knowing IFC had the rights to Last Night at the Alamo, Rick and I talked about putting in an ask to them after the full Boyhood press tour and awards run had died down. (IFC produced and distributed Boyhood.) We did. IFC agreed. Mark Rance went to work. Turns out they had the negative. The restoration is superb. The film only looked this good when it was very first screened.
But, the real lead is how remarkably funny and savage Pennell and screenwriter Kim Henkel's Last Night at the Alamo is. Not that I have anything against them, but this is less Porky's and even Smokey and the Bandit, and far more a pulp Eugene O'Neill, leavened by a Greater Tuna ironic affection for its characters. Intense in every way – tough black-and-white, tight close-up and mid shots, mostly in the confines of one bar – it is so much more than it seems. It is an exploration of character that transcends one night at one bar, handily still relevant despite the three decades since it was made.
The performances of Sonny Carl Davis and the late Lou Perryman, also the stars of The Whole Shootin' Match, prove transcendent. I think it was Roger Ebert who cited Laurel and Hardy: Though more blue-collar, working-class specific in their mannerisms, the two have those classic comic rhythms.
Last Night opens with one of the most profanity-laced rants I can remember since the last time Guillermo del Toro read the phone book (that is a joke pretty much for Harry Knowles). Either you get the film or you don't; Pennell and Henkel are not dragging you through the best or the worst bar night of your memory, they are not making a point about working-class culture (either celebratory or damning), but instead they are pushing you deep into the most "every" night of every night at a bar. Bars go on forever. Bar nights further. After this bar closes, the gang will find a new bar to hang out in. Here, the picture ripples at the seams with mundane detail, all aware of the always promise of unearthly magic that the most unhappy dive bar offers. Between desire and lust is romance and transcendence. Francis Ford Coppola's One From the Heart is the insanely opulent, over-the-top Technicolor version that is almost the exact opposite of this cinematically eloquent and dramatically focused look at lives bled dry but not dead. Some of the color is lost, but the black-and-white still tints red.
The uniqueness of the vision is emphasized by how few similar films there are. Usually, anything that even vaguely understands working-class culture narratively degenerates into mindless violence or brutal family emotional gymnastics. Here they pop open another beer.
An American classic, referred to on Facebook as the "Drunk Texan's Citizen Kane," it is a regional masterwork. Roger Ebert wrote a rave about our first Pennell reissue, ending by saying, "The Whole Shootin' Match is priceless. I rated it at three stars on its first release. What was I waiting for? Do I ever change a rating? Hell, yes. I'd give it four today, and you'll see why."
Last Night is as good if not better!
Last Night at the Alamo screens Monday, March 14, 6:30pm, at the Alamo Ritz; Wednesday, March 16, 1:30pm, at the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center; and Friday, March 18, 8pm, at the Marchesa.