New program highlights Texas filmmakers 'before they were legends'
Every origin story has a defining moment, typically identified only in hindsight, that marks the tipping point when everything changed. "This story of Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson, 'the boys,' is a plucky tale of grit and high purpose," James Brooks wrote in 1998. This story could have any number of entry points – when Anderson and Wilson first met in a playwriting class at the University of Texas, for instance – but for Brooks' purposes, and ours, it's with the short film "Bottle Rocket."
Brooks continued, "When I first saw the thirteen-minute video I was dazzled – the language and rhythms of the piece made it clear Wes and Owen were genuine voices." It was a prototype for the eventual feature they made in 1996, which Brooks' Gracie Films produced. The black-and-white short was shot in Dallas in 1992 and featured the now-immortal duo Dignan (Wilson) and Anthony (played by his brother Luke Wilson). They are wanderers who apply themselves to the art of gangsterism, first by knocking over Anthony's parents' house in a sort of trial run, then storming a sleepy bookstore at closing time. There are departures: The short's soundtrack, for one, is wall-to-wall jazz (Sonny Rollins, Artie Shaw, and Vince Guaraldi, who Anderson later resurrected in The Royal Tenenbaums), in a hat tip to the French New Wave's influence on the filmmakers. But what amazes, nearly 20 years later, is how much was already in place with the short: the rhythm of Dignan and Anthony's patter, fast-paced but loopily digressive; its essential élan; and the quietly tragic figure of Robert Musgrave's co-conspirator Bob, who handles a gun at lazy hip level like a low-level hood and wears the existential slump of the lonely getaway driver. (His face, slowly souring as he listens to Anthony and Dignan giddily recount the action inside the bookstore as he sat – crucially but unglamorously – behind the wheel, a portrait of inaction, is a tiny masterwork.)
I hardly need to spell out what came next: In very broad strokes, there were champions, like producers Brooks and Polly Platt and, later, critic Kenneth Turan (who raved about the feature after Sundance inexplicably gave it a pass), and then, later still, more films, a wider audience, and accolades. But all that might not have happened for "the boys" without that 13-minute short, bankrolled by a loan from their dads.
Every filmmaker has that origin story, a first short that set him on a path that eventually – remember the hindsight – could be called predestined. The newly formed Texas Independent Film Network, a collaboration between the Austin Film Society's Ryan Long and Chronicle Editor-in-Chief Louis Black (see "Celebrate Texas Independents," Dec. 3. 2010), shines a light on those first films with its inaugural series: Texas Legends, Before They Were Legends, which has been touring the state this month. (It concludes with a screening in Austin on Feb. 18.)
"Bottle Rocket" opens the program; the other films on the bill include Robert Rodriguez's 1991 short "Bedhead," which starred his extended family; Jan Krawitz's 1976 short doc "Styx," about the underworld of Philly's subway system; Tobe Hooper's "The Heisters," shot in 1965 when the future Texas Chainsaw Massacre maestro was a student at UT; Richard Linklater's first film, 1985's "Woodshock," a documentary about Dripping Springs' Woodshock Music Festival; and Brian Hansen's 1981 short "Speed of Light." Black introduced Jonathan Demme to Hansen in the early Eighties, and when Demme curated a series of new films from Texas, he handpicked "Speed of Light" for inclusion. Most of the filmmakers in the Before They Were Legends program went on to have long and varied careers, but Hansen, who made a handful of critically acclaimed films after "Speed of Light," died abruptly in 1987 from meningitis. The small body of work he left behind was enough to establish his Texas-legend bona fides – and to make one wonder what might have been.
Texas Legends, Before They Were Legends' screening on Friday, Feb. 18, 7:30pm, at the Austin Film Society Screening Room (1901 E. 51st) is sold out, but an additional screening has been added Friday, Feb 25, 7:30pm at the AFS screening room. See www.austinfilm.org for ticket info.