So Much Specialness
David Byrne's cult classic True Stories captured a lost Texas and a prescient picture of today
Originally published in 2012, this story recounts the production of writer/director/musical legend David Byrne’s True Stories, shot in small-town Texas in 1986. Byrne will be in attendance for a special screening of the new 4K restoration of the film at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival on Wednesday, March 13, 6:30pm at the Paramount Theatre.
"There are no diagonals in True Stories," says photographer Mark Lipson, recalling one of David Byrne's mantras on the set of the 1986 film. "If David saw me shooting in a certain angle, he'd be like, 'No! Don't take that picture. Only perpendicular!' It was all about this postmodern aesthetic. Everything was extremely full-frontal and square and at right angles. That car he drives is the squarest car I've ever seen."
A maroon 1985 Chrysler LeBaron convertible, the car is "square" in both senses of the word. In an unpublished manuscript in Spalding Gray's archive at the Harry Ransom Center, the late monologist described Byrne as "the most perversely wholesome person I have ever met, like grapefruit with salt or green beans with sugar." Turning the tables on conventional rebellion may have been Talking Heads' signature (Polo shirts to play CBGB, the big suit on the Stop Making Sense tour), but True Stories took this kind of irony to the next level. Byrne co-wrote, directed, and starred in the film, a multimedia avant-garde extravaganza packaged in the unlikely format of a PG-rated musical about the 1986 Texas Sesquicentennial.
"He thought like a visual artist, not a director," says Austin artist Bale Allen, who had a small role in the film. The screenplay literally began as an art piece: While touring with Talking Heads in 1983, Byrne started clipping articles from the now-defunct sensational tabloid Weekly World News. He later drew pictures based on the clippings and arranged the drawings and text in a giant wall collage. The idea to link tabloid characters via the 150th anniversary of Texas' independence from Mexico was one of the only elements Byrne retained from Steven Tobolowsky and Beth Henley's first draft of the screenplay. Though the Scottish-born, Baltimore-raised Byrne had no personal ties to the Lone Star State, the Sesquicentennial was a convenient hook for a sprawling think-piece about urban planning, natural history, technology, psychology, and the media.
Through his own art-world connections, and with the help of the Texas Film Commission and producer Karen Murphy (This Is Spinal Tap, Waiting For Guffman), Byrne assembled a roster of collaborators that included performance artists, choreographers, musicians, local non-actors, and Dallas crew. True Stories spanned multiple platforms: In addition to the Talking Heads album of the same title, the film was released with a book of photography (also of the same title, with new work by William Eggleston, Len Jenshel, and others) and a soundtrack, Sounds of True Stories, containing new music by Terry Allen, Carl Finch, Steve Jordan, and Kronos Quartet.
True Stories is all about scrutinizing everyday things – malls, underpasses, microchips – zooming in until they appear strange and spectacular. Byrne combines the non-narrative audiovisuals of the MTV videos he'd already directed with the classic "Let's put on a show!" musical – though the film is far from a Talking Heads vehicle. As the Narrator, Byrne doesn't sing or dance. Except for a few Heads video montages in which he steps out of character, Byrne lets the actors (professional musicans or not) perform the songs he wrote for the film, and the soundtrack reflects the many styles of indigenous Texas music – rock, gospel, honky-tonk, polka, blues, and conjunto – in a prelude (heavy on the accordion) to Byrne's future work in ethnomusicology. (He'll perform with Dallas native St. Vincent on Oct. 5 at the Bass Concert Hall. He's also currently on tour promoting his new book, How Music Works; see Phases & Stages, p.54, for review.)
Gray, who appears in the film as a businessman and civic leader, aptly compared True Stories to "a 1950s science class film." It begins with a voiceover slide lecture about the natural and political history of Texas, from dinosaurs to Native Americans to cotton, cattle, oil, and silicon transistors. The Narrator appears, dressed in head-to-toe cowboy garb, and announces that the citizens of Virgil, Texas, are commemorating the Sesquicentennial with a "Celebration of Specialness." Then he "steps inside" a picture of Virgil (projected on a curtain) and into its fictional universe, walking us through the town's preparations for a climactic parade and talent show. Byrne's Narrator has been likened to the Stage Manager from Our Town, except he seems very, very new to the place – a wide-eyed anthropologist from a faraway planet who beamed into Shepler's Western Wear and bought the works. "They're calling it a 'Celebration of Specialness,'" he shouts, snapping a photograph of the computer factory. "But this place is completely normal!"
The extreme self-referentiality makes the story logic difficult to describe; some of the characters directly address the camera, but there are no documentary-style "talking head" (pardon) interviews. Pacing is so fast and fluid that the periodic intertitles ("Shopping Is a Feeling") are comically superfluous, yet they remind us that this is a pseudo-ethnographic film: one that runs on inquiry rather than dramatic conflict or plot. Virgil has no villains – no trouble at all, really, just a bunch of lonely people being polite to each other. Louis Fyne (played by John Goodman) tries a computer dating service. The Cute Woman (Alix Elias) irritates people with her cloying personality. The Lying Woman (Jo Harvey Allen) drones to deaf ears about her sexy jungle escapades with "the real Rambo."
The current DVD version is a sad pan-and-scan job from 1999 with no extra features – true stories aplenty await a future commentary track. The green plastic stage erected for the talent show in Sterrett, Texas, got struck by a tornado and had to be rebuilt, for instance. Location manager and Austin Chronicle co-founder Joe Dishner filed that insurance claim, while Chronicle co-founder and editor Louis Black was an accordion-playing extra in the parade. Austin's Anne Rapp (later a Robert Altman collaborator) was just starting out as a script supervisor when she got the job. She explains the challenge of overseeing continuity for a logic-averse director: "I'd say, 'David, does that make sense?' and he'd go, 'No! You're right! It's great!' He wanted to 'stop making sense.'"
Byrne's artistic approach didn't always gel with the technical and logistical rigors of filmmaking. Sound mixer John Pritchett recalls one of the many times the director vanished from the set when the crew was ready to roll. "We had very little time to shoot before the sun went down and we couldn't find David. Everybody's looking. Finally somebody spots him way down at the edge of the parking lot, where there's a huge pile of dirt in a construction site. And he's over there standing about three feet from the dirt taking photographs." Yet such erratic multitasking produced a gestalt, Rapp admits: "It wasn't until I saw the film cut together that I saw the genius." The same could be said for Byrne's peripatetic career.
Almost everyone I interviewed had an anecdote about Byrne standing on his chair in restaurants and taking pictures of food. How could Byrne have intuited that in three decades, we'd all be posting portraits of beer cans and barbecue plates on Instagram? From form to content, True Stories was remarkably prescient. Byrne's boxy compositions predict Wes Anderson's diorama-films; This American Life's Ira Glass echoes Byrne's dorky-whimsical mode of direct address; "perversely wholesome" is the perfect description for Jack Black in Richard Linklater's Bernie. Shades of True Stories appear in any number of "quirky middle-America" hits of the 2000s, from Best in Show to Napoleon Dynamite to TV's Parks and Recreation. Several "fringe elements" highlighted in Byrne's screenplay have gone on to become staples of mainstream culture: yoga, online dating, and the cult of Steve Jobs. Most uncanny is Gray's dinner-table monologue, which predicts the passion-driven incentives of the tech economy, the impending obsolescence of job security, pensions, overtime, and the end of leisure as advances in technology push us to work 24/7: "Linda! Larry! There's no concept of weekends anymore!"
The Narrator's attitude toward exurban sprawl is ambivalent as he cruises in the car past cow pastures stretched to the horizon: "You know, in a couple of years, this'll probably all be built up." Indeed, the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex where the film was shot is choking with traffic, chain stores, and McMansions now. Production Coordinator Christina Patoski, who lives in Fort Worth, provided me with a list of addresses of shooting locations. Not only have most of the sites been bulldozed, the maps have been redrawn. Municipal borders have shifted with the construction of corporate campuses, conference hotels, and private hospitals – business prone to establish proprietary street names that are subject to the whims of economic turnover. Town names are retired where growth is lagging (Sterrett no longer exists), while new ones are introduced in wealthy sectors (computer factory interiors were filmed at a now-extinct proprietary address in a part of Allen that is now called Fairview). Like a dry-erase board, the flat north Texas landscape is perpetually wiped clean.
This model is unsustainable, of course; Byrne says so himself in his 2009 book Bicycle Diaries. Still, anybody can wag a finger at the suburbs. It takes a mad genius with fresh eyes to celebrate specialness there. As Jo Harvey Allen observes, "David's enthusiasm is contagious." So is his humanistic irony, a quality he sums up in the True Stories book, reflecting on Texas: "You feel like you're laughing at it and admiring it at the same time."