By Boris Nelepo and Celluloid Liberation Front 9/22/2014: We were saddened to hear of Peter von Bagh’s death on September 17, 2014. In Citizen Peter, More →
By Andrew Tracy
In an inadvertent but very real way, the term “regional filmmaking” denotes not only a diminutive mode of film practice in an economic sense, but in an aesthetic sense as well. Those very virtues for which these films are valued—a sense of place, of local, lived-in specificity, a freshness of detail, idiom, and demeanour, an aura of community and collectivity—can effectively serve to sever them from the forefront of the cinematic canon. While well-meaning writers in these pages and numerous other venues regularly sing the praises of collective endeavour in art, the majority are drawn almost helplessly back to the notion of the individual creator as the fount of creative achievement. There remains a tinge of folk art about the notion of “regional filmmaking,” an artisanal as opposed to artistic intimation, with the audience as privileged voyeurs being allowed a look inside an enclosed community creating culture primarily for themselves. “I know this film you say is regional and I agree with that,” remarks Eagle Pennell of his debut feature The Whole Shootin’ Match at its premiere at the Dallas US Film Festival in 1978, in response to the laudatory introduction by Hollywood Reporter critic Arthur Knight, “but I made the film hoping that it would play to a national audience, and I hope there are things in the film that appeal to people from all over.”
This exchange—culled from an archival recording included in The King of Texas, a documentary on Pennell`s career by his nephew Rene Pinnell and Claire Huie included on Watchmaker Films’ new DVD release of The Whole Shootin’ Match—nicely evokes the tensions implicit in regional filmmaking as a mode of practice. Shootin’ Match’s entire history is one of smallness and largeness intertwined. Made for a pittance by a team of dedicated collaborators—Pennell, lead actors Sonny Davis, Lou Perryman, and Doris Hargrave, writer Lin Sutherland, Pennell’s brother Chuck Pinell writing and performing the score, and many more—the film had an unexpected success after being selected by Knight for a privileged spot at the US Film Festival, and it was upon seeing and being impressed with this film that Park City resident Robert Redford determined to revamp the festival to showcase precisely this kind of independent, regional filmmaking—leading, of course, to that much-beloved annual event whose name we dare not speak. Shootin’ Match’s laid-back, character-driven comedy bespeaks that much-sought after combination of authenticity and spontaneity wedded to a skilled and witty narrative construction. As Lloyd and Frank, a pair of small-town layabouts and big-time dreamers, Perryman—tall, gangly, grizzly sideburns framing a Warren Oates-ish pan, dimwittedness and native intelligence seamlessly running together—and Davis—bemoaning his husbandly irresponsibility with both money and women while cheerily, helplessly surrendering himself to it, his curled upper lip and perpetually grinning, open mouth an endlessly expressive actorly tool—possess not only surface veracity, but the charm and depth that elevates type into archetype.
As Sutherland and others attest in The King of Texas, a significant degree of Shootin’ Match’s dense comic and dramatic texture derives from the actors’ improvisations: not only Perryman and Davis, but Hargrave’s turn as Frank’s hapless wife Paulette and Eric Henshaw as Frank’s slimy cousin Olin, eternally sniffing around Paulette after losing her to Frank in high school, flesh out the skilled knowingness of the script and direction. Despite the occasional raggedness in editing and mildly fluffed line readings—understandable casualties from the financially necessary one-take-and-print strategy of shooting—Shootin’ Match is a professional piece of work in the best sense of the term. As ever, the crux of the matter comes down to the man behind the camera, and Pennell proves himself adept not only at staying out of his talented actors’ way but building a coherent artistic whole around them. Pennell’s most inspired directorial tour de force comes when Lloyd and Frank slowly come to the realization that the first of their get-rich-quick schemes to actually succeed—a mop with a built-in cleanser dispenser—has been stolen out from under them for a measly $1,000: first showing Lloyd’s silent fever dream of their confrontation with the company reps, Pennell follows with the real encounter, which, aside from a few telling (and hilarious) alterations, aligns unnervingly with the anxiety-laden vision of the night before.
So in sum, The Whole Shootin’ Match is charming, funny, authentic—and so what? This is no insult to the filmmakers, but rather a challenge for the critics who wish to place this admirable achievement within a larger framework. For those very terms with which Knight first drew attention to the film—terms which Pennell sought to dispute right off the bat—also mitigate against it being placed within the higher echelons of artistic achievement. It is precisely against “national” cinema—i.e., those films coming from New York and Los Angeles—that regional films are defined and praised, their groundedness and specificity granting them their distinction in critical discourse yet to a large extent also preventing them from playing the larger games of “art” that the “national” is permitted. It could almost be suggested that the trans- and intercontinental reach of official national cinema affords its practitioners a metaphysical license implicitly denied the hardscrabble observationism of the regional—or rather, that regional filmmakers are only granted that licence once they make a dent in the wider consciousness and begin to take leave of the regional ranks. The terms of praise become decidedly broader in scope and loftier in tone as careers enter the ascendant: thus Richard Linklater (who offers some fond reminiscences of Pennell in The King of Texas) has had the authentic communalism evinced in Slacker (1991) abstracted into larger, grander notions of “Community” as his career enters the mainstream, bolstered by attestations to his Renoirian generosity; or Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy is acclaimed for the insight it provides into the current economic climate while Michelle Williams is likened to Falconetti.
It is not that such comparisons and analogies are necessarily unwarranted, but rather that certain critical reflexes that can come into unacknowledged conflict with the well-meaning, implicitly or explicitly political motivations underlying the celebration of regional cinema. That smallness seized upon by critics as a polemical counterpoint is, for the filmmakers themselves, primarily a necessity and obstacle, and only then, hopefully, a spur to artistic inspiration. It’s thus that this digitized, lovingly extras-laden testament to The Whole Shootin’ Match carries with it the sad irony that its maker would try for the rest of his sad life to move away from the kind of filmmaking he so perfectly realized with his first feature. Though Pennell’s subsequent projects, realized and unrealized—including his acclaimed sophomore effort Last Night at the Alamo (1984)—would stay close to the Texan subjects and stories he knew so well, their diminutiveness stood in frustrated contradistinction to Pennell’s bids to secure larger funding (from Hollywood studios) for more ambitious projects and to build himself into a genuine auteur, far beyond his regional roots and collective mode of film practice—a path that, unfortunately, led him to alcoholism, homelessness, and an early grave. It’s somewhat jarring to see, in The King of Texas, Pennell’s photo placed next to Antonioni’s and Godard’s in a program book for a German film festival, not because his work is innately inferior to the high culture seal of approval placed upon those Old Masters, but because their respective efforts must be, and have been, appraised in radically different terms. Film is one of those rare arts in which a resolute modesty of ambition and scale can be a prized quality, but there remains, forever remains, the persistent question of how to measure this genuine value against those peaks which any art must necessarily take as its starting point.