Eagle Pennell’s great lost film is finally available in some form thanks to the kind fellows at Landmark films, who I must point out have put together an exceptional DVD presentation of it. Having wanted to see this for a long time, I can’t say I was disappointed, though I also can’t claim to have been blown away. The amount of talent and raw instinct on display here from someone with no background in film beyond making one short is astonishing. The script is very strong, though certain scenes feel a bit stagey. This could mostly be attributed to lack of shooting funds, and thereby lack of time to rehearse the scenes out properly. Pennell however does right by his setting; every frame oozes Austin Texas and he doesn’t coach any of his actors out of their dialects. This makes them feel like specific characters as opposed to archetypes.
The story is a simple but effective one about lives of extremely limited social mobility. Two friends, Frank and Lloyd, played by Sonny Davis and Lou Perryman respectively, are two friends constantly trying out new get rich quick schemes. Both are good natured, if clueless, and their plans always end up in failure. The manner in which Pennell shows their failures and their responses to them gives the sense that they’ve been getting rejected for a long time. Both seem aware on some level of the futility of what they’re doing, Frank moreso than Lloyd, but cover this despair in alcohol and comradery.
Pennell’s position as a real life alcoholic who was unaware of it at the time he made the film(at least if Roger Ebert’s anecdote is reliable) gives him a fairly unique stance on the issue. At no point in the film does either character blame the alcohol for anything that happens to them, and it seems to be mostly just a fact of life for them, a way to cover much deeper problems that can’t be so easily resolved. Though hyped as a sort of white trash Killer of Sheep, this film has a much more conventional structure than that one, though the exploration of the despair and struggle to maintain hope and dignity in a bleak social setting gives the two a certain kinship. Pennell explores these character’s hopes and dreams(in a dream sequence that would seem to be out of place but works) without denying the situation that makes them seem sensible. When a drastic event happens right before the film’s end, its mostly effective since the movie was pointing to it all along, not in any clever furtive way, but as sort a hovering possibility.
Chuck Pennell’s score is excellent, and helps carry some of the weaker montage sequences.