Tag Archives: texas

Last Night at the Alamo (1983)

Pennell got better in a hurry for his second feature, a Texas spin on The Iceman Cometh. Pennell widens his scope and gets nearly every detail right. He lets Kim Henkle(The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) take over writing chores. Despite the seeming incongruity between the two men’s styles, both come through and do exceptional work. Henkle wisely writes an overabundance of dialogue so that it can flow naturally with overlap and remove the artificial staginess that marred some scenes from The Whole Shootin’ Match. Characters are more fleshed out, and there are more of them. Pennell handles his actors perfectly; their interactions are exemplary ensemble work, each maintaining his distinct character while still adjusting his performance to the presence of whoever else is in the scene. Pennell also creates his most deeply flawed and fascinating character study, Cowboy, as played by Sonny Davis.

Though the plot sounds like the old cliche of the group of friends who must save their favorite place before it gets shut down, Pennell has much bigger things on his mind. Plot here is used as a sort of red herring from the real point and purpose of the film; though the bar is shutting down, the doomed atmosphere comes from the sadness and lack of purpose most of the patrons’ lives seem to have. Some of them hold a fanciful notion that the Alamo bar is a tight knit community and connected to the bar itself, but most of them already have plans to patronize a bar down the street. Each character reveals their weaknesses by the film’s end, but its to Pennell’s credit that he manages to avoid pointing at them and moralizing; he’s clearly been in very similar situations, and given the rapid decline in his filmmaking capabilities due to alcoholism following this piece, he may see a lot more of himself in Cowboy than he’d like to admit.

Strongly recommended. Now where’s a copy of Doc’s Full Service?

The Whole Shootin’ Match (1978)

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.