True Stories: a movie review

After the smash success of Talking Heads’ legendary performance film Stop Making Sense, the studio gave David Byrne a huge measure of control over his next film project, True Stories. What an odd movie they got.

Written by Byrne, Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart), and Stephen Tobolowsky (Now don’t tell me you don’t remember him because he sure as heckfire remembers you! Needle-nose Ned? Ned the Head? He dated your sister Mary Pat a coupla times until you told him not to? Bing!), True Stories takes us on a tour of a fictional town — Virgil, Texas — gearing up for its sesquicentennial celebration by staging “A Celebration of Specialness.”

It’s as gee-whiz as a 1960s picture postcard: bright, dated, and absolutely flat. The establishing shots are carefully square-on, keeping the focal point dead-center, never oblique or slanted. And the film’s attitude is just as surprisingly direct. Where we might cynically expect glancing sarcasm or viciousness, Byrne instead gives us refreshing sweetness.

This is a small-town character study — Our Town by way of Weekly World News. We meet a spinner of endless tall tales, a man who claims he can grab your nose and read your mind, a lady who never gets out of bed (our narrator enthuses: “She has enough money, she doesn’t need to. Wouldn’t you?”), a husband and wife who lead the community but haven’t spoken directly to each other in years, and a preacher who sermonizes about vast conspiracies controlling everything from our political structure to the rate at which we run out of toilet paper.

As the name implies, True Stories is more a collection of tales than a single story. The musical numbers help to tie the whole series together, but movie’s real heart is Louis Fyne (John Goodman, incredibly winning in his first major role), a big bear of a man unabashedly and doggedly looking for love. We first meet him at work (in the computer assembly’s clean room, where the world can’t touch him), then follow him on a series of unsuccessful dates and outings. In less kind hands, Louis could be a joke or a figure of fun, but Goodman’s earnestness and humor make him a remarkable character, a simple man with a complex soul.

The strength of the film comes from the same place. It doesn’t shy from the absurdities of everyday life, and in fact it exaggerates them to the point of hyperbole… but it never, ever diminishes them. Rather than jeering at the mundanities of Americana, True Stories amplifies them with equal parts affection and irony.

About half-way through the movie, our guide takes us on a driving tour through a new (and mostly uninhabited) suburban development, a banal expanse of tract housing against the barren backdrop of the Texas plains. And in this flat, blank landscape, he says — with startling sincerity — what might well be the film’s motto: “Look at this. Who can say it isn’t beautiful?”

[cross-posted to The Video RePort]

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