Right now, you can watch a whole slew of independent Texas films on the Criterion Channel
Collectively and individually, they underscore the changes in the film industry and in the screen image of the Lone Star State.
Purely by chance, it seems, the streaming service, The Criterion Channelis presenting more than 25 breakthrough movies, film shorts, documentaries and early experimental efforts by three, Texas-born independents.
Several of these 25 films and videos are available for rent on other streaming services or can be watched for free on Vimeo or YouTube.
But these films are supplemented by the Criterion-requisite interviews and commentaries. And the channel also happens to be showcasing three movies from the 1980s, all of them very different but all of them landmark films set in (and about) Texas: Joel and Ethan Coen's Blood Simple, Wim Wender'sParis, Texasand Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line.
Collectively and individually, they underscore the changes in the industry and in the screen image of the Lone Star State.
Three by Eagle Pennell
The lost, rough diamond in this collection is director Eagle Pennell. The UT film school dropout became a pioneer of indie Texas filmmaking. In 1977, he used the earlier box office success of Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to snag financing for The Whole Shootin' Match, his on-the-cheap, shot-in-Texas story of a pair of get-rich-quick schemer-losers. A loose, ingratiating yarn, it was released the same year the TV show Dallas began and offered a counterpoint as one of the first films about scrambling, blue-collar, Texas life.
The Whole Shootin' Match inspired Robert Redford to create the Sundance Institute as a seedbed and training ground for indie filmmakers — what Pennell never had.
Pennell's next film, Last Night at the Alamo, is a snapshot of Houston's wildfire-fast development destroying a beer-fueled, honky-tonking way of life. Funnier, more focused than Shootin' Match, the film stars Pennell's classic Mutt and Jeff, the duo who should have become great Texas character actors: Sonny Carl Davis and Lou Perryman. Its cost-saving, shot-mostly-in-one-bar approach inspired Quentin Tarrantino's approach in Reservoir Dogs.
Pennell's subsequent Hollywood career sputtered in part because of his addictions and his destructive treatment of others. He was always something of a Hunter S. Thompson-type wild man, trying to be larger than life. Sometimes, he succeeded. He died in 2002 in Houston, age 49.
A Hell of a Note (1977)
The Whole Shootin' Match (1978)
Last Night at the Alamo (1983)
The King of Texas— 2008 documentary on Pennell's life and work directed by his nephew, Rene Pinnell, and Claire Huie.
15 films by Richard Linklater
All of the early shorts, films and documentaries included here practically make up a career retrospective of director Richard Linklater. Along with Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi, Spy Kids), Linklater has been the most diversely talented, most successful of the Austin-trained-or-based filmmakers — from early experiments to his off-the-wall breakthrough, Slackers, plus quirky, popular fare like Bernie and acclaimed, arthouse award-winners like Boyhood. (What's missing here are his big Hollywood hits, including Bad News Bears — but those are available all over the streaming services.)
It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books(1988)
Heads I Win/Tails You Lose (1991)
Slacker (1991) — Linklater's affectionate but long-winded day-in-the-life of Austin's students, street characters and oddballs. Not just a career breakthrough, it was a major step for the Texas indie scene, along with Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Whole Shootin' Match and Bill Witliff's early efforts, like Red Headed Stranger.
SubUrbia (1997) — More slackers but of a different, darker order. Adapted by off-Broadway playwright Eric Bogosian, it tracks young misfits at a convenience store.
The Newton Boys (1998) — period comedy-drama about a real-life family of Texas bank robbers in the '20s.
Live from Shiva's Dance Floor(2003)
A Scanner Darkly (2006) — animated sci-fi.
Inning by Inning: A Portrait of a Coach (2008) - documentary about UT baseball coach Augie Garrido.
Me and Orson Welles(2009) — pre-Citizen Kane, the great director is seen from the POV of a young actor he casts in a theater production.
Boyhood(2014) — groundbreaking, coming-of-age film shot over 12 years with Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette.
Bernie(2011) — comedy starring Jack Black as a small-town funeral director, based on an oddball, true murder case.
Fire Ted Cruz(2018) — five political attack ads/satires. A tip of the hat: Sonny Carl Davis from Eagle Pennell's films stars.
Another Day at the Office (2019) — commissioned by the Pompidou Centre, this short stars Linklater himself on a conference call with a studio exec and a therapist.
7 films by Terrence Nance
The 40-year-old Dallasite is probably worst-known for last year's failed re-boot of Space Jam. (He was executive producer.) But he's best-known for his mesmerizing, groundbreaking HBO anthology series, Random Acts of Flyness, which recently re-upped for a second season.
An actor, director, writer, editor and composer, Nance creates the cinematic equivalent of jazz-funk-hip-hop: a fusion of the urgent and the dreamy, of documentaries and fantasias. He smash cuts through different styles of animation, straight-ahead drama, surreal ruminations and tongue-in-cheek humor. ("No known blues song has been written about donuts.") His style has been labeled "Afro-futurism" but that doesn't really encompass his wild, yet utterly casual-seeming, creativity.
No Ward (2009) — unclassifiable doc about New Orleanians displaced to Texas by Hurricane Katrina.
Native Sun(2011) - another mind-bending doc, this one set in Africa. Typically, it's both a short film and an album.
Their Fall Our All(2014) — a young Black ballet dancer enters a dream state and sees her violent future. With original music by Beyonce.
You and I and You (2015) — dance film to a single by the band Dig.
Swimming in Your Skin Again(2015) — made with his brother, musician Norvis Junior, a film about spiritual symbols and rituals.
Jimi Could Have Fallen from the Sky(2017) — a short, whimsical bio of Jimi Hendrix.
Bonus: Three transformative, Texas-based films from the '80s currently on Criterion
Paris, Texas (1984) — Wim Wenders' sun-blasted tale of a lost wanderer (Harry Dean Stanton in a career-topping performance) seeking redemption (Sam Shepard's story was adapted by Texas screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson). Perhaps as much as the way the film looks, it influenced the way Texas sounds. Ry Cooder's long, lonesome slide guitar conjures empty Texas highways and dark strip joints as much as Robby Muller's cinematography.
Blood Simple (1984). A neo-noir thriller set in Austin, it launched the Hollywood careers of writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen. Just as Austin was extolling its 'redneck rock' music, the Coen brothers used the city as both a small-town and big-city backdrop for their seedy, cynically funny neo-noir. The top-notch cast features Frances McDormand and Dan Hedaya as the cheating couple and M. Emmet Walsh as the sleazy private eye (following his breakthrough in Blade Runner).
The Thin Blue Line (1988). Set in Dallas, this is one of the most significant documentaries ever made. It caught the Texas justice system at its worst and helped get an innocent man out of prison. A revolution in true-crime stories, it's perhaps director Erroll Morris' most striking film with its chilled-out blue-glass skyscrapers and its churning, ominous score by Philip Glass.