Texas likes itself. Texas thinks it's pretty great. Texas never lets you forget you are... in Texas, not part of the South, not part of the West, not even a state exactly, just its own self, running its own flag up every available pole. In a Texan documentary I saw last week at Austin's SXSW Film Festival, the camera cruises by a sign that reads, "You might give some serious thought to thanking your lucky stars you're in Texas."
In the same film, titled Five Wives, Three Secretaries, and Me, the filmmaker's father—and subject—announces, "My egotism is not hard to locate." Spoken like a true Longhorn. Director Tessa Blake took the receipts from her trust fund to make this documentary about her billionaire octogenarian oil lawyer dad, known to his five ex-wives as "Blakie." All his exes come from, well, Texas, and Tessa Blake's documentary provides a fascinating glimpse into the Southern code of male/female relations. At one point, Blake asks a passerby, "Describe the typical Texan socialite woman." The fellow immediately responds, "Blond hair, a fur coat, and a shotgun."
The film's finest moments come when Tessa crosses, in front of the camera, into that fraught zone where Texas women battle and adore their fathers. Blakie is a remarkable combination of bullheadedness and charm, racism and love. He reminisces to Tessa with 1940s hepcat coolness, "You were a very lively baby. We had trouble keeping you in your cage." At the end of her film, Tessa faces Blakie just as coolly to ask him about his racism. Their differences aren't easily overcome. Blakie says, with evident love, "You make a movie, you need to entertain people, not have all these deep discussions." Tessa's absorption of Blakie's dismissiveness makes for one of the most powerful father/daughter moments ever seen in a documentary. She has unearthed the improbable universality in her own poor-little-rich-girl story. Tears were flowing freely when the lights came up, and there in the middle of the theater sat Blakie, surrounded by wives and secretaries. We cheered him, and we cheered Tessa Blake for overcoming him to make this film.
Blake is still looking for a distributor—and if there's justice in the world, she'll get one. The film seems destined to appeal to fans of fellow Southern memoirists Ross McElwee and Macky Allston.
Though Five Wives was by far my favorite, the festival was rife with films exploring the meaning of Texas, beginning with the opening-night premiere of Richard Linklater's big-budget film The Newton Boys. Linklater, who made Slacker, Dazed & Confused, and Before Sunrise, is a local hero in Austin, with all the hatred, jealousy, and bitterness that attends such figures. I was unable to get in to see the movie (call SXSW with your complaints; I did), but I did hear Linklater, his co-writer, and his producers give a panel on the film. The Newton Boys is based on the true story of a group of bank robbers roaming Texas at the turn of the century, blowing out bank vaults with giant explosions. There was much talk at the panel about the oral history the film is based on, storytelling being a "great Texan tradition." The Newtons could spin a yarn—Linklater's biggest problem was finding believable material. "You couldn't invent some of this stuff." Co-writer Clark Walker chimed in, "Truth really is stranger than fiction, because fiction always has to lie within the field of possibility." Linklater and Walker especially enjoyed filming the nitroglycerineexplosions. Walker reminded Linklater, "Remember when we were gonna have an explosion in Slacker?" Linklater nodded. "Movies need explosions."
One of Linklater's Slacker crew, Robert Byington, directed Olympia, the story of a Mexican soap starlet who dreams of throwing the javelin. She swims the Rio Grande to Texas, where she hooks up with a loser who still lives with his mom. He buys a book on the javelin, and pronounces himself her coach. A possibly aimless film is saved by Olympia's remarkable character, like a tomboy dream, all sinew and cold-eyed ambition.
Other Texan myth-making to watch out for includes the documentary Dancer, Texas Pop. 81, a modest documentary about a modest town; Barbecue . . . A Love Story, a film all the Texans in the audience seemed to love, though others were confounded; and American Cowboy, the first film from University of Texas film school student Kyle Henry. The film's weaknesses were overcome by its subject matter. Who doesn't love a gay rodeo cowboy?