David Byrne observes the citizens of the small but growing town of Virgil as they prepare to celebrate the town’s founding.
Ladies and gentlemen: the stories you are about to hear are true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.
Wait, is it even fashionable to make “Dragnet” references anymore? I can’t imagine. Hell, I bet that no one is even making jokes about a person being named Friday anymore either. Regardless, I thought I was being clever starting off this review with that quote because it makes fun of the movie title. I’m beginning to have my doubts after having typed it out.
I guess I could delete all of this nonsense and start over but that would require me to highlight the text AND THEN hit the delete key. Which may not seem like a lot of work, but quite frankly, I can’t be bothered.
So, anyway, onto “True Stories”! David Byrne’s directorial debut. I’m sure for the Talking Heads fans out there they are all too familiar with this movie. For me, I only discovered it recently. What drove my interest in watching the film is due to its focus on the mid-west commoner who lives in a moderately sized town. As one of those types, (you know, the type who folks don’t take kindly to) I have a soft spot for any movie that tries to capture the cinematic essence of that existence.
Much to my luck, “True Stories” does an amazing job of doing just that. Although before I went into the movie, I heard the film being referred to as “quirky” and “surreal”. Neither of which are actually applicable when it comes to describing “True Stories”. Well, surreal can work to a certain extent if you are using the overtly simple definition of surreal being dream-like.
The reason I’m needlessly being a dick about irrelevant issues (like what adjectives are used) is because quirky and surrealism isn’t what the movie is trying to achieve. Rather, it’s trying to be honest but in a more abstract manner. I’m not sure if that description actually works since it sounds more like a contradiction. I guess a better way to describe “True Stories” is to say that while it’s not trying to be realistic, it has an authentic observational quality in its style. Even though viewers are brought into the epicenter of life in Virgil, Texas; we are only meant to witness what occurs within the town. And while David Byrne himself is the film’s narrator who interacts with the characters, he comes across more as a tour guide when he’s speaking to the audience. In some odd way, “True Stories” is more akin to an open-air museum with a cast of reenactors.
Yet, even when it has that feeling, the movie never feels dishonest or dramatized in the way it is portraying these characters and this town. There is an added level of eccentricity — namely with the talent show and karaoke scenes — but it maintains a sense of believability to it all. Which is an important factor because there isn’t an actual narrative in place. The movie is more about capturing a moment — in the case of “True Stories”, the moment where the citizens come together to celebrate the anniversary of the town’s founding.
The reason it’s capturing that particular moment in time is because the overlying concept of the movie is the growth of a town and the changing of the times. Even Byrne himself points out how the landscape is changing and folks are evolving from how they use to communicate and interact with their neighbors — they’ve gone from the town center to the local mall. This concept — this change — is triggered by the implementation of an industry (Varicorp Corporation) and now that industry is turning a town into a city. A refreshing aspect about the movie is that it’s not criticizing this notion nor is it using it as a form of social commentary or satire. Instead it’s simply capturing a moment of change.
It’s not just the town though; it is about the change in people as well. In what is probably one of the best sequences in the movie, Earl Culver (fittingly played by Spalding Gray) gives a speech about how the workers, the individuals, are leaving the comfort of working within an industry in order to pursue a career of independence.
Of course this is being said over dinner with dancing plates of lobster and lighting scheme that gives the scene the appearance of a performance art piece. It’s one of those scenes where you understand why people are quick to use the label of surrealism, but when they do that, they’re loosing the importance of what’s being discussed by Spalding Gray.
Again, the movie isn’t acting as a social commentary piece but it is talking about a real movement that, while is common place now, was on the uptake in the 80s. What also makes that discussion interesting is that, while the movie itself is about the growth of a town, what Gray’s character is talking about will inevitably lead to the town’s downfall. Rather than a single industry sustaining the town, those responsible for the success of Varicorp are leaving to start their own small businesses — specifically in the case of the movie, research groups. Something that’ll eventually cause the company to collapse (as we’ve all seen happen in real life) and stop the development of the town, if not kill it outright.
Coincidentally, this is being said by a man whose character hasn’t spoken to his wife in several years. Indirectly, this moment shows how the nuclear family dynamic is morphing and adapting along with everything. It’s showing that, not are we not only not communicating with our neighbors how we use to, but our own families as well.
“True Stories” is a movie that says a lot without actually saying anything. At the very least, without the intent of wanting to say something — it’s not a film that’s trying to be socially significant. However, taking that into consideration, even though I criticized folks for chomping at the bit when calling the movie surreal or parts of it — such as Gray’s dinner scene — I feel as though I might be missing the point as well. Perhaps not missing the point so much as focusing on a singular aspect when there’s more to “True Stories” than perceived subtext. Primarily, the humor.
“True Stories” has an incredibly dry sense of humor to it. So dry that I don’t believe that there are any jokes, actually. At least none that I can recall. Of course when I say there are no jokes, I mean in the traditional sense of a setup/punchline equation. Almost like everything else in the movie, the comedy comes through in a more contextual manner. The character interactions and Byrne’s narrations never have anything occurring within them where a character is deliberately being funny, but most scenes by and large are funny. Whether it’s Byrne’s philosophical ways of explaining even the most inconsequential of things. Or the continual progression of John Goodman’s attempts at trying to find a wife over the course of the movie.
The dry, casual tone works well in complimenting the observational/slice-of-life style of “True Stories” but overall it’s what keeps the movie entertaining and moving forward. Had Byrne’s film simply relied on a series of scenes to merely derive social context from, then his film would have been incredibly dull to sit through. To Byrne’s credit, he approached this movie in the same way that he did music and that is to bring in varying elements in order to create something more unique. And he does it in a way that makes it seem effortless as he managed to create a movie that’s eccentric at times, yet stills captures the essence of small town living in modern times (while the movie was made in ’86, the content does not come across as dated) in a rather casual manner.