Virgil, Tex., flat, cement-hard, shimmeringly uglybeautiful, holds the same fascination for David Byrne, who made it up, as Nashville did for Robert Altman or Grover’s Corners for Thornton Wilder or the Emerald City of Oz for L. Frank Baum.
Or Hollywood for Nathanael West.
Joyous, daft and hauntingly original, “True Stories” (Friday at the Plaza in Westwood), is Byrne’s magical mystery tour of Texas: an introduction to the imaginary town of Virgil and its faintly surreal folks. It should be no surprise that Byrne, that “cultural jaywalker,” has taken to yet another art form with complete ease. (His old, elitist fans will have to live down his certification this week by Time magazine as “Rock’s Renaissance Man.”) The result is a movie of effortless cool, the perfect entry for a late-'80s time capsule: affectionate but cautionary.
Byrne, mainspring of the Talking Heads and director, co-writer and Narrator here, shows us around the place, prowling Virgil’s malls with a springy step, leaning confidentially out of his red Chrysler convertible to point with pride or amazement at Virgil’s “Celebration of Specialness,” part of the Texas Sesquicentennial. Pin-neat and owlish as ever, Byrne has adopted an enormous black Stetson for the occasion, his friendly way of fitting in--only to find that most of the people dress much as they do everywhere else.
Well, pretty much. There are the Urban Camouflage people at the mall’s fashion show of specialness: whole families in suits of living grass or patterned brick. And there is a strangely ‘50s air to most of its women: to perfect wifeandmother Kay Culver (Annie McEnroe), whose marriage is exemplary although she and her husband (Spalding Gray) have not spoken directly to each other in years. And both the Lying Woman (Jo Harvey Allen), who claims intimate knowledge of both Burt Reynolds and Mike Wallace, and Miss Rollings (Swoosie Kurtz), the Laziest Woman in the World, have a faint ‘50s displacement.
Virgil’s men are expansive but lonely: bachelor Louis Fyne (John Goodman), the “dancin’ fool” shaped rather consistently like a panda bear, who has set up an electrified arrow reading Wife Wanted, pointing to his house. Ramon (Tito Larriva), who works with Louis at the Varicorp computer plant, can read his co-workers’ “tones” but has no lady of his own.
Louis and his search for love may be the center of the movie, as much as it has one. He is a marvelous character, sweetly persistent in the face of romantic disaster, like his encounter with the Lying Woman and the Cute Woman (played with exactly the right tone of adorableness by Alix Elias). And Goodman has a grand, strong voice for the movie’s stirring/unsettling final anthem, “People Like Us":
We don’t want freedom
We don’t want justice
We just want someone to love.
In its pleasant, frequently funny episodic vignettes-with-music, “True Stories” may seem disjointed, with only a wisp of an idea to batten upon, but Byrne’s Polaroids of Virgil become an accumulative portrait that hints at unease in the heartland. (It was written by Byrne, actor/director Stephen Tobolowsky and playwright Beth Henley, and marvelously photographed by Ed Lachman--only recently coming into his proper acclaim.)
In this flat, beautiful ribbon of a movie, Byrne has captured something else: a mix of the naive and the sophisticated that is fresh and startling. It’s what Antonioni was searching for in “Zabriskie Point” or Simon Rodia at his Towers in Watts.
Byrne’s final song says:
We live in the city of dreams
We drive on the highway of fire
Should we awake
And find it gone
Remember this, our favorite town.
When Byrne shows us that glowing neon stage out in that eerie emptiness, or The Invisible Hospital of St. John the Baptist, a great voodoo altar to love, (presided over by “Pops” Staples of the Staples Singers), he also fixes in our minds a view of the country he is unwilling to see vanish.
‘TRUE STORIES’ A Warner Bros. release of a David Byrne film. Producer Gary Kurfirst. Co-producer Karen Murphy. Executive producer Edward R. Pressman. Director Byrne. Written by Stephen Tobolowsky, Beth Henley, Byrne. Camera Ed Lachman. Editor Caroline Biggerstaff. Production designer Barbara Ling. Sound designer Leslie Shatz. Songs recorded by Talking Heads. With John Goodman, Annie McEnroe, Spalding Gray, David Byrne, Swoosie Kurtz, Jo Harvey Allen, Roebuck (Pops) Staples, Alix Elias, Tito Larriva, Matthew Posey, John Ingle.
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes.
MPAA-rated: PG-13 (parents are strongly cautioned to give special guidance for attendance of children under 13)