The Defiant Defeatist: Eagle Pennell
By Daniel Stuyck
The rise and fall of a Texan maverick
Self-defeating behavior has a way of being seen in hindsight as virtue uncompromised. Say what you will, any state of perfection is categorically foreign to the seven films made by Eagle Pennell. In a sense, Pennell was a country bluesman in the tradition of Mississippi John Hurt or Lightnin’ Hopkins. Each film has the sentimentality and weather-beaten vision, the frayed edges and simplicity of a blues standard. He drew upon his own films continuously—think of them as his floating verses—reworking variations on a fatalistic theme, about a man trying and failing to change the world around him, always on the margins, both unwilling and unable to move into the fold. Pennell was self-taught, never technically proficient, and, like many white bluesmen, he came from a well-to-do family who provided a certain degree of financial wherewithal, keeping him wandering down the road.
Perhaps it’s wisest to start at the end. Right now, one can more readily find obits marking Pennell’s death in 2002—or better yet, tell-all exposés—than a copy of any of his films. A DVD re-release of two titles is imminent but the majority are out of circulation; for that matter, that majority was never really in circulation in the first place. The irony is fitting: the absent oeuvre for the maker of great sketch films.
Pennell’s first two efforts—the short Hell of a Note (77) and the feature-length The Whole Shootin’ Match (78)—coincided with the emergence of “regional cinema” in the U.S., a forerunner of today’s American indie. Shootin’ Match premiered at the 1978 Utah/US Film Festival, the inaugural edition of what would eventually become Sundance. Looking at the other selections in the fest’s “Regional Cinema: The New Bright Hope” sidebar (whose programmers included future Film Comment contributor Vivian Sobchack), you’d be hard-pressed to find anything like a stylistic or thematic tie. What links Claudia Weill’s intimist Girlfriends, George Romero’s modern-day vampire film Martin, and Mark Rappaport’s knottily formalist Local Color? Perhaps that’s the point: “regional” finds its character in opposition to the mainstream entertainment complex—decentralized, inclusive, community-specific.
And just as a “regional” film like Martin informs the internationally financed and approved The Dark Half or Land of the Dead, Hell of a Note lays out most of the concerns of Pennell’s later career. Two manual laborers (played by Lou Perryman and Sonny Carl Davis) quit/lose their jobs tarring roofs and retreat to a bar—the key location in all of the director’s films—in order to nurse their wounded pride. Hell of a Note has a more melodramatic conclusion than any other Pennell film, involving the death of an innocent, but it sets the tone for those that follow. These films piece together a landscape of life in America for those who believe in its promises, and therefore they are about the reality of work: money, power, and, ultimately, disenfranchisement. Though he may have claimed this vision a tragic one, Pennell avoids sinking into a well of bitterness and cynicism, concluding, with a weary shrug, that he must cultivate his garden. The outlook is encapsulated by Perryman’s proud declaration: “If I had a dime for every job I walked off of . . .” Moments later, he finds the finance company has repossessed his car.
Shootin’ Match reunites Perryman and Davis, who in retrospect can confidently be called Pennell’s most important assets. Davis’s Frank, all good ol’ boy slickness, plays straight man to Perryman’s wiry and indignantly bemused Loyd. The two are entrepreneurs with a spotty track record—references are made to failed chinchilla and flying-squirrel farms—who are now investing in “gold money,” i.e., polyurethane. The film is less a narrative than a narrative thread, amassing subplots, chance encounters, and digressions as the pair amble along.
“Alcohol and work don’t mix,” sneers a more financially solvent friend of Frank’s. Booze—“alcohol” hardly does it justice—represents freedom for Pennell, a state that is interrupted by the commitments reality (i.e., work) poses. Accordingly, pleasure is found in minor keys, or the contentment with hope articulated in Frank’s motto: “We’re the nobodies who learn from it and make better next time.”
After his efforts to write a screenplay in Hollywood came to nought, Pennell spent the next four years making industrial films in Saudi Arabia and Europe. But 1984 would prove to be something of a banner year for him with the revival of Shootin’ Match and the release of Last Night at the Alamo, as “regional cinema” was in the process of being rechristened “independently made.”
A barroom yarn in setting and style, Last Night at the Alamo is centered on a working-class bar, The Alamo, which is scheduled to be torn down the next day. The film is enamored with the self-aggrandizing, mythic Texas of popular imagination (a picture of Judge Roy Bean hangs prominently on a wall). In this way, it invites the spectator in like a drunk vying for your attention—promises of larger-than-life stories, starting with ribald humor (“What, I gotta wear a shirt to dinner now?!”) before veering into darker, sentimental territory. It’s shot from slightly below eye level, the point of view of any of the anonymous barflies always lingering on the edges of the frame.
Last Night doesn’t so much rework the previous films as make borrowed phrases new through a fresh context. In all three of the Perryman/Davis films, there is a gag in which Davis takes a tumble and loses his hat. With his hat on, he projects a virile, Newman-ish figure; when it’s off, the surprise is that he’s bald except for a fringe of hair. What had been a straightforward joke in the previous two films becomes a grand metaphor in Last Night, as Davis’s Cowboy and his dreams of being a Hollywood cowboy in the Gene Autry mold are, to quote Son House, put down in a ditch with a great long spade. Mirroring Shootin’ Match’s ending, he winds up isolated and alone, holding a rifle used in a vain attempt to rally the bar’s denizens into fighting the oncoming bulldozers, realizing the futility of his illusions but nevertheless pressing on. This kind of variation appears over and over, where old material is replayed with a different spin, more through force of habit, perhaps, than any specifically auteurist impulse.
Last Night is also the film that most directly touches on Pennell’s biggest cinematic influence, John Ford. Born Glenn Irwin Pinnell, the Texan adjusted his surname to match that of a character in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, the initial object of the yellow ribbon’s affections who eventually loses the girl to his superior officer and romantic rival. Ford in general and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon in particular define a major conflict running through Pennell’s films, brought out in an homage of sorts to Ford’s film: the close-up of a flag rippling in the wind at the beginning of Last Night represents an identity (Ford’s 7th Cavalry, Pennell’s barflies) that will come under threat. But while Ford’s 7th Cavalry will endure, The Alamo is demolished and its inhabitants scattered to the winds. For everything Pennell has in common with Ford (a populist faith in individuals, a classical, space-oriented mise en scène), he is about 30 years too late, existing at the losing end of the Fordian equation. The communities that form to solve conflict, absolutely central to Ford, are unattainable for Pennell.
Absence is central to Pennell’s work. His characters, as he put it in a 1980 interview in Framework, are people “being forced out . . . They’re loners, like the old heroes used to be, but they’re not kids’ role models anymore.” Pennell is primarily a man who watches westerns, fooled into believing that those values can apply in the real world. The “executive producer” of Shootin’ Match was John H. Jenkins, a colorful rare-book dealer in Austin who helped launch the boom in “Texana,” essentially the kitsch Americana of Texas history, primarily from the early to mid-19th century. Although the gaudiness and decadence of the world of rare-item collecting is nowhere to be found in the blue-collar world of Pennell’s cinema, the filmmaker and the book dealer are both purveyors of lore rather than facts, entranced by Texas and the West as the land of the Great Untamed.
Pennell’s fondness for the mythic is unsurprising, but rather than adopt the personal mythology of a Texan hero like Davy Crockett or Sam Houston, he chose James Fannin: the great failure, the cowardly commander who lost the battle of Goliad; the man who refused to reinforce the Alamo. A biopic of Fannin, a character ignored in popular Texas frontier lore, had been a long-cherished, unrealized Pennell project—in which the director himself intended to play the lead. He adopted a loser mythology for himself, and so for all that grandiosity, at heart there seems to be something modest and insecure in his personal mythos, something that also extends into his films and his model of filmmaking.
In Pennell there is this sense of teetering on the brink of a precipice, all the more apparent when compared with the evolving U.S. independent film scene. Being young and having no prospects (see Clerks, Slacker, et al.) is very different from being middle-aged and having no prospects. If the “indie” film was a sign of the times in the Nineties, Pennell’s films were rendered obsolete by Reaganism and Right to Work statutes. Actively hostile to any attempt to pigeonhole him as anything as un-macho as an “artist,” he also had no desire to be either a showman or even an efficient journeyman. As popular legend goes, a less-than-sober Pennell went to New York with Last Night screenwriter Kim Henkel to pitch a road-movie-cum-LBJ-allegory called King of Texas and wound up propositioning a female executive during a restaurant pitch meeting. The film didn’t get made.
Similar stories of Pennell’s inebriated miscalculations gave him a certain cachet, but his career steadily went south. Ice House (89) was a gun-for-hire job, essentially a vehicle for Little House on the Prairie’s Melissa Gilbert, written by and co-starring her then-husband Bo Brinkman. Its plot of a failed country singer trying, by charm or violence, to convince his hometown sweetheart to leave L.A. and return to Texas with him, finds Pennell turning away from the world around him, isolating himself with thoughts of returning to a nonexistent “home,” a drive absent from the Perryman/Davis trilogy. The films that follow basically share this theme. Tired of the hellhole of modern urban life, a hard-boiled crime reporter goes home to visit his estranged brother in Heart Full of Soul (90). Urban-life-as-hell is also the theme of his contribution to an omnibus film, City Life (90). Taking its place alongside segments by Krzysztof Kieslowski and Béla Tarr, Pennell’s short, Unheavenly City, depicts a corporate employee wandering the streets after getting laid off. His final film, Doc’s Full Service (94), centers on a middle-aged man running a rural gas station and his secret desire to move to the big city with a local storeowner for whom he’s fallen.
There is something unsettling about these later works. The rambling rhythms of the Perryman/Davis trilogy have devolved into rambling, incomplete-seeming films. The looseness and rich sense of interplay that distinguished Shootin’ Match have become self-parody as characters now incessantly launch into long-winded semi-drunken monologues. The ending of Heart Full of Soul, probably Pennell’s worst film, is inadvertently avant-garde, with the hero upending his life for a job offer from a phantom character, vaguely introduced at the last moment. Buñuel or Rivette might have been proud, but those who knew Pennell attribute this drift to his escalating alcoholism. After the completion of Doc’s Full Service, he was intermittently homeless, panhandling for beer money under a freeway overpass, dismissing rehab clinics as being “for pussies.”
And it’s unfortunate that the legend is all that’s been printed. But then, all of these tall tales embody this specific subterranean quality—his attitude toward life and filmmaking, the rough simplicity that runs through all of his films and electrifies the best ones. If it’s ironic that these films that strive for inexactness have disappeared into obscurity, Pennell always seemed to suggest that, like his characters, he would never manage to change things or buck the system he felt he was up against. Perhaps the reason his films still resonate is because he made the gesture nevertheless, and the specific experience, the half-finished notes and inflections that constitute his films, and not the superfluous mythology surrounding them, are what his cinema ends up being about. If he is supposed to be a bluesman, Pennell’s work is about the singer, never the song.