True Stories September 1, 2018
1 Hr., 28 Mins.
aken individually and the page-bound vignettes of Raymond Carver, the short-story writer, make for lucid, holistic snapshots. String the micro-tales together, though— like the anomalous filmmaker Robert Altman did, in 1993, with the magnificent, packed naturalist epic Short Cuts — and they come together to comprise a sort of alternative universe.
Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s first and only filmmaking effort, True Stories, from 1986, is in sync with Carver’s cult, 1976 short story collection Will
You Please Be Quiet, Please?, which is made up of odds and ends Carver published during a 14-year period. In the selection, Carver delves into the boilerplate, but also pristinely characterized, lives of the working class. Stories revolve around pals gossiping about the fattest man they’ve ever seen; a husband pressuring his waitress wife into losing weight because he doesn’t like way men ogle her body while she works; spouses enlisted to apartment-sit for their neighbors only to find themselves turning into voyeurs in the process; and more. Each story, on average, runs only a few thousand words and covers a small fraction of the characters’ lives. Yet each feels comprehensive.
True Stories is like Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? in that it circles around the ordinary existences of middle-class Americans. With vignette-reminiscent aplomb, it jumps from story to story with an intent to uncover the heart of the yarn and move onward. The narratives are disparate but foundationally homogenous.
Unlike the Carver anthology, though, capriciousness, expectedly for an artist as idiosyncratic as Byrne, is prioritized. When in the throes of development, the cantor has said that he was inspired by the weirdest stories he’d read in tabloids. “It’s like 60 Minutes on acid,” he told, er, himself, in a 1984 interview.
In True Stories, which is soundtracked by many of the songs featured on the Talking Heads’ album of the same name, Byrne, who co-writes and directs, casts himself as an unnamed narrator. He drives a vermillion-red convertible, dons a droopy cowboy hat, and tells us about a town we will be residing in for the next 88 minutes. It is a Lynchian Texas hamlet called Virgil, and it is currently preparing for the “Celebration of Specialness,” a jamboree that will commemorate the city’s 150th anniversary. Everything, visually caricatured, looks vaguely like a cinematization of a tall tale.
We move from character to character, with Byrne’s tour guide, who gets along famously with everybody, in tow. The people who populate Virgil make for a hodgepodge of eccentrics. There is a lonesome bachelor (John Goodman) who sings country by night and works as a clean-room technician by day; a pampered, television-addicted woman who refuses to get out of bed (Swoosie Kurtz); a civic leader (Spalding Gray) who’s managed to avoid directly speaking to his wife (Annie McEnroe) for more than a decade; a talkative woman (Jo Harvey Allen) who will recount the wildest stories of her life to anyone with ears and good manners; and others. One scene showcases 50 sets of twins traipsing down the street in a parade, a spectacle that capitulates the movie’s commitment to wonderment and whimsy.
True Stories is plotless, and its determination to capture the essence of small-town American life in a cockeyed, but droll, way is bound to be divisive. It is fanciful with a capital F. Some might find Byrne’s presentation, enhanced by his knowing co-screenwriters, Stephen Tobolowsky and Beth Henley, and the adaptable cinematographer Ed Lachman, peskily quirky.
But I took to the movie in the same way I did Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? when I read it for the first time. It isn’t where the characters end up that counts — the most seemingly innocuous of details prove interesting enough. True Stories is rapt by a warped everyday. And by its end, we come to wonder if we’re all just as peculiar as the people encompassing the scattershot quasi-storyline. A-