A tribute to Eagle Pennell by Paul Cullum (Arthur No. 1/Oct. 2002)

first published in Arthur No. 1 (October, 2002)

THE EAGLE HAS LANDED
By Paul Cullum

“Life has been your art. You have set yourself to music. Your days are your sonnets.”
—Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Like punk legends, indie film pioneers are going to start dying off soon. And in a microcosm defined by perpetual youth, dissolution and decay don’t have much room to ramp up, making it harder to get used to the idea. I guess it’s never pretty.

Eagle Pennell was politely called a regional filmmaker by those unaccustomed to his kind, and like many in his native Texas, he had an outsized impression of his own identity that ultimately destroyed him. In 1978, when A-list Hollywood was made up of veterans of Roger Corman’s shoestring epics, and everyone else in America with dreams to burn now worked for Corman to replace them, the first inklings of what we now think of as independent film came courtesy of people who were too clueless or inept to follow that simple protocol. One of them was Eagle, whose shaggy dog buddy comedy The Whole Shootin’ Match pioneered that Austin-specific sort of epic underachieverdom that Slacker later turned into an anthropological treatise. But Eagle’s laconic dreamers, drunk as a lord and impossibly balanced on the thin line that separates ambition from nostalgia, were more than just literary conceits. They were Eagle in a nutshell. Like we used to say about him, the man belonged in the Alcohol of Fame; he put pop alcoholics like us to shame.

The Whole Shootin’ Match, based on an earlier 16mm short called Hell of a Note, starred Lou Perry (nee Perryman) and Sonny Carl Davis as a couple of perpetual fuck-ups trying to work as insulation blowers or something equally improbable, and retiring to the comfort of cold beers and fevered dreams once the going gets tough. (In Hell of a Note, they laid asphalt, until they were fired for not realizing you weren’t supposed to pee on it until it had cooled off.) This woozy testament to the comically disenfranchised, made for twenty grand in borrowed money, was also historically significant in that it was the film that Robert Redford was famously watching at the 1978 inauguration of the U.S. Film Festival in Park City, Utah when he had the epiphany that it was strays like this who could best benefit from such a festival, or something like his soon-established Sundance Institute.

“I thought a real service to the industry would be to provide a guy like that with a place to train, a place to go where he could develop his skills,” said Redford in one of the Sundance catalogs from the late ’90s. “It would shortcut a lot of the problems he was going to be facing.” Would that it were. (For the record, Redford identified him only as a regional filmmaker. But researching a Sundance story for the Hollywood Reporter, I got the Sundance press liaison, R.J. Millard, to confirm off the record that I was right.)

Five years later, working from a script by Kim Henkel, who had written The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the earlier, unfinished Eggshells for Tobe Hooper, Eagle directed The Last Night at the Alamo on a budget of $50,000, a king’s ransom for his purposes, about a Houston bar scheduled for demolition come sunrise. Again it starred his homegrown Mutt and Jeff—Perry as the lanky Claude, who spends most of his time feeding excuses to his wife into the payphone, and Davis as the sawed-off Cowboy, the local hero who, in an allegory of the real Alamo, defends the bar’s honor against the proprietor of the Mexican restaurant next door in a tequila-drinking contest. Shot in a gauzy black-and-white by Gus Van Sant’s early cinematographer Eric Alan Edwards (My Own Private Idaho), this one was a little more mythic in its preoccupations—a stationary western, perhaps, or a self-medicating rodeo where the heroes ride barstools and pray they can hang on until last call. In fact, Eagle once claimed in an interview that he’d changed the spelling of his name in homage to Harry Carey Jr.’s character, 2nd Lt. Ross Pennell, in John Ford’s She Wore A Yellow Ribbon. But then Eagle was always one to print the legend.

Introducing the film at the 1983 New York Film Festival, Eagle quoted Clark Gable in The Misfits: “Just head for that big star straight on. The highway is under it. It’ll take us right home.” He also managed to slip in William Holden’s final words in The Wild Bunch, the ones that will lead them to certain death, unconsciously aligning himself with Sam Peckinpah in the battles he no doubt foresaw ahead. That moment in the spotlight on stage at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall was easily the high point of Eagle’s career and life, and he walked out of it bravely. “Let’s go,” he said evenly.

Perry (credited again as Perryman) was much later memorable as the sheriff who interrogates Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, and Davis was the fast-food customer who gets Judge Reinhold fired in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (“Put your little hand in the cash register and give me back my money”), and both have made a living as actors ever since, more or less (even if Perry spent time in the Big House after a local cocaine sweep caught him with a million dollars in cash underneath his house that he couldn’t explain). But that was it for Eagle. He directed three more films—Icehouse, Heart Full of Soul and Doc’s Full Service, none of them especially watchable. (Although, to be fair, Icehouse, scripted by Melissa Gilbert’s then-husband Bo Brinkman for the two of them to star in, a thoroughly unpleasant cross between Badlands and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, should be required viewing for the entire Screen Actors Guild membership, lest they think their new president is the innocent she once played on Little House on the Prairie). When he finally died on July 20th, a week shy of his 50th birthday, Eagle had been in out of rehab countless times, had alienated virtually every friend or lover he ever had, and was homeless but for the grace of an acquaintance with a spare bedroom. His films are long since out-of-print, and his few obituaries mostly chose to gloss over his excesses. But in a real way, it was those excesses, that danger, which he faced wall-eyed but resolutely, that was his life’s work.

I first met Eagle in probably 1982 at the Rice Media Center in Houston, where I had accompanied a straggling, three-legged film called Taking Tiger Mountain that I scripted (with William Burroughs and others, however unlikely) out of the raw footage of a rival feature. That is, director Tom Huckabee, with me as his witless accomplice, took an unreleased feature film about the J. Paul Getty III kidnapping, starring an undiscovered Bill Paxton, and turned it into a futuristic Manchurian Candidate, loosely based on the radical feminism of The SCUM Manifesto, by adding layers and layers of audio—even going so far as to hire a lipreader to tell us what dialogue we were stuck with. Out of such desperation and pluck, Eagle no doubt pegged me as somebody up for a challenge, with enthusiasm still to burn. Over drinks (naturally), he enlisted me to write something called The King of Texas, earlier started with Henkel I was to eventually learn, which was to be a loose adaptation of The Iceman Cometh, Eugene O’Neill’s great paean to alcoholics, transplanted to the tent cities just then springing up among Texas’s newly homeless. The one touchstone he had was a painting of Sam Houston receiving Santa Ana’s surrender at the Battle of San Jacinto beneath a spreading live oak.

Out of such plans, I wound up with a couple of Eagle adventures now burned into my memory. I emphasize that my experiences were by no means unique. What still 20 years later seems fairly miraculous to me that I survived, I’m sure he experienced with someone, somewhere, every night of his life. If constitution belies character, then his was steadfast and impervious.

The first was when he asked me to pick him up outside a theater one afternoon in Austin so that we could discuss our impending collaboration. Approaching the car, he veered to the driver’s side and told me to slide over, he’d drive. When I thought better of this, he climbed into the backseat and had me chauffeur him. Following his impressionistic directions, we headed for the Hill Country in search of a mythical Mongolian barbecue joint much prized from his youth. After several hours, it magically appeared, with the added proviso that the owner wasn’t prepared to accept credit cards. Eagle’s hangdog manner and shy, polite demeanor convinced him of our virtue, and he told us to send him the money. The first thing Eagle did was ask for a wine list, and wound up ordering three bottles of champagne, with the tab stretching to several hundred dollars. I remember him casually tossing aside his IOU before we’d even staggered free of the parking lot, warming to his campaign for the evening ahead.

From there, we made it to Austin’s legendary 6th Street—wall-to-wall bars stretching from the freeway to the river, modeled on New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, minus the strip clubs, which in later years would benefit the city’s burgeoning self-awareness as the Live Music Capital of the World. I managed to put a call in to my roommates, including my future wife, to tell them the car was now abandoned and they should join us at their peril. With a growing entourage of half a dozen, we drank our way bar by bar toward the river, Eagle springing for drinks, oysters by the dozen, inviting strangers along with us. Enlisting me to sign the credit card carbons when he was long since incapable, he casually remarked, “I’m surprised you can even hold on to that thing, considering how hot it is.” Turns out the card belonged to his soon-to-be-ex-wife, unwisely not yet canceled. Somewhere in there, hanging back from the others, I remember him lamenting his disintegrating marriage. “There’s just nothing between us anymore, man,” he said. “Sexually. If I could just find somebody for her, some friend I could trust, maybe spice things up. And if I could be there to watch….”

“Sorry, Eagle,” I managed. “I don’t think I can help you.”

There were other run-ins, thankfully now suppressed in the cotton of memory. I drove him to the airport and witnessed a full pint of J&B hit the pavement as we entered the concourse, which he sidestepped with a practiced flair and kept walking. Once in Houston, I met him at a bar, and over the course of the evening, he managed to seduce the woman I was with and take her home with him. This, I took it, was also not unprecedented.

I lost touch with him—hid from touch would be closer to it—and moved to New York with my then wife. We saw him take a bow at the festival, and later read in the Village Voice how he had turned down an interview with the New York Times’ Vincent Canby because, “I have to watch my favorite TV show—The Jetsons.” Henkel tells a story of a meeting with Jersey Films’ Michael Shamberg, then at Warner Bros., where Eagle suggested Shamberg’s female co-producer have sex with them to seal the deal. If the only power you have entering the film business is the ability to say no, an unreasoning arrogance toward the values and gifts they come bearing, well, that only works until you’re up against the glass ceiling. After that, it’s just suicidal.

The last time I saw Eagle was 1984, Valentine’s Day, when my wife took a call from some mumbling entity on the other end. “I think it’s Eagle,” she said. “Whatever you do, don’t let him in this apartment.”

“Yeah, we’re at the airport,” Eagle said. “I can’t get ahold of the guy I’m staying with, and I’m low on cash. I was wondering if I could borrow $25.”

“Sure,” I told him, a fair price for my privacy. “Just buzz; I’ll meet you downstairs.” Turns out “we” was him and the cab driver, whose fare took up twenty dollars and change. Eagle exited the cab carrying a valise and a basketball, and asked if I could stand him a few drinks while he told me his story.

“I’m tapped,” I said. “You’ve got the last of it.”

“Well, hell, I’ve got five bucks left,” Eagle said. “Let’s get a drink.” Turns out Eagle’s marriage was now terminal, which meant, I suppose, that the credit cards had all been canceled. The guy he was staying with was someone he had met at a film festival nine months earlier, who told him if you’re ever in New York, feel free to stay in my loft. For some reason, he wasn’t answering his phone. When our money was gone, I walked Eagle back out to the corner of 50th St. and Ninth Avenue, where a light rain was now falling. He dropped the basketball and it stuck to the sidewalk like a lead balloon.

“Eagle,” I finally asked him, “why are you carrying a basketball?”

“That’s how I’m gonna make my money, man,” he explained. “I was an all-state guard. I’m gonna go down to Washington and 4th St. where there’s top-dollar pickup games and get me some cash. Don’t worry about me, man. I’ll be fine.”

“Good luck,” I said, genuinely, and watched him disappear into the swirl of mist, midtown framed behind him in a halogen glow. Six months later, I started hearing from film types about this crazy Texan hanging out at Great Jones Street cafe. “The first time I met him, he asked to borrow fifty bucks,” I heard more than once.

Like Townes Van Zandt, another colorful Austin denizen who spent one too many mornings contorted, involuted, crucified to the bar at the Hole in the Wall, and who also seemed to have a predestined sense of his own encroaching mortality, Eagle died at almost 50, suffused with painkillers, trying not to take a drink, hoping at the last his memory might fade into what most generously might be called legend. At the time of his death, he had an ITVS grant to develop a project called My Dog Bit Elvis.

In his films and in his life, Eagle exploited the horse-trading that goes on between gallows humor and capitalism, and the soft glowing ember of heroism that’s the last thing the spirit gives up, like Jim Bowie laid up in bed, twin pistols at his side, or Davy Crockett swinging Ol’ Betsy. We all set our last stand in our mind, way down at the far end of its last unused corridor. Our self is buoyed on the assumption of what we’ll never sink beneath, of that which will not prevail. And for some of us, blown by the silent currents at the bottom of the ocean, off the map, along some inverse meridian or broken trench built for the world’s detritus, that ideal is the last thing we see, and the only pole star we have left to grasp at.

For Eagle, going down that last time, the weight of inevitability and literary symmetry and rough-hewn karma proving ill-conceived ballast, I’d like to think of him as grappling for oxygen to the very end, breathing death big, the way he breathed in life. Thus in the style of our exit is set the walls of our legacy. If it’s all the same, I wish him a hero’s send-off:

“Let’s go.”

Paul Cullum is a Texan-American currently living in Los Angeles who writes regularly for the L.A. Weekly. He is the co-author, with Harry Knowles and Mark Ebner, of Ain’t It Cool: Hollywood’s Redheaded Stepchild Speaks Out.

2 thoughts on “A tribute to Eagle Pennell by Paul Cullum (Arthur No. 1/Oct. 2002)

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention A tribute to Eagle Pennell by Paul Cullum (Arthur No. 1/Oct. 2002) | ARTHUR MAGAZINE -- Topsy.com

  2. This piece on Eagle really captures him. I’m feeling many emotions. This is brilliant writing.
    I met Eagle at the US Film Festival in 1978 .
    Eagle is the father of my 33 year old son, John.
    My son has so much of Eagle in him. Currently he is in the Hospital. The last time my son and I saw him was in 1987. He came to visit John and gave him a basketball. I took a photo of them.

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