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.Continue reading