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Until Austin's Rick Linklater created Dazed and Confused, and San Antonio's Robert Rodriguez produced El Mariachi, Houston's Eagle Pennell was the first director to come to mind when the issue of independent filmmaking in Texas was raised. Pennell, for better or worse, was the poster boy for low-budget Lone Star auteurs. With films such as The Whole Shootin' Match and Last Night at the Alamo, he created what Brian Huberman, film instructor at Rice University and one-time Pennell director of photography, terms an "alienated, redneck, white voice" filled with tragicomic charms and acute presence. But as Huberman also notes, "the outlaw's path to glory is the hangman's rope." By that, he means that what at one time made Pennell the darling of cinephiles has now become politically incorrect, and partly as a result, the Houston director who was once in is now close to being back on the outside.
That may be one reason why Pennell's fifth feature, Doc's Full Service, is only this month being released in Houston, even though it was finished almost a year ago (it received its premiere at last April's WorldFest). But if Pennell's approach to moviemaking is no longer au courant, he doesn't seem to notice or, perhaps, care. Doc's Full Service continues in a vein that Pennell has been assiduously mining for 15 years. Filled with contemporary Texas descendants of the cowboy spirit, Doc's was made dirt cheap for $200,000 (chump change by Hollywood standards) and was shot mainly at the Artz Brothers Texaco Service Station in the Houston Heights.
Artz Brothers is the oldest service station in Texas, and it has not only the expected John Wayne posters and animal antlers, but also a thriving egg company in back. The station stayed open weekdays; filming took place nights and weekends. "Customers who had traded here all their lives would walk right out onto the set," notes Greg Artz, one of the proprietors. But since the movie had no nudity or profanity, Pennell was permitted access. "He's a very convincing guy," Artz says, adding that Pennell came by after the film was done and bought tires. For his part, Pennell offers, "I'm very fond of old places. Why make up new stuff when history's right there?"
Doc's Full Service is rife with types who surely frequent the station. And though it is the slightest of Pennell's Texas-based movies, it does tap into the director's strength: small-town Texas lifestyles and values. Fictitiously located somewhere in rural Texas, the film spends time with down-home figures ranging from an easygoing service station owner constricted by both his lack of dreams and a cheating, makeup-maxed wife, to a middle-aged, drunken mama's boy with the Bard in his soul. There are Aggie jokes, conga lines, domino games and lots of talk about how people got such nicknames as Pee Wee, Doc and Big Silly. Nothing much happens but the passing of time in Texas.
Though he now lives in Houston, Pennell is originally from Andrews, in West Texas, and he's at his filmmaking best when he makes movies about what he knows: the blue collar rural Texas of longneck bottles, good old boys and bad nights out. Sitting at Justin's, a sports bar in Greenway Plaza, Pennell has settled in to explain his filmmaking philosophy. "I guess the reason I like rednecks is they tend to speak their minds," he says about his brand of Texas mythos. "You get some artful dodgers in the middle class. The lower class, constantly having to work their way up, tells it like it is. I like the constant struggle."
That struggle was evident in Pennell's 1978 debut, The Whole Shootin' Match, which was made in Austin for about $40,000. Many consider this slice into the lives of an aw-shucks inventor and his no-count partner to be Pennell's most accomplished work. Amid tinkering over "dang-blasted" machines, raising hell in honky-tonks and enduring Jesus-speak from well-meaning women, the two friends talk about big plans that are, in truth, nothing but little details. When their proverbial ship finally comes in, it ends up being sunk as much by themselves as by others.
Bittersweet and lyrical, Shootin' Match has a twang so true that it garnered accolades at film festivals across the U.S. and abroad. Steven Spielberg even came by to say hello.
Pennell's next film, Last Night at the Alamo, was in the same vein, even if its characters are less resonant than stereotypical. Shot in The Old Barn, a now-defunct Houston watering hole, the movie's ostensibly about an attempt to save the bar -- called the Alamo in the film -- from the wrecking ball. Alamo was also well-received, though mainly in Europe, where Pennell has a large, Texas-intrigued following. "I always turn my accent on and wear my cowboy boots when I go there," he jokes, although it's obvious he means it.
"I like Texas," Pennell says. "When I've gotten in trouble is when I try to force things that aren't there." To Pennell, his third film, Ice House, which starred Melissa Gilbert and was written by her then-husband Bo Brinkman, failed because he was a "gun for hire." He took the directing job, he says, because he was broke. A similar disappointment, Heart Full of Soul, "wasn't a bad story, but I didn't pull it off the way I wanted to."
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