Texas Chainsaw Documentary

A Rice professor uncovers Leatherface's dark secret

An innocent girl and her doomed date walk apprehensively through a dark wood. There's been car trouble, and they need help. The trembling pair find a lonely farmhouse, and then -- well, you know the story, or the gist of such stories. This particular scene is from Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the yet-to-be-released sequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In this episode, Leatherface butchers humans and uses their parts for taxidermy craft projects.

Pick any subject, and somewhere in academia, someone studies it. At Rice, the resident expert on the Chainsaw movies is professor Brian Huberman. "There is a serious dimension," Huberman explains. "This is about a state of schizophrenia in our society."

He examined that schizophrenia closely in 1993, when he filmed a documentary about the making of Return. (That movie will actually be the fourth installment in the Chainsaw chronicles, though Huberman and other purists consider it the first that's worthy of the 1973 original. Like the original cult classic, Return was written and directed by Kim Henkel.)

As Huberman sees the Chainsaw movies, they update the old frontier myth, the cowboy outlook that spawned a thousand Westerns. "It is a progressive, optimistic myth," he explains, and its viewpoint belongs solely to white males. But as frontiers are settled, they and their myths grow complicated. Women move in; non-whites want a say.

Chainsaw examines the dark face of that scary, exciting complexity. When Leatherface, perhaps the angriest white male, finds that John Wayne behavior fails in a settled society, he reacts by going berserk. We in the audience are both thrilled and terrified -- frightened of the madman and his McCulloch, yet also gleefully contemptuous.

Leatherface, you see, suffers from gender confusion. (Like the psychokillers of Psycho and Silence of the Lambs, Leatherface was based on real-life ghoul Ed Gein, a demented Wisconsin farmer who inquired about sex-change operations.)

In Return, Leatherface, played by actor Robert Jacks, dresses for dinner in a rouged skin mask and a breastplate made from a female body. The documentary cuts from the scene being shot to the set, where gender roles are decidedly relaxed. Between takes, Jacks and the mixed-sex crew play with the booby-body suit in the giddy manner of grade-school girls with lipstick. The contrast underscores the on-screen freak's reverence for his guise, and reminds us that gender roles remain unsettled and important.

Huberman was raised in Britain, but was immersed in the mythos of the American frontier. "I was," he declares, "a victim or survivor of the famous Walt Disney series Davy Crockett."

Growing up and going to film school didn't cure his passion for cowboys. In 1975, after graduating from the British National Film and Television School, he took a job with Rice's department of art and art history. There, he teaches filmmaking technique, French New Wave and Sergei Eisenstein's dialectic theory of montage. He also indulges his obsession by teaching a class on Westerns, and by continuing to make films about Texas legends.

After arriving in Texas, he traveled to Brackettville, where The Alamo was filmed. Wielding his Super 8 camera, he expected to record nostalgia for the John Wayne movie. Instead, he found people concerned with the real battle of the Alamo; Mexican-Americans especially remembered it in a non-Hollywood way. Myth, he realized, is a flash point for conflict.

He finished his one-hour Chainsaw documentary last year, but Return itself got lost in movie limbo, stuck between a theatrical release, going straight to video and going nowhere. Along with it languished Huberman's documentary.

Now -- perhaps buoyed by the sudden stardom of Matthew McConaughey, who plays Leatherface's robotically-legged brother -- Return is slated for a theatrical release, though no opening date has been set. Huberman's documentary may be used in on-line advertising; when the film goes to video, the documentary might be included on the tapes. Huberman doesn't seem to care. If the release isn't worked out, he says philosophically, "this will just be another of my home movies on the shelf."

Still, as a viewer, you hope that his take on Leatherface goes public; it would make a nice bookend to another of his updates of the frontier myth. That brighter movie follows a hero who copes handily with modernity, who walks tall and laughs in the face of fear. The brave soul is Charles/Kathryn McGuire, Houston's most celebrated transsexual.

Huberman documented McGuire's sex-change operation in London. He filmed Charles snoring in pre-surgery, then Kathryn sacked out on a hospital bed, wearing a delicate peignoir but no wig to cover her balding, sweat-sticky head. She soon recovered her sass, insisting that sex is superior as a woman. "With Kathryn, it's always bigger and better," says Huberman. And that's how he shows her: as a yee-haw opportunist, striding fearlessly into new territory, a Texan who fashioned her own destiny.

 
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