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Three from Texas

Texas has long held a special place in the movies, serving as a backdrop for everything from B-movie westerns to cinematic events as varied as The Alamo, Giant, The Last Picture Show, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Terms of Endearment and Tender Mercies. This week marks the opening of two new Texas-centric films -- Dancer, Texas Pop. 81 and Deep in the Heart (of Texas). And they'll be followed in the next few weeks by yet another, Still Breathing. Each of the three is independently produced, each made by a first-time Texas director.

The confluence offers a fresh chance to ask the ever-popular question: What is it with Texas and film? Maybe it's the big Texas skies or the broad horizons that give rise to the imagination. Or perhaps it's the Lone Star State's distinct sense of place, with a movie-friendly mythology rivaled by few locations in America, if not the world. Or maybe it's something as simple as the old saw that you should "write what you know." Or that other old saw, the one about Texas leaving an indelible imprint on anyone who has lived here. Yeah, it's all been said before -- but for the filmmakers behind these three films, the platitudes still ring true.

From the first scene of Dancer, Texas Pop. 81, you know what state you're in. Four young guys -- one in a cowboy hat -- are seated on folding chairs in the middle of an empty two-lane highway that runs into some of the most beautiful nowhere you might ever see. One of the four is reading the letter he wants to send to Rand McNally, asking the mapmaker to give their West Texas hometown of Dancer at least its own tiny dot on their map. In a single, pungent stroke, director Tim McCanlies has set the stage for his delightful coming-of-age story.

"Some folks don't belong in a small town; some folks don't belong anywhere else," declares a local sage at one point, defining the crux of this film's story. On the weekend of their high school graduation, four friends must face up to the pact they made years before: that they would leave town together to make their way in Los Angeles. It's not giving anything away to report that some go and some stay.

Shot in Fort Davis, Dancer sweetly captures the lifestyle, mores, pace and nuance of life in a small Texas town, and thanks to the cinematography of Andrew Dintenfass, frames it all with a keen eye for the beauty of West Texas. Against this awe-inspiring scenery, the actors play out a story as old as the rites of adulthood, yet one McCanlies makes fresh. With a superb leading cast of relative unknowns -- Eddie Mills as the ranch-reared John Hemphill looks appropriately like a young George Strait, while Peter Facinelli as the young local oil heir Terrell Lee Lusk resembles Tom Cruise -- McCanlies has reopened The Last Picture Show to show different facets of a similarly Texan experience. The only false notes are struck by the sometimes intrusive soundtrack (more California western than Texan) -- but that's a small quibble with an otherwise impressive effort.

"I'd always wanted to do a Texas Our Town movie," says McCanlies, 45, a fifth-generation Texan who studied theater at Texas A&M and then earned an M.F.A. from the Graduate Cinema program at Southern Methodist University. "You drive through West Texas and all of a sudden come upon a little town and wonder, who the hell are these people? What the hell do they do here? I'd always wanted to figure that out."

Though he made several short films at SMU, McCanlies found success as a screenwriter (often with uncredited rewrites) when he moved to Los Angeles after receiving his master's. But it was his eventual frustration with the conceptual madness at the major studios that led him to write and ultimately make Dancer.

While writing under contract for Disney, McCanlies had lunch with a top executive to discuss his next project. The mogul presented three options: "A talking dog movie, one about an invisible high school kid or the sequel to Ernest Goes to Camp," McCanlies recounts with exasperation. "I hated all three, so I went and took the next month and wrote Dancer." Though the script hit a note with some folks at Disney, the studio eventually passed.

Nonetheless, it became a calling card for McCanlies's writing talents, and after many nibbles but no bites, he put up $100,000 of his own money to make the movie. Other investors came in to raise the budget up to about $2 million by the time McCanlies started shooting. "And then, a week into production, we got a call from Sony saying, 'Hi, we just bought your movie.' So it's been a weird ride," the director notes.  

"There's no nudity, no foul language, nothing blows up, there's no chases, nobody dies," he says with a chuckle. "It's pretty unheard of by Hollywood standards. I couldn't imagine a major studio wanting to buy it. It's just about story and character."

Hollywood has been good enough to McCanlies that he can live on his working cattle ranch, the High Lonesome, near Bastrop (he still maintains a place in L.A. to use while working on projects like the upcoming Dennis the Menace II, which he wrote). And being home in Texas does seem to help him stick to his creative guns. "I don't know too many people who are chased by terrorists or who routinely get into car chases," he concludes. "My reality is little things in your life that loom large. To me, that's real life."

Deep in the Heart (of Texas) is altogether different from Dancer, yet just as much a loving paean to the Lone Star State.

The film's source material is the long-running Texas play In the West, a series of monologues that itself was a reaction to Richard Avedon's photographic exhibit "The American West." Director, producer and co-writer Stephen Purvis has adeptly melded an offbeat theatrical work into a unique piece of filmmaking, one that, for all the Texan spirit it expresses, is almost European in tone, appearance, pacing and execution -- and yes, that's a good thing. But for the same reasons that Deep in the Heart feels timeless, it also bucks the current trends -- and it's no wonder that Purvis is distributing the film himself to theaters in Houston, Dallas and Austin.

The play's original actors again play their quirky monologue-spouting Texans in the film. But to make the movie more than just a filmed play, Purvis has devised something of a plot.

In his filmic versions, two new characters, a pair of British filmmakers, arrive in Austin to make a documentary about the "real" Texas. They grow caught up in the state's allure while also confronting truths about themselves and their relationship with each other. These new characters are as powerful, if not more so, as the odd yet charming Texans they encounter. By casting the English actors Kenneth Cranham (also seen in The Boxer and Under Suspicion) and Amanda Root (who played the lead in Persuasion), he fashions a fitting mirror for his affectionate if slightly strange look at Texas through the witty glimpses provided by the original theater piece.

Deep in the Heart succeeds in examining Texas from both the inside and out. The movie balances the local drawls, y'all, with an erudite script that quotes Rilke and Blake. It's peppered with Austin landmarks and Hill Country scenery, yet it's mostly a film of dialogue and personality, played at a mellow yet deliberate gait. Other touches are equally adept: The choice soundtrack features wonderfully Texan music, and the thoughtful cinematography makes the $125,000 movie look like a million -- or more. The total package is as down-home as a tasty cut of brisket, yet as classy as filet mignon -- a neat trick indeed.

"I'd been looking for a Texas project for years," says Purvis, 39. He grew up in Marble Falls, where, in his first job, he was the projectionist at the town's sole movie theater. After studying at SMU and UT's film school in Austin, he moved to Los Angeles, rising through the production ranks to become a director of TV documentaries. But still, he dreamed of making a feature film about Texas.

"I had heard about (the play In the West) for years," he explains. "I saw the piece, and it was an amazing night of theater. What I didn't realize was what a challenge it would be to turn it into a movie."

Even more difficult has been finding distribution for the film. Though it has played well in screenings in such far-flung locales as London and Berlin, Purvis says, distribution executives would see it, "and they'd go, 'Well, we think it would play real well in Texas, but we don't know if it will play anywhere else, and we have 300 films a day coming through the door, so, we'll take a chance with somebody who has bigger names in their cast or something.'

"Because all the distributors said, 'Hey, it should do well in Texas,' I thought, 'Well, let's go to Texas.' It's less expensive to run ads here. We should have fairly favorable audiences, and if we make mistakes, they won't be expensive mistakes."

Whether he finds commercial success or not, he still plans other Texas projects; his next, he describes as "a Tex-Mex film noir," a cross between The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Grifters. "There's something about growing up in Texas," he says. "I've never wanted to do anything but make films about Texas.... It's not the most commercial desire in the world."  

If Texas plays a leading role in Dancer and Deep in the Heart, it's a supporting player (albeit a compelling one) in Still Breathing.

Fletcher McBracken (played by George of the Jungle's Brendan Fraser) is a San Antonio street performer who lives in a large old Alamo Heights house and dreams of his one true love (the psychic trait runs in the family). The woman he envisions and eventually finds is Roz Willoughby (the first leading role for the alluring Joanna Going), an artist who lives in Los Angeles and has cynically forsaken her craft to bilk rich and randy men of their money. When Fletcher's visions lead him to L.A., Roz mistakes him for her next big mark. After she flies back to San Antonio and meets his eccentric family and friends (including the wonderful Celeste Holm as his mother and a delightful Lou Rawls as a street musician), classic comedic and romantic confusion ensues.

Although Fletcher's Slacker-ish bohemianism and Roz's thoroughly modern Millie initially make this movie feel like another wacky modern love story, there's a gentle, traditional air of romance to the whole affair that is utterly charming. In an age of disillusionment and pessimism, this seductive film still holds out the redemptive power of romance.

The plot can also be read as a thinly veiled allusion to 42-year-old director and writer Jim Robinson's life in the film industry in Los Angeles, and his longing to work in San Antonio, where he owns a home. Born in South Texas, and a graduate of Trinity University, he was able to do some shorts, documentaries and European TV work while based in San Antonio, but hadn't made his big breakthrough.

"I was hitting a real dry spell, and my wife got pregnant, and I was like, 'we've gotta go and give it a try in L.A., or I'm going to find myself at age 50 teaching a continuing education course on film appreciation.' "

But the Hollywood hustle started taking its toll. "I had gotten to the point from doing films that were part of my heart -- which is the way I started out -- to the point where I found myself trying to write scripts I thought would sell," he notes. "And one day I said to myself, you know what, I wouldn't even go see this movie. I don't go see these kinds of movies, but I'm writing this because some manager said, 'I think I've got some money in Indonesia for an action film' or whatever....

"I'm like, what am I doing? What happened to Mr. Art Guy, Mr. Filmmaker? I really saw that city harden me and make me cynical. So I think the germ of the story started with this woman who's about to lose herself, or give up on herself, which is kind of where I thought I was. Fletcher is this guy I was supposed to be. I would look back at Texas longingly. I yearned for that simple kind of character like Fletcher is. He's creative because it's part of his fiber."

His independently funded $3 million movie has been picked up by October Films for large-scale national release, and Robinson is hoping his gentle movie finds an audience. "You can do magic with care and good writing and the right casting and good acting," he says. "You don't need tens of millions of dollars."

Of course, it helps to have Texas's magic working in your favor. And with indies such as these three -- along with major studio productions set in the state (The Newton Boys, the upcoming Hope Floats) -- Texas in the movies continues to be as big in size and spirit as the state is in real life.


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