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Monday, May 12, 2008

still true

Longtime readers of my blog may recall that I have in the past requested, of no one in particular, that Sounds from True Stories, David Byrne's only album never released on cd, be reissued. (This is the motion picture score, as opposed to Talking Heads' True Stories album.) Last night I asked the man himself.

The occasion was a screening of True Stories (1986) as part of a film series at BAM called 'The Cinematography of Ed Lachman'. Lachman and Byrne appeared in person and spoke with the audience for about forty minutes. They said quite a lot that will be of interest to fans of the film.

Byrne brought several books of photography with him and held up some of the images for the audience to see. The photographers whose work he identified as the film's visual sources were William Eggleston (whose photos appear in the True Stories book), Chauncey Hare, Stephen Shore (Uncommon Places), Joel Sternfeld, Lewis Baltz, and Larry Fink. As in Byrne's own photographs of corporate signs and office settings, what fascinated him were the images of mundane places and suburban developments, not to mock them but to marvel at them.

He also said that the film originally ended with the death and funeral of the Cute Woman but that this proved to be a downer of an ending. It sounds to me like a special edition dvd is in order.

Screenplay-wise, seeing the film for the first time since its original release, I found myself recalling another 80's film which, while probably not an influence on Byrne at the time, was constructed from similar written sources: Pedro Almodóvar's Laberinto de pasiones (1982). Like True Stories, Almodóvar's screenplay, with its tales of artificial insemination, nymphomania, and the former royal family of Iran, was constructed in large part from the tabloid press.

Lachman talked a lot about the framing of the film and how he tried to photograph it the way an amateur or a resident of the town of Virgil, Texas would. Before the screening and before Byrne's arrival, Lachman also said, rightly I think, that Byrne was way ahead of the curve in articulating how the shopping mall had replaced the village green as the gathering place for the social life of many towns.

Hearing the songs, I was struck by another early insight of Byrne's. Last year, while blogging about the Carnegie Hall performance of his song cycle about Imelda Marcos, I praised his new song about martial law in the Philippines, 'Order 1081'. It takes a person of great sympathetic imagination to be able to depict in song people's welcoming of martial law (unless, of course, one is a fascist, but that would be a different kind of song altogether). When John Goodman sang 'People Like Us' in the movie, I was struck, not necessarily by a new revelation about the song, but by a connection between the Marcos-themed song about martial law and the lyrics of 'People Like Us':
'We don't want freedom.
We don't want justice.
We just want someone to love,
Someone to love.'
As early as 'People Like Us' in 1986, Byrne had written a song that tried to reckon with people's apparent preference for emotional security over abstractions like rights and freedoms. This is a valuable insight for those of us who care about human rights and wonder why we often seem so few in number.

Getting back to what I asked during the Q&A, I posed two questions. The first was why he had not made more fictional films. He replied that he had pitched other ideas but that Hollywood had shrugged at them and asked him instead for True Stories 2. My second question was about the missing album. His answer: that the album is tied up at Warner and would require all kinds of permissions to be obtained and whatnot. Someone in the audience (not me) shouted, 'Start a petition!' but Byrne did not seem too interested in the prospect of reissuing the album.

That's too bad. I have the album on cassette, and parts of it are as clear an intellectual and æsthetic statement, in musical form, of Byrne's ideas in the mid-80's as anything else he did at the time. Hopefully this will not be the last word on Sounds from True Stories.

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3 Comments:

Anonymous daniel fugallo said...

What a remarkable encounter Jeff - I wish that I had been there.

I asked you on this blog last year how True Stories holds up - it sounds as if the answer is impressively. Though I find it somewhat hard to imagine 1980's Hollywood moguls saying "What we're looking for is True Stories 2". Maybe they were saying "True Lies 2" and Byrne simply misheard.

6:34 PM, May 12, 2008

 
Blogger Jeff Hussein Strabone said...

It's not like Hollywood came looking for him to do True Stories 2. What he said was that he pitched other ideas for films and they then said, how about True Stories 2 instead of what he wanted to do. Even so, I see your point and thought something similar myself.

Yes, I recall your question about the film last year. It holds up even better than when it was first released because now it looks thoroughly prescient. It foresaw contemporary discourse about the loss of the commons. It defies traditional film narrative in ways that movies just did not do in the 80's. It's like a Jim Jarmusch film in many ways except that Jim Jarmusch did not release Down by Law until later that same year. It was way ahead of its time. Someone in the audience even suggested that the 'Puzzlin Evidence' preacher scene had influenced Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping.

David Byrne was the only downtown artist who made the impossible leap to feature-film director with distribution. It's an almost unthinkable achievement in the real world when one considers it. The only remotely similar case is Julian Schnabel who, a decade later, made a bad biopic about Basquiat. But a biopic about an artist is fairly safe material, comparatively speaking.

Today, we have artists like Matthew Barney, Shirin Neshat, and Eve Sussman who have made elaborate films and/or videos with very high production values, but with Chelsea art dealers like Barbara Gladstone as their producers. The work is shown in galleries or, in Barney's case, at Film Forum on Houston Street, and the videos are sold like limited-edition prints, i.e. ten copies are sold to collectors of fine art and that's it.

I am not at all dissing that mode of art-making. I'm just making a distinction so that we can take the measure of Byrne's achievement in True Stories. By making a feature-length film shown in movie theatres around the country, he brought his downtown sensibilities to a national audience at a time not known for cinematic experimentation. I think the world has yet to take adequate stock of this amazing film.

10:56 PM, May 12, 2008

 
Anonymous 42 said...

I remember seeing True Stories with my best friend and my son in the West Village & then going to see Mink De Ville at the now defunct Lone Star Cafe.

What a night that was.

10:07 PM, May 13, 2008

 

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