Sunday Reads: The Specialness of David Byrne’s TRUE STORIES

Virgil, Texas, is weirdly familiar - and surprisingly lovely.

Welcome to the second installment of a new column at BMD called Sunday Reads. This will be a place for focused essays, evergreen film analysis and just plain good writing about film. Some of the pieces on Sunday Reads have previously appeared on the site; others will be new. It will run, as you might have guessed, each Sunday. These articles will be curated by the writing staff and hopefully represent nothing less than everything we love about the movies. We hope you'll settle in to join us here every week. 

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The Civil War is over
And World War I and II
If we can live together
The dream it might come true

Underneath the concrete
The dream is still alive
A hundred million lifetimes
A world that never dies

We live in the city of dreams
We drive on the highway of fire
Should we awake and find it gone
Remember this, our favorite town

After Jonathan Demme's concert doc Stop Making Sense was a commercial and critical hit, Talking Heads' David Byrne was given almost complete creative control over his 1986 film True Stories, and we can see his peculiar DNA in every frame. Although Stephen Tobolowsky and Beth Henley are both credited writers above Byrne on the project, it's widely understood (and conceded by Tobolowsky) that Byrne was almost entirely responsible for the film's studied weirdness. Byrne wanted to create a movie and an album based on wacky tabloid clippings, with the loose framework of "what if all of these stories are true? And what if they all happened to the residents of a single town?" 

The town in question is Virgil, Texas, a fictional burg that looks an awful lot like Lufkin, the small Texas town where I grew up - it looks like most small Texas towns, actually. The film was shot in the suburbs of Dallas, and that accounts for the flatness of Virgil, giving the town a prairie feeling rather than the heavily wooded area where I spent most of my adolescence, often called The Pine Curtain. But the pre-fab buildings, the indistinguishable subdivisions, the town-sustaining factory, the single-story mall (including a Waldenbooks, where I worked as a teen) all look incredibly familiar.

And it's not, at first flush, a good look. You have to look a little closer. 

I think that's what I love about True Stories, beyond its bright eccentricity and the perfect album that shares its title. In the film, Byrne is a nameless cowboy who rolls into Virgil in a maroon Chrysler LeBaron convertible, arriving to observe and narrate the Texas Sesquicentennial festival. "They're calling it a Celebration of Specialness. But this place is completely normal!" Virgil looks normal - boring, even. Drab. But there's more specialness to be found here than one might think. 

Take, for example, a fashion show at the Virgil mall, a sad, flat little complex that even our affable Narrator admits is responsible for the closing of several "funky old building[s] downtown." It's sad that the mall edged out J.C. Penny and C.R. Anthony, and it's sad that those department stores were once responsible for the closing of smaller, independently-owned stores. But our Narrator reminds us, "What time is it? No time to look back." Normally, a fashion show in a small town mall is a pitiful thing - take my word on this. But not the Virgil mall fashion show, part of the Celebration of Specialness and hosted by Kay Culver (Annie McEnroe), wife to the richest man in town (Spalding Gray), a seemingly happy couple who nevertheless haven't spoken a word to one another in years. See, the Virgil mall's fashion show is extraordinary. Sure, the clothes are heinous, but there are ideas here. 

"What time is it? If everyone notices, maybe it's too much. But where would we be?...Shopping is a feeling. Sometimes I get a wobbly feeling. I have a commercial feeling! Be sexy in business. Be successful at night. Think of where you'll be each day and coordinate your outfits to match...If the room is pink, you're in the pink!" Kay sing-songs as grown men in yellow raincoats and wellies and little kids in furs and zoot suits strut down the aisle. 

Soon, it gets odder. Women dressed as loofahs and tea cozies, men in suits made of AstroTurf and bricks all promenade as Kay sings the words to Talking Heads' "Dream Operator." 

When you were little
You dreamed you were big
You must have been something
A real tiny kid

You wish you were me
I wish I was you
Now don't you wake up
The dream will come true

Every dream has a name
And names tell your story
This song is your dream
You're the dream operator 

Watch this scene and tell me you don't find it compelling. 

Virgil, like its mall, is a plain-looking place that hides deep weirdness within. There's the wealthy woman (Swoosie Kurtz) who never gets out of bed - not because she's sick, but because she's rich enough that she doesn't have to. There's her assistant (Roebuck 'Pops' Staples of The Staple Singers), a voodoo practitioner who calls on Papa Legba to find hope for the lovelorn. There's the preacher (John Ingle) who espouses the bizarre, rambling tenets of the Church of the SubGenius, Byrne's own mock religion. There's Ramon (Humberto "Tito" Larriva), who can pick up the tones and wavelengths of a woman he's wooing with the receiver in his head.

And there's Louis Fyne, a 6'3 country and western singer and factory technician who maintains "a very consistent panda bear shape" and wants nothing more in life than to find love and get married. Fyne was John Goodman's first leading role, and it's impossible to imagine that he wasn't meant for stardom as he exhibits ten to twenty times the charisma of anyone else in the film (granted, part of True Stories' caprice is the deliberate flatness with which most of the actors deliver their lines against the outlandish backdrop of their actions and appearances). Even in a town of specialness like Virgil, Louis is special. He's a writer and a lover and "a dancing fool"; he's also a very careful dresser.

We watch Louis as he tries to connect with single mothers of enormous broods, yoga instructors and the Lying Woman (Jo Harvey Allen) who claims, among other unlikelihoods, that she wrote "Billie Jean" and most of Elvis' songs, that she saved the real Rambo's life "about fifty times" and that she was born with a tail that accounts for her "extrapsychic ability."

But his most disheartening failure comes when he tries to court The Cute Woman (Alix Elias), who loves all things pink and sweet and cute and happy. He sings her the song he's in the process of writing (Talking Heads' "People Like Us," a hell of a great song), and her face starts to fall a few seconds in. "It's awful sad. I couldn't have that kind of sadness in my life. Do you really feel that way?" Louis looks reflective, the least jovial we've seen him the entire film. "I never thought about it. Maybe I am kind of sad. ...I guess I'll go now. Sorry."

As our Narrator drives through Virgil, he comments with pleasant awe on the prefab buildings ("Metal buildings are the dream that modern architects had at the beginning of this century. It has finally come true, but they themselves don't realize it. That's because it doesn't take an architect to build a metal building"), the freeways ("freeways are the cathedrals of our time"), the subdivisions with interchangeable beige brick houses lined in a row ("Look at this. Who can say it's not beautiful? Hope, fear, excitement, satisfaction"). And there's of course a way to read True Stories in which Byrne is mocking Virgil and every small town like it. But Louis, lovable and only wanting love, is our key to knowing that isn't the case. Byrne truly finds beauty in Virgil, and amongst his almost rigidly composed shots of tractors and janitors and stop lights, we start to find it beautiful, too. 

Virgil's Celebration of Specialness culminates in a talent show on a recently erected stage in the middle of a field, and it's an amazing program that starts strange and gets stranger. Two auctioneers rattle at each other as a yodeling man encircles them in his lasso. Wavelength-receiving Ramon sings "Radio Head" as we expect he might, killing it in a mariachi costume. Kids yo-yo, Boy Scouts give dramatic readings, silhouettes dance and become centipedes, this terrifying thing happens: 

...all as the badass Pops Staples wails "Papa Legba." And then Louis, nervous and dapper, gets on stage, and sings his heart out to "People Like Us." It is, as I might have mentioned, a hell of a good song. 

In 1950 when I was born
Papa couldn't afford to buy us much
He said "be proud of what you are
There's something special 'bout people like us"

People like us
Who will answer the telephone
People like us
Growing big as a house
People like us
Gonna make it because
We don't want freedom
We don't want justice
We just want someone to love
Someone to love

I was called upon in the third grade class
I gave my answer and it caused a fuss
I'm not the same as everyone else
And times were hard for people like us

People like us
Who will answer the telephone
People like us
Growing big as a house
People like us
Gonna make it because
We don't want freedom
We don't want justice
We just want someone to love
Someone to love

What good is freedom?
God laughs at people like us
I see it coming
Like a light coming down from above

The clouds roll by and the moon comes up
How long must we live in the heat of the sun
Millions of people are waitin' on love
And this is a song about people like us

People like us
Who will answer the telephone
People like us
Growing big as a house
People like us
Gonna make it because
We don't want freedom
We don't want justice
We just want someone to love
Someone to love
Someone to love
Someone to love

I guess The Cute Woman's right: "People Like Us" is a sad song. But that's not how I've ever heard it. What I hear is the optimism in knowing that we're going to be okay, because all we really need is to love and be loved. And when I look at a town like Virgil - or Lufkin - I don't only see the beige and the manufactured and the mundane. I know that in that town, there are people who are uncommon. People who are weird and passionate and creative, and maybe they'll get out, or maybe they won't. Maybe they'll stay there and remain the most special part of a town that needs specialness like any other. 

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