Texas is the setting for a selection of films currently featured on FilmStruck—without even one proper western in sight. The films presented, and particularly the five we’ve spotlighted, provide a different look at the Lone Star state in which melodrama, neo-noir, hipster antics, and poignant character studies figure as heavily as Stetsons, Longhorn cattle, and John Wayne.
Like the title says, it’s a whopper: 201 minutes of a Texas family’s rise to fame and fortune, based on an Edna Ferber novel. Much of it is awful, but it’s almost impossible not to be taken in by the narrative sprawl: like many big, bad movies, Giant is an enveloping experience, with a crazy life and logic of its own. George Stevens directed, at the height of his bloated epic period (1956), but unlike his A Place in the Sun, this one isn’t entirely sober and sanctimonious; it takes some pleasure in melodrama for its own sake. The mansion on the plain, designed by art director Boris Levin, remains one of the most memorable graphic images of the 50s. With Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean—in his last and strangest role. 201 min. —Dave Kehr
The Last Picture Show
Peter Bogdanovich followed the route of the French New Wave filmmakers when he left criticism to make this 1971 feature, and like many of their films, it’s an intimate psychological story laced with references to Hollywood movies. The setting is a small, stagnant Texas town of the 1950s; everybody’s moving away, and even the movie theater is ready to close (the last picture show is Howard Hawks’s Red River, apparently programmed by the Texas correspondent of Cahiers du Cinema). The few people who remain spend their time carrying on sordid affairs and eulogizing the vanishing west; it’s all fairly calculated, though Bogdanovich knows how to cast actors and highlight character turns (both Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman won Oscars). The handsome black-and-white photography is by Robert Surtees. With Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Ellen Burstyn, Cybill Shepherd, Eileen Brennan, Clu Gulager, and Sam Bottoms. 118 min. —Dave Kehr
While far from being Wim Wenders’s best film, this 1984 collaboration with Sam Shepard, about a speechless wanderer (Harry Dean Stanton) returning from the desert and trying to resume relationships with his abandoned and scattered family, has an epic sweep (with superb color photography by Robby Müller) that occasionally brings the movie within hailing distance of its outsized ambitions. (Praised in Europe and widely scorned in the U.S., in part because, like Wenders’s Hammett, it treats an American subject from a European perspective, it at least has the merit of treating some old myths out of John Ford with fresh and contemporary insights.) Like Wenders’s other road movies, this is largely about the spaces between people and the words they speak—Antonioni updated and infused with German romanticism; the various means of indirection through which the hero communicates with his son (Hunter Carson) and wife (Nastassja Kinski) constitute a striking motif. With Dean Stockwell and Aurore Clement, as well as a plaintive score by Ry Cooder. 148 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
Deep in the heart of Texas, the sleazy owner of a honky-tonk plots revenge on his unfaithful wife, who’s been messing around with one of his bartenders. The agent of vengeance is a cynical divorce detective (M. Emmet Walsh) who isn’t opposed to taking a little work on the side. Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1984 film is one of the most successful American independent features ever made, and its plot—a bald pastiche of James M. Cain—contains some ingenious, enjoyable reversals. Still, the movie remains mired in a smart-alecky film-school sensibility. Showing no detectable investment in the characters, the Coens seem to signal to their hip urban audience that they share their giggling contempt for the pulpy conceits on display. 94 min. —Dave Kehr
Richard Linklater’s delightfully different and immensely enjoyable second feature (1991) takes us on a 24-hour tour of the flaky dropout culture of Austin, Texas; it doesn’t have a continuous plot, but it’s brimming with weird characters and wonderful talk (which often seems improvised, though it’s all scripted by Linklater, apparently with the input of some of the participants, as in his later Waking Life). The structure of dovetailing dialogues calls to mind an extremely laid-back variation of The Phantom of Liberty or Playtime. “Every thought you have fractions off and becomes its own reality,” remarks Linklater himself to a poker-faced cabdriver in the first (and in some ways funniest) scene, and the remainder of the movie amply illustrates this notion with its diverse paranoid conspiracy and assassination theorists, serial-killer buffs, musicians, cultists, college students, pontificators, petty criminals, street people, and layabouts (around 90 in all). Even if the movie goes nowhere in terms of narrative and winds up with a somewhat arch conclusion, the highly evocative scenes give an often hilarious sense of the surviving dregs of 60s culture and a superbly realized sense of a specific community. 97 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum