The Good Dr.’s Reasons Why Not: True Stories
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 4, 2008
I got somethin’ new to tell ya
I love the Talking Heads. Not a hardcore fan by any means, especially considering that I’m not even particularly big on their most beloved album (Remain in Light), and that might be the only Heads album I’ve even heard from top to bottom. But they notch all-time top tenners for me in songs (“Once in a Lifetime,” which astounds me more the 137th time I hear it than the 136th), live albums (The Name of This Band is Talking Heads, the two-disc edition especially) and music films (Stop Making Sense, which manages to do a better job at visually capturing the band’s appeal than all of their classic music videos). Add to that another dozen New Wave classics or so, and you’ve got a band that would be an IITS first-ballot Hall of Famer, easy.
So when I say that True Stories is quite arguably my least favorite movie of all-time, rivalled only by Brazil, understand I mean the band no disrespect. Frankly, I can barely comprehend how a band I otherwise have such fondness for can be involved in a movie that feels so unbelievably wrong to me. The only explanation I really have is that while I am a Heads fan, I’m not so much a fan of David Byrne on his own–once the band gets to around the Little Creatures era and start feeling less like a cohesive unit and more like David Byrne and His Fabulous Flames, I sort of check out interest-wise, and I’ve never heard anything of his solo work to make me think like I’m missing much there. Without the band’s nervy, rubbery energy to provide context for his semi-maniacal ravings, Byrne’s eccentricities don’t excite me all that much.
Still, as I watched True Stories for the second time tonight–one of my experimental poet roommate’s favorite movies, and surprisingly big among his circle of female acolytes as well–it continued to stun me just how much I hated this fucking movie. And I’m not even saying it’s a bad movie, per se, and God knows enough smart people seem to love it that there’s clearly something there. But it’s just on a completely different wavelength than I am. Part of it is the movie’s tone, which I still can’t get a read on at all. Is it supposed to be meant as satire? Slice of life? Docudrama? Vorshtein? It seems like a mix of all of these, but isn’t satisfying in any of them–it just makes for an exceedingly awkward mixture that leaves my jaw agape in incomprehension.
The visual feel of the movie is even weirder. For a movie that seems like it wants to be about good ol’ folks and old-fashioned charm and down-hominess, it feels muted, distant, and somewhat surreal–like a David Lynch movie that never gets to the really disturbing parts, and is somehow even more disturbing as a result. Meanwhile, the cinematography is positively creepy–the way it moves, subtle and silent, to keep tabs on the characters and sets as they’re on the move, feels shadowy and almost voyeuristic. More than anything, the movie feels like a later Stanley Kubrick movie, the way his camera used to feel like it was monitoring the events of his movies more than simply capturing them. And that’s pretty weird for a movie that usually seems to get billed as a comedy.
And then there’s the acting. Nobody in this movie acts even remotely human–John Goodman comes the closest, but he’s already a cartoon character to begin with, and he projects accordingly. It’s unbelievably hard for me to tell what Byrne is trying to show with these characters’ ridiculousness–if he’s trying to show empathy for them, if he’s making some sort of value statement about them, or if he’s just trying to say “hey, look at all these kooky people”! It’s possible the ambiguity is purposeful, but since I certainly don’t enjoy the movie at face value, I need some sort of guidance to help guide me through it, and it doesn’t provide that for me at all. Meanwhile, Byrne helps matters little by doing his narrator “I’m talking slowly and dispassionately, so you’ll never be able to tell how sincere I’m being” thing. It just feels sort of patronizing to me–either to its subjuects or to its audiences, I’m not quite sure.
Did you ever have a dream that disturbed you in its otherworldly banality? I had a dream the other night that centered around the announcement of the retirement of Gary Payton, star point guard for the Seattle SuperSonics in the 90s. Never mind that I have no memory of Gary Payton’s years playing, that I have absolutely no conception of what he even looks like, or that he actually already retired a year or two ago–something about him stuck in my subconscious that night, and I apparently considered this a dream-worthy subject. When I woke up I was furious with myself for wasting a dream on this. After all, with a good dream, you wake up with a positive feeling for the day, with a nightmare, you wake up feeling safe and life-affirmed, but with one of these surreally pointless dreams–ones that almost feel logical, but actually lack any sort of sense or meaning–all you can do is hope that your brain forgets about having it as soon as possible.
And that’s True Stories for me–a surreally pointless dream of a movie. You can say that I just don’t get it, and you’d be absolutely right. But I’m not wasting any more of my conscious hours trying to understand it. Rather, I’m just going to hope that my brain can forget about seeing it again as soon as possible.