Thursday, March 27, 2008

Film #19: Last Night at the Alamo

 Last Night at the Alamo, the late Eagle Pennell's seminal indie film from 1983, and one of the first hits at the Sundance Film Festival (then known as the USA Film Festival), is a boisterous, ultimately pitiful portrait of a doomed Houston bar's alcohol-sodden denizens. It takes its place alongside Barfly, Trees Lounge and Husbands as an unshowered, unshaven sketch of loud-mouthed drunks, so if you like those titles, you should seek it out, even though you might have to go to your local art-house video purveyor to find it. Filmed in a murky black-and-white from a crackling script by Kim Henkel (co-writer of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, of all things), it stars Sonny Carl Davis as the bar's swaggering cock-of-the-walk, a soft-spoken but arrogant misogynistic loser who calls himself "Cowboy," less so because of his braggadocio about being cast in a Hollywood shoot-'em-up, and more because he's afraid to take his cowboy hat off, lest it reveal his bald dome.

Cowboy's manic desperation to save the Alamo from a bulldozing is the driving force in the film; this watering hole is all this sad character has to hang on to in his retreat from a world of anonymity. Yet no one's really listening to his rebellious plans to publicize his cause--all the people getting plastered at the Alamo accepted their defeat a long time ago, and are not surprised that the bar's sinking fate is one more kick to their collective stomachs. Though this all sounds horribly depressing, Last Night at the Alamo is actually one of the funniest movies I've ever seen (it would make a great stage play, imho). The only place where curse words have ever sounded as poetic is maybe Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, or the Canadian real-com Trailer Park Boys, which might have been influenced by Pennell's film. Possibly not, though, since Last Night at the Alamo is hard to see, as it's criminally yet to receive a proper DVD release! So you'll be forced to find this rare treasure on VHS, if you still have one of those dusty ol' thangs (copies of the film on tape have reached $100 on eBay, which'll show you how much some people love it).

The cast is quite excellent, save for a little stiffness here and there. But Davis is riveting in the lead--other than his appearances in Pennell's short film Hell of a Note and in the writer/director's first indie hit The Whole Shootin' Match, Davis never went on to assay as memorable a character as he did with Cowboy. But, as Orson Welles said, one is all you need. Another Pennell regular, Lou Perry, impresses as Claude, a hen-pecked husband who can't decide between slinking home to his social-climbing wife or defiantly burning down their house (I love the way he says "Got-dammit"). And most notably, Steven Mattilla is a scream as Ichibod, the goony, overhyped exterminator who idolizes Cowboy and can't say a fuckin' sentence without cussin' (his opening scene arguing with his girlfriend while angrily driving his "piece-of-shit-truck" is a real attention-getter). I dig the black-and-white photography, the odd editing, and the goofy guitar score, too.

It's a shame that Pennell (pictured at left) didn't get to taste much success after this film was released. He, too, let drink get the best of him. He was a director-for-hire in a couple more low-budgeters and, by the time of his death in 2002, he was reduced to begging for beer money and living under a highway overpass. His is a tragic story, but it resulted in at least two great movies that mirrored closely his faith in a man who sticks to his guns like he tried to do. Loud, booze-sodden and darkly heartbreaking, Pennell's Last Night at the Alamo is essential viewing, a portrayal of the American Dream's breakdown and a landmark in indie production that predates by about two years the trumpeted arrival of Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee and Steven Soderbergh.


Anonymous said...

I used to know Eagle Pennell and was present during some of the filming of "Last Night at the Alamo." My favorite Pennell is still "The Whole Shootin' Match." :)

Dean Treadway said...

Very cool! How did you get to know Eagle? He was an interesting any equally interesting tales to tell? (Still need to see THE WHOLE SHOOTIN' MATCH...very hard to find!)