On Eagle Pennell

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Celine Lassus
  1. Indie Legend Who Inspired Sundance, 'Reservoir Dogs' And More Will Have Classic Films Restored, Indie Wire, April 28, 2016 
  2. Page Two Austin Chronicle, July 26, 2002
  3. In Memoriam: Eagle Pennell, 1952-2002 Austin Chronicle, August 30, 2002
  4. What Hath Eagle Wrought? Austin Chronicle, March 10, 2006
  5. A Second Shot at Shootin' Match, Austin Chronicle, November 30, 2007

Indie Legend Who Inspired Sundance, 'Reservoir Dogs' And More Will Have Classic Films Restored

Indie Wire, April 28, 2016 

Just a decade ago, Eagle Pennell was becoming lost to film history, despite making two of the most important films of the modern indie era. There wasn’t a good print of “The Whole Shootin’ Match” (1978) to be found, the film that Robert Redford said inspired him to launch Sundance. “Last Night at the Alamo” (1984), cited as a favorite by Richard Linklater and Quentin Tarantino (who said it was one of the inspirations for “Reservoir Dogs”), was terribly under-seen. They were important early contributions to what would become a fully grown indie scene by the late 80s, when “Sex, Lies and Videotape” debuted at Sundance in 1989.

Film still courtesy of Watchmaker Films

Still, it was not just the importance, but the wild-enjoyable-cinematic-blue collar life-celebration of these films that made their absence of concern.

For those of us who were in Austin through the 1970s and 1980s, Eagle looms large. The stories are everywhere, mostly revolving around his penchant for drugs and drinking. And if you’ve heard one of these, you’ve heard three dozen. Though the man’s personal demons would eventually be his downfall, the movies stand testament. His first two films in particular remain true achievements, far ahead of their time. People have written about his role in the so-called “regional filmmaking” movement, but at the heart of it he was just an independent. In a time when next to no one got feature films made outside of the studio system, Eagle and his crews triumphed, changing the landscape of independent and Texas filmmaking forever.

Given that the films Pennell made after that brilliant one-two punch of a debut were underwhelming, attention drifted from him. In 1994, when we launched SXSW Film to compliment SXSW Music, we programmed “Doc’s Full Service.” Writing about it at the time, I said it looked like a terrific first feature, except, unfortunately, it was the director’s fifth film. Running into Eagle after the review was published, I expected the often erratically moody Pennell to lecture me. Instead, he started crying, saying the review was right. 

His own worst enemy, the terrible alcoholism of Pennell, resulted in “The Whole Shootin’ Match” essentially being unavailable. The print we showed of “The Whole Shootin’ Match” at a wake after his death in 2002 at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin was faded with a wretched soundtrack. 

I began to search for a better copy, but there was none to be found. I cold-called and cold-wrote everyone I could find with connections to Eagle without finding a strong complete print. One person had a 3/4 inch video, except that on the last two reels the sound was unlistenable. Another person had a print, but it was also a mess. Finally, Watchmaker Films’ Mark Rance (based in London) found a beautiful print of “The Whole Shootin’ Match” in Germany. After restoring the film, we released it on DVD in 2006 (currently available from UT Press). Happily, the film was extremely well reviewed. Roger Ebert was asked if he ever went back to review his star ratings, in this case he said he did, adding a fourth star. 

Film still courtesy of Cinecom PIctures

Still, the great white whale for us was the magnificent “Last Night at the Alamo.” As “Boyhood” proved such a critical and commercial success for IFC, Linklater and I talked about how to re-approach them about “Last Night at the Alamo.” When we did they were very interested in getting involved, helpfully sending us all the material they had on hand which turned out to include the original negative. In England, Mark Rance lovingly restored the film. Richard Linklater saw Mark’s handiwork, exclaiming that the film looked exactly as he had remembered seeing it upon its original release. Linklater, Rance, Jonathan Sehring of IFC and I produced this release which premiered at SXSW in 2016. At the screening were a number of the folks who had worked on the film, including star Sonny Carl Davis.

Audiences that saw the film raved about it, including Ethan Hawke, who was quite knocked out. Talking to him later, we noted that as extraordinarily cinematically literate as Linklater is, there are few films that seemed direct influences on his work, but clearly Pennell’s style of filmmaking had affected him. When I mentioned this to Rick later he didn’t disagree. Filmmakers like Jonathan Demme and John Sayles not only talk fondly about Pennell’s films and their importance, one can clearly see the influence in their own work.

The film is a delirious, dialogue-loaded, long day’s journey into the night of a closing bar in Houston, and a celebration of black and white cinematography. Set almost entirely in the bar and thus removed from real time, the film feels very contemporary. Restoring and re-releasing Eagle Pennell’s film has been a privilege and an exciting journey.

Page Two

Austin Chronicle, July 26, 2002

Eagle Pennell died in his sleep Saturday evening at a friend's house. Reluctantly, I note that even at the end Eagle was a burden to his friends, creating unique and troubling problems. There are a hundred Pennell stories I could tell here, most having to do with alcohol and escapades. Pennell's personal weaknesses haunted and ultimately destroyed his life. But though the lost years far outnumbered the productive ones, they don't even hint at the story.

Photo by Jim Rexrode

The truth is that Eagle Pennell was one of the most important pioneers of independent and regional filmmaking; his influence on contemporary American cinema shouldn't be underestimated. Somewhere along the way, his extraordinary work has been drowned; not readily available, the films of Eagle Pennell have been swamped by the stories of Eagle. Really, just two films of the five he directed -- two wonderful, warm, influential films -- left a wake that is still rolling onto shore.

The Whole Shootin' Match, starring Lou Perryman and Sonny Carl Davis, is the story of two losers, two dreamers who never give up -- in the death of one scheme is the birth of another. It is a film that marries tremendous affection for its characters (including Doris Hargrave, another Austin acting legend) with the leisurely pacing of a born storyteller more interested in nuance than cinematic pyrotechnics. The film was co-written and co-produced by Austinite Lin Sutherland.

Released in 1978, it was a hit at the USA Film Festival (predecessor to Sundance). Released in 1978, it insisted that, rather than dream about Hollywood, filmmakers should go out and make their own films; it was a declaration that regional cinematic storytelling was as evocative as anything coming out of Hollywood. Released in 1978, two years before John Sayles' Return of the Secaucus Seven, it was a call to action. Moviemaking belongs to no industry; it belongs to the people who make movies.

In 1983, Pennell's masterpiece, Last Night at the Alamo (written and produced by Texas Chainsaw Massacre scribe Kim Henkel), was released. Shot documentary style (and also starring Perryman and Davis), this film tells the story of a bar's last night. The death of just another honky-tonk in Pennell's hands becomes a eulogy for a Texas quickly passing, a cinematic tone poem celebration of loss and life.

Sadly, though he was wooed by Hollywood and directed three more features, Alamo was Eagle Pennell's peak. I've never seen City Life (1990), and I like things about both Ice House (1989) and Doc's Full Service (1994), but they weren't the brazen steps forward we all expected. About one of them, I wrote a review that said every Pennell film since Alamo looked like a first film effort by a very promising new director, which wasn't exactly a compliment. Eagle called me up, crying, to tell me the review was on target.

I don't remember even when I first met Eagle. It seems like I've known him for a very long time. As with everyone who knew him, I have great stories to tell. But I don't want to lose the point. Today, with new technology, there are more garage feature filmmakers than garage bands. There was a time when Hollywood almost completely dominated narrative filmmaking, with very few independent films squeezing into the marketplace every decade. Every decade. Now, that many probably escape every week.

The influence of Pennell's films is of historic importance. The charm of these films -- celebrating character, set firmly in a place, relishing their culture -- makes clear that, even if they had been made much later, they would still have the emotional resonance. There were a couple of decades where drink mattered more than film to Pennell. This is a shame. As film critic Joe Leydon said to me, there is nothing more heartbreaking than unfulfilled promise. Even toward the end, a broken man painfully conscious of his debilitating personal weaknesses, Eagle was always intelligent and often charming. Lou Perryman, a key player in the Pennell stock company, and I reminisced about how all of Eagle's friends at one time or another had thrown him out. As a tribute to Eagle, devastated by alcoholism, they also welcomed him back at even the hint of the old Eagle. Every attempt to go sober was greeted with widespread support. Every attempt failed. The triumph here isn't biography; it is creative inspiration. In a desert, Eagle led several generations of filmmakers to the oasis. Finally, there are the films. Only five features, but two of them are truly great. The influence of Pennell's vision is historic, but the real importance is the many pleasures of The Whole Shootin' Match and Last Night at the Alamo.

In Memoriam

Eagle Pennell, 1952-2002

Austin Chronicle, August 30, 2002, 

Eagle Pennell died a few weeks back, a talented, influential filmmaker who had become a hopeless alcoholic. His last film, Doc's Full Service, made in 1994, was full of promise. Unfortunately, it was the promise of a first-time effort from a novice filmmaker, not the final of five films by a then-mature talent.

Talented and influential: Eagle directed two films, The Whole Shootin' Match and Last Night at the Alamo, that stand as classics of regional filmmaking and influenced the generations of filmmakers who followed him. Robert Redford made it clear that one of the things that inspired him in establishing Sundance was seeing The Whole Shootin' Match.

A hopeless alcoholic: Eagle periodically showed up at Chronicle offices usually drunk (very rarely he was sober and on the wagon, though that never lasted long). More than once, having left one Houston rehab facility or another, he had gotten drunk on the plane and showed up to borrow money to pay the cab for delivering him to the Chronicle and then to the liquor store. I shouldn't have, but I always gave Eagle money. Whatever money he got, he spent immediately. Once he showed up with $500, gave me a hundred to pay off his many loans, and called a cab to take him to the Driskill to spend the night. He showed up a day later, drunk and broke.

Despite the stories of the last couple of decades of Eagle's misdeeds, there are these films and, fortunately, they speak even louder than he ranted at his worst. It is important to remember that though directors often get all the credit, independent films, especially, are invariably collaborative efforts. Eagle was able to realize those first two films by working with a large group of gifted and talented people. We asked some of them to offer their memories of Eagle Pennell, filmmaker. Here are their reminisces. -- Louis Black

On the set of The Whole Shootin' Match (l-r): art director Jim Rexrode, actor Sonny Davis and his dog, soundman Wayne Bell, an unidentified extra, director Eagle Pennell, assistant director Doug Holloway, and actor Lou Perryman
But the Pictures Got Made

In 1974, just about the time I decided that I had to be an actor, somebody introduced me to Eagle Pennell. I had been around the then-really fledgling film business since I visited the set of that most unsung of all Austin-made movies, None But the Brave, in 1961, while I was on leave from the Army, so I thought I knew something about Austin film history. We talked film almost constantly. I told Eagle that, from what I had seen, a whole lot of people sat around talking about being filmmakers but didn't make any films. He bunked on my couch for about six months, and we started talking about making movies on whatever we could find to make them on. The first film we did was "Hell of a Note," and we shot it with unblimped (nonsilent) cameras with mic cables up our britches.

I could tell you about the time on "Hell of a Note" that Eagle told Tyson McLeod, Sonny Davis, and me to get in the truck cause we're going to shoot this scene of us driving down West First Street and Eagle had taken the hood off of the truck and had found a place sitting on the radiator with his feet hooked down in the engine so he could shoot the scene and not fall off the truck. No rope, no net. Or I could tell you about the time on The Whole Shootin' Match that Sonny and I did a long scene where we had this argument in a truck at night and somebody was outside swishing a light by us 'cause it was supposed to look like cars were going by, and we didn't have enough crew to have somebody wiggle the bumper so that it looked anything at all like we were actually driving, and we decided to try a take and when we were through, Eagle says "that was great, I've got it," and Sonny and I decided we were pretty hot stuff and started calling ourselves the One Take Kings, only to hear years later that that was all the film Eagle had that night. Or the day we were shooting the last scene in the movie and ran out of film and light at the same time up on the Devil's Backbone. It was foggy, and if we came back we couldn't match the light, so Eagle went to Austin to get more film, and all six of the cast and crew just stayed out there that night at a Boy Scout camp (and went to bed without any supper), and Eagle showed up (it was still foggy) at 5am with a bunch of 100-foot rolls of film, which last about two minutes each, which lead to massive cutaway shots. Or I could tell you about the time when we had to shut down shooting on Last Night at the Alamo so Eagle could go out to a West Texas cemetery to commune with his dead grandfather.

But the point is that the pictures got made.

I'll remember a guy who was as personally empowering as anybody I ever met. It may have been that the faith he had in me as an actor was just so that he could get the movies made, but I choose to think differently about that. In the first scene of one of these movies, Sonny and I did a take and Eagle said "that's great, I got it," and one of the crew said "hey, you guys can do better than that, can't you?" and Eagle almost killed the guy. I knew we didn't do it very well but what had been important was to get a shot in the can and move on. I think the scene went in the movie under music anyway, so you couldn't tell how bad we were.

I'll remember all these parts of Eagle, and myself, but I will also remember a guy who took the auteur theory too far to heart and decided that no one else had the talent that he had, a guy who mistook his talent for entitlement, who didn't realize that in this most collaborative of arts that he indeed had the right people at the right time around him and that those people were bringing their best stuff with them, that they did indeed come because he called, but that he didn't do everything and was nothing without them.

I know this last bit may seem to be a harsh assessment of our friend Eagle, but it is meant as a warning, not a reproach. Anyone who knows me will remember that Eagle and I shed blood, sweat, and laughter together, and that I wasn't perfect and neither was he. Or anybody else. I loved him like a brother, and I think he loved me, too. I've missed him for years.

As much of a Texan as Eagle tried to be, he forgot a basic Texas tenet: He didn't dance with who brung him.

You gotta dance with who brung you. -- Lou Perryman, actor, The Whole Shootin' Match, Last Night at the Alamo

Film still courtesy of Cinecom PIctures
A Long, Tall Drink of Water
It was 1978, and I was sitting with Billie Lee Brammer in the Soap Creek Saloon on Bee Caves Road listening to Delbert McClinton (three bucks admission). Up walks a long, tall drink of water who says, "Lin Sutherland? You're a writer right?" Well, I was very much of a new, young writer, but I was willing to acknowledge the possibility. And that right there expressed something about the man, Eagle Pennell -- he had a way of making people stretch. I was 28, Eagle was 25 years old. He was Glenn Pinnell from College Station, but as a filmmaker he became Eagle. My first impression was that he was a very directed, very take-charge young man. He told me he had finished a short called "Hell of a Note" about two Texas buddies. When he told me about it, the characters intrigued me and seemed Texas-real instead of the usual cardboard characters Hollywood fabricated with Texans. It appealed to my seventh-generation Texas blood. He wanted to do a feature using the characters in "Hell of a Note" as a springboard. Would I help him write it? I replied I had never written a screenplay. He said "Hell, it's easy. Go read Stagecoach and you'll see how it's done." Well, I did that. I went to the library and found about four screenplays, but one of them was Stagecoach. INT, EXT, it said. Eagle and I met again and he started talking the story. I started adding to it and started writing. That's how The Whole Shootin' Match was written in about three months. We met, we talked, we wrote. Then it was finished, and I was proud of this script -- it was genuine. "Now we've got to raise the money to shoot it," Eagle pointed out, and so off we went, pounding on friends' and acquaintances' and kinfolk's doors to ask for contributions. I even got my sister Kay to contribute $250 (a lot back then!). We were filled with the belief of our mission, and Eagle with a passion to film his vision. We raised about $45,000 and filmed a two-hour black and white movie on that. We each did many jobs of course, and worked long hours. It was a blast. We were filming by the seat of our pants; I was learning every day. I watched Sonny and Doris and Lou do something I'd never witnessed before -- take the written words of the script and make it come alive with fabulous original energy and expression. They were the characters. Eagle was intense and driven and high on the power a director has. It was a prelude to his being high on a hell of a lot else, but I didn't quite cop to that then. At the end of shooting, all of us exhausted, Eagle went into the editing room. The film was sent right out to the USA Film Festival in Dallas, where it was noticed, and then to the Sundance Institute in Utah, in the first years of its film festival. I remember well the quote from Robert Redford when he saw it -- in print he said The Whole Shootin' Match was "a prime example of what we're trying to do with independent filmmakers -- quality stories out of the Hollywood mainstream." It made me proud. The two years after, the film won seven awards in film festivals and went into distribution to small art film houses. We were able to pay back our investors. Eagle's direction, in both senses of the word, made it possible for a lot of lives to veer onto a new and interesting course. His own -- so full of originality, talent, and vision -- he sent hurdling toward destruction. The group that made The Whole Shootin' Match experienced something precious and unique. Eagle couldn't have done it without us, and we couldn't have done it without him. The Whole Shootin' Match was the achievement of a group of young talented people. At times it was terribly difficult, at times scary, at times gloriously creative and fun. Even though opportunity presented itself, I would choose never to work with Eagle again. I hold him in great regard, and mourn his passing -- Eagle Pennell, filmmaker, director, artist, imagineer.

-- Lin Sutherland, co-writer, co-producer, The Whole Shootin' Match

Working, Drinking, & Dreaming About Movies

It's difficult to summarize 20 years of working, drinking, and dreaming about movies with Eagle. He was just a Texas-sized guy, and as Larry McMurtry said of late Austin bookman and gambler John Jenkins (who partially underwrote Eagle's The Whole Shootin' Match), "Better to lose big than do nothing."

I was Eagle's "shooter" on Last Night at the Alamo. I think I was chosen because I came with the camera (...clair NPR) and the rifle (Winchester 30/30). He called me Crockett (we shared a love of Texas history) but he referred to himself as Fannin ... the so-called "loser" of the Texas Revolution. Eagle & Fannin shared similar fates in that they were both too human.

Good Memory 1983: "Get me a Preacher!" he roared over the phone during the making of Alamo, "I'm getting married!" The wedding party became rowdy when Eagle said to his new sister-in-law, "suck my dick!" (see attached photos of this moment). Eagle retreated to the street surrounded by angry waiters. Suddenly, he shouted Sam Houston's San Jacinto speech: "Gentlemen! Victory is ours. Stay calm & Remember the Alamo!" The waiters froze in their tracks & Eagle escaped into the night.

Bad Memory 2002: It had been his destiny to follow the hero's path. The last time I saw Eagle was a few days before the end. It was late and he was outside my apartment. I told him to go away and he shuffled off into the dark.

-- Brian Huberman, cinematographer, Last Night at the Alamo, and Associate Professor of Film Production, Rice University

The Man Who Made Himself a Movie Director

I was a partner and friend of Eagle Pennell, although, like many of his friends, I had put some distance between he and I for the last several years. I did the sound recording, design, and mixing for his first feature, The Whole Shootin' Match, and recorded and produced the music score (composed and performed by Eagle's brother, Chuck Pinnell) for Last Night at the Alamo. We also did a few smaller projects together, Eagle doing the visuals and I the sound and music. We had a lot of fun. I miss the enjoyable Eagle, but I've been missing that version of him for a long time.

In the newspapers, Alamo has been heralded as Eagle's pinnacle, and if so I think it is due in large part to Kim Henkel's deft touch as writer/producer. But, for a number of us who were part of the team back then, Shootin' Match is the real gem-in-the-rough, the unspoiled Eagle. The film's "heroes" are Frank and Lloyd, played by Sonny Davis and Lou Perryman. It was shot on weekends (most of us had day jobs) which allowed time during the week for Lou, Sonny, Eagle, and the actors whose scenes were coming up to meet, rehearse, and often reshape the story to fit the players. The actors would then bring magic with them to the weekend, and all we had to do was film it. Those weeknight sessions produced a wonderful movie.

It took me at least a decade to "see" Shootin' Match even though I'd watched it many times in the making and at festival screenings. Yes, it was shot in grainy black-and-white, with an aural equivalent on the release print's optical soundtrack, and yes, there isn't a lot of artifice in how it was made. Indeed, it was so unpolished I would wince when certain scenes rolled by, scenes I now find the most entertaining. Listen for the hilarious natural timing between Frank and Lloyd as they drive back from a job gone bad, and likewise between Paulette (Doris Hargrave) and Frank at the drive-in commenting on the fakery of movie acting. Both scenes are one-take wonders, obviously in a pickup truck simply sitting in a field, with little attempt to create the proper realism, and yet, it doesn't even matter because the characters are so enjoyable.

Film still courtesy of Watchmaker Films

Eagle fell in love with these characters, and featured them in his three first films and would have put them in his next, The King of Texas, had it ever been made. In a way, he just kept making the same movie: part buddy-picture and part homage to a lifestyle left behind by modern times. It is Eagle's love for these characters and their little corner of the world that ultimately gives these films their heart.

I've been trying to forgive Eagle his excesses, which began to take hold as he basked in the success of Shootin' Match, and I've tried to forgive myself, too, for keeping him at arm's length once the excesses began to rule. Now that he has passed, I suspect much will be made of his bodacious, outsized character; the same qualities that can drive a novice from small-town Texas to proclaim himself a movie director, and then to actually become one, can also make for one hell of an overbearing drunk. For my own memories I prefer to focus on the films. They were fun to make and still fun to watch.

-- Wayne Bell, soundman, The Whole Shootin' Match, Last Night at the Alamo 

What Hath Eagle Wrought?

After the smoke cleared, 'The Whole Shootin' Match' helped give rise to the contemporary indie

Austin Chronicle, March 10, 2006

The Whole Shootin' Match

Not yet 30 years old, it has been a "lost" film for years. Producer Mark Rance tracked down a near mint print and digitally transferred and restored it.

Tuesday, March 14, 6:30pm, Alamo Downtown

The Film: The Whole Shootin' Match

The Importance: Texas filmmaker Eagle Pennell's first two films – The Whole Shootin' Match and Last Night at the Alamo – had a profound influence on the idea and geography of independent film. On a practical, yet still elevated, level, The Whole Shootin' Match was directly responsible for Robert Redford creating the Sundance Film Festival. As regional films, they were equally crucial, both among the first from this area to get national reviews.

The Credits: Directed, co-produced, co-written, shot, and scored by Eagle Pennell; co-written and co-produced by Lin Sutherland; cast: Loyd: Lou Perry (or Perryman); Frank: Sonny Davis; Paulette: Doris Hargrave.

The Filmmaker: Born Glenn Irwin Pinnell July 28, 1952; died July 20, 2002.

The Filmography: "Hell of a Note" (1977, short); The Whole Shootin' Match (1978-'79); Last Night at the Alamo (1984); Ice House (1989); City Life (1990); Doc's Full Service (1994).

Film still courtesy of Watchmaker Films
The Response

Vincent Canby's New York Times Review, April 21, 1979

"The Whole Shootin' Match, the first feature to be directed by the 25-year-old Mr. Pennell, is a loving, indulgent, funny, very casual movie about the ups and downs of a couple of innocent, self-defeating American clowns ... [it is] often a technical mess, but never for a moment is it out of control. Even the clumsiness of the photography works as a reflection of the sort of lives led by its characters. When someone walks offscreen, it's as if the camera couldn't keep up or had been distracted by something of less importance. The sepia print is faded in the way of jeans that have been left too long in the sun. …

"[F]ar from predictable are Mr. Pennell's feelings for his characters and the performances he obtains from his actors. These are both surprising and invigorating. ... [The film] reportedly cost $30,000. It sometimes looks it, yet the movie has something ... far more expensive features don't have – a way of getting in touch with life."

Robert Redford, Actor, Director, Founder of Sundance

"Robert Redford recently told the Hollywood Reporter that it was in 1978, while watching Shootin' Match at the U.S. Film Festival in Salt Lake City, that he first envisioned the Sundance Institute.

"'I thought a real service to the [motion picture] industry would be to provide a guy like [Pennell] with a place to train, a place to go where he could develop his skills.'" – "Fade to Black: The Wasted Life of Texas Filmmaker Eagle Pennell," by Steve McVicker, Houston Press, Oct. 14, 1999

"Robert Redford says his Sundance Film Festival, which last month wrapped its 25th season ... [has] 'gotten to the point now – almost to a breaking point' ... the 68-year-old actor said in a recent interview ... 'The festival that we do is the same one as we did the first year [programmed] for new voices and more experimental films. ... The difference now ... is everything surrounding it ... the merchants come, then the celebrities come ... the paparazzi ... fashion ... suddenly you've got a party where Paris Hilton's there and all the attention goes there and she's got nothing to do with anything ... basically [there are] two festivals going. ... You've got the festival we programmed ... and then the other one."

– "Redford Says Sundance Taken by a 'Fever,'" by Jake Coyle, A.P., Feb. 23, 2006

The Legacy

The Austin Chronicle, July 26, 2002

"Eagle Pennell died in his sleep Saturday evening at a friend's house. Reluctantly, I note that even at the end Eagle was a burden to his friends, creating unique and troubling problems. There are a hundred Pennell stories I could tell here, most having to do with alcohol and escapades. Pennell's personal weaknesses haunted and ultimately destroyed his life. But though the lost years far outnumbered the productive ones, they don't even hint at the story.

"The truth is that Eagle Pennell was one of the most important pioneers of independent and regional filmmaking; his influence on contemporary American cinema shouldn't be underestimated. ...

"The Whole Shootin' Match ... is the story of two losers, two dreamers who never give up – in the death of one scheme is the birth of another. It is a film that marries tremendous affection for its characters ... with the leisurely pacing of a born storyteller more interested in nuance than cinematic pyrotechnics. …

"[The film] was a hit at the USA Film Festival (predecessor to Sundance). ... [I]t insisted that, rather than dream about Hollywood, filmmakers should go out and make their own films; it was a declaration that regional cinematic storytelling was as evocative as anything coming out of Hollywood. Released in 1978, two years before John Sayles' Return of the Secaucus Seven, it was a call to action. Moviemaking belongs to no industry; it belongs to the people who make movies." 

A Second Shot at 'Shootin' Match'

The late Eagle Pennell's debut film gets a new lease on life

Austin Chronicle, November 30, 2007,

Certainly this publication has not been shy about trumpeting the discovery of a mint print of Eagle Pennell's 1978 independent regional feature, The Whole Shootin' Match. This is not just because the film is a wonderful regional comedy or because it's historically important but because, until this print was discovered in Germany, there has been no decent screening-worthy print available in any format. The film is worth viewing because it is so well-written and -realized, but finding it also restores a missing piece of post-Sundance film history.

The Whole Shootin' Match is having a theatrical run at the Alamo with a DVD release to follow. Accompanying that will be a new documentary on the filmmaker, the creative but hard-living Eagle Pennell. In it, Richard Linklater talks about how seeing the film for the first time made him realize that he could make movies. Linklater was not alone in this realization. The success of TWSM, followed by the release of Return of the Secacus 7 two years later, helped ignite the extraordinary growth in independent film (as Linklater's Slacker did a decade later). TWSM's influence was not limited to just inspiring filmmakers. It affected a lot of people. In the documentary, writer and ex-Austinite Paul Cullum talks about how Robert Redford watched the film at the Egyptian Theater in Park City the first year of the U.S. (or USA) Film Festival. Watching TWSM inspired Redford to think about how to support independent films and filmmakers. Redford had nothing to do with the festival when he saw the film, but over time he became more involved until it was very much his festival, Sundance.

There are dozens of outrageous stories about Eagle, most having to do with alcohol and resulting escapades. Unfortunately, Pennell's personal weaknesses cut short the most creative period of his filmmaking. Almost as unfortunately, the myth has come to swamp the wonder and importance of his first two feature films, The Whole Shootin' Match and Last Night at the Alamo. The films are unique in the way they are so clearly made in, about, and of Texas. There is an authenticity to the characters, their lifestyles, and the pace of life that almost all Texas films made by Hollywood completely miss. The loose, easy narratives match this depiction, further enriching them.

Film still courtesy of Watchmaker Films

If the two films stood alone just as cinematic narrative works, they would be deserving of praise and interest. Given the enormous influence they've had, there is a greater importance to them. Pennell's quite unintentional influence on several generations of independent films and filmmakers shouldn't be underestimated.

The Whole Shootin' Match stars Lou Perryman and Sonny Carl Davis, interviewed below. It's the story of two losers, two dreamers who never give up. Failed scheme follows failed scheme; the film suggests, however, that not getting there can be most of the fun. Austin acting legend Doris Hargrave also stars. The terrific script, by Pennell and Lin Sutherland, is loaded with great dialogue (Sutherland also was co-producer).

I've introduced screenings of TWSM a couple of times now. Regrettably, I've gotten way too wrapped up in trying to explain the importance of the film, hoping to convey its significance and its place in contemporary film history. Eagle would have both laughed at me and been pissed off. He would have been right. I ended up missing the forest for the trees and misleading audiences into expecting a Citizen Kane/Breathless type revelation. Instead the point is how much the film conveys a time (late Seventies) and place (the Hill Country). It is about how the characters are so richly depicted and so far from typical Texas stereotyping, with a pace that is Texas-storytelling-appropriate, carefully constructed and certainly in not too much of a hurry to get anywhere. Sure TWSM is important and influential, but forget that: The talent of Pennell, the cast, and crew resulted in a film that is a very entertaining slice-of-life tale of just plain folks so rarely portrayed honestly in movies, living, dreaming, scheming, and loving.

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