Sketchfest Review: True Stories 25th Anniversary w/David Byrne Q&A

by Gordon Elgart on February 6, 2011

Giant standing David, regular sized seated David

The closing night of the 10th San Francisco Sketchfest kicked off with a screening of the David Byrne directed True Stories, now celebrating its 25th year of existence. Because the founders of Sketchfest met at a screening of the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, also at the Castro Theater in 1998, this event was special to the Sketchfest crew. Along for the ride was author Paul Myers, who took on the moderator duties, and the director himself. Much like the movie itself, the Q&A afterward was a minor failure, with interesting bits.

The movie True Stories is a unique oddball, a non-narrative driven collection of vignettes about Virgil, TX, and the week leading up to a celebration of the 150th anniversary of Texas’ statehood. There’s some interesting characters, most notably John Goodman in his first film role as the singing bachelor and dancing bear, Louis Fyne. The movie is at its best when he’s on screen, as his character’s quest to find a wife gives the movie what emotional center it has. Also fascinating to watch is the late Spalding Gray, playing owner of Varicorp, Earl Culver. Twice in the movie, he’s given a monologue, and his kitchen table talk about the future of workers in America and how they’d move away from being corporate slaves and toward entrepreneurship is both a joy to watch, and shockingly prescient.

The good bits in the movie, though, are overshadowed by the lack of a focused narrative, and there’s a lot of shifting around in seats during some scenes, where we wonder why we’re seeing what we’re seeing. Taken as short films — music videos, really — there’s some really fun stuff to watch, and it all looks phenomenal, but as a feature length film, I question it’s purpose. There’s some interesting sociological and philosophical talk from David Byrne, about suburban sprawl, the modern meaning of shopping malls, the beauty of small town America, but I wasn’t sad when it was over. This was my reaction at 14 when I saw it in theaters, and seeing it again now.

So the overriding question when Byrne and Myers took the stage was, in fact, how did this movie ever get made? Byrne admitted that it was partly because he had found a true Hollywood producer to help him out, and partly because the Talking Heads had recently found mainstream success as a band, the studio figured it couldn’t lose. The movie cost $3 Million to make, and it didn’t gross that in theaters, but the album sold moderately well, and there’s been a DVD of it which surely is in a few homes. I doubt it was considered a commercial success, and although Byrne said he’d had other ideas for films throughout the years, he’s never been able to get any of them made.

Before the Q&A even started, though, we were treated to a few deleted scenes from the movie, never before seen by an audience. They were literally copied over from VHS to DVD for this event, so it was a treat. Now, deleted scenes are usually deleted for a reason, and truly all of them were falling flat, until he showed one called “Kidnapping Skit.” This was cut from the talent show that ends the movie, and is a skit put on my some sort of scout troop showing the ways children could be abducted and what to do about it. This was funnier than anything in the movie, and the reaction led Byrne to comment, “maybe we should have left that in.”

Now this was pretty cool to see, as who doesn’t like to see an exclusive?  But there wasn’t much else to hear tonight, in what was likely the worst Q&A session I’ve ever attended. Paul Myers was really interested in making sure everyone in the audience knew how smart he was, and he kept filling in extra jokes that wouldn’t have been funny when they were relevant (“Ha ha now they’d do that with CGI, and they’d insert Jar Jar Binks”), or adding trivia about people that no one, especially David Byrne, cared about it. Byrne himself looked fidgety and uncomfortable the whole time, and didn’t seem to have a good idea why he was there. Were any actually interesting questions going to come from the man sitting next to him tonight?

Well no, not really, so we didn’t get to learn too much about the movie, other than what we could “look up online,” as David Byrne would tell us in regards to the career of his cinematographer on the project, Ed Lackman.

The only true highlight of the night was when one gentleman stood up, and gave a gushing account of his show at The Fillmore a few years back. The man said that Byrne had stepped up to the microphone to start, but seemed so taken aback by the cheers, that he seemed to pause to take it all in, shocked that this was happening. And he asked Byrne if this was real, and whether that happened like he thought.

David Byrne said that yes, it does happen, and the reaction is absolutely real, and when he has a show like that, to keep himself grounded in reality, he has to remind himself that he still needs to buy toilet paper.

Gordon Elgart

A music nerd who probably uses that term too much. I have a deep love for bombastic, quirky and dynamic music.

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