Let The Eagle Soar: "The Whole Shootin' Match" gets the DVD it deserves

Our heroes, Frank (Davis) and Lloyd (Perryman).

Two small-time guys with big dreams. How far back does that theme for a narrative go? All the way back to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, one guesses. Likely there's some version of it in the Bible. It's an evergreen, that theme. Some of the better cinematic and/or pop culture manifestations of the theme bring us such memorable pairs as Juan and Tarrajas, iin Bunuel's 1954 Illusion Travels by Streetcar, Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton, in the television series The Honeymooners...and Frank and Lloyd of Eagle Penell's 1978 The Whole Shootin' Match. If you haven't met Frank and Lloyd before, well, they are very much worth knowing, and a long-awaited three-disc DVD presentation of the film itself, along with a wealth of background about its makers and its making, from Watchmaker Films presents a splendid way to do so.

The significance of Shootin' Match lies, for many, in the fact that this low-budget, made-in-Austin-by-Austin-people film impressed Robert Redford sufficiently that it inspired him to found the Sundance Institute, and morph the Utah/U.S. Film Festival, where Redford first saw it, into the You-Know-What Film Festival. But to tout Shootin' Match o'ermuch as The Film That Invented Sundance is to give some people a reason to look at it askance. And to tout it as a great example of regional filmmaking does not misrepresent the work, but tends to lead some to believe you're making excuses for it. Raggedy around the edges as it is, Shootin' Match needs zero excuses. It's a fleet, funny, moving, inventive, often quite pictorially beautiful piece of work that, like so much great art, locates its universality within the specifics of its world.

Unfortunately, for far too much of the time, so was a great deal of beer and scotch and what have you, and the Shootin' Match extras, both in disc and printed form, provide a sad and sometimes harrowing picture of how alcoholism first destroyed Pennell's work, and then Pennell. Modest and soft-spoken in, for example, a filmed interview shot by Watchmaker's Mark Rance after returning from a failed post-Match sojourn in Hollywood, Pennell apparently turned into the worst kind of party monster when liquored up—crassly conning restrauteurs, coming on to his sister-in-law—on the day of his wedding!—that sort of thing, and more. In The King of Texas, the included documentary on Pennell by an aspiring filmmaker nephew who pretty much never knew him, film critic Paul Cullum, a friend, recalls some of Pennell's more appalling adventures and notes, "[Pennell] puts pop alcoholics like us to shame." That's one way of putting it, I suppose. But the sight of the once-slim Eagle near the end of his life, all sunken eyes and booze bloat, talking about a future project in a wedding video, brings up a different kind of shame. As do the painful recollections of Pennell's brother, Chuck Pinnell, the superb guitarist whose soundtrack work for Shootin' Match is wonderfully evocative, and a CD of which comprises a third disc of the Watchmaker package. Chuck goes back to his last encounter with a destitute and out-of-control Eagle, one of those "I just can't carry you" moments that tear the families of hardcore alcoholics apart. Chuck turned Eagle away from his door. Eagle died not many days later.

It is perhaps then no accident that the poor good ole boys of Shootin' Match are hard drinkers themselves, and that the drinking generally brings trouble. In one piece reproduced in the package's booklet, Roger Ebert recalls taking a walk with Pennell at Telluride in 1980, and telling the filmmaker that his picture was about alcoholism. "He said that had never occurred to him, though he thought I was right." The self-awareness behind the self-delusion that is every hopeless drunk's secret torture had to have been murder on Pennell, all the way until the end.

But to watch Shootin' Match is not to slump inside of its filmmaker's tragedy, but to live with and love its flawed, goofy, and finally peculiarly dignified characters. After taking in the whole of Watchmaker's wonderful presentation, one may be inclined to ponder what Pennell's loss meant to indie film, to regional film, or just what's become of regional film, and/or all sorts of other interesting, possibly important, but ultimately dry issues. After a while one might feel the presence of Frank and Lloyd, tugging on one's sleeve, telling you to lighten the hell up—"Get your mind right!"—and maybe have a beer or something.

Responses

5 responses to this post.  Join the discussion

  • Lou

    The guys name is Perryman, not Pennyman.

    And Eagle never, ever worked around Tobe Hooper. I’m not sure he ever even met him, and I would know.

  • Glenn Kenny

    I apologize for the typographical error, which has been fixed.

    As for Pennell and Hooper, it has been reported by some that Pennell was an uncredited production assistant on “Texas Chainsaw,” which I was unable to confirm; hence the hedge “around.” However, in some of the interview footage included on the extras disc of “Shootin’ Match,” Pennell, discussing Texas filmmakers going to Hollywood, refers to Hooper and Henkel (whose collaboration with Pennell is a matter of record) as “friends” of his.

    Sorry to have offended you.

  • Jimmy Gator

    Henkel’s in Pennell’s Last Night at the Alamo, the film in which Mr. Perryman gives his greatest performance — outside of his even greater, and starring, performance in Hooper’s always astonishing Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2.

  • Lou

    Didn’t mean to be curt, it does look that way on second look.

    There’s some typefaces out there that just ought to be banned, that turn an r and an n into an m, for example. I just don’t know why anyone would go out of their way to design a type face that just makes things harder. Somebody ought to design a typeface called Dr. or doctor or something and would just be a bunch of illegible scribbling, and in latin. /r

    I appreciate the kind words from Glenn Kenny (stop doing that to Dusty) and from Jimmy Gator (I gotta go stick my head in a tub of cold water after that) and will pass this site along to my friends.

    I figured the webmaster would figure out what was up. I was on the crew of TCM. The original. I was 1st assistant camera and de facto 1st AD. Eagle was no where near it.

    Look, everybody pads their resume and fudges a little bit. I just did it. Did you notice? But only just a little bit! We all do it. Sometimes you get caught, sometimes you don’t. What’s the line from “Liberty Valance”? Is it “When the legend exceeds the truth, print the legend”? I have even read that Tobe was a professor of cinema at UT when he made TCM. Wrong. Hilarious.

    Anyway, nice to find you folks over here and I’m just trying to stay connected to the world as I get older.

    I tried to connect y’all with the Facebook, but there were some ongoing problems.

  • Mark Rance

    The notion that Eagle worked on Chainsaw is one of those things that people take for truth because it is a story that’s gotten around. Actually, it was Eagle himself who liked to say he worked on Chainsaw. If you pressed him you soon found out that what he was willing to stand behind was that he KNEW people who worked on Chainsaw. There was a time when Eagle was seriously into the self-promotion business, and oddly enough that corresponded to a time when his work spoke for itself.

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