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.
Frank (Sonny Davis) and Lloyd (Lou Perryman) are a couple of nearing-middle-age ne'er do wells who don't appear to be likely candidates to hook into any kind of Texan economic boom. Frank is largely unconcerned about the poor state of his work ethic, while Lloyd is an ardent, if attention-deficient, consumer of self-improvement philosophies, one of which yields a possible tag line for the film as a whole: "You gotta get your mind right." Frank's mind isn't likely to get right any time soon, but he still has sufficient charm to occasionally win over Paulette, his wife and the mother of his boy T. Frank. Hardly a plot-driven picture, The Whole Shootin' Match nonetheless builds up poignancy in small increments. The more you enjoy hanging out with these characters, the more you feel for them as they fumble.
Pennell has a very sure hand here—as his previous short, A Hell of A Note, also included here, demonstrates, these kind of guys were character he knew inside and out. Maybe too well, as we'll see. His performers are remarkable—very natural seeming, but hardly naturalistic, as the oft-near virtuoso comic timing of the exchanges between Frank and Lloyd attest. Davis and Pennyman headed to Hollywood after this picture, and both made solid careers as character actors, Davis being particularly memorable as the uptight businessman who wants his breakfast refund in Fast Times At Ridgemont High (precisely the sort of fellow that Match's Frank would be inclined to crack in the jaw). The director also shot and edited the film himself, and while not every shot is a masterpiece of composition, nor every cut as smooth as silk, there's a real command at work in these respects as well. Pennell changed his last name from Pinell, it's said, both as a tribute to Arthur Penn and to a character in Ford's She Wore A Yellow Ribbon. He reportedly (or, more accurately, according to what we’ve learned since first putting up this post, claimed to have) worked around Tobe Hooper and writer Kim Henkel (later a collaborator) when they made The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Moviemaking clearly was in his blood.
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.