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.
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.
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.
“Last Night at the Alamo” will screen this Saturday at CineFamily as part of their Underground USA: Indie Cinema of the 80s series, and will finally be available to everyone before the end of the year. We continue to try to tell the great history of Texas independent filmmaking, as we’ve released Jonathan Demme Presents “Made In Texas, Six New Films From Austin,” Eagle’s “Whole Shootin’ Match” and we are preparing “Eggshells,” Tobe Hooper’s first film. All of these can be found through University of Texas Press.
Louis Black is the co-founder and current editor of the Austin Chronicle, the co-founder and current director of South by Southwest, and a founding board member of the Austin Film Society. Currently, Louis is the founding partner of the film consultation firm, Production for Use, and has directed his first documentary, “Richard Linklater – dream is destiny,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.
Check out the trailer for Linklater’s latest, “Everybody Wants Some!!,” below: