True Stories

(David Byrne, USA, 1986)


David Byrne’s True Stories is an annoying and troubling film in several respects. It is the kind of film which floats purely on hype: financed by hype, promoted by hype. When this hype gets to the sorry point of touting the film (alongside, in its day, Blue Velvet, 1986, or Down By Law, 1986) as a principal representative of New American independent/experimental film, it’s once again time to wonder about all the authentically funky little American films we will not be seeing because this one has, for a month or so, cornered the novelty market.


If I mention that loaded term authenticity, that is because all disagreements over True Stories will occur around this issue. Byrne’s loosely knitted collection of skits and stories are in an anecdotal sense true – reportedly adapted from the more fanciful items in popular tabloid rags. But true clearly means much more to Byrne: folksy, down to earth, normal, everyday … and authentic.


True Stories is an undoubtedly perfect artefact. It illuminates in a single stroke the whole mindset of an arty middle-class dude leaving the postmodern big city and heading South to find real life. This real life – once properly assembled, stylised and distanced through careful mise en scène and codes of satiric middle-class acting – is then supposedly celebrated. But the celebration never relinquishes a patronising, condescending tone.


The film is, from scene to scene and detail to detail, a hit-and-miss affair. But what hits and misses, and for whom, depends wholly on cultural tastes and identifications. If, like me, you find yourself fighting the freak show nature of much of the film, you will take respite and possibly pleasure in those moments which somehow manage to be non-judgmentally natural, spontaneous and daggy. Whether this is due to the occasional stroke of apparently authentic casting (some delightful cameos in the miming of “Wild Wild Life”), the exactness of the verbal idioms here and there (due perhaps to Beth Henley’s hand in the script), or indeed Byrne’s own better creative decisions (the kids who stroll around bashing out “Hey Now” on bits of tin; the two teenagers who double up laughing at the newsstand as they read items from The Weekly World News out aloud), True Stories does, now and again, ring true.


Trying to make a positive case for the movie out of its best moments, it might be ventured that True Stories brings together and mutually transforms two previous tendencies in Byrne’s work as a songwriter for the band Talking Heads. The first tendency is his portrayal of the modern individual: incurably neurotic, mind and body never in sync, head and heart in conflict, classically alienated (as in “Psycho Killer”). The second, tendency, blooming in the mid ‘80s, is his attempt to characterise society in general as a collectively neurotic body spaced out on utopian dreams, visions and delusions, but too happily dumb to know better (“Road to Nowhere”).


When Byrne sets these preoccupations down South, personal alienation suddenly becomes an agreeably crazy way of coping, resisting and surviving the daily drudge; while the collective social dream becomes an equally merry means of improvisation (as in Byrne’s celebration of shopping malls and other Southern architecture).


However, for another segment of its audience, True Stories will be about none of these things. Its funniest and truest moments will be those in which seasoned, satirical actors like Swoosie Kurtz or Spalding Gray enact cruel stereotypes of Southern stupidity. Its climatic deep-and-meaningful moment will occur – like in Nashville (1975), where a state of fools chants in unison “It Don’t Worry Me” in the face of a political assassination – when a character sings:


People like us,

We don’t want freedom,

We don’t want justice,

We just want someone to love.


According to this reading, which the film abundantly invites, its viewpoint is immaculately distant and sneering. This is the True Stories I happen not to like. It is also the one which generates most of the hype-acclaim.


If there is anything abidingly ‘80s about the film’s tone and sensibility, it is the constant, almost hysterical oscillation between complicity with and disdain for its subject matter – a fundamental ambiguity located first and foremost in Byrne’s quasi-fictional presence as narrator. Over-accommodating his object of enquiry, Byrne turns himself into a Looney Tune echoing the exotica around him, and performs curiosity for real life and normal folks in a fashion that reeks of bad faith.


For the fact is that, despite endless implicit protestations of his desire to merge with the sublime Southern masses, Byrne (as director) can never get enough of his own image. He sneaks it in everywhere – on TV’s and in fleeting cameos. This in itself might constitute an interesting performance-art game with media-identity (Bob Dylan and Neil Young have tried similar tricks in their various film projects). But, in this context, it sticks out as aggravatingly city-slick and narcissistic.


What of True Stories as a movie? If there is such a thing as cinema-by-numbers, this is surely it. The film alternates two basic visual styles: the static, distant, primary-coloured postcard view (thanks, cinematographer Ed Lachman); and frenetic, blink-and-you-miss-something-significant montage. Plus a few cute touches: artificial back-projection; a Brechtian intertitle device; and many POV tracking shots with actors staring into the camera and mouthing off.


What all this adds up to is that unfortunate cliché proved, for once, absolutely accurate: the film is one long rock video clip. There is no articulation, no sense of system (open or closed, either would do). Like most clips, it tries to work off the immediate impact of each spectacular and/or jokey moment, to the detriment of any overall complexity of form or sense.


Perhaps this recourse to the rock video mode is due to Byrne’s filmic inexperience. But I cannot help suspecting there may also be an element of calculation involved. For an amnesiac film style is also a way of evading and slipping past the viewer certain troublesome contradictions and uncertainties in the material. I am sure David Byrne would not want to be caught visibly wavering between celebration of and contempt for ordinary people. So his solution is to fabricate an object which is, in the language of hype, a pure event. And an event True Stories may be; but it ain’t much of a movie.



Postscript 2004: I have not re-seen True Stories in the seventeen years since writing this piece. But, in re-reading my text, some extra contexts for judging the film – some pre-dating it and some subsequent to it – occur to me.

Firstly, I may have underestimated, at the time, the American artworld context into which Byrne increasingly fitted himself (via video work, etc). In this light, it is instructive to consult Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson’s reflections on some films of the mid ‘70s (including
Badlands, 1973) which they relate to art strategies prevalent at the time – often hinging around off-centre depictions of ordinary people and everyday life (cf. the dossier in Framework, no. 40, 1998).


Secondly, my cultural critique of Byrne’s attempt to ‘capture the real’ probably came before I finally caught up with the definitive comic film essay on this topic: Albert Brooks’ sublime Real Life (1979).


Thirdly, and this time looking ahead to what Byrne’s career became post ‘87 – generally less popular and more arty – it is intriguing to realise that True Stories stages his first foray into what was become a major topic of both his own work and an entire ‘one world’ New Age movement: the relation to cultural Others (especially in so-called primitive countries), and the effort to find some decent poise somewhere between ecstatic embrace of the subaltern and grubby Western appropriation. Byrne’s dedication and seriousness in sticking to this adventure can put True Stories, in retrospect, into a slightly more flattering light.

© Adrian Martin May 1987 / July 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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