Perhaps we really are in a post-ironic age. At any rate, I sometimes think that what’s “ironic,” what’s “sincere,” and what’s “naive” is more a function of the difference in angle between viewing and producing than anything else. A lot of material from the late sixties and early seventies seems so hopelessly naive now that it’s almost hard not to read it ironically – but I’m persuaded that our general sense of what’s appropriate, of what’s possible or potential, has changed so dramatically since then that we almost can’t comprehend any reasonably intelligent person being sincere about things that then were well within the range of the plausibly real.
All this is brought about by my viewing of David Byrne’s True Stories – which, curiously given that I’ve always been a Talking Heads fan, I’d never seen until now. When it came out, reviews made it sound alternately boring and condescending, and the band was in a bit of a decline, so I never bothered. I should have.
The notion that the movie’s condescending probably comes from its subject: a generic American small town (or nearly generic: it’s set in Texas, which has always been both typically American and unique in its own sense of place) and its alternately mundane and quirky residents. In the ’80s, I suppose, it was hard to imagine someone like Byrne – with his avowed interest in the avant-garde, with his New York City zip code – conceiving of such people with anything but the curiosity of a zookeeper or collector of oddities. That Byrne said in interviews that the genesis of the movie was a collection of newspaper clippings about unusual people probably didn’t help, and I suppose a large number of journalists imagined that the Byrne who sang, of what was literally flyover country for the narrator, “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me” must have been the same Byrne who made this movie. That might be wrong on at least two counts: people’s attitudes change over time, and Byrne has always sung in character, even if the characters are often odd enough that many just assume they’re sung from the perspective of Byrne’s oddball self. Of course, most of those journalists don’t know Byrne personally (nor do I), and so have no idea whether he actually is as “odd” as they imagined. (Judge for yourself: follow the link to his blog at right.)
Anyway, disregarding biography and just watching the movie, I don’t see condescension at all. Yes, some of these folks are unusual…but many “typical” Americans have unusual beliefs or habits. Noticing that they’re unusual doesn’t imply a perspective of superiority, nor in fact does observing that oneself wouldn’t enjoy the same things. But you know, artists, cultural producers, and people who live in New York City must feel superior to those different from them, right? Especially those cultural producers who are journalists.
And the critics who find the movie condescending also must have missed John Goodman’s performance. Initially, he comes across as another in a parade of people whose perceptions and expectations consistently and sadly exceed their realities – but as the movie develops, Goodman lets us inside this character, and in so doing makes him more than a chubby guy with an eccentric (if snappy) wardrobe and unusual ideas about courtship.
Plus, many scenes are simply beautiful to look at, particularly the shots of the stage as it’s assembled and the flatness of the Texas landscape, both rural and suburban.
I was also surprised at how improved many of the songs were by being sung by the characters they were written for. In Talking Heads’ versions, the style-wardrobe changes and sometimes unexplained lyrical content felt a bit half-assed; inhabited by the characters – notably Goodman’s climactic country song “People Like Us” and Pops Staples’ voudon practitioner’s “Papa Legba” – they make much more sense and attain a higher emotional resonance than they do in the band’s versions.
True, the movie’s first half is a bit slow-going, and the flatness of Byrne’s affect clashes a bit with some over-the-top set design (such as Spalding Gray’s Busby-Berkeley-as-food-artist/business-booster dinner piece, and the completely nutty fashion show). But I see the movie not as condescending, but as accepting: as asking us to recognize the everyday sorrows and everyday joys of people that might look at the world differently from the way we do. “Recognize,” not “celebrate” – and perhaps it’s that lack of celebration that, in a decade divided between ironic put-ons and frenzied multicultural celebration (both of which Byrne participated in, of course), made it harder for the movie to be seen on its own terms. Not the greatest film ever, of course, but certainly an enjoyable, even moving one.