' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Whole Shootin’ Match (1978)

Friday, October 07, 2022

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Whole Shootin’ Match (1978)

The story goes that after screening at the U.S. Film Festival in Salt Lake City in 1978, Eagle Pennell’s debut feature film “The Whole Shootin’ Match” so impressed Robert Redford that he decided to start Sundance. How much of that is literally true, I don’t know, though you can certainly understand how this movie, currently showing on The Criterion Channel, might have inspired what independent film in America became. Originally shot on 16mm, Pennell did a bang-up job demonstrating how budget and equipment impress no limitations on how one can visually tell a story. Pennell immediately puts the central relationship into perspective when Lloyd (Lou Perryman) walks through a door on the left-hand side of the screen, casting the only light into an otherwise dark room, and steps into the right-hand side of the frame where he yanks the cord on a ceiling light to reveal his buddy Frank (Sonny Carl Davis) passed out on a pool table, waking him up. That perspective is furthered in the ensuing scene, the two men driving through the Texas night with Frank at the wheel and Lloyd beside him in the passenger seat, the latter insisting on the need to get your mind right, a slogan copped from some book he read, which Frank laughs off as fortune cookie wisdom. If the blackness behind them is meant to obscure how the car isn’t really moving, it also seems to portray them as just two lonely blots in the void of the universe.

 Lloyd is the brains of the outfit, even if his plethora of get rich schemes like flying squirrel farms have all gone bust, a tinkerer cum inventor, his junk-filled yard evoked as a grassy work bench, picking out crap and seeing what comes of it. His million-dollar idea is a combination mop dreamt up when he’s going through the carwash, a sequence demonstrative of Pennell’s gift for economical movie magic, employing nothing more than rhythmic editing and music to evince Lloyd’s lightbulb moment. That the mop dream goes sideways perhaps goes without saying, though Pennell is far cagier than mere fatalism. The first sign this burgeoning entrepreneurship is doomed comes when a commercial for the invention pops up on TV during a Dallas Cowboys game Frank is watching, their idea being stolen right in front of him flying over his head, football as an escape as throwing the wool over your own eyes. And Frank’s dream of confronting the company man that has screwed them over coming to pass plays less like a premonition than a subconscious realization that they are the ones who have screwed up and it’s too late. 

If Lloyd is Frank’s closest friend, his wife Paulette’s (Doris Hargrave) closest friend is Christian talk radio, which we see her intently listening to in a couple scenes, Pennell cutting to a close-up of the radio speakers in each one, as if it really is a living, breathing character right there in the room. She accepts the generosity of an old high school friend who clearly pines for even as she wards off his advances, not that this matters to Frank, angry and jealous that he can’t replace his son’s bike when it gets stolen like his wife’s would-be suitor can. When his son cries over being ordered to return the replacement bike, Frank takes off his belt and whips him, a terrifying scene that’s more about Frank exerting his own frustrations than imparting any lesson.

Paula keeps their house from breaking apart even as Frank hypocritically cheats on her, buying a new suit after their advance on their new-fangled kitchen cleaner, picking up a woman at the bar and essentially trying on a whole new life for size. He does this earlier, too, when he and Lloyd pick up a couple younger women at another bar, getting drunk and going skinny-dipping. The following morning, they have breakfast at the home of one of the woman’s fathers, confined to a wheelchair and barely present in the world, a harbinger of a future that just seems to drift pass Frank like a cloud. As moody and mean as he can be, though, always waiting for Lloyd to prop him up, he’s also the one who tries to prop Lloyd up after their possible riches slip through their hands, finding a treasure map and taking him out into the hill country of Texas to find it. That the map yields nothing but a horseshoe plays like a no quick fix punchline to one big cosmic joke.

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