Before the American independent-film movement gained any serious traction, film festivals often balanced out slates of foreign fare and Hollywood-generated arthouse product with what were then called “regional films.” When Eagle Pennell’s debut feature, The Whole Shootin’ Match, screened at the USA Film Festival in Dallas in 1978, critic Arthur Knight defended regional filmmaking, saying that Texans shouldn’t have to settle for having their stories told “by American International,” but should support natives like Pennell, who had an insider’s take on how his home state should look and sound. Indeed, The Whole Shootin’ Match retains its local flavor 30 years later. The movie resembles a redneck version of Charles Burnett’s seminal 1977 indie Killer Of Sheep: both were shot in high-contrast black-and-white, both feature sometimes-stiff performances, and both are about men and women trying to eke out a living while spending their days colorfully jawing at each other. The Whole Shootin’ Match also recalls Texas-shot classics like Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show and Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket, in that it’s about restless people who face the future with a certain cockeyed, deadpan optimism.
Lou Perryman and Sonny Carl Davis play makeshift entrepreneurs—sort of a cowboy Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton—who bounce from one odd job and get-rich-quick scheme to another, in between holding court at the local saloon. Perryman is the industrious one, reading up on chinchillas and polyurethane, and inventing new kinds of mops. Davis is the skeptic—“I should be driving a chinchilla Cadillac by now,” he cracks when Perryman fills him in on his latest plan—but goes along with his friend mainly so he can get out of the house, away from his nagging wife and whiny kid. The Whole Shootin’ Match is too long and too shapeless, but Knight was right that it has a personal, lived-in feeling that no filmmaker from the coasts could replicate.
When Davis flips through a copy of People magazine to figure out how to slick-up his image—and then walks out of the men’s store in a denim suit and cowboy hat—or when he stops cranking ice cream for a minute so he can swig a beer and drown out the sound of his wife jabbering about a tent revival, these are moments that in an outsider’s hands could come off as condescending. But Pennell makes them feel well-observed, and very funny. Over the past several decades, independent films have become smoother in style, broader in appeal, and less idiosyncratic. The Whole Shootin’ Match is a reminder of the movement’s roots in small stories about everyday people, far from Hollywood.
Key features: Pennell’s Shootin’-like short film A Hell Of A Note, a vintage interview with Pennell, and a feature-length documentary about him called The King Of Texas. The doc details Pennell’s spiral into alcoholism and drug abuse in the decades following his breakthrough, and doubles as a history of the Austin hippie scene.