Clipography: A Look Into the Versatility of Texas Caught on Film


hell-or-high-waterJames Cole Clay// Film Critic

I’m a native son of Texas– and while never reaching the red-blooded, gun-toting hunter that is often celebrated around these parts, it’s always fun to feel like a bit of an outsider while easily slipping back into that Southern drawl.

With the release of the highly-praised Texas neo-western HELL OR HIGH WATER over the weekend, it got me thinking about how diverse the types of films are that are shot, or take place in Texas. The versatility of Texas has far gone unnoticed. The old days of cowpokes and outlaws is way of the past. And although the outdated culture is still celebrated because of nostalgia, the vast state has much more to offer on the silver-screen than what initially meets the eye.

Time and time again, we are relegated to being most lauded for our BBQ and scorching summers. However, what we don’t get credit for in mainstream media is directing greats like Richard Linklater (BOYHOOD) and Wes Anderson (THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL), and yet we’re stuck with Robert Rodriguez (SPY KIDS) and The Jonas Brothers.

Things could be worse for the Lone Star State, but at least we have beautiful landscapes that have quietly proved to be an oasis for shooting a film.

BERNIE (2011)- Texas: 5-states-in-1 

There’s a romanticism to the open fields and small towns, all the way to the major metros and crunchy granola attitude of Austin. It’s a place that feels like a different state with each city you may visit, which makes me think of a hilarious and completely accurate scene from Linklater’s 2011 comedy, titled BERNIE, that perfectly articulates the regions that bind Texas together.

The small town life of Carthage, TX depicted in BERNIE is astoundingly accurate. While many had their feathers ruffled at making a true-crime murder a comedy starring Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey and Shirley MacLaine, there’s never been a better portrayal of the simple complications of knowing EVERYBODY within a 20 mile radius.

URBAN COWBOY (1980) : A Good Ol’ Fashioned Fist-Fight

Growing up in Texas, there’s a level of masculinity that was portrayed within the culture. Frankly it’s totally outdated and really laughable at this point. Feeding the ego of the pseudo-cowboys at the local honky-tonks is long gone with the turn of the century. And things have gotten better for it, but that still doesn’t take away from the glory days that were depicted in the John Travolta-starring URBAN COWBOY.

Shot right outside of Houston, in Pasadena, the 1980 mega-hit had Travolta trading in his platform shoes from SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER for cowboy boots. The film has an earnest and loving quality to its romantic triangle between Travolta, Deborah Winger and Scott Glenn, along with a soundtrack and setting that fits the niche of the blue-collar, Budweiser drinking community. Look there’s nothing wrong with that lifestyle, but the film’s politics on how to treat a lady right are shocking as seen through the eyes of somebody living in 2016.

Travolta and Glenn literally fist fight over the affections of Winger, not to prove their love to her but to be in some sort of weird homoerotic pissing contest, complete with a few slaps across the mouth of Winger by each of the men respectively. URBAN COWBOY depicted a time that was romantic and passionate as it was violent. While the film has moments of sincerity, it can be equally pretty messed up.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN(2007) – 2 Million in Stolen Cash

While URBAN COWBOY showed a time where being a tough Texan was at its peak, enter the Coen brothers with their masterpiece NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. It takes place in 1980, as well mused on the ever changing world and how this generation was the last of a dying breed, while the rest of the world was making way for the “new normal.”

Based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN showed how the state is constantly at odds with itself. The drug war is bringing in dirty money at the cost of spilled blood, the way of the blue-collar lifestyle wanes in the form of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a welder that gets away with 2 million in stolen cartel cash. The subversive tone stays away from genre expectations with some of the best scenes void of any dialogue, the tone is given time to air out, with only the incomparable images of Roger Deakins to tell the story.

Look, this is a film that surfaces a different meaning depending on your mood; it’s about growing old, the changing times and a kick ass “modern day” western with a sense of humor. It’s a quintessential Texas film with a nonchalant attitude that lacks passion in the best ways possible.

FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS (2004)- Dads Aren’t Allowed On the Field

But where the Coen’s lack an impassioned feel is made up with firing the old pigskin across a gridiron full of teens who are put in a position to become heroes for 48 minutes every Friday night.

Peter Berg’s 2004 film FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, based Buzz Bissinger’s book of the same name, quite accurately displays why football became a religion in a small Texas town. It’s a corny concept that these adults are so caught up in teenagers playing a game, yet throughout the film we see how the game affects the economy of each individual city. There’s a passion surrounding the game that’s without equal. It’s the one event in a conservative town that can bring people of different backgrounds together. And for what it’s worth, that’s a beautiful thing to witness.

DAZED AND CONFUSED- Welcome to the Emporium 

DAZED AND CONFUSED is the easy breezy side of growing up in Texas, the pressures of authority constraining youth with responsibility and staying sober on the last day of school in 1976 Austin, TX.

Time passes throughout the day perfectly showing how the students are able to mold their personality depending on the setting, which range from evading football coaches to boozing on the field as the sun rises. Linklater’s film is a testament to youth culture that feels like it came from 76’, was made in 93’ and will always feel timeless. The tunes from Bob Dylan and Alice Cooper retains the spirit of youth in many forms– and having this film being synonymous with Texas goes down smooth like a cold Shiner Bock.

OFFICE SPACE (1999)- Did You Get the Memo?

Through all the horses, guns, nostalgia and other faces of Texas, it turns out that a sense of humor should be added to that list.

OFFICE SPACE is a film that could have possibly led me to the path I am on now in life. As an impressionistic teen I took to the theater with my mom to see the 1999 comedy, which marked Mike Judge’s feature film debut.

The movie famously lampooned the culture of corporate America, but this isn’t your WALL STREET type of glitz and glamour; this is the beige walled, khaki pant, water cooler type of lifestyle that personally seems like a living nightmare. While the film isn’t overtly Texas, this sort of office atmosphere is a plenty in every single city here, especially in Houston, or Dallas. But what’s great is the truth behind the bland day in and day out that doesn’t just extend to an office chair and mindless TPS reporting. This movie put so much joy into the world as a cautionary tale as to not settle and keep challenging yourself in life.

Personally, I’m not a true Texas patriot who is filled with pride when the song “Deep in the Heart of Texas” plays at sporting events, but like any other geographic region the natives are going to have their nitpicks and at times the stereotypes on-screen can get annoying. With the films we discussed here, having cliches always provides the chance to subvert expectations. The state is a place where there are millions of story possibilities and sometimes things aren’t always what they seem.

HELL OR HIGH WATER opened in limited release on Friday.

About author

James C. Clay

James Cole Clay has been working as a film critic for the better part of a decade covering new releases, blu ray reviews and the occasional drive-in cult classic. His writing is dedicated to discovering social politics through diverse voices, primarily focusing on Women In Film and LGBTQ cinema.