Giant shoes to fill in a country full of great movies
By EMILY JO CURETON
MARFA – So what makes a movie great anyway? What does it mean for a film to embody a place? And what if that place is as big and diverse as Texas?
These were the questions recently put to a panel of five film experts, who holed up in a room and didn’t leave until everyone agreed on a new canon: the ten best Texas movies of all time.
Giant and No Country for Old Men, which will return to the big screen for Marfa audiences this weekend courtesy of Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse and Texas Monthly magazine, were total shoo-ins for the top ten.
They were both shot in and around Marfa, a landscape equally suited to a story set today as one taking place 50, or for that matter 500 years ago. But they also share something deeper, harder to pin down than just a common geography: true Texasness.
“Texas is a state like no other. The ego and the mythology of Texas history and the pride of being a Texan is very special,” said Alamo Drafthouse CEO Tim League, who participated in the three-hour debate between notable cinephiles that eventually became the basis for a feature story in the June issue of Texas Monthly.
The article, “No Country for Bad Movies” kicked off a simple plan from the magazine’s editor and former Big Bend Sentinel reporter Jake Silverstein.
Silverstein wanted a story on the page to pave the way for an experience in real life, in this case a road trip all over the state to watch great movies in thematic locations.
“It’s the idea of taking your favorite movie as an act of pilgrimage, a quasi-religious state,” League said of the philosophy behind the Rolling Roadshow tours, which Alamo first started in 2004.
Silverstein agreed: “To see that moment when the real geography intersects with the film geography is completely fascinating”.
Still, the shows in Marfa aren’t actually located where the films were shot. No Country for Old Men will be screened just after sunset this Friday, June 24 on an arbitrary patch of earth near the Riata Inn, on Hwy 90 East. Giant will be shown on Saturday on a blocked-off Highland Avenue near the Hotel Paisano, which served as the headquarters for the cast and crew during production.
The audience is encouraged to bring their own food, drinks, blankets and chairs.
While the organizers would have liked to screen the movies on the ranchlands where they were filmed, this wasn’t possible due to concerns about a crowd convening someplace so vulnerable to wildfire.
The Texas Monthly Rolling Roadshow tour began in early June with a screening of The Searchers in Groesbeck, and then came The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in Kingsland; Blood Simple in Austin; Hud in Claude; Red River in Fort Worth; Bonnie and Clyde in Pilot Point; and Tender Mercies in Waxahachie.
Now the tour is wrapping up with No Country for Old Men and Giant in Marfa, and the Last Picture Show on July 1 in Archer City.
As to how the film panel decided what was great, what was Texas and what was exceedingly both, they began with a few simple parameters: no documentaries or made-for-TV movies and the final films had to be those with stories that are not just universally compelling, but also uniquely Texan.
The likes of Slacker, Lone Star, Friday Night Lights, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Dazed and Confused and even Urban Cowboy were batted around, but ultimately didn’t make the cut.
“It starts with storytelling more than anything else”, League said on the question of cinematic greatness, “Movies that have at the core great story telling and great performances stand the test of the time”.
Marfa is no stranger to the silver screen. The productions here come and go. Special effects that at first hit audiences hard and fast might fall flat five years, let alone five decades, later. Genres age and styles change. Most likely, Avatar is going to look cheap someday.
The physical comes down to dust at an especially fast clip in West Texas. Fifty-five years later only a few rotted planks remain of the mansion set built for Giant. Five years after his terrifying and senseless murder in No Country Old Men, Marfa National Bank president Chip Love is back to business as usual.
But the ripples of Hollywood’s first and arguably most influential trek to Marfa are still felt in other ways.
This weekend a new documentary on the real life legacy of Giant begins filming in Marfa. Oscar- and Emmy-award-winning documentary filmmaker and Marfa resident Karen Bernstein is co-producing Children of Giant, which she hopes will use the 1956 epic as “a kind of prism for addressing segregation”.
The racial tensions at the heart of Giant have both dissolved and persisted across seven decades. But as things change in many ways for the better, there’s also a tremendous sense of nostalgia for that era.
The Hotel Paisano has been renting out the rooms once occupied by the stars of Giant for years. Hardly a week goes by at the Marfa Chamber of Commerce without some camera-toting visitor asking for directions to the nearly erased Reata set.
“People love being in the Rock Hudson suite, I actually spent my wedding night there,” Silverstein said, “The nostalgia that surrounds Giant is very powerful and it’s probably something that people will try to access when they see the screening. The idea of huge Hollywood stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean hanging around in little dusty Marfa, Texas… people love that idea,” then he mused, “It would be funny to imagine what it would be like if Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie descended on Marfa for a major motion picture today. It probably wouldn’t be anything like it was when Giant came to town”.
Tune in to KRTS’s Talk at Ten program at 10 AM and 6:30 PM on Thursday, June 23 at to hear an interview with Silverstein about the Rolling Roadshow in Marfa.