Dances With Films Festival review: 'An American In Texas' is a grim reminder of the collateral damage of war
We take a closer look at the 1990 Bush-era punk film with a few key insights from director Anthony Pedone and co-writer Stephen Floyd.
Earlier this month, the Dances With Films Festival premiered 'An American In Texas', a Bush-era punk film by producer turned indie director Anthony Pedone, co-written by Stephen Floyd. Based on real events that Pedone and Floyd were themselves embroiled in, the film à clef tells the tale of a bunch of defiant 20-something year-olds in a small suburban town in Victoria, Texas, who are in a punk-rock band and hoping to move to Los Angeles seeking better opportunities.
This is set against the backdrop of the Gulf War and as the very first scene shows us, is underlined by TV broadcasts of then-President George Bush's speeches about Operation Desert Storm. 'An American In Texas' is a tale of everyday struggles, a grasp for identity and disillusionment.
"Much of the film is semi-autobiographical, based on our lives and those of a dozen or so of our friends from roughly 1990-1991, during the ramp up to and execution of the first gulf war. The characters in the film are amalgamations of Anthony & I, as well as our friends," said co-writer and Stephen Floyd in a brief Q&A that I had with him and director Anthony Pedone.
The film stars James Paxton (Eyewitness), Sam Dillon (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Memoria), J.R. Villarreal (Spare Parts) and star of Nickelodeon’s School of Rock Tony Cavalero in lead roles - collectively, they are part of the punk-rock outfit 'Surgeon General’s Warning' (SGW).
The filmmakers succeed in exploring the duality of the lives of these youngsters growing up in a small suburban town, faced with the reality of a dead-end job at the plastic plant, a life in the oil field, or fighting a war that has no meaning to them. While they slug it out during the day doing their dead-end jobs, their nights are transformed as they take the stage to express their bottled-up rage through their music, indulging in frequent acid trips and vandalism - scenes that are inflected with an almost surreal horror, as their reality morphs and melts around them, providing a temporary escape from their meaningless lives.
'An American In Texas' is unique in more ways than one. It's a war film (or should I say anti-war film) that doesn't depict a single scene of war. While the action happens in distant Iraq, the film focuses on the personal lives of the characters, who are estranged from the political tension, with no belief in the thinly veiled oil-grubbing agenda of the government. This interplay between how a war that's happening thousands of miles away affects the lives of Americans - who are first and foremost Texans - in a small town where a job at the local plastic plant is the ultimate rung in society's ladder is fantastically portrayed on screen.
With barely any exposition to the characters, we dive straight into their estranged lives, shuffling with almost a schizophrenic split between their dual lives. The cinematography, marked by immersive camera work that often places us into the thick of things, and the score, which shuffles between blaring punk music and pin-drop suburban silence, support this endeavor fully. For most of the film, the gang stays indifferent to the war, but their attitude towards it always made clear, whether it's shown in the form of their balls-to-the-wall style punk music or just the usual shenanigans that they get up to from time to time. But the looming presence of the war is always in the background. And when it does occasionally pop-up onto the forefront, the horror is almost palpable as the film draws us into the personal lives of the characters and catches us by surprise.
A particularly gripping scene is a conference for the workers of the plastic plant. Barry Corbin (No Country For Old Men) plays the role of Larry Korchinsky, a long-term worker at the plant and a war hero, who is ripped with emotional turmoil as he delivers his farewell speech, just a day after being informed that his son has been killed in action in Iraq. Meanwhile, the members of SGW and the newest and only female member of the gang Kara (Charlotte Best) are tripping on LSD, staring at the distorted, monstrous faces of the oil magnates. The disillusionment is doubled as we view it from the eyes of a weary war hero who has lost his son as well as a bunch of burnt out kids under the influence of drugs.
The title of the film - 'An American In Texas' explores yet another duality - that of being a patriotic American, but also a proud Texan first. Each of the characters is thus torn between these two identities, while also going through their own journey of disillusionment.
"We are all raised to believe that America is different, that our country is the freest in the world, that you can be anything you want to be in America. At that point in our lives we thought that hey maybe what we’ve been told is true, but maybe it isn’t. However, the experiences we had before, during, and after the war is that you can do anything you want as long as you want what everyone else wants," Stephen Floyd says of the duality in the title. "In conservative Texas, that was even more true, if it is possible for something to be “more” true. The reaction from people to any kind of dissent certainly was forceful, certainly it was where we lived at the time, in small-town Texas."
Stephen presented an anecdote of his own formative years growing up in Texas to demonstrate the point. "One example of this came on our college campus when I heard some people saying things like 'we should drop nukes on ‘em, they already hate us anyway'. When I spoke up and said that was a ridiculous idea; I thought that I was going to get in a fistfight with the man who said it, his eyes turned dark and he said some really despicable things about me and my opinion as he came towards me. In the end, he was restrained and nothing happened but that was a typical reaction to a refusal to go along with the crowd. There’s an animal ugliness in that mindset and it’s frightening to witness, even on a small scale," he said.
"Again, we still wanted to believe that America was different from other countries, and this is what the title means to me, we were the true “Americans” which made us the aliens or outcasts - Americans in Texas," he concluded.
The music and the score also plays a very important role in the film. The contrast between the punk aesthetics and sudden ominous silences, underlined by snippets from George Bush’s speeches is gripping, courtesy of Trevor Dunn, bassist for Mr. Bungle, John Zorn & Fantoms, who helms the movie score. Add to this the disorienting meltdowns of psychedelic music that scores the young punks' LSD trips and it all makes for a complex, yet crisp sound design.
Director Anthony Pedone explains how music has always played a large part in his films. "I was a music major in college, and really love how sound design and music work in conjunction with the moving image. When you take hallucinogens like LSD, there are visual hallucinations, but more than anything there are auditory hallucinations. We wanted to capture that in the sound design of the film. We worked with a couple of creative sound designers from a post house called Sound Flower in Poland, and also Austin Texas sound guru, Lyman Hardy at Stuck On On," Anthony said.
"We also work with Walter Sickert & the Army of Broken Toys from Boston. They have the opening track, closing track, and the song when the kids drop acid after the Country Club, and a couple of other cues in the film. Because of their string-heavy instrumentation, they have this lush sound that really lends itself to Trevor’s score."
Apart from the sound itself, Pedone also tugs on the politics of music and by virtue of some sneaky cameo performances, causes a major inversion in perspective. Former Dead Kennedys frontman and the Green Party's presidential candidate for the 2000 elections Jello Biafra plays the mayor of the town. Other punk icons that feature in the film include David Yow from the Jesus Lizard (who plays a police officer), and Zander Schloss from the Circle Jerks, who plays the record store owner and a father-figure/manager of sorts for SGW.
"We cast him as the Mayor because we knew that we wanted to put cast punk icons in roles of authority, and that Jello actually ran for mayor of San Francisco in the 80’s and got a lot of votes. It was a stunt cast, and one of the many little breadcrumbs of trivia we have woven into the film," admits Anthony, who also threw in some of his own punk band Cornpone into the soundtrack.
"We also cast David Yow from the Jesus Lizard as a cop, and Zander Schloss from the Circle Jerks as the record store owner. These guys really bring some breadth to the cast, and they also all put in very memorable performances. Zander’s scene in the record store is one of my favorite in the film."
Schloss was also kind enough to provide some of his material for the film's score. As Anthony revealed, Schloss had stowed away a few demos of original material, which he has recorded with the rhythm section of the Circle Jerks, Greg Hetson and Kevin Fitzgerald. Anthony collaborated with Schloss to flesh out the demo, who worked out the lyrics and even provided vocals for SGW's songs. "We discussed a few lyrical premises, Zander then wrote some lyrics, and sang on the tracks. This was a huge leg up for us. To get music from a seminal punk band, was really the best thing that could have happened. It was at that moment that I thought…..we really have a movie here," says Anthony.
"Stephen and I knew early on that if the band sucked, then no one would believe that they could get out of town—we needed a band that people would root for. That Circle Jerks demo allowed us to cross that off the list."
There's no doubt that the tropes explored in 'An American In Texas' are all too familiar in its genre, even in mainstream cinema. One only has to look at the string of anti-war films centered around the Vietnam War to realize it - 'Full Metal Jacket', 'Apocalypse Now', 'Platoon' and the likes. But it is the treatment that makes the film unique. It remains at its core a punk film - a rebellion against the hypocrisy of war. It's a gripping film that recounts a story that's almost too unbelievable to be true, a film that is a reminder of the current socio-political landscape and the collateral damage that often goes unnoticed in the bigger picture.