Alamo Drafthouse's Texas Monthly Rolling Roadshow has been kicking up dust around the Lone Star State for the last month, screening 10 Texas film gems in their locales of conception: Blood Simple in Austin, The Searchers in Groesbeck and No Country For Old Men in Marfa, etc.
But the finale took place Friday night in a single-red light flyspeck you've probably never heard of -- that is, unless you're acquainted with the literary heritage of Texas' most famous living writer: Larry McMurtry. Archer City, Texas, a tiny oil and cow town squatting in the mesquite roughly a half hour south of Wichita Falls, is both the film location for The Last Picture Show and the inspiration for the book on which Peter Bogdanovich's masterwork is based. Being something of a McMurtry-phile myself, I decided to blaze a Bock-strewn path north (I wasn't driving, honest), with the hope burning in my belly that the rumors were true: That McMurtry, the man himself, would make an appearance.
Now, there were a number of reasons that led me to deduce that a speech was about as likely as six inches of solid rain this month. First, McMurtry appearances are relatively rare, particularly as age and poor health afflict him. Second, he's a bit of a curmudgeon. That's not a knock, mind you. Most of the great ones are. Yet I've heard that his marriage to Ken Kesey's widow, Norma Faye Kesey, has softened the man considerably. Third, his relationship with Archer City is rather fraught, not least because of The Last Picture Show, a thinly veiled tell-all on the hypocrisies and cruelties of the small town. Inquire about him to certain townsfolk and obscenity will likely follow, along with the words "Brokeback" and "queer."
Bearing this in mind, I was skeptical. So my friend and I looted a few chairs from The Spur Hotel (Thanks Abby!), cracked our cooler and started draining Shiner cans. And, like an apparition, he appeared, standing yards from the hollowed carcass that was once the Royal Theater.
McMurtry's closing remarks after the jump...
Being a huge admirer of McMurtry's work, I may or may not have squealed and panicked momentarily. Then, I did what any social media-age looky-loo would do: I whipped out my iPhone and preserved this improbable event for posterity. Hopefully you'll be able to hear him well enough, but it may be difficult to see him. It was getting dark out, so I'll describe his appearance for you: Slovenly, in a very writerly way. Open blue or denim work shirt, white undershirt, suspenders, jeans, tennis shoes. He kept shielding his eyes with one hand because the guy working the spotlight was aiming it directly into his face. I won't discuss much of what he said, because no one could say it better than the author of Lonesome Dove -- a book I would argue to the point of fisticuffs is the Great American Novel.
I will, however, pull a few gems. He described The Last Picture Show as a "spiteful" book that took three weeks to write and was intended to "lance some of the poisons of small-town life." Even the man's spoken prose is awesome! He also noted that Cybill Shepherd "couldn't act a lick." But she was real pretty, he added.
On a completely unrelated note, I have a new-found crush on Ellen Burstyn.
After about seven minutes, McMurtry took his seat and TLPS was cued up on the inflatable screen. If you haven't seen it, it's a fantastic film with some standout performances by Ben Johnson, Timothy Bottoms and Cloris Leachman. The film basically made Jeff Bridges career as "Duane," though he was outshone by Bottoms as "Sonny." Strange, then, that Bottoms went on to a fairly humdrum career as an actor, while Bridges' third act has been remarkable. The experience of it all, though--sitting there in the dust and the heat as ranch trucks with after-market mufflers roared by and hooted out their windows--was pretty damned special. One I'll never forget, to be sure.
And while I'm at it, I'd also like to offer a bit of unsolicited advice to the event organizers giving shout outs and to the local dignitary. Most importantly, when Larry Fucking McMurtry, being of somewhat frail body, is waiting in the wings to speak, don't lengthily thank the beer vendor and the sweep-up crew and the toilet plunger and everyone else you have listed on your cue card. The Greatest Living Writer is standing right there. Shut up, get out of the way and let him speak.
Perhaps less offensively to Archer City Mayor David Levy, don't lob weak, if well-intentioned, barbs at McMurtry. Yeah, McMurtry's been on record saying books don't play a huge role in Archer City life. Dollars to donuts that's true. If it weren't for McMurtry's antiquarian book stores, which comprise a healthy portion of Archer City's downtown real estate, the town would approach book desertification. Dispelling that "myth" by citing local library figures that say some 800 books a month are checked out is not important in this context. At all. It makes you seem small and defensive. Especially when the man at whom said barb was aimed is standing RIGHT THERE and dwarfs you in every way, aside from the physical sense.
I'm rambling now, but the point is, dear reader, I was hoping to convey to you how rare this is. Rare, as in it may never happen again. Ever.
Now, McMurtry's closing remarks.
Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.