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The definition of independent filmmaking has changed with the times. Access to video equipment capable of producing theatrical quality images now opens the field to practically anyone. In today's Hollywood, as many finished low-budget features are probably being hawked as original screenplays.
A constant complaint of film school graduates in the 1970s was the lack of access to the tools and production funds. Hit movies made outside the centers of financing and influence invariably came from ambitious filmmakers with talent and drive. When actor Robert Redford promoted the Sundance Film Festival in 1978 to provide a showcase for independent movies, he praised a gem of a home-grown picture called The Whole Shootin' Match. The rural Texas production has all the earmarks of a labor of love born of determination and grit: filmed on weekends, actors working for free, a cameraman using 16mm short ends.
Watchmaker films presents The Whole Shootin' Match in a deluxe boxed set that constitutes a tribute to filmmaker Eagle Pennell, a Texas original who helped establish independent film production as it's known today. The feature is accompanied by a short subject, a documentary on Pennell and other elaborate extras.
The Whole Shootin' Match follows the amusing travails of Frank and Lloyd (Sonny Carl Davis & Lou Perryman), misguided Texans with big ambitions and a distinct lack of judgment. Lloyd tinkers with feeble inventions in his garage. Frank combats his low self-esteem with a hearty laugh, active denial and plenty of liquor. They stumble from one failed business scheme to the next while eking out a living partnering in short-haul work. The unmarried Lloyd quotes advice from self-help books. It's not his fault if the Chinchilla market dropped out, or if their Flying Squirrel Farm was a bust. Frank feels demoralized because he's "on the wrong side of 30". His hardworking wife Paulette (Doris Hargrave) keeps getting visits from sneaky cousin Olan (Eric Henshaw), who would like nothing better than to lure Paulette away. He gives Frank's son a new bicycle, knowing that Frank will overreact and insist that the bike be returned.
Frank's braggadocio is a clear indicator of his insecurity. Whenever hopelessness threatens, the partners head to the nearest bar to get drunk and chase women. Stumbling out of the brush with their dates of the evening, the boys meet the senile Mr. Lynn, a wheelchair bound pensioner who takes a shot a them from his porch: "Can't be too careful with Government men around!" The codger mumbles something about a secret map to buried treasure, launching Frank and Lloyd on another misbegotten adventure.
A trip to the car wash inspires Lloyd to fabricate a fancy powered mop. The partners' surprise, a patent lawyer snaps up the device for $1,000 in cash and a contract for royalties. Dreaming of a fortune, Frank indulges in an ecstatic shopping spree. But the boys realize they've been robbed when they see an ad for their mop during a Cowboys game. For the first time, Lloyd doesn't bounce back with a cheerful face, as he can't chalk this up as a learning experience. Are they really such hopeless losers?
The micro-budgeted The Whole Shootin' Match has qualities lacking in films made at any price. Lloyd and Frank are neither clowns nor regional stereotypes but fully realized characters. Sonny Carl Davis' Frank is a likeable blowhard and his own worst enemy. Davis' scenes with Doris Hargrave can match any drama about downwardly mobile southerners, and his rivalry with the cagey Eric Henshaw is inspired. In a perfectly staged bar fight, the enraged Frank throttles Olan and then tearfully apologizes. Frank and Lloyd are clearly not going to get anywhere together, but their mutual loyalty can't be discounted. Besides, if the partners split up, they'd miss out on the news down at their favorite bar!
Director Pennell demonstrates an admirable control of the film's relaxed tone. The close-knit group had a history of making short films together, which shows in the affectionate characterizations. Both Davis and Perryman have since enjoyed busy acting careers but the much-praised Pennell experienced career difficulties and passed away at an early age. He remains a key figure in the growth of the American independent film.
Watchmaker Films' 3-Disc Special Edition of The Whole Shootin' Match is a labor of love. After garnering praise in festival screenings, the acclaimed feature became unavailable for twenty years. It re-premiered in 2007 after a restoration by Mark Rance. The soundtrack is very nicely restored, and quite clear. The feature is accompanied by two commentaries, divided between talent in front of and behind the camera.
The handsomely packaged set contains A Hell of a Note, a 1977 30-minute short subject that can be considered a trial run on the Frank and Lloyd characters. Sonny Carl Davis and Lou Perryman provide a commentary. Even better is a full-length documentary, The King of Texas, in which the family and associates of Eagle Pennell discuss the filmmaker's rocky career. Co-writer / producer Lin Sutherland opens a storage shed that contains her records and keepsakes for Shootin' Match, and actress Doris Hargrave describes the creative synergy that went into the weekend filming sessions.
Actors Davis and Perryman chart Pennell's failed move to Hollywood and the problems that put his work and his life on a downhill course. Richard Linklater and Willie Nelson contribute interviews explaining how Texas bloomed as a regional cultural center in the 1970s: film and music talent could flourish there without having to relocate to Los Angeles or New York. Finishing off disc 2 is a 20-minute interview with Eagle Pennell from 1981.
A third disc contains The Long Road, a CD containing Chuck Pinnell's soundtracks for both the feature and the documentary. Pinnell describes himself as a "small town Texas hippie" and praises the contribution of singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves.
The package finishes with a polished 44-page booklet. Essays and reviews cover the Texas independent film movement as well as the story of Eagle Pennell, with key pieces by Arthur Knight, Emmanuel Levy and Roger Ebert. The stylishly designed, independently produced disc set is a class act all the way.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics. Also, don't forget the 2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.