Heartworn Highways Relives 1970s Outlaw Country Music

Directed by Jim Szalapski
MVD Visual, 92 minutes, Re-release of 1981 original.

In the United States, anything that isn’t classical, opera, or jazz gets lumped into the category of “popular music.” For now I’ll ignore the fact that such distinctions are looser than old elastic. Many film buffs would say that the greatest "popular" music documentaries of all time are Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz (1976) and Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense (1984). If either film has a flaw, it is that each is simply a concert film—glorious ones shot in path-breaking ways, but there wasn’t a whole lot of script work to be done. Let’s add another to the list of top popular music films, Jim Szalapski’s Heartworn Highways. It was shot in late 1975 and early 1976, but wasn’t released until 1981. That’s rather fitting, as many of its country music subjects didn’t attract a lot of notice until around then.

Heartworn Highways is also script-challenged, but its visuals reveal volumes. Scorsese and Demme sought to iconize The Band and The Talking Heads, but they were already famous. That was not the case of those in Szalapski’s film: Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell, Larry Jon Wilson, Steve Young, Gamble Rogers, David Allan Coe, and an unrecognizably young Steve Earle. Back then, even the Charlie Daniels Band filled high school auditoriums, but not big arenas. They folks were “outlaws” in that their brand of country music evoked old-time country music, especially its balladic traditions. To put matters in perspective, they were the contemporaries of chart toppers such as Glen Campbell, John Denver, Merle Haggard, Ronnie Milsap, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, and Tanya Tucker. Not to take anything away from them, but theirs was a country music defined by big labels, mass markets, and image-makers. It was not necessarily what made the heart sing down at Big Mack McGowan’s Wigwam Tavern, the kind of place where really good (and really awful) players came together to sing old-style country. It’s also where you’d find Glenn Stegner, who once played with Uncle Dave Macon.   

The folks in Heartworn Highways are those hanging out in the dirt-poor back roads of Texas and Tennessee. There’s no context or explanation in this loosely structured film, but we infer they’re all connected to Guy Clark. We visit Van Zandt at his Austin trailer, where dogs, chickens, rabbits, and squalor surround him. We drop in on Wilson in the recording studio the morning after he had partied the night away, watch Clark rebuild his guitar, witness one of Rogers’ stand-up good ‘ole boy comedy routines, and join Coe as he pilots his bus towards a gig at the Tennessee State Prison—a place where his daddy spent most of his life and Coe also did time. Check out Coe’s concert duds; by contrast they make Vegas Elvis, Gene Simmons of KISS and Alice Cooper look like GQ covers. There’s hardly a scene in which we don’t see the men with a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other. The women are mostly in the kitchen or putting up with small barbs from their men, a reminder of how different the world was before second wave feminism trickled down. You might even be tempted to dismiss all of these guys as deplorable—until they sing. There’s an amazing encounter between Townes Van Zandt and his black neighbor, 79-yeard-old Seymour Washington. Van Zandt rambles incoherently and Washington holds forth on the virtues of moderation. (Wrong audience!) Then Townes picks up the guitar, sings “Waitin’ Around to Die,” as Washington washes the tears from his face. It’s a helluva song and a tender moment that reminds us that these country outlaws drew from streams watered by hard times, the blues, heartbreak, folk music, and pain. It’s impossible not to be moved by songs like “Ohoopee River Bottomland” (Wilson), “Bluebird Wine” (Crowell), or “Alabama Highway” (Young). Above them stood Clark, who sings with ease and writes with grace. He zings off a masterpiece like “L.A. Freeway” and just put down the guitar. Everyone of these folks could/can pick a guitar like a demon—their connections to African American country blues evident in each finger movement.

Szalapski’s camera work is on par with the music. You might often wonder who is on screen as there are no title boxes to inform you, but it doesn’t matter. Szalapski uses montage, collage, rapid sequences, and artful shots—like those of trucks shedding sheets of water during a downpour—with slow pan shots that bathe us in life among the other half and it’s a more effective lesson than any sociologist could teach. Contrast all of this with the airbrushed glitz of Dollywood and you’ll know what made them outlaws. Listen to today’s country music with its blistering guitar work and the willingness (of some) to tackle social issues, or the very renown now held by Charlie Daniels and Steve Earle, and you’ve got you answer about why these rebels mattered. Guy Clark, in my opinion, remains one of the most underappreciated geniuses of our time.

This is not your average documentary. It lets image and song tell the story and expects viewers to fill in the gaps. It is truly remarkable film and we should be thankful that DVD Visuals has made it available again.

Rob Weir


The Square: Too Enigmatic for its Own Good?

Directed by Ruben Östlund
TriArt, 151 minutes, R (nudity, language, disturbing images)
In Swedish, Danish, English, and English subtitles

The Square was Sweden's entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2108 Oscars. Watching it explains instantly why it was nominated and why it did not—indeed could not—win. It has much to say, but it's an experimental film marked by insight and incoherence, poignancy and puzzlement, and fine performances and mediocre ones. Director Ruben Östlund seems aware of these contradictions, yet embraces them, integrates them into the plot, and uses them to parody the very world of conceptual art to which he belongs.

Let's start with how the film is routinely digested for movie listings. It uses the artist's statement for the work at the film's periphery: "The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations." This leads one to think the film is some sort of docudrama about an enigmatic piece of art: a literal square cut into courtyard paving stones whose borders are marked by a solid line of white light. That certainly did not propel me into the theater. In the movie, though, the work is talked about more than actually shown. This suggests that The Square needed a better marketing campaign, but marketing is one of the targets of Östlund's lampoon—another odd choice given that such a work actually exists and was not fashioned by the film's fictional Lola Arias, but by Östlund himself and two others.

What's going on here? The Square's protagonist is Christian (Claes Bang), the curator of the Stockholm X-Royal Art Museum, whose forte is edgy conceptual art the likes of which straddle the razor's edge between bold and just plain bullshit. There is, for example, a room filled with conical piles of dirt. What do you make of that? And what if I told you that Yoko Ono actually made such an installation? Östlund's own Square is a riff on environmental artists such as Julian Schnabel and you'll also find sneaky references to Robert Smithson, Carl Hammond, and Oleg Kulik. That is, if you even know who these people are. This too is a cloaked insider joke. To know these people requires a level of familiarity that often presents as sophistication. Is it, or is it self-reverential snobbery? There's a delicious early scene in which Anne (Elisabeth Moss), a journalist, asks Christian to explain one of the museum's own statements about an exhibit. She reads him the verbatim postmodern mangling of language and Christian can but parrot back a few of the words Anne has just read. She replies that she has no more questions, though it was just her second. This won't prevent the two from bedding, though, so let's cut to a few other things in play.

The Square also skewers bourgeois and sophisticate values, especially the hypocrisy of how the well heeled speak with such passion of how the art and their lives identify with "the voiceless," yet each day they rush by street beggars. Another scene—which actually happened—finds Christian unable to complete a public interview as he is constantly interrupted by vulgarities from a man with Tourettes Syndrome. The very idea that this person should not be allowed to remain in the auditorium is met with vigorous protest from those decrying that those with such problems should not be marginalized. In fact, this is a double parody; it also explores the tension between the cultural decorum of Swedes versus the dilemmas posed by absolute tolerance. Such conundrums rise again when an ad firm produces a buzz video. A blond child stands in the Square and a voiceover challenges viewers to prove they truly are passionate. A clock ticks down and the little girl is blown to smithereens. (Echoes of the famed "daisy" ad from the 1964 POTUS campaign.) An outraged media descends upon Christian, but their outrage is all over the map. Some denounce the videos' poor taste, some want to know why the child was blond and not representative of those more likely to be downtrodden, and still others accuse Christian of self-censorship when he announces the ad has been pulled and that he has tendered his resignation. This one has a very surprising resolution.

The Square is filled with questions about the limits of altruism and tolerance, including a performance art dinner for big donors in which simian-like actors pose as wild beasts. How tolerant can we be before our own atavistic instincts reemerge? As you might surmise, Christian is the biggest hypocrite of all—though he will be challenged in poignant ways.

Bang is terrific as Christian and Dominic West shows up speaking, from I can tell, fluent Swedish. Christopher Læssø is riveting as a black man who is never quite sure of whom to trust and whom to fear. Moss, however, is a noticeable weak link. That startled me as she has attracted attention for past performances and is considered by many to be a rising serious actress. In The Square though, she is clingy, libidinous, and shallow. That may be what the script called for, but if so, it doesn't work very well. The real question is whether audiences will get what is essentially a satirical drama, or simply get lost in all the unexplained weirdness. The Square won the Palme d'Or, but the Cannes festival delights in honoring quirky films. I liked this film, but it has holes and it's simply too outré for mass tastes. Is that another message?

Rob Weir


Lincoln in the Bardo: Strange and Wondrous

By George Saunders
Random House, 368 pages

What happens the moment we die is the ultimate mystery, so it’s hardly surprising that not even religious traditions agree. Eternal non-existence? Reincarnation? Life after death? Quite a few belief systems speculate a temporary middle ground; Roman Catholicism’s Purgatory is by no means the only doctrine on such matters. George Saunders’ Booker Prize-winning Lincoln in the Bardo draws upon a Tibetan belief in an in-between space in which the departed is neither alive nor dead—the novel’s namesake bardo.

Lincoln in the Bardo was a controversial choice for the Booker Prize and not just because of its subject matter; Saunders is the first American writer to win the Booker and it infuriates many in the Brit Lit crowd that Yanks are even considered. That such an “experimental novel” has been honored is another level of debate, though the Booker often goes to works that cause traditionalists to spit out their Earl Grey. The only real question is whether this is a great novel. My verdict? Almost.

The year is 1862 and it has become apparent that the American Civil War will be more charnel house than a hall of heroes. Death becomes very personal to President Lincoln when a typhoid epidemic carries off his eleven-year-old son Willie, a jovial boy beloved by all and the president’s favorite child. This would be a fine book for its unvarnished look at grief alone—many speculate that Willie’s death drove Mary Todd Lincoln mad—but Saunders has a far more ambitious goal in mind. NPR called this book a “worm’s-eye view of death,” and that’s a pretty good way of describing it. Saunders claims part of what he wanted to communicate is embodied in the way Mary cradles the crucified Jesus in Michelangelo’s sculpture The Pieta.

The bardo is where one comes to grips with being dead; hence many there are as yet unaware of their fates. Each is present in the condition in which they arrived plus whatever ravages time takes on the physical body. The bardo is imbued with Edward Gorey levels of creepiness stripped of its Edwardian sense of propriety. Young Willie has been (temporarily) laid to rest in a Georgetown crypt until he can be carried back to the family home in Illinois. He doesn’t have much to say, but 166 other “ghosts” have views on everything—some of it unsettling, some amusing, some philosophical, but little of it self-aware. The narrators come from all walks of past lives: slaves, soldiers, hunters, prostitutes, laborers, homemakers…. This many voices would be a muddle, thus Saunders focuses mostly on three. The Rev. Everly Thomas knows he’s dead, but hasn’t moved on for a reason. Our sad ghost is Roger Bevins III, a closeted gay man who committed suicide; and the resident Falstaff is Hans Vollman, an older man who married a younger woman and was just about to consummate their union when a beam fell from the roof and snuffed out of his life, but not his engorged erection.

Saunders spins tales in snippets, few of which are longer than few sentences. His is a masterful job of imagined dialogue stitched to cut-and-paste passages from diaries, history books, memoirs, newspaper accounts, and other written sources. The ghosts are aware of each other and interact—often in unexpected ways. Sometimes they are as amusing as the movie-obsessed ghosts in the film Truly, Madly, Deeply; often their stories are more poignant and tragic.

It’s clear that Lincoln in the Bardo isn’t any kind of historical novel, but it’s much harder to say what, exactly, we should call it. It’s a fascinating read that I devoured in just two sittings, but I’m less willing to slap the “experimental” label onto it. Saunders’ technique is quite similar to that of Edgar Lee Masters in his 1915 Spoon River Anthology, which has the added merit (and difficulty) of having been written in verse. It also bears resemblance in set-up and tone to Kevin Brockmeier’s underappreciated masterwork The Brief History of the Dead (2006). Brockmeier built upon Eastern African tribal eschatology in which the living become Sasha at death—a kind of holding pattern where one stays until the last person still alive who remembers you passes away. Only then is one Zanan (dead).

So perhaps Saunders’ book isn’t quite as unique as some would have it. It is, however, beautifully written. If, along the way, you wish also to see it as capturing the collateral damage of war, an elegy, or commentary on something grander (the Holocaust?), it is testament to Lincoln in the Bardo that it provokes such thoughts. I can only tell you this: you will know within ten pages whether or not this is your cup of Earl Grey. If you like those ten pages, you will zip through the rest; if not, leave it on the shelf, as the next 358 pages are similar. As for its UK naysayers, the Brits need to get over themselves; this book is far more deserving of the Booker than a lot of previous winners.

Rob Weir