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Wild Horses
Courtesy of Patriot Pictures
Josh Hartnett and James Franco in Wild Horses.
Josh Harnett and James Franco — Wild Horses
Courtesy of Patriot Pictures
Josh Hartnett and James Franco in Wild Horses.

Twenty minutes into Wild Horses, the new Western from writer/director/star Robert Duvall, a grizzled Texas rancher named Scott Briggs hides with his son behind some brush, watching a small group of Mexican men fill a Jeep with drugs they’ve just smuggled over the border. The border butts up against Briggs’ property and, being a grizzled Texas rancher, he figures it’s his responsibility (Hell, if the federal government won’t do it…) to patrol it — just him, his son and a couple of rifles against a rising tide of lawlessness. A short firefight ends with the Jeep in flames, the Mexicans dashing off into the night, and Briggs and his son heading home to await their inevitable reckoning at the hands of some very disgruntled drug lords.

And then… nothing. No reckoning, no revenge, no betrayals, no climactic confrontations, no drug lords, no murder, no fun at all. It’s as if the showdown in the desert never happened. Briggs and his son (Josh Hartnett) turn their attention to other concerns, and a storyline most filmmakers would take an entire movie to unpack and television showrunners whole multi-season arcs to develop just disappears into the desert air like the smoke from a burning Jeep. America’s drug crisis — solved in a single night.

That sequence and its lack of aftermath tell you everything you need to know about Wild Horses, which had its world premiere earlier this year at the SXSW Film Festival and was released in June on DVD. Everything about the film, from the dialogue to the casting to the directing, feels incomplete and unexamined, as if Duvall (who is now 84) had a thousand ideas but a sense that his time for exploring them was slipping away, so he decided to tackle them all in one movie. The drug war, illegal immigration, gay rights, family feuds, spousal abuse, fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, sexism, racism, border wars, corrupt cops, Mexican street gangs: Duvall gives them all the courtesy of a quick glance.

It’s a shame, too, because the movie’s premise had so much potential. One night, Briggs comes upon his other son, Ben (played by James Franco), having an intimate moment with Jimmy, one of the ranch hands, and goes all Yosemite Sam on them, hooting and hollering and (literally) firing his pistol into the ceiling before chasing Ben off, shouting Bible passages after him. As for Jimmy, he’s never seen or heard from again. Flash forward 15 years and Jimmy’s mother is asking the Texas Rangers to reopen the cold case on her missing son. A female ranger (played by Duvall’s real-life wife, Luciana Pedraza) agrees and starts digging around in their community’s past, discovering all kinds of nastiness and lies and corruption.

So the stage has been set for a dark, twisting narrative about buried secrets and deep family divisions, a bloodstained domestic drama disguised as a police procedural. Unfortunately, what Duvall gives us instead is a soap-opera morass of lifeless exposition and meandering distractions. Subplots, including the one involving the drug smugglers, appear just long enough to steal viewers’ attention from the movie’s main thread, and then vanish. As a consequence, redemption and forgiveness aren’t really earned; they’re just passed out to the characters at the end of the movie like elementary school participation ribbons.

Robert Duvall and Luciana Pedraza
Courtesy of Patriot Pictures
Robert Duvall, who also directed, and Luciana Pedraza in Wild Horses.

Duvall doesn’t make things easy on himself, steering a largely nonprofessional cast of actors through the emotional and aesthetic minefield that is making a movie. Among that cast are several actual Texas Rangers (who have considered Duvall an honorary colleague ever since Lonesome Dove) and his talent-free wife, who, as the obsessed detective, responds to enjoying a barbecue and surviving a gang hit with the exact same look of bland indifference. Not that it’s entirely the actors’ fault. John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier together wouldn’t have been able to find the humanity, or even the sense, in a line such as “Hate can bring confusion to a man who wants to control everything and everyone around him.” Some tasks are beyond even the masters.

Maybe Duvall just didn’t have enough time or money to settle in and make the movie that Wild Horses wanted to be. Or maybe when you’re a Hollywood legend no one complains when your plot points make no sense or your dialogue sounds like something rescued from George Lucas’ trash bin. Or maybe Wild Horses was just born under a bad star, a well-meaning misfire that was doomed to become a cautionary tale for filmmakers with too much to say and not enough art to say it.

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Courtesy of Amplify
Rinko Kikuchi in Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.
Rinko Kikuchi — Kumiko the Treasure Hunter
Courtesy of Amplify
Rinko Kikuchi in Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.

In November 2001, a Japanese office worker named Takako Konishi flew from Tokyo to Minneapolis, traveled west to North Dakota and then back into Minnesota, and then committed suicide in a field outside the small Minnesota town of Detroit Lakes. As a result of a strange series of miscommunications, misunderstandings and early-Internet urban-legend-making, rumors started swirling that Konishi had traveled to the region in search of the buried ransom money from the 1996 Joel and Ethan Coen crime drama Fargo. That movie begins, after all, with the words “This is a true story.” Who wouldn’t want to believe that a troubled woman might have read them and decided to search for the treasure, and then killed herself when she failed to find it?

Austin filmmakers — Zellner Brothers
Courtesy of Amplify
Austin filmmakers David and Nathan Zellner.

It turns out the legend of Takako Konishi was no more true than the stories of Jerry Lundegaard and Marge Gunderson. Konishi was just depressed about losing her job, and had returned to the site of a romantic trip she had taken with a former lover, where she found her memories too much to bear. The Coen brothers, for their part, had simply made a fictional movie. Still, the sad, strange, conflated tale stuck with Austin filmmakers David and Nathan Zellner, and over the next decade served as the steady inspiration for Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, the Zellners’ new meditation on loneliness and blind hope.

It’s a movie that even further blurs the line between Konishi’s reality and Fargo’s fiction, a “based on a true story” yarn about a woman who mistakes the story unfolding in a movie for truth, and a meta-experimentation that somehow manages to also be one of the more heartfelt films I’ve seen in years.

Sitting down to watch Kumiko, which becomes available on Blu-ray June 30, I had no doubt the Zellner brothers could handle the quirkiness and self-reflexivity of the premise. For almost 20 years, over the span of 15 short and feature-length films, the Austinites have been telling bizarre stories, each more conceptually daring and flamboyant than the last, from the cautionary tale of Flotsam/Jetsam and the Adult Swimready stoner madness of the Fiddlestixx trilogy (starring a monkey) to the feature Goliath, which is about a man searching obsessively for his cat. I was uncertain, however, about their ability to capture the sadness at the heart of a story about a lonely woman searching for meaning and hope, especially when that story has a suicide at its center. The Zellners are great idea guys, but in their movies emotion has always taken a back seat to avant-garde lightheartedness and whimsy.

Kumiko, I’m happy to say, is a work of full maturity and artistry, the kind of movie they’ve always hinted they were capable of making. Their protagonist (played with near-silent brilliance by Rinko Kikuchi) is a loner and underachiever plagued by ever-present melancholy. Already past the age when most office working women in Japan have gotten married and started families, Kumiko toils wordlessly and without emotion at her dead-end job, surrounded by younger women she doesn’t understand and repeatedly chastised by a boss who doesn’t understand her. When she discovers an old VHS copy of Fargo in a seaside cave, Kumiko finally sees a way into, and out of, her life. So with nothing but a treasure map she’s drawn on cloth and her boss’s credit card, she heads off to America—like a Spanish conquistador “hunting for riches in the Americas,” she says—on a quest of solitude, silence and, probably, insanity.

In Kumiko, the Zellners have found their muse. Gone are the flashy freak-outs of their earlier films, replaced by an unhurried character study that gets only more compelling and emotional the further Kumiko drifts from the real world into the world of her mind. The movie’s point isn’t the strangeness and fertility of the filmmakers’ imaginations, but the depth of their protagonist’s humanity. Her madness is far more important than theirs. All those familiar Zellner touches—the extended silences, the deadpan reactions, the fascination with eccentricity—are here employed in service of something meaningful. No longer simply gestures without heart, they now speak to the loneliness and despair, and even hope, of their unmoored heroine. The result is so much more moving than anything the filmmakers have managed before. In making a movie about a woman who wishes her life were more like a movie, David and Nathan Zellner have at long last found a way to make a movie that’s more like life.

Cartwright_WebSlide

Gary Cartwright reads from The Best I Recall at 3 p.m. on Saturday, June 27, at Scholz Garten.

At the end of award-winning Texas reporter and writer Gary Cartwright’s new memoir, The Best I Recall, I liked the journalist and knew not how I felt about the man, which is probably exactly what he intended. Cartwright attended Arlington High School, spent some years at the University of Texas as an undergraduate, and eventually got his B.A. in journalism from Texas Christian University. He wrote for a variety of Texas outlets across the six decades of his career, including the Fort Worth Press, Dallas Morning News and Texas Monthly, as well as national publications such as Rolling Stone and Esquire. He also wrote screenplays and multiple books, including Blood Will Tell and HeartWiseGuy.

At the Dallas Times Herald in the 1960s, as Dallas was first becoming a sports town, Cartwright, Bud Shrake and Dan Jenkins comprised what Cartwright refers to as “the best staff of sportswriters anywhere, ever.” Together, he writes, they created “a new take on the tradition of sportswriting,” one that valued prose and the author’s voice over game summaries and box scores, a style that soon “swept the country and became standard” in sports journalism.

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The Best I Recall
By Gary Cartwright
The University of Texas Press
272 pages; $27.95

But Cartwright covered sports for only eight years, and soon got out of the newspaper business altogether, citing as the reason two incidents involving the editorial staff at the Dallas Morning News: in one, they killed his story on a local country club that canceled a tennis tournament rather than allow famed black player Arthur Ashe to compete; in the other, editors muted his firsthand coverage of the 1965 Watts riots (Cartwright happened to be in Los Angeles covering the Cowboys).

He went on to do freelance work and eventually become a senior editor with Texas Monthly. The smoothest part of The Best I Recall is the section in which Cartwright recalls his favorite stories for that publication, providing some backstory to a piece he wrote about the impact of poverty on Texas families and stories that helped two different inmates get out of prison. Another highlight is his retelling of the night he spent in 1976 interviewing the stripper and stag movie actress Candy Barr at her home. Here Cartwright offers a thorough sketch of a woman famous for her body but past her prime, trying to determine how much to tell of her past and her present to a reporter she wasn’t sure she could trust.

One comes away from The Best I Recall respecting Cartwright as a journalist, but how readers may relate to him as a person is much more complicated. As a young, swashbuckling reporter in Dallas, Cartwright was a drinking, pill-popping, joint-smoking, sometimes-cocaine-sniffing man’s man who, he admits, had a “billowing ego” that clouded his own ability to see that his first marriage was falling apart. The nostalgia that seeps into this section is full of a masculine bravado about which Cartwright seems both proud and regretful. He writes of how he and his colleagues often spent time at work watching, through the windows of a hotel across the alley, “while black hookers worked their little hearts out”; about the time he and a friend switched beds to see if each other’s wives would notice (they did); and how he broke the jaws of both of his first two wives—part of a pattern of violent behavior that includes Cartwright hitting a man over the head with a shovel and kicking another down the stairs.

Toward the end of the book, Cartwright carefully and beautifully relates reconnecting with his son and traveling with his third wife, exhibiting his growth as a person. (Both storylines end with his respective loved ones dying of cancer.) But shortly after, we learn that he pushed his fourth wife down during a fight, and that this is why he was not at her bedside when she, too, died of cancer. Cartwright writes, “I will surely burn in hell for such wanton carelessness and disregard for others.” At points in The Best I Recall, it is hard to argue with that assertion.

In the book’s prologue, Cartwright writes that it is up to the reader to “decide if the stories have a ring of truth.” But the more compelling work, at least for this reader, lies not in parsing the lines between fact or fiction (does that ultimately matter?), but in figuring out what to make of the storyteller.

 

phantomkiller

It’s been five years since the last new episode of Unsolved Mysteries aired, but that doesn’t mean Americans have lost their appetite for cold cases, especially ones involving murder—witness the runaway success of HBO’s The Jinx, which turned Robert Durst into a household name. So it’s no surprise that an author would turn to what are commonly referred to as the Texarkana Moonlight Murders, a 1946 series of slayings, shootings and beatings in and near the Texas-Arkansas border city. The man responsible, known as “the Phantom Killer,” was never caught.

For years, true-crime aficionados and armchair detectives have debated what the Texas Department of Public Safety called “the Number One unsolved murder case” in the history of the state. The Phantom Killer has been the subject of books and at least one cult-classic film (the relentlessly cheesy 1976 B movie The Town That Dreaded Sundown; remade in 2014). But it’s likely that no writer has researched the case more deeply than Texarkana historian James Presley, author of The Phantom Killer: Unlocking the Mystery of the Texarkana Serial Murders: The Story of a Town in Terror.

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The Phantom Killer: Unlocking the Mystery of the Texarkana Serial Murders: The Story of a Town in Terror
James Presley
Pegasus Books
400 pages; $26.95

Presley has good reason to be obsessed with the case. One of the lead investigators of the slayings was Bowie County Sheriff Bill Presley, the author’s uncle. But The Phantom Killer isn’t just the work of a historian determined to solve the case whose solution eluded his uncle—it’s an exhaustive and, one could argue, definitive look at one of the most mysterious crimes in the region’s history, and a town forced to reckon with the aftermath.

Presley sets up The Phantom Killer with a great depiction of 1946 Texarkana: “unnoticed, the abandoned stepchild of both states.” The city had been known for violence and general lawlessness for years, even if it hadn’t yet been subjected to a series of killings as brutal as the Moonlight Murders. Presley narrates the escalating violence in grim detail: Jimmy Hollis, beaten nearly to death, and his girlfriend Mary Jeanne Larey, sexually assaulted with a gun; Richard Griffin and Polly Ann Moore, shot to death on a lovers’ lane; teenagers Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker, shot to death; and Katie and Virgil Starks, shot in their home, fatally in Virgil’s case.

Presley’s depiction of the assaults and the long, tortuous investigation that followed is as detailed and well-researched as one could hope for. And while the inside-baseball sections tracking the law enforcement response can be a bit plodding, Presley makes up for it by painting a fascinating portrait of the city in the days after World War II, and of the people trying desperately to find the killer—in particular, the legendary and endlessly colorful Texas Ranger Manuel T. “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas.

Does Presley succeed in identifying the Phantom Killer? It’s impossible to know at this point, but he makes an extremely compelling case that the murderer was Youell Swinney, an Arkansas man with a history of petty crimes. Swinney died in 1998, but, Presley writes, “received the notoriety he craved, in this book.” It’s hard to argue with Presley’s detective work, and it’s definitely fascinating to see how he arrives at the conclusion.

The Phantom Killer probably isn’t for everyone. Presley’s prose can be repetitive, and he includes an almost overwhelming amount of detail about every possible aspect of the case. But while that might turn off some casual readers, his intended audience of true-crime devotees, Texas history fans and readers with an interest in the Texarkana area will find the book an admirably detailed account of one of the most horrifying crime sprees ever to hit the Lone Star State.

Bob Byington
YouTube
Jason Schwartzman in 7 Chinese Brothers.

I have a friend who would happily watch a two-hour industrial film about warehouse safety if Wes Anderson directed it. That’s how deeply he’s convinced that the director’s vocabulary was created to speak to him especially. Every slow-motion scene set to a song from the ’60s, every fussy bit of dollhouse set design, every delicately composed static shot, every whooshing horizontal tracking shot, every deadpan exchange: My friend believes it’s his language Anderson is speaking. Even regarding the films he can admit are misfires, his devotion remains intact. His love is unconditional. It transcends petty distinctions between good and bad.

There may be fewer of us who see and hear in Bob Byington’s cinematic language that same sort of very personal familiarity, that sense of connectedness, but we exist. We’re a small cult, but an avid one.

Over the last decade, as Robert Rodriguez, Richard Linklater and the Duplass brothers have risen to Hollywood’s heights, their fellow Austinite Byington has remained just to the side of success, quietly shooting four features over the last seven years. He’s a marginal figure revered by those who’ve discovered him, but not quite able or willing to break into the mainstream. To fans, this obscurity is part of Byington’s appeal. We feel like we’re in on a secret.

Considering how compelling a filmmaker Byington is, his relegation to cult status must be due to the attitudes of his heroes, who are sarcastic, acerbic and contemptuous of just about everything. The title character, “RSO,” in Registered Sex Offender; Harmony in Harmony and Me; Max in Somebody Up There Likes Me—they all use sarcasm to keep the world at arm’s length and mockery as a tool of self-defense, lashing out and blowing off. Byington’s white, male, shaggy-headed hipsters live to provoke.

Larry, the hero of Byington’s latest feature, 7 Chinese Brothers, which had its world premiere last month at South by Southwest, is no different. Larry, played by Jason Schwartzman, is the perfect embodiment of the Byington protagonist: mocking, mordant and full of biting contempt for the world. Fired from his job at a chain Italian restaurant for stealing and boozing, Larry starts working at a nearby lube shop, where he shows his affection for his new boss the only way he knows how: by ceaselessly antagonizing her. He’s the same with his best friend, his co-workers, even his grandmother.

Arguably the most cynical of Byington’s films, 7 Chinese Brothers is a character study of a young man in a slow collapse of his own making. To Larry, social conventions are lies best lampooned or ignored—so what if they lead to compassion or intimacy or human connection? He dismisses everything that everyone else holds dear: work, sex, money, family, tradition. But his attacks are just masks for depression, a thousand and one mirrors deflecting light and love.

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IMDB
Kevin Corrigan in 2008’s RSO [Registered Sex Offender].
Somehow, despite Larry’s faults, we keep rooting for him. Much of the credit for this goes to Schwartzman, who proves once and for all that he’s incapable of being unlikable (though he’s trying his best). But making unsympathetic characters relatable is a skill Byington has been cultivating since 2008’s Registered Sex Offender, which dared viewers to not hate an unrepentant pedophile. What redeems Byington and his heroes is his idiosyncratically deadpan sense of humor and elliptical, episodic approach to storytelling—in other words, his singular voice. Byington defies any number of filmmaking conventions, such as, say, narrative arc. His movies are more like collections of ironic koans than stories, inscrutable shrugs that, taken together, add up to something meaningful, even if it’s hard to put your finger on just what the meaning might be.

It takes a particular talent and a special aesthetic conviction to devise your own language as a filmmaker and to call on that language in every one of your films, so that each is unmistakably yours. As a movie fan, there’s nothing quite as rewarding as entering the world of an artist who has accomplished this, who owns a distinctive voice that gets richer and more varied with each film. Bob Byington, quietly, and mostly under Hollywood’s radar, has spent the last decade constructing a universe of comic misanthropy that could be mistaken for no one else’s.

Duplass brothers
Jaimie Trueblood
Mark and Jay Duplass

Twenty years ago, two young movie obsessives living in Central Texas scrounged together enough money to make their first feature films, and in the process established Austin as the new center of American independent film. Despite the success of El Mariachi and Slacker, however, no one at the time would have guessed that Robert Rodriguez would grow up to become a movie mogul or that Richard Linklater would have directed a Best Picture nominee at this year’s Academy Awards. But this is the world in 2015: The outsiders have become the industry; the artists have become the world-beaters.

Mike Judge knows all about the rise from flyover-state obscurity to the heights of Hollywood acceptance. While Rodriguez and Linklater were busy shooting their first features in Austin, Judge was 200 miles north in Dallas making the animated short films that would eventually become Beavis and Butt-head. Even more than those of his colleagues to the south, Judge’s rise was a rush: One minute he was learning how to draw animated cels, the next he was saving MTV from collapse. The trajectory was not dissimilar from what he’d witnessed years earlier working for a tech startup in Silicon Valley, where it was, and still is, common to see computer nerds become millionaires seemingly overnight. Judge’s brilliant HBO comedy, Silicon Valley (Season 1 of which will be released on DVD this month) is a peek behind the curtain of that kind of rarified ascendency. The series tells a story of socially awkward geniuses striving to become self-made masters of the universe—Astors with social anxiety disorder, Rockefellers in hoodies and torn T-shirts.

The heroes of Silicon Valley (all men, living together in one house among a profusion of computers and junk food) exist in a bizarre, insulated world of corporate cults, unfathomable wealth, blindingly sudden success and very few women. Consequently, their lives amount to balancing acts of self-importance and awkwardness, messianic delusions and pathological anxiety. As Judge once said of this new technological Gilded Age, “The people most qualified to succeed are the least capable of handling success.” Housemates Richard, Erlich, Guilfoyle and Dinesh know how to create world-changing innovations, but they have no idea what to do with themselves once they get up from their computers. Like their heroes before them (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg), they dream of creating revolutionary technologies that will justify all those years spent at the bottom of the social totem pole, communicating in a bizarre tribal vernacular and convincing themselves that their stabs at monetary success and cultural icon-hood are really philanthropic endeavors. “We’re making the world a better place,” goes one refrain, repeated in limitless variations throughout the series, “through constructing elegant hierarchies for maximum code reuse and extensibility.” This may be gibberish, but it’s their gibberish.

Another new HBO show, this one produced by adopted sons of Austin, looks through the lens of success in the other direction. Togetherness was created by brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, who helped develop the mumblecore film movement before moving west to Hollywood. The series looks at the lives of adults who were once full of potential (the show’s most tragicomic hero, Alex Pappas, was the star of every play and sports team in high school) but have leveled off at average as middle age approaches.

Given their career-long fascination with the intimacies and gestures of everyday interactions, the Duplass brothers seem made for serial television, a form that allows them to explore the tiny defeats and disappointments that make up a life. The four protagonists of Togetherness (which is now showing on Sundays)—one married couple, one unhinged sister and Pappas—are writhing masses of internal contradiction and minor struggle, bound by the realization that they never became the great (or even fulfilled) people they thought they would be. The collapses of the 40s—of career, of marriage, of body, of desire and desirability, of potential and self-worth—are simply the inheritances of a life lived.

The characters of Togetherness tinker with their inner lives, but the stakes are higher and the pathologies more complex on Silicon Valley. The young men behind the computers aren’t struggling to adapt or coming to grips or coping; they’re righting long-simmering personal wrongs by recreating the world to suit them, one byte at a time. Like Linklater, Rodriguez and Judge, they’re outsiders becoming insiders, not by adapting to the world, but by forcing the world to adapt to them.

Tyler James Williams (center) in "Dear White People."
Photo courtesy Roadside Attractions
Tyler James Williams (center) in Dear White People.

One hundred and fifty years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and 50 years after Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, race is still the great specter haunting the American experiment. Abortion, gun rights, universal health care: Add them all together and they can’t begin to trouble the American soul the way race does. It’s a minefield not even the country’s first black president wants to walk through.

Which means that any movie daring enough to go there deserves applause. Take writer-director Justin Simien’s debut feature, Dear White People, a satire about crumbling race relations at an elite university, which started as a trailer on the Internet, earned its initial budget through crowdfunding, and went on to win a special jury prize at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. Recognizing that even 25 years after the release of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Hollywood’s interest in black stories is still limited to plots that Simien describes as “an inner-city kid with a gun or a movie about slavery”—movies in which the protagonists are either sinners or saints—the Houston native set out to write a movie about black characters who contain contradictions. It’s hard to believe that’s still a revolutionary notion in the 21st century, but here we are.

Kyle Gallner and Tessa Thompson in "Dear White People."
Photo courtesy Roadside Attractions
Kyle Gallner and Tessa Thompson in “Dear White People.”

Dear White People, which was just released on DVD, is a compelling, if uneven, comedy/drama that gets caught somewhere between the two, but is brave enough to ask questions about race, identity and authenticity that no one else wants to ask. The movie doesn’t claim to have all the answers, and even acknowledges that at this point there may not even be answers. Even if nothing is solved by the end of Dear White People, it still feels like something important was said.

Simien’s film follows four African-American protagonists at fictional Winchester University, a predominantly white Ivy League school where it seems that every word and action is racially charged. Sam White is a radical filmmaker and host of a polarizing radio show called “Dear White People,” where she doles out scathing advice to Winchester’s white students, who have no idea where appreciation of black culture ends and appropriation begins. Sam is running for the presidency of her all-black dormitory against Troy Fairbanks, who, as the clean-cut son of the dean of students, is expected to follow a straight and narrow path to success, but who would secretly rather smoke pot and write articles for the campus humor magazine, Pastiche. Fairbanks is joined in his conflicted attraction to rebellion and Pastiche (which is run by a group of privileged white men whose only comedic gift seems to be mistaking racial insensitivity for wit) by Coco Conners, a young woman from an underprivileged neighborhood looking to redefine herself as a post-racial reality TV star. Fame, for her, is the most liberating kind of identity. Writing about all of them is Lionel Higgins, a loner who thinks he’s found his place as a reporter for the school newspaper, but instead becomes the center of a confrontation that threatens to tear apart the campus. Shunning the “saints and sinners” dichotomy, the four leads of Dear White People are a constantly shifting panoply of personalities, allegiances and identities. They are what a literary critic might call fully formed human beings.

Where Simien gives his black characters bottomless complexity, he’s turned their white counterparts into types: the sinister university president claiming American racism is a thing of the past; the tone-deaf students blithely unaware of the thousand and one micro-aggressions to which they subject their black classmates on a daily basis. Where Coco and Sam and Troy and Lionel are plagued by doubts and buoyed by revelations, changing as they go, Dear White People’s white people are static entities, capable of just one trait each. For nearly all of them, that trait is virulent racism, or at least glaring racial ignorance.

That might be Simien’s point: that for black Americans, white culture, in all its blindness, can seem monolithic to the point of indistinction. But making your “other” straw men designed only to prove a point is the best way to turn satire into farce. And Simien’s potential as a filmmaker and social critic is far too great to settle for that.

Will Evans in a Deep Vellum promotional video.
Photo courtesy of Deep Vellum Publishing
Will Evans in a Deep Vellum promotional video.

Dallas, you had better get to know Will Evans. That is, if you can catch up with him, and if he’s calm enough to engage in conversation. He doesn’t move or speak at the speed to which you’re accustomed, but if he has his way—and one gets the sense that he usually does—he and his new nonprofit translation press, Deep Vellum, will put you on the literary map.

Evans and I met in Manhattan on a bitterly cold November night. He was there for a panel discussion at the Americas Society between Texas literary eminence Rolando Hinojosa-Smith and Mexican writer Carmen Boullosa, whose border novel, Texas: The Great Theft, translated from Spanish by Words Without Borders co-founder Samantha Schnee, is Deep Vellum’s first book. An intense travel schedule—Frankfurt, London, South Korea and points all around the U.S.—coupled with the nasty Yankee wind should have had Evans, 31, worn down. But if he was worn down, I’d hate to see him riled up. At rest, Evans’ chevron mustache is glorious; when he talks, that ’stache becomes a blur.

Chad Post, the notoriously speed-talking host of the international-literature podcast Three Percent, says, “My god, it’s insane; he’s way more hyper than I am. And I used to think I was pretty hyper.” He still is. I try and fail to imagine keeping pace with the two of them in the Rochester, New York, office of Post’s own translation press, Open Letter, where Evans spent the summer of 2012 learning the business as an apprentice. Post makes it sound simple: “We watched a lot of Euro Cup soccer and talked about publishing, and that led to the creation of Deep Vellum.”

Post is one of six Deep Vellum board members, three of whom are located in Dallas, where Evans moved in 2013 after his wife took a job in the city. Once he learned of the pending relocation, his plans to become a book publisher crystallized and he adopted a new mantra: “Going to Dallas, gotta start a press.”

Moving to Dallas to start a press—of any kind, much less a translation press—is about as common a goal as moving to Dallas for the ocean breeze. A Google search for Dallas publishers brings up a handful of vanity presses, a “boutique” or two, and a 2012 D Magazine piece covering “niche publishers”—a term Evans wouldn’t apply to Deep Vellum. “I hate when people say that,” he says. “I’m not a niche publisher. When we talk about translation as just this special thing, then it gets put in this ghetto.”

But translation in the United States is a special thing, if only in that it’s uncommon. Just 1 percent of all books published annually in the U.S. are translated fiction, and only 3 percent are translations of any genre. This so-called 3 percent problem is no nearer to being solved than it was in 2003, when The New York Times ran an article with the headline “America Yawns at Foreign Fiction,” in which Cliff Becker, former director of literature at the National Endowment for the Arts, said, “It is not an exaggeration to refer to this as a national crisis.” It’s “outright dangerous,” Becker continued, for citizens of “the most powerful country the world has known” to be so willfully ignorant of the literature, and by extension the culture, of other nations.

Many, including Evans, lay much of the blame at the feet of the corporate publishing industry, which focuses more on profit than on the promotion of cultural awareness. “This machine is just churning out garbage,” Evans says. “Ninety-five percent of those books the Big Five publish aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.”

To Evans, solving that crisis starts at the local level. “Dallas has a robust nonprofit community and arts community, but what it doesn’t have are any literary publishers,” he says. “It has a rich literary history, and it’s just a matter of tapping back into it. I don’t think people care if a book is translated or not. The question isn’t how can you get people reading translations, it’s how can you get people reading good books again?”

That’s a question that Ed Nawotka, a member of Deep Vellum’s board and editor of Publishing Perspectives, a trade publication focused on international literature, struggles with as well. “The American reading public isn’t closed off to translated literature,” he says. “It’s closed off to challenging literature.”

Texas: The Great Theft by Carmen Boullosa Deep Vellum Publishing $15.95; 304 pages
Deep Vellum Publishing
Texas: The Great Theft
by Carmen Boullosa
Deep Vellum Publishing
$15.95; 304 pages

“Challenging” is an accurate way to describe Boullosa’s 15th novel, her fifth to be translated into English. Loosely fictionalizing the 1859-1861 “Cortina Wars” near Brownsville and Matamoros, Texas: The Great Theft bombards the reader with many dozens of characters, most of whom get little more than a passing mention. The voice is a hazy first-person plural, a “we” that includes the reader through a style reminiscent of a screenwriter relating her plotline: “It’s under these circumstances that our story takes place,” for instance. The narration is sometimes omniscient, sometimes not, and choosy about what it divulges. But we usually know where its loyalties lie, which is not often with the Texans, that “handful of palefaces, struggling to cope with a sun that assaulted their senses, [who] acted like they were the center of the world.”

The ensemble cast and smash-cut action make for a whirlwind reading experience. Little wonder that it appealed to someone with so much kinetic energy. “I said that the first book I needed to publish to tell people in Dallas what I’m seriously about would be a novel about Texas written from the Mexican perspective,” Evans says. “[Texas] is as fair a telling of border history as you’ll be able to get. To only think about Texas from the American perspective is to miss Texas, Texas being such an international state, not just for Mexican culture but for all cultures.”

Though not all cultures think of Texas as being, well, cultured. I asked Post if being headquartered in Texas will be a hindrance for Deep Vellum. “To some degree it is,” he says. “When [Evans] initially said he’s starting a press in Dallas, people were like, ‘What? That doesn’t make any sense, Texas is a crazy place, George W. Bush and cowboys; we can’t take you seriously.’”

But people began to take Evans seriously, Post says, after they saw how quickly he began acquiring the rights to foreign books. Deep Vellum has 10 novels slated for 2015 publication, including The Indian by Icelandic comic, former Reykjavik mayor and soon-to-be Texan Jón Gnarr, and The Art of Flight by Mexico’s revered Sergio Pitol. But will Evans find a readership here for books that don’t have the Texas relevance of Boullosa’s?

“Hopefully I can get more people reading my books in Dallas than would ever read them if I were based in New York,” he says. “I’m creating a new readership.”

At present, you don’t see many Dallasites walking around with translations of Icelandic novels. But Evans knows his market. “If I’ve learned one thing about Texas, it’s that Texans are proud of Texas,” he says. “It’s not just the cowboy chest-thumper mentality; it’s that we like to support things going on within the state. We like to drink Texas wine, drink Texas beer, eat Texas food, go on Texas road trips. There’s no other state that has a culture of literature named after itself like Texana. That’s a special thing.”

WellsBrownothersiderebelyell

The National Book Critics Circle announced its 2014 awards finalists on Monday, and three Texas writers made the cut:

— Houston’s Lacy M. Johnson, in the Autobiography category, for her harrowing abuse memoir, The Other Side

— Austin’s S.C. Gwynne, in the Biography category, for Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson

— Dallas’ Ezra Greenspan, in the Biography category, for William Wells Brown: An African-American Life

The Observer reviewed both The Other Side and William Wells Brown last year

The full list of NBCC Award finalists is here.

The NBCC Awards dinner will be held, and winners announced, March 12, 2015, in New York City.

 

 

With the out-of-town madness of the Austin City Limits and Fun Fun Fun festivals comfortably behind us, and the madness of South By Southwest comfortably distant, it’s set to be a comparatively quiet few months for music aficionados here in Austin. As we fall back on the rich everyday rhythm of local concerts, it’s a good time to take a step back and contemplate the musical landscape of Texas as a whole.

oxford-american-157 (1)On Dec. 9, at 6 p.m., Oxford American magazine will debut its Texas Music issue at Waterloo Records and Video on North Lamar. Several of the issue’s contributors will be there to read from their respective pieces, among them Wimberley writer and Texas historian Joe Nick Patoski, whose occasional contributions to The Texas Observer include a 2006 interview with another Oxford American-Texas Music contributor, Austin Chronicle co-owner and SXSW cofounder Louis Black. Patoski writes about Willie Nelson drummer Paul English in the issue. Black writes about Daniel Johnston.

Michelle Garcia—a new Texas Observer columnist starting in the January issue—has a long and lovely piece about Tejano music in the issue. She’ll be on hand for a read-and-mingle as well.

The magazine’s companion anthology album—always an eclectically curated highlight of the Oxford American‘s annual music issues, of which the current iteration is the first devoted solely to Texas—features a stylistic gamut encompassing Los Super 7 and Spoon, Kinky Friedman and Sarah Jarosz, Buddy Holly and Ornette Coleman, Johnny Winter and Barbara Lynn. Texas music is way too expansive a turf to wrap up in a single 25-song sampler, but as 25-song samplers go, this one is exceptional.

Both the issue and the album will be available for sale at Waterloo. There will also be an autograph session with the featured writers.

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