Texas Forever: Pop culture homework after "Hell or High Water"

Texas Forever: Pop culture homework after "Hell or High Water"

No movie, TV show, book, or graphic novel can succeed without a strong sense of place. Clueless understood wealthy California teen culture; The Wire effectively captured all the ways bureaucracy, corruption, and hopelessness are ruining Baltimore; Deadwood recreated the grimy allure of the American West, terrible kidney-stone procedures and all. You believed these stories because you believed these spaces; you can't have one without the other. 

Hell or High Water (my review here) is a major success for that reason, because fundamentally this film is about Texas: the myth of the place, the reality of it, and the failed promises it holds. When the land lets the people down, what are the people to do? Every major character has some keen observation about the state, whether it's played for laughs (like Ben Foster's Tanner complaining about how concealed-carry permits have ruined the bank-robbery business) or a sobering slap (Jeff Bridges's Ranger Hamilton noting that West Texas, with its stagnant economy and decaying populace, is in its death throes).

When thinking afterward about Hell or High Water -- which, admittedly, I've been doing a damn lot -- I started listing all the other Texas-related pop culture that I also think does a great job capturing the spirit of the place, for better or for worse. This is that list, and I recommend it all. Let's get lost. 

KING OF THE HILL/OFFICE SPACE

No portrait of working-class Texan living is better than Hank Hill in King of the Hill, and no depiction of middle-class office hell is better than Office Space. Both works from Mike Judge are the kind of stuff he does best: explorations into the class structures that contain and constrain us, into the identities we form as a result of what we do vs. who we are.

Judge has continued being excellent -- Silicon Valley is proof enough of that -- but King of the Hill and Office Space are distillations of certain kinds of Texas lifestyles that are both hilarious and horrifying because of how painfully familiar they are. Case of the Mondays, and all that. 

   I believe you'd get your ass kicked sayin' something like that, man.

I believe you'd get your ass kicked sayin' something like that, man.

THE COUNSELOR/CITIES OF THE PLAIN

Oh, Cormac McCarthy. The man who believes in evil as a cosmic entity, as something that can't be controlled or understood, has written about Texas extensively, but my favorites are The Counselor (for which he wrote the script) and Cities of the Plain (which isn't technically set in Texas, but is about the border between the U.S. and Mexico and evokes the state's intracontinental straddling). 

The Counselor absolutely BOMBED when it was released, and it hasn't gained a cult following in the years since or anything, but there are elements to this McCarthy/Ridley Scott partnership that I'll never forget. Sure, Cameron Diaz fucking a car is up there, but really it's Brad Pitt's cowboy character that I can't get out of my head: a man who has exploited violence for so long that every opportunity to make money takes him one step closer to death. How fitting that Diaz's character's ruthlessness is this man's end. 

   Still unsure why Mrs. Benji Madden doesn't have an Oscar for this.

Still unsure why Mrs. Benji Madden doesn't have an Oscar for this.

And then there's Cities of the Plain, which is so full of McCarthy's stark, beautiful, eerie imagery that I simultaneously couldn't put it down while also wanting to throw it across the room. The epilogue, really, is what will haunt you, an exploration of a man's entire adulthood in a few pages, leading to a meeting with a figure who could be Death or could be just another man, as aimless and confused as our protagonist. McCarthy produces some dark shit, that's for sure. 

GIANT

Hollywood epics aren't made like Giant anymore. One of only three films James Dean created during his forever-depressingly short life, Giant asks much of Dean and he delivers, playing a lowly handyman who discovers an ocean of oil and ends up disgustingly rich -- and fantastically unfufilled. People without money (like me!) like to tell ourselves that money isn't everything, and Giant is that message writ large -- just like everything else in Texas. 

PREACHER (THE COMIC BOOK)

We don't talk about the AMC TV adaptation of Preacher here (because I have no interest, when the comics are practically perfect already), so DON'T TRY IT. But what I will say is that in Garth Ennis's original comic books, I think Jesse Custer is one of the most Texas protagonists ever created: tough as shit, vengeful but principled, so sure of himself that he's feared by even God. If the Texas mentality is one of easy confidence, magnetic charm, and casual violence, then Custer is absolutely the embodiment of that. I don't need to watch a TV show to confirm that for me. 

DAYS OF HEAVEN

Terrence Malick is a great director who hasn't made a great film in a while, but please go back and watch Days of Heaven for the visuals alone. If you wanted to watch it on mute, you TOTALLY COULD, just because of how gorgeous this cinematography is and how much you'll feel like you're in an otherworldly, ethereal place that can't actually exist in our reality. JUST LOOK AT THIS SHIT. You crazy for this one, Texas! 

WHIP IT

Drew Barrymore's directorial debut Whip It about a roller derby team in Texas is severely underrated, especially because how many coming-of-age female stories do we really get? NOT ENOUGH. So when small-town Texas teens played by Ellen Page and Alia Shawkat dance around to Dolly Parton's classic "Jolene," that scene embraces the history of Texas womanhood while simultaneously looking forward -- a moment I could rewatch 100 times, and nearly have.   

FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS

What's that, Riggins, you beautiful idiot? 

Yup. Texas forever. 

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