While there are certain talents and attributes one can hone through quiet, devoted study and repetition, some young artists seem born with a special endowment to shape a story within the medium of film. Eagle Pennell is not likely a name you remember, but he possessed the gift. He died not so long ago in 2002, a victim of relentless alcoholism. He left behind a small cache of films that I imagine do not find their way onto most people’s Netflix queues. However, even if you’re just a casual buff — someone who dares to chance the library of lesser known artists for no other reason than that you love film and surrender to its mighty draw — you may have heard of Eagle, and the little film that put him on the map: The Whole Shootin’ Match.
Meet Loyd and Frank (Lou Perryman and Sonny Carl Davis). Loyd’s a dreamer, whittling away at the junk pile of gears and hoses that litter his property, hoping to create something that might make him rich. Frank… well, he’s just along for the ride, weary from the weight of so much wounded pride and a desire to rise above his plight that he’ll follow Loyd anywhere, even if it means peddling polyurethane.
Filmed on old black and white film stock with a cast comprised mostly of volunteers, The Whole Shootin’ Match introduces us to this bumbling pair of blue-collar Texans on the verge of an idea that just might take them over the hump. Though the film is dated, the narrative takes on a timeless tenor, making its debut release on DVD an appropriate occasion.
Frank earns money taking odd jobs, which keeps him and his wife Paulette (Doris Hargrave) just above the poverty level. He’s a man-child with very little restraint, and the perfect partner for Loyd, just as careless and uninhibited, even if he is more creative and less bound by the responsibilities of a family.
If anything, The Whole Shootin’ Match creates a nightmare scenario of glut, temptation, and witless pursuits. What keeps it level is the charm and breadth of Pennell’s characters, brought to life through astute scriptwriting that possesses a firm grip on its universe. Perry and Davis embody their characters with enough natural charm and clueless tomfoolery that you start to wonder where the actors end and the characters begin. Davis in particular eschews a deep, entrenched insecurity that makes him at once believable, if somewhat loathsome.
Perhaps the best ray of light in the story is Paulette, Frank’s enduring wife, who's got brains big enough to pound both of these morons into the ground, but lacks the fortitude to do anything about it. As Roger Ebert has stated, she’s the lone voice of wisdom to whom no one ever listens.
Though made on the cheap, shot over weekends, and pieced together with nothing more than passion and talent, the film plays like an honest contender. Pennell accentuates his creation with tight precision, lighting his sets to the full advantage of his black and white stock, and editing the entire gamut within an inch of its life.
It’s easy for one unfamiliar to his work to miss this film’s subtle brilliance, especially this far removed from its original 1978 release. The Whole Shootin’ Match entered the small, fledgling world of independent film festivals and helped inspire its renaissance, even planting the seed in Robert Redford that would later germinate into the creation of the Sundance Film Festival. Its release on DVD this past February makes it the first time Pennell’s filmmaking debut has ever had a chance to reach a larger audience.
The DVD set boasts a collector’s booklet, introducing newcomers to Pennell’s work, including reflections from Lou Perryman, co-writer Lin Sutherland, and others. You’ll find early reviews of the film, including Roger Ebert’s original 1980 review, and his look back from 2007. Also attached to the set is the film’s mellifluous soundtrack on CD, written and performed on 12- and 6-string guitar and mandolin by Eagle’s brother Chuck. Special features include a rare interview with Eagle, and the feature-length documentary “The King of Texas” which details Eagle’s life and career, from the making of the film, to his death in 2002.
The story of Eagle Pennell nearly warrants a film itself. Writers and critics will tell you he reached his zenith with his second film, Last Night at the Alamo (1983), and could never quite get his game on afterward. His remarkable contribution to American independent film, however, is rendered in this release as a landmark of remembrance for his enthusiasts, and an important primer to those who may be reading his name here for the first time. Get your mind right, and give it a look.