Eagle Pennell: First Auteur of Austin

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The most important independent filmmaker you maybe haven’t heard of.

As it’s known today, lovely Austin, Texas is a Mecca for independent filmmakers. Besides having one of the most influential and heterogenous film festivals in the world in SXSW, the area has also helped to spawn a series of notable and distinctive directors like Terrence Malick, Tobe Hooper, Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson, Ethan Hawke, Tommy Pallotta and more, many of whom came through the film program at the University of Texas. But if you were to make a family tree of filmmakers either from Austin or who honed their skills in Austin, perched right on the top branch looking out over the landscape would be Eagle Pennell.

Pennell was born Pinnell, Glen Erwin Pinnell to be exact, in 1952 all the way across the state from Austin in Andrews, a small town in West Texas. His father, a professor of civil engineering at Texas A&M University, was an amateur film buff and it was via his Super 8 camera that young Pennell started shooting his first films, mainly short skits starring his siblings and whoever else was around and willing. After high school he set out for Austin and spent three years in the film program there before electing to discontinue his studies for more practical, real-world experiences. It was around this time that Pennell changed his name, adopting the moniker Eagle supposedly because of his hooked nose, and altering the spelling of his last name to match that of 2nd Lieutenant Ross Pennell, the character played by Harry Carey Jr. in John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

Within a few years of leaving school Pennell had directed his first professional effort, the short documentary Rodeo Cowboys. His first narrative short, A Hell of a Note, followed in 1977, but between the two Pennell helped to co-organize Austin’s very first film festival, held in 1975, and from that the first seeds of Austin as a workingman’s film town were sewn. Besides being the embodiment of an independent filmmaker – scrappy, resourceful, fearless, headstrong, singular, and authorial – Pennell was also a crusader for his cause, which was to make and share filmic art from the voices in his metaphorical backyard who were underrepresented or not represented at all by mainstream Hollywood of the day. But for all he accomplished within city limits, the ramifications of his first narrative feature, 1978’s The Whole Shootin’ Match, would impact independent cinema the world over, and in many ways continues to do so today.

The Whole Shootin’ Match is the story of Lloyd and Frank, a pair of life-long friends from Austin who fancy themselves aspiring entrepreneurs, always chasing a buck (and a bottle) here and there in a search for the shortest possible route to their fortune. In their pursuit they’ve come up with everything from chinchilla breeding to frog farming to flying squirrel ranching, but now they’re moving in a more mechanized direction. Lloyd has invented a contraption called the Kitchen Wizard – one machine that does the combined work of a vacuum, a mop, and a floor polisher – that they’re convinced will revolutionize home cleaning and propel them both into the highest tax bracket. As it usually happens, real life interferes with dreams of success, as do the realities of the pair’s abilities versus their ambitions, and things, as you might have expected, don’t turn out as planned.

There’s a homespun comfort to the film, and while it definitely aims for a humorous tone in parts, underneath there’s a current of desperation running through both the narrative and the characters, one I found similar to that of another black-and-white, Texas-set masterpiece, The Last Picture Show, and that I can best describe as hopeful without hope. Lloyd and Frank are never going to make it big and deep down they both know this, but it doesn’t stop either of them from trying time after time after time. Whether this is because of resilience or ignorance is never made completely clear and isn’t really the point: Pennell was filming a portrait of a particular kind of people in a certain kind of place – big dreamers in a small town – and from it he captured the specific kind of shrugged-off despair such people develop like a callus, a casual raging against the never-living light.

Pennell made The Whole Shootin’ Match for somewhere around 30 grand— the figure varies because the director was living off the budget – and took just three months to shoot it in the fall of 1977 before sending it around the festival circuit. When Richard Linklater, living in Austin at the time, saw the film it changed the course of his life and propelled him into directing. At another stop on the circuit, the US Film Festival in Salt Lake City, Utah, another, already famous fan was made: Robert Redford. In subsequent years, Redford would confirm repeatedly it was seeing The Whole Shootin’ Match that in part inspired him to start the Sundance Institute, which in turn has helped to foster hundreds if not thousands of independent filmmakers from Quentin Tarantino to Damien Chazelle. It was the spirit of Pennell that attracted Redford to his work, a filmmaker as optimistically desperate for success as the characters he created. But ultimately, where his characters fell short, Pennell broke through, he succeeded, and in that Redford realized there were voices outside the mainstream who had something to say, something worth sharing, championing, and helping develop in others.

As for Pennell, The Whole Shootin’ Match was selected by New Line Cinema for limited theatrical release in college towns and art houses, and in 1979 it was entered in a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Universal offered Pennell a development deal and for two years the filmmaker tried to make a go of things in Hollywood, but nothing came of it. By 1980 he had returned to Texas, Houston this time, and to making his movies his way. His second film, Last Night at the Alamo, came out in 1983 to good reviews, but from there his career hit a downslide, owing to problems with alcohol that had dogged him his entire adult life. In the 90s he hit rock bottom, going in and out of rehab and becoming poverty-stricken and homeless for a stretch, and in 2002 Pennell died at the age of 49, eight years after Doc’s Full Service, his final film, premiered at SXSW.

For all the tragedy sewn into the life story of Eagle Pennell, his legacy is positive and admirable. From his efforts, a thousand independent film careers were indirectly launched, both through his influence and impact on the film community of Austin, and in his role as a source of inspiration for the Sundance Institute. Like Mark Twain, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner and other legendary Southern storytellers, Pennell understood that character trumps plot when it comes to creating work that truly resonates with an audience, because while we might be from different places and make different livings, we all feel things in similar ways, and we can all empathize with the universal struggles of being human, however manifested. So while he might not have left a lot of work behind, the work Pennell did will deservedly echo in the hearts and imaginations of those who see it for many years to come.

For more on the life, work, and death of Eagle Pennell, check out the documentary below, King of Texas, and jump here to get your copy of The Whole Shootin’ Match on DVD; it deserves to be a part of your permanent collection.

Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist