Deep in the Heart (of Texas)

Austin Chronicle

DIRECTED BY: Stephen Purvis

REVIEWED: 05-11-98


Kenneth Cranham and Amanda Root by the Treaty Oak in Deep In the Heart (of Texas).

The title says just about everything you need to know: This movie is truly one from the heart. A valentine to the idea that everyone in Texas is a character with a tall tale to tell, the strength of Deep in the Heart (of Texas) is in its forceful characterizations and whimsical local color. Filled nearly to bursting with some of the best creative talent Austin has to offer, the film is sadly less than the sum of its parts. In fact, that very ability to distinguish the film's parts more clearly than its whole may be the source of the narrative's problems. Deep in the Heart is a film adaptation of a legendary Austin stage play, In the West. Developed during the mid- to late Eighties by the writers and actors of Big State Productions, the play was a series of monologues that evolved over time. Performed in a variety of combinations and an array of venues, the nationally recognized show began life as a creative reaction to a famous exhibit of Richard Avedon photographs, which the Big State players believed to be soulless portraits of Western stereotypes. The monologues brought to life a number of rich, colorful characters with stories, histories, and puzzles to tell. Thus, as an adaptation, Deep in the Heart had to overcome not only the standard pitfalls inherent in translating works from stage to screen, it also had to find ways to open up the self-contained monologues into a cohesive Our Town sort of flow. Unfortunately, the cellophane tape that patches the segments together never achieves the transparency and unobtrusiveness necessary for smooth continuity. Screenwriters Purvis, Jesse Sublett, and Tom Huckabee have introduced the linking characters of two British documentary filmmakers who have come to Austin to film the locals. The ironically named Robert Flaherty (Cranham) and Kate Markham (Root) are a married couple whose conjugal turmoil is played out against the dramas of the people they interview. Robert and Kate are replaying a crisis they've experienced before in which Robert goes "all native" on Kate and loses his objectivity and critical edge. Their personal drama, however, lacks passion and depth. We are told things about their relationship but never really see them experience them -- much like going to the trouble of naming a character Robert Flaherty and then never developing that resonant curiosity into anything of greater substance. Also, these British observers rarely seem organically integrated within the monologues, the scenes still seem discrete and awkwardly isolated. (Much of this is the practical result of grafting material filmed for a demo reel with footage that was shot several years later.) Additionally, the monologues, themselves, frequently come dangerously close to falling into the kinds of stereotypes they sought to avoid. Still, even having this altered semblance of a document of this historic production is a precious thing. As a showcase for Austin actors, the film brings to a wider audience the talents of Marco Parella, C.K. McFarland, Tim Mateer, Jo Carol Pierce, Karen Kuykendall, John Hawkes, Lou Perryman, Janelle Buchanan, and Amparo Garcia, among others. Some memorable stand-outs include McFarland's haunting "pie lady" Sayra, Perryman's guileless deer hunter, Mateer's skillful "wild child," and Pierce's original storytelling (in which she relates the experience of her first meeting with writer Michael Ventura). Also finely represented here is an expanse of Texas music, with carefully chosen selections by such artists as Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson, Jimmie Vaughan, Lou Ann Barton, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Rosie Flores, Wayne Hancock, and Marcia Ball (who also has a cameo appearance). Other unspoken players in Deep in the Heart are the Austin landscape and the Treaty Oak; their presence is the equivalent of the film's pulse. All these things are certain to quicken the souls of Austin viewers, although elsewhere the film has less chance of burrowing quite so deeply into the viewer's heart. 2.0 stars

--Marjorie Baumgarten

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