Don’t you just love Jeff Bridges? He played The Dude, of course, who was mighty close to his actual self (those were his own clothes that he wore in The Big Lebowski), but he’s always interesting in his movies, and he’s often the best part. I just listened to an interview with him on Fresh Air, and hadn’t realized how often he plays a Texan. His stand-in, who has worked with him on 70 films now, is a Texan and he said it has rubbed off on him, how to be a Texan. I have to agree.
So. Have you seen his latest movie Hell or High Water, which is set in Texas? I’m bringing this up for a reason I’ll come back to. Here’s the trailer:
I’d been wanting to see the movie since it first came out, and only saw it yesterday and of course the setting was extremely familiar . . . AND THEN in a scene Bridges asks someone to check with ’em over in Young County. I was born in Young County. This was an extraordinary experience, because I never see my place represented anywhere — at least not Young County. (Nearby Archer City was famously the setting of The Last Picture Show, which Bridges was in too.) It’s the kind of place where you indicate where you live by naming the county.
The action in Hell or High Water centers around a couple of brothers who rob the branches of a local bank, and in one scene the Texas Ranger (Bridges) talks to a bunch of old guys sitting in a diner, across the street from a branch that had just been robbed. The gist of it was that they weren’t too upset about the bank being robbed, because they all felt the bank had robbed them, or family, or folks they knew. The small towns, the people in them, had suffered terribly; the oil fields had shut down, no one was drilling, and there was no other work. They felt left behind, screwed by the bank and all it represented. It’s very easy to understand how people in places like Young County feel left behind; it isn’t that I don’t get that, I do. I just can’t figure out how they see an orange narcissist who literally sits in gold rooms, on gold chairs, in a penthouse in Manhattan, as their savior. Can’t go there.
But the familiarity of the landscape, and the homes and trailers, and the people and their laconic ways of talkin, their easy droppin of their Gs, gosh it was so familiar. And so it led me to take a look at Graham, the little town where I was born, where Mom & Big Daddy lived, and where I spent summers when I was 5 and 6. (Thank you, Google Maps.)
It’s a classic small Texas town, the county seat, with a courthouse in the middle of the square downtown (“America’s Largest Downtown Square”!). When I was born in 1958, there were 7,740 people in it. As of the 2010 census, it had 8,903 people. I was shocked to see that they’ve restored the town’s lone movie theater, built in 1919. When I was little, kids used to throw their Charms lollipops at the screen (not me of course….too terrified of my mother!).
There has never really been much to do in Graham, although it’s relatively close to a big lake (Possum Kingdom Lake), but kids mostly hang around and get into small-town trouble. My mother once told me that she and her brother and their friends broke into the courthouse one weekend night and one of them went to the bathroom in the corner of the lobby. #2. Scandalous.
In that way art can show you the truth of something more clearly than a plain representational photograph, I share the trailer for The Last Picture Show. It was shot in Archer City and it looks so familiar my teeth ache and my body is drawn into the shot because I’m from that place. There’s a scene where Timothy Bottoms’ hard hat gets knocked off, when Jeff Bridges hits him with the bottle, and that’s an oilfield hat for roughnecks. I have Big Daddy’s. One line from the movie is that nothing much changes there, and I would bet my bottom dollar it still looks the same (especially since Larry McMurtry sold off everything from his great big old bookstore — 300,000 books). That store was the only thing keeping the town alive.
Real people live in those places, and I know the way their homes smell. I know what their living rooms look like, their kitchens, their scrubby yards. I know what they eat, and what they say when they visit. They’re my people, fair and square, and they are so loud in me, they’re one reason I always feel like a stranger in Manhattan, shocked and surprised that I also belong there.
If you’re interested in the Fresh Air interview with drawly old Jeff Bridges, it was a great show: