The restored and visually enriched version of the black-and-white film that Robert Redford has said inspired his creation of the Sundance Institute—it was originally shot in 16mm—is as amiable as it is gorgeous, but with a darkening complexion that interprets the grotesque allegiance that left-behinds have for U.S. capitalism. A fusion of a number of influences, including Amos ’n’ Andy, John Huston, and perhaps Jon Jost’s Last Chants for a Slow Dance (1977), The Whole Shootin’ Match nonetheless emerges as an American original, and a remarkably good movie. A man who called himself Eagle Pennell, and who drank himself to death (how else does one negotiate America?), co-authored the script with Lin Sutherland, and directed, cinematographed, edited. Regrettably, Pennell became something of a left-behind himself.
Loyd (beautifully played by Lou Perryman, who was murdered this month by a stranger who was irate at someone else he knew who was in no way connected to Perryman) is a dreamer trying to come up with the one invention that can redeem his marginal existence. (I presume the missing l in his name indicates his castration-by-capitalism.) A “eureka moment” in his car in a carwash inspires his invention of a kitchen mop, but the local manufacturer with whom he enters into contract cheats him out of credit and profits. Pennell Dead of Nights things when Loyd’s perpetual partner, Frank, anxiously dreams of the business-backstab the night before the two thirtysomethings corroborate it.
Loyd, who had been the buoyant optimist, now appears sour and sullen; sour and sullen Frank compensates by at least appearing buoyant and optimistic. (The two are hunting for gold in the Texas hills.) Their destinies are linked. There are two ways to read Loyd’s emotional collapse, either as the corrosion of his optimism or a revelation of its having been a façade from the start—what he had to hold onto in a non-negotiable culture and political state. Pennell’s film is about how we U.S. Americans blame our failures on ourselves rather than on a corrupt, immoral system that we have to rationalize and justify in order to sustain hope, which is pretty much all we have to live on. Pennell thus bares a tortured logic that is heartbreaking to behold. At the last, we see the two buddies pathetically extolling the virtue of their socioeconomic failures as the means for maintaining a simple life, which includes their friendship as well as hope. This also helps explain the U.S. appetite for war on the basis of the comradery among soldiers it fosters. Here is a compensation mostly for those socioeconomic left-behinds who have little choice but to fight and perhaps get killed. They bond.
Along the way, the film also analyzes the Jesus-mania that generally accompanies this rank-and-file allegiance to a hoodwinking capitalism. There are two serious faults, however: Sonny Carl Davis, who plays Frank, is not as good an actor as Perryman; and Frank Jr.—who has an hilarious offscreen moment sobbing after his bicycle is parentally confiscated (a parody of “ownership” that Loyd’s loss of rights to his own invention will reflect on an adult scale)—is conveniently included in or excluded from the action. Maybe Pennell just didn’t like the kid.
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