Architecture on Film: True Stories

Weds 21 July 2010 6.30pm

Directed, staring and co-written by David Byrne (of avant-garde post-punk band, Talking Heads), True Stories weaves tabloid tales, musical numbers, economics and urbanism into a warm-hearted absurdist portrait of a small fictional Texan town and its inhabitants. Culminating in the town’s ‘celebration of special-ness,’ the film delights in big-box architecture, corporate civic pride, freeways, shopping malls and leap-frog urbanism. Byrne’s eccentric urban-geographer sets the scene for tales of the world’s laziest woman, a lonely man looking for love (John Goodman, in one of his very first roles), and more.

A perfect film for summer - a dissection of materialist economies, 50 sets of twins, and cosmic wonderment combine with hits from the Talking Heads, music video vignettes, and a drolly exuberant lecture on urbanism and the twisted civic from a Cadillac driving pop-star in Saturday night cowboy clothes.

Byrne has recently designed bicycle racks for New York and transformed buildings into gigantic instruments, and True Stories offers a chance to view an early instance of this design-schooled artist and musician grappling with the mythologies of urban existence and the structures of everyday life.

Raymond Carver meets Learning from Las Vegas, in an idiosyncratic sing-along parable of small-town life. Or as the film describes itself:

‘A completely cool, multi-purpose movie.’

USA 1986, Dir David Byrne, 89 min


Programme Notes: Shopping is a Feeling, by Pippo Ciorra

Architect, Critic, Professor, University of Camerino, and Senior Curator for Architecture, MAXXI, Rome

I remember a pleasant sense of surprise when in 1985 Diane Ghirardo opened the catalogue for the Venice Bienalle’s 3rd International Architecture Exhibition, curated by Aldo Rossi, with a tribute to a videoclip by Madonna shot in Venice for the single Like a Virgin. The slow and spectacular decline of the architectural utopias of the 60’s and 70’s, closely linked to philosophical and ideological thinking, had finally started to leave space for the establishment of new relationships between design and other expressions of pop culture - such as photography, art, film and music. Somehow Andy Warhol and Robert Venturi were finally winning their long-term battle for a newtopia based on the fluid manipulation of image, language and history.

But only one year later, in 1986, an unexpected film entitled True Stories and directed by another pop star - the Talking Head David Byrne - instantly outdated the decadent aestheticism of both Madonna on the gondola and the intimate games of irony being played out by postmodern architects. Take a look, people – Byrne more or less says – there’s a new world out there: a world of very little newness in terms of images or forms (“specialness looks completely normal”), but a world instead where newness is to be found in the relationships between the human, the landscape, the working environment, the urban space. This anachronistic world of the future is based on the computer, shopping (“a feeling”), stylized traditions, optimism, talent shows, convertible cars, lack of difference: “I have something to say about the difference between American and European cities, but I forget what it is...”  In this world the city sprawls infinitely according to the “natural” laws of the construction industry, making planning and architecture completely unnecessary. “It doesn’t take an architect - Byrne explains – to build a metal building today”.

The film is a journey through the spaces and lives of an imaginary city: Virgil, Texas. Like a cool country-rock version of Dante’s guide Virgil in the Divine Comedy, Byrne uses the “true stories” of his characters to lead our attention towards some of the crucial issues of the late 20th Century’s architectural debates: malls vs cities, stasis vs mobility, media culture vs tradition, customisation vs standardisation. Simple as it is, Virgil is in fact the perfect city of today: it has places – the church, the shopping mall, the parade street, the area for the “event”, the houses – but no topography. Public space is where things happen. There’s no being “far” or “close” to the “pretty old” centre: a developer shows Byrne around a desert plot and tells him where one of his customers wants his kitchen, bathroom, living room. Green by the way is everywhere - gardens, lawns, fields - including the superactual vertical green worn by the models in the unforgettable fashion show David watches in the shopping mall with Louis Fyne (John Goodman), one of the key characters of the film.

Virgil, as has been noted, is an imaginary place, and it is composed in the film through a number of other cities. But all of them are in Texas and Texas seems to be very important in the script. Texas is the real context. A context where infinite landscapes and articulated history seem to be able to absorb with no reaction the contradiction between the permanence of traditional “old values” and the “computer generated” society ruled by the power of Varicorp, the fictional company which stands, in the movie, for the computer majors who took over the economic reigns from the oil companies in Texas.

Texas, probably, is the place where it becomes clear that there is no contradiction. Innovation does not necessarily mean progress; individual chaos is often easy to rule.

“Matrimony is my life” cries Louis in the movie, while he’s writing his love song: “we don’t want freedom, we don’t want justice, we just want someone to love…”.

Download Programme notes here