A Story about a Place: The Humane Beauty of True Stories

“I really enjoy forgetting. When I first come to a place, I notice all the little details. I notice the way the sky looks. The color of white paper. The way people walk. Doorknobs. Everything. Then I get used to the place and I don’t notice those things anymore. So only by forgetting can I see the place again as it really is.” 

As someone who grew up in a large, liberal Canadian city, I have always perceived small towns as a sort of dichotomy. On the one hand, I envision this rural space through a hyper-romanticized lens, similar to the Internet’s infamous cottagecore movement: having a garden in the woods; wearing long white dresses while picking up fresh berries; waking up early in the morning to check on your chickens; all that good pastoral stuff. While this movement was popularized in the past few years, it strongly spoke to me as well as so many other people since it showed that in the countryside, one could actually enjoy their lives instead of just performing it in a hectic 9-to-5 social setting.

In reality, when taking a step back from this romantic perspective and by observing small towns in our day and age, this culture and its habits feel so distant from this idealized vision. Hearing stories of commonly shared experiences in these small towns often reflect how much these communities depend on massive corporations and how little they have to do with the natural lands anymore. From teenagers hanging out at Walmart on Friday nights to factories becoming the heart and center of these towns, the peaceful landscape of small towns from once upon a time have been replaced and dominated by the consumerism and stresses of city life — essentially what city people who dream of a so-called cottagecore lifestyle desire to run away from. While this thought brings me a lot of sadness — especially seeing how such a pure culture is disappearing—it leads me to many questions. Can such a peaceful lifestyle and anxiousness ever coexist, given the fact that this stress seems to be inevitable? More importantly, how do people living in these small towns feel about these changes? While the elements that made their towns so unique and different from cities are practically nonexistent at this point, these components are now normalized and have become part of their cultures. Is that a good or bad thing? Can people really reclaim a space, even if that space is fabricated by a corporation?

David Byrne’s directorial debut, True Stories (1987), is a piece of media that ponders similar questions. The film tells the story of the fictional town of Virgil, Texas, as its inhabitants prepare the yearly parade and talent show for the “Celebration of Specialness,” which commemorates the town’s 150th anniversary. True Stories does not necessarily present one strict linear plot, but instead it follows David Byrne’s character, a nameless narrator dressed as a modern-day cowboy who is first seen cruising down the highways of the Lone Star state in his red convertible, as he often breaks the fourth wall to guide the audience through this not-so-sleepy Texan town, introducing its many characters and places. 

It would be wrong to say that the movie is a gritty, realistic depiction of small-town America. In fact, True Stories is a dark comedy musical with songs by the Talking Heads that takes a traditional small American town and pushes its stereotypes to the extreme with quirky and loud characters. Such caricatures include: Miss Rollings, a wealthy woman who has not left her bed in years and uses her television as her only connection to the world; Mr. Tucker, the town’s very own witchcraft practitioner; “The Lying Woman,” who, as her name states, always shares the most absurd lies (“I was born with a tail”); and most importantly, our main character, Louis, played by John Goodman, a thirty-something bachelor who is desperate to find a wife (“I’m 6’3, and maintain a very consistent panda bear shape”). 

With the film’s overall bright, colourful, cheerful, and campy façade, the only hint of realism is in the way the characters interact with each other and their environments. Virgil, like many small American towns, is a place where everyone knows one another and is overbearingly in each other’s business. However, the reason why True Stories speaks so strongly to me is that it takes the town’s realistically ominous flaws and observes them through a simultaneously critical and curious perspective. With this point of view, Byrne presents a balanced perception of Virgil; he showcases the beauty of this small town through its people while also highlighting its sinister side through satire. In other words, by observing Virgil’s staple locations, specifically the mall and the factory, and the way its citizens go through their day-to-day lives, Byrne creates a portrait of small towns that strongly resonates with my romanticized and critical view of this space.

As an avid Talking Heads fan, the fact that True Stories not only stars, but was also written and directed by David Byrne is what initially made me want to watch the film. In this light, I am unable to write about True Stories without mentioning the importance of Byrne’s vision, which makes me love the film so much more. His character, who remains nameless and anonymous throughout the story, takes the viewer on a visit through Virgil, similar to a tourist guide. With this role, the narrator becomes a prominent voice in the story, especially with his commentary which emphasizes the beauty of Virgil. For instance, during one of his drives, the camera focuses on the highways in the sky, to which Byrne’s character says, “Highways are the cathedrals of our times.” This line is a perfect example of how True Stories shines a light on the beauty of things and places that would otherwise be considered dull or uneventful. If I were to look at a highway in real life I would simply be unimpressed and bored, yet when watching the film, I can feel Byrne’s admiration of this setting. It is little comments like these that make True Stories so wholesome as it forces the audience to look and find the beauty in overlooked places.

When it comes to the nameless narrator, since the audience never really knows anything about him, I always perceived this character as David Byrne himself. With this in mind, knowing that Byrne is guiding us makes a lot of sense, because the story’s theme and the way it depicts beauty is understood through our predisposed knowledge of this musician. True Stories is the only film that David Byrne directed and wrote, thus it makes sense to me that Byrne would create such a film, as True Stories’ narrative, style, and humour rings true to his music. The film examines modern capitalism, the return to nature, consumerism, and American life through a satirical and humorous lens. These are all themes that are found in Talking Heads’ music. Therefore, not only does this reinforce my love for this film, but by focusing on Byrne’s style as a musician, it helps the viewer understand his cinematic vision as well as the narrator’s identity and place within this story.

As the narrator guides us to the most iconic locations in Virgil, the audience explores these locations through Byrne’s eccentric view. There is the traditional Mexican dance parlor, a sparkling and colorful party hub that is full of life. The classic town bar, where the camaraderie is on full display during the scene when each character—old and young—lip sync to Talking Heads’ “Wild Wild Life” on stage. Even the church scene, where the frantic preacher sings “A Puzzling Evidence,” is a segment that pokes fun at the American nationalism and fear-mongering that was ever-present in the Reagan era of the 1980s. Yet, from all the locations that Byrne takes us to, Virgil’s most fascinating and meaningful one, in my opinion, is the mall. 

The mall scene opens with a short monologue from Byrne, which perfectly evokes the sadness, boredom, stress, and dread I feel whenever I go to malls: “The Shopping Mall has replaced the town center of many American Cities. Shopping itself has become the activity that brings people together. In here music is always playing. What time is it? No time to look back.” While Byrne shares his thoughts on the alienating nature of malls, the camera slowly moves through the space, showcasing the different visitors in their natural habitat: a grandfather with his grandchildren; a group of adult women meeting each other while all wearing the same outfit; two friends at a newspaper stand who are dying of laughter from something they read in the paper. This moment perfectly exemplifies how True Stories is able to be critical of a space while also acknowledging the happiness of the mall’s visitors, focusing on the humanity that can be found at the mall.

This balance is further explored in the fashion show sequence at the mall. Presented by Kate Culver, the wife of the town’s wealthiest man, Earl Culver, (who, according to Louis, is responsible for bringing the mall to Virgil), the fashion show is one of the events leading up to the town’s 150th anniversary and it also serves as a promotional tool for the mall’s stores. Mrs. Culver starts by saying how, “Shopping is a feeling,” and how that feeling can encourage consumers to dress up as anyone they desire, from business to sexy, even commercial. Dressed as the typical rich Texan housewife, Mrs. Culver starts to sing Talking Heads’ “Dream Operator,” a lullaby about childhood dreams. As Virgil’s citizens watch the fashion show in awe, an array of extravagant outfits are exhibited on the runway: men dressed in matching yellow raincoats; children wearing formal dress wear; a couple in a matching grass-fabric suit and dress; a group of women in water lilly dresses; and plenty of over-the-top headpieces, one of them being so heavy that a model falls off the stage. 

This scene is seeping with irony as the soft ballad about dreams, sung by the town’s richest woman, is juxtaposed with the obvious promotional goal of the event. Yet, when observing the audience and models, they all seem to be enjoying themselves; even David Byrne’s character exclaims in a later scene that he absolutely loved the fashion show. With this in mind, I think back to the moment where the two men were laughing at the newsstand, or when Byrne talks to a woman when he first arrives at the mall and she gleefully expresses how excited she is to go to the mall with her friend. Here, Byrne shows us that all the mall’s visitors are clearly enjoying themselves in this space, which raises many questions as to how Byrne is attempting to represent malls and their role in small towns. Are these people feeling a pure joy or is it simply consumerist brainwashing? Is the mall killing small towns and natural beauty? Or, is this space inevitably and naturally becoming part of Virgil’s culture?

Byrne never clearly answers these questions, which I prefer, because simply leaving them out in the open is more interesting than having a set response. Even then, Byrne does veer off in one direction. Going back to the very beginning of the film, the first location Byrne guides us through is Varicorp, Virgil’s computer factory. Just like many small towns in middle America, the whole town practically revolves around this economic hub. Again, there is a certain sadness that comes with it, especially since the film opens with the gorgeous and lush landscape of Virgil’s lands that is quickly contrasted by the harsh metallic factory. In this building, we witness people from different ages and backgrounds working around microchips, dealing with cold and industrial objects, while simultaneously talking about love and its many meanings. This contrast becomes a heartwarming moment when two of the employees start dancing together and singing. Everyone laughs and giggles along, filling up the confined spaces of the factory with love and community.

To me, this moment in the factory embodies how True Stories attempts to describe the key aspect of the relationship between Virgil’s citizens and their surroundings: Where there are humans, there is life. The way people love and appreciate one another—whether it be in the factory or at the mall—is the true beauty that Byrne wants to show us. Within such an exaggerated and cartoon-ish version of a small town, the love and liveliness shared between its people is the most realistic part of the film. Of course, the egregious consumerism is satirized and critiqued throughout the film, such as in the scene where Byrne is having dinner with the Culver family and Mr. Culver switches his strict attitude to amusingly discuss the town’s businesses by committing the etiquette sin of playing with food at the table. He breaks his conventions as the town’s most powerful figure to share a monologue on how work is considered Americans’ new church and how “they don’t see the difference between life and not working.” While this critical analysis of Reaganism and its effects on small town America rings true, Byrne still puts its citizens at the forefront, proving to us that the way people live, love, and care about each other is what gives meaning to a small town. 

The mundane beauty of Virgil’s everyday people is shown in what I call True Stories’ little moments of peace. There are several short moments taking place at night sprinkled throughout the film that show various Virgil citizens in their own environments. These moments are unrelated to the plot of the film, since they do not include Byrne as the narrator and the characters themselves do not even know they are being observed by a camera. These moments reveal the multifaceted sides of Virgil: young men hanging out by a gas station at night; a janitor cleaning the floors in a building; a couple having a romantic exchange (“I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way before” “Did you just fart?”); a man working late in his office who gets up and starts dancing; and one of the construction workers who sets up the stage for the town’s talent show sings opera all alone. Every time I watch this film, these moments make me emotional. With the dark night sky and the deserted public spaces, each of these characters have a chance to fully be themselves in the simplest and most mundane ways possible. While the rest of the movie is loud, shiny, and exciting, these little moments of peace stand out. I think the easiest way to explain the beauty of these scenes is how organic and pure they are, as the camera just quietly observes these people in their element. To me, that is when people are most beautiful.

When looking at the way that Virgil citizens interact with their surroundings, it can be summed up in this quote from Byrne, when he drives through a new development sector: “Look at this. Who can say it isn’t beautiful? Sky, bricks. Who do you think lives there? Four-car garage. Hope, fear, excitement, satisfaction.” The idea here is that these new developments, just like the mall, the factory, and even the highways from earlier, appear dull and depressing at first glance. By perceiving these places through Byrne’s curious eyes, our narrator shows us that the people who live in this town will give this place a new meaning and bring it to life. In this regard, this is what True Stories sets out to represent in all its locations. With the small moments of peace, from the young boys at the gas station to the couple in the field, we see that the space itself changes according to the people who occupy it. If the man singing opera was singing in a prestigious concert hall instead of a random sound stage in Texas, would we react the same way? If the man working in his office just continued to work and didn’t get up to dance, would this moment still be so endearing? No matter what it is, in these moments, Byrne focuses on the intimacy between humans and their surroundings. When all these moments are assembled together, it creates a mosaic that illustrates the simple and authentic beauty of Virgil.

In the end, True Stories does not necessarily answer my hanging questions on the “truths” of small towns. Nonetheless, by taking a kitsch angle to showcase the real emotions and natural interactions of human beings, True Stories helps me understand that no matter where you are, it really is the people that make a small town beautiful. I still love the movie for all its weirdness, quirkiness, humour, music, and just David Byrne himself, but this film deeply resonates with me because it makes me appreciate the beauty that is humanity. As a pessimistic person, it usually makes me cringe when people say things such as, “look at the bright side,” or “look for the good in everyone,” especially during a time when our world is so violent and corrupt. Yet films like True Stories, a silly movie about a man dressed as a cowboy driving around a random small town and meeting people, somehow gives me hope. It’s a nice reminder that each place—whether it be a small town or a big city—has a world of its own, and in that world, there is a sea of people who each have worlds within them. They have hopes, dreams, thoughts, and aspirations that are unique to them. Just like Byrne said, “Who can say it isn’t beautiful?”