In memory, Texas is a highway stretching out in front of me.
Sometimes the view is sunlit, with flat, faintly beige land stretching out endlessly on either side. Sometimes it’s dark, with only a car’s headlights to show the way. The highway is always a two-lane road. The car occasionally passes dim lights in the distance—isolated houses or chop shops, maybe rest stops. The road goes on forever, and there’s no sense of when it will end.
I’m not sure if this image is patched together from my own recollections of Texas, or from the many cinematic versions I’ve seen of it. It could be a memory of driving from San Antonio to Austin at two in the morning when I was twenty. It could also be taken from No Country for Old Men, or Paris, Texas, or Dancer, Texas Pop. 81. Seventeen years after I left, the distinction has started to blur.
Do everyone’s memories of a place mix with media images until it’s impossible tell the difference? And as fallible and self-embellished as memory can be, does the difference even matter?
My childhood memories of Austin in the 1980s are a mix of generic, mid-sized city life and small-town folksiness. This was Austin before it was really on the map—before South by Southwest, before Richard Linklater. Back then, Austin was more Texas than Austin, even if, contrary to what some outsiders still thought, we did not ride horses to school.
I remember the scent of the air before a torrential downpour, freshly disturbed earth just after it ended, the mix of hay and dung at the summer livestock show, the stink of death from the slaughterhouses just north of Waco, the chlorine of public pools, grilling meat and oil from a deep fat fryer at Dirty Martin’s or Players.
There were summers on the lake and in neighbors’ pools. There was the oppressive heat that lasted longer than summer should. In college, there were ‘study’ breaks at Metro and other all-night coffee shops, parties with trash can punch or Jell-O shots, and the embarrassing moments that followed with little fear of any news traveling beyond the dorm room or ratty apartment where they happened.
But there was also a vast emptiness. Drive just beyond the city limits and you’d start to see it—long stretches of two-lane highway with nothing but scrub, hedges, billboards, and the occasional isolated home. When I brought my husband to Austin for the first time he said he wanted to go for a drive. We did, but forty-five minutes beyond the city limits we turned back—we could literally drive for hours and pass only the occasional small town.
I remembered a similar emptiness in childhood trips to the little house on a hill near Leander that my grandparents owned. To get to the house we had to drive straight up the side of the hill on a zigzag path. The house sat alone on the hilltop, the whole state spreading out beyond it. One day, strolling down the road from the house, a massive armadillo the size of a hog raced across our path. We all saw it—I can still see it vividly in my mind—but I’m still not sure if it was really there.
There was something soothing about that emptiness lurking beyond the city limits. It hinted at possibilities, undiscovered secrets. But there was also a sense of being overwhelmed, an Enlightenment-era fear of the vastness of nature, of being swallowed by the unknown (or heat exhaustion). That’s what I see time and again when I see Texas in movies: beautiful, red-orange vistas that could just as easily kill as soothe you.
When I moved to Japan at twenty-three I found myself clinging to romantic images of Texas that I’d scorned as a gothy teen. My desk at work was adorned with postcards of longhorn cattle, bluebonnets, the capitol building, and snow globes of famous landmarks. Chris Rea’s opening lines of the song “Texas” (“Warm winds blowin’ / Heatin’ blue skies / And a road that goes forever”) filled me with longing. But going home those first few times was an ugly shock. Texas in reality did not fit with the menagerie of knickknacks and images on my desk. But as soon as I got on a plane to go back to Japan, the romance overtook me again, my home reduced to images stolen from film.
A few years ago, I saw John Ford’s The Searchers on a big screen and saw for the first time how 1950s film audiences must have envisioned Texas—John Wayne’s domain, lawless and limitless, all ragged cliffs, desolate flatness, washed in shades of brilliant red-against-orange sunsets and blue skies. (Never mind that it wasn’t filmed in Texas, but in Arizona and Utah.) I can see John Wayne, the only actor my father ever really respected, in that iconic image, a tiny figure silhouetted in a doorframe, the empty landscape stretching out before him.
I’d seen a similar version of Texas a few years before, in the Coen brothers’s No Country for Old Men. This version of Texas still haunts me. It’s the version that I saw only glimpses of when I lived there—the towns that consist of a single restaurant, gas station, and church, where people speak with a drawl so slow and thick you wonder how they ever finish a sentence. Places where time seems to have stopped, like the former sundown towns of Vidor and Greenville, which once welcomed visitors with signs like “The Blackest Land and the Whitest People.” Like the random gas station that a high school classmate wandered into while wearing a colorful jester’s hat, only to have the cashier tell him, ‘We don’t ‘cept queers in here.”
This is a Texas where anything can and does happen, because the landscape is so vast that it swallows and silences both the good and the bad. There’s the threat of violence lurking behind small-town smiles and the suspicion that plenty of deaths go unreported. I remember a quote from a Texas Monthly interview with an old-timer who, when asked why the murder rate in Texas was so high, responded that “maybe more people around here just need killin’.”
Texas in film always seems to exist in the past. Watching the recent Hell or High Water, which was nominated for Best Picture this past year, it’s fairly obvious that the story isn’t set in the 1950s, but beyond that the timeline feels hazy. The cars and the buildings are old. No one uses smart phones or modern computers. All the men wear the standard small-town Texas uniform—jeans, boots, flannel shirts, and cowboy hats. No Country for Old Men took place in the 1980s but felt closer to the 1950s, while A Perfect World featured fugitive Kevin Costner racing across a 1963 Texas that didn’t feel so far removed from 1993, when it was released. Texas in film is a collection of unchanging images that feel just as appropriate to a film set in the early 20th century as one set in the early 21st.
For a world with such strong connections to the past, the women in movie Texas tend to be on the sidelines: wives, girlfriends, one-night stands, damsels in distress. Over years of seeing my home in film this may have added to the mystique for me—I was a woman who’d grown up in Texas, but movie Texas was a place where I could never see myself, unless I wanted to identify with a nagging partner or femme fatale. It was a place for men to do things that seemed motivated primarily by some desire to prove that they were men, which they did by acquiring lots of money, killing people who’d wronged them, or defending the honor of their lovers or families. The women were there to watch or to provide motivation (through their deaths or assaults) for the men to carry out their grand journeys.
Also absent (or relegated to the role of villain/sidekick) were any characters of color. This was par for the course in films of the 1950s, where minor Native American and Mexican characters were often played by white actors in brownface. In the late 20th and 21st century, the brownface is gone, but the landscape in movie Texas is still bleached, with the state’s estimated 39% Latino and 12% black population making only occasional appearances. There are a few notable exceptions (the wonderful Lone Star, set in a fictional border town, and the much-loved Friday Night Lights), but the most iconic cinematic visions of Texas always seem to center around white men and their white families and white friends.
Movie Texas, with its noble cowboys, invisible women and minorities, and rugged landscapes that often hail from Nevada or Utah, is a lie as much as movie San Francisco and movie Seattle—cities that have both been represented in film by Vancouver. Even if Texas movies are filmed in Texas, they still speak to a lawless masculinity and whiteness that never wholly existed, however much present-day Texans might speak of “back then” with fondness. The seeds of that nostalgia are planted at an early age, when many children take a school trip to San Antonio’s Alamo to celebrate the battle between a small force of Texans and a much larger force of Mexicans that symbolizes Texas’s rugged, masculine spirit. For me, the myth-making started even earlier, with a much-viewed VHS cassette of Disney’s 1954 Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier. I can still see Fess Parker in his trademark coonskin cap, swinging his empty rifle at the invaders just before the credits roll, a mythic hero in a mythic place that felt incredibly real.
In the more than fifteen years since I moved away, the lie of Texas in movies has continued to mix with the fading pictures in my own mind to form a pastiche of myth and reality—the sunsets viewed from my grandparents’ house mixed with the vistas of No Country for Old Men and Paris, Texas. When I describe the landscape to friends who’ve never been there, I’m no longer sure if I’m drawing from film or childhood memories. Like the giant armadillo that crossed my path on the road, what I’m describing may never have been real.
The distance has also lead to another strange side effect—a desire to claim ownership of my home, particularly Austin, and a sense of resentment when an unfamiliar version of it is portrayed in film. Dazed and Confused felt familiar, even if it was set in the 1970s (maybe because it seemed like half my high school classmates had speaking roles in it). When I watched it with non-Austinites I felt compelled to point out that this was a place, not just a film set, and a place that I had lived. Seeing their hometowns on screen might have been normal for New Yorkers and Angelenos, but films set in Austin were rare in the 1990s. I was born there, I wanted to say. I drove down that street. Top Notch is real, and their burgers are great.
Now films set in Austin feel remote, which breaks my heart, because it reminds me of how alien my home has become. (Apparently I’m not the only one—longtime Austinites have started speaking of “old” and “new” Austin, the latter being synonymous with hipsters and overblown attempts at coolness.) Linklater’s Boyhood, as much as I loved it, felt unfamiliar. Terence Malick’s new Song to Song, judging by the trailer, seems to be set in an Austin that bears little resemblance to the one I know. My resentment is driven by a pointless desire to claim ownership of something that can never be owned, and a sense of guilt at having left and never really looked back. In clinging to a set of memories that fade more every day, maybe I’m also clinging to an idyllic version of my own past.
Cinema Texas also feels darker and more alien in recent years. Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals sees its protagonists snatched by psychopaths off a deserted Texas highway with little hope of rescue or justice. There’s a new kind of emptiness in Hell or High Water, a modern take on the caper/revenge film where the villain isn’t a wealthy land baron or a black-clad assassin, but the state itself. Brothers Tanner and Toby Howard are robbing small amounts of cash from mostly empty banks in small Texas towns ostensibly to save their ranch from foreclosure, but really, they’re enacting a sort of vengeance against a system that has always seemed rigged against them. Their Texas has the same empty highways, deserted towns, and vistas of scorched earth as No Country for Old Men, but the viciousness is more palpable. No one can hear you scream, but even if they did, you get the feeling they wouldn’t care.
Yet despite the grim, borderline nihilistic vision on display in so many cinematic versions of the state, I can’t let go of my romantic attachment to the place. From my very safe distance, Texas as a dark wasteland is romantic, beautiful in its deadliness. The celluloid reds and oranges bleed into the vistas of my own past, never so reliable to begin with, to form a landscape that I always long to return to and that will always be just out of reach. When I take my husband back there again we might drive for longer, maybe as the sun sets, just to get a little closer to that strangeness. And to feel that sense, both thrilling and terrifying, that anything could happen.