LBJ and Beyond: An Investigative Report on Cinematic Conspiracies in Austin, Texas
From New York Rocker, January, 1982
by Jonathan Demme
On October 10, 1981, Jonathan Demme, film director (MELVIN AND HOWARD, HANDLE WITH CARE) and music fan (he directed the Suburban Lawns’ short, GIDGET GOES TO HELL) hosted an evening of Super-8 and 16mm movies by Austin, Texas filmmakers at New York’s Collective for Living Cinema. The movies included science fiction (INVASION OF THE ALUMINUM PEOPLE), horror (MASK OF SARNATH), a homage to the Doors (THE DEATH OF JIM MORRISON), and a hypnotic mystery (SPEED OF LIGHT). Since the filmmakers represented in the show are also active in the Austin new music scene, their movies are full of local sounds. Below Demme explains how he discovered them.
When filmmaker Ted Bafaloukos came back to New York from opening his Rockers in Austin last winter carrying stack of independently produced 45s by Texas-based (especially Austin-based) bands, I could tell for sure something was going on down there. Ted quickly compiled his Texas singles (few of which were available at Bleeker Bob’s) on an extraordinary cassette that he called LBJ and Beyond… featuring the work of Terminal Mind, the Huns, the Skunks, F-Systems, Radio Fre [sic] Europe, Standing Waves, the Gator Family, the Explosives and D-Day. Then he headed off to Cairo, Egypt to shoot his personalized travelogue 1+2+3+4=10.
I stayed in New York listening to my dub of LBJ and Beyond, wanting badly to get to Austin to experience first-hand the energy and humor lurking behind this body of independent work. To me, it easily rivalled the output of such new music centers as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Cleveland, and Akron in their respective heydeys. But when I finally had my chance to get to Austin this spring, what had attracted me in the first place (the native music) had practically vanished with the demise of Raul’s and the disintegration of most of the LBJ and Beyond… bands, and the thing about Austin that turned my head around – the native films – was totally unexpected. The really startling thing, though, given the chance to view several top-notch Austin-made films in the course of my brief trip there, was the exciting discovery of the epic fusion between Austin film and Austin music. For as it turns out, the majority of these short movies were made by the very same music people whose work had lured me down there in the first place.
Maybe more than any place else, the potential creative cross-fertilization of new music and new cinema has found a breeding ground in Austin. It’s the capitol city of Texas, the place where sniper Charles Whitman had his moment of horror years ago, where Lady Bird Johnson screens hours of Gunsmoke reruns at the LBJ Library to this very day, where multi-million dollar buildings are erected in the shape of cowboy hats, where the International Society of Kitty Torturers make their home, where the memory of JFK’s last ride hangs heavy in the air even now.
In no particular order, the music / film combine goes something like this:
Neil Ruttenberg, writer / director of Mask of Sarnath, a truly creepy, frightening horror film, was a member of Radio Fre Europe (“Alien Day”) and F-Systems (“People”).
Larry Seaman (of Standing Waves) plays the lead in Mask, with Dan Transmission (of the Huns) being murdered in one scene to the strains of the Huns’ “Busy Kids.”
Dan Transmission also appears in Speed of Light, an awesome piece of new cinema directed by Brian Hansen, a member of Radio Fre Europe, who also provided Speed’s exceptional soundtrack. (Hansen, meanwhile, directed a spectacular video short called DNA, a highly subjective record of the New York No Wave band’s appearance at Duke’s in Austin last year.
Tom Huckabee, drummer for the amazing Reversible Cords and the legendary, notorious Huns, directed the controversial (some love it, others hate it) Death of Jim Morrison, which starred Jeff Whittington, local Austin rock journalist, as Morrison. Fellow Hun Phil Tolstead played a kinky supporting role and, in a mind-boggling instance of self-fulfilling prophecy, Austin police officer Steve Bridgewater portrays a cop who busts Morrison outside a club. (Three months later, having provided his cameo appearance in Death of Morrison, Officer Bridgewater busted the Huns onstage at Raul’s when Tolstead, in the middle of “Eat Death Scum,” spotted Bridgewater in the crowd and kissed him suddenly on the lips. According [to] the local legend, Bridgewater sent out an emergency “officer in trouble’ alert, arrested the entire Huns lineup, and has refused subsequent opportunities to appear in New Wave films.)
Sally Norvell, lead singer of the Norvells and the Gator Family, plays Morrison’s wife in Death of Morrison and is outstanding as the neurotic lead of Speed of Light.
Lin Keller, lead vocalist on the Reversible Cords’ apocalyptic Jonestown Massacre hymn “Let’s Get Gone” (“Goin’ on a holiday…Guyana holiday-ay-ay-ay-ay-ayyyy”) was script supervisor on Speed of Light and warbles the film’s closing song, “Birthday Song,” written by the Records.
David Rodowick, who played with Radio Fre Europe and wrote F-Systems’ reputed anthem “Dawn of the Dead,” appears in Fair Sisters, directed by Missy Boswell, Louis Black (co-producer of Mask of Sarnath) and Ed Lowry, the last two being prominent Austin film / music journalists and entrepreneurs.
Randy Franklin, former member of F-Systems and Standing Waves, is a regular key grip on most Austin-made independent features.
…NONE OF WHICH IS TO SAY that members of the Austin combine are above bringing in creative elements from outside sources. When Ruttenberg was preparing Mask of Sarnath he wrote to England’s Throbbing Gristle to find out if they would be interested in scoring the film when it was completed. Gristle wrote back requesting a copy of the script and enough money to cover studio costs in London. Ruttenberg did as requested and received back shortly thereafter tapes that contained Throbbing Gristle’s spooky, imaginative music that now underscores Mask’s gruesome narrative and will soon appear on an upcoming TG LP.
(For further information on Austin films and filmmakers, contact: Louis Black, CinemaTexas, R.T.F Department, CMA 6.118, University of Texas, Austin, Texas 78712.)