If you’ve never heard of South of Heaven, West of Hell, there’s an excellent reason. If you have heard of it, it’s probably because you stumbled upon the information that it marks the directorial debut of singer-actor Dwight Yoakam, who managed to sweet-talk a spectacularly quirky cast into abetting the enterprise: current girlfriend Bridget Fonda and her papa Peter; indie-world luminaries Vince Vaughn and Billy Bob Thornton (for whom Yoakam made a memorably loathsome villain in Sling Blade); character-acting stalwarts Bo Hopkins, Matt Clark, Luke Askew, and Scott Wilson; and such icons of the florid fringe as Bud Cort, Paul Reubens, and Michael Jeter. All should file for workman’s comp and alienation of audience affection because they got themselves mired in one of the dumbest, most inept, most tediously self-indulgent messes in the history of showbiz hubris.
[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]
Uniformed marching bands with twirlers. Red, white, and blue. Frustrated chauffeurs who can’t quite comprehend the world of their passengers. An arrival at the airport by charter plane, covered by an on-the-spot news announcer. The death and funeral of someone named Green(e). A reference to car racing. Some wild driving and a crash that brings many of the characters together. The more you look, the more similarities you find between BrewsterMcCloud and Nashville. Themes, motifs, devices, even characters and character relationships unite the two films. In each film, Shelley Duvall plays a naïve and sexually capricious free spirit, though in BrewsterMcCloud the impact of her affections on the men she favors is far more serious than in the frivolous flirtations of Nashville. In each film she takes up, at least briefly, with the son of a wealthy and powerful man: Bernard Weeks in BrewsterMcCloud is a sensitive and talented young man whose artistic inclinations have been stifled by his father, who has made him his business secretary—the same relationship, in fact, that Bud bears to Haven Hamilton in Nashville. In each film, too, Michael Murphy plays a visitor from California whose cool ways contrast sharply with those of the people around him, and whose comings and goings lend a kind of unity and purpose to the development of the film’s events. His escort, in each film, is a lovable but somewhat slow-witted man, whose home life we glimpse in a dinner scene (though Patrolman Johnson’s outrageous three sets of twin sons in BrewsterMcCloud contrast sharply in tone and intent with the two deaf children of Delbert and Linnea Reese in Nashville).
All these imagistic coincidences suggest similarities in more abstract areas as well; and sure enough, they’re there. Each film attempts a sweeping satirical commentary on virtually every major aspect of American life: sexuality, class-struggle, race relations, ambition, success and failure, economics, crime, politics, religion. The more obvious, less integrated BrewsterMcCloud uses original songs on its soundtrack to comment on action and character development, and counterpoints the loose, rambling structure of the film’s events with comment on philosophical and anthropological concepts from an anonymous Lecturer whose location and character never directly connect with the characters of the film’s story. Nashville‘s use of songs and the continuous comment of Hal Phillip Walker’s campaign truck are, however, not significantly different—only a more successful integration of these devices into the film. The purpose of the devices is the same: to extend the meaning and significance of the film’s events to a larger scope, to link microcosm with macrocosm.