In Lone Star, when Frances McDormond, in her jumpy cameo performance as the obsessive football fanatic, Bunny, rants about how the state of Texas football affects her psychological stability, among her talk of the tedious politics of the NFL draft and the particular talents of high-school players, she inserts "that O.J. thing." The line, barely more than a clause muttered under Bunny's breath and more than likely improvised by McDormand herself, has the feeling of one of those timely little throwaway phrases injected into screenplays to elicit laughs. (It is a bit like McDormand's presence in the film itself. Her monologue should be a glimpse into the heart of a woman in pain during a meeting with her former husband, but the way the camera follows her around with rapt amazement, forgetting for a while the other half of that marriage, her scene begins to look like something thrown into the movie to capitalize on her recent fame as Marge in Fargo.) Nevertheless, in the reference to the Trial of the Century you begin to see why director John Sayles made the film in the first place: America, it seems, was overdue for stories about racism that have happy endings.
Don't worry, I haven't given away the ending. Instead, I have merely defined the movement of Lone Star as being toward healing rather than separation in a context of racial disharmony—and in that way it is a story with an ending exactly opposite to that of Nicole Brown, Ronald Goldman, and O.J. Simpson, for whether you believe in Simpson's innocence or not, the chief result of that story was to expose, deepen, and perpetuate division along racial lines in our country.
What Sayles imagines in Lone Star is a community in search of new stories to tell about itself. Fictional Rio County, Texas, as its name suggests, is situated on the border between the United States and Mexico and is populated by a mix of Anglos, Latinos, African-Americans, and American Indians. It is also in the midst of a transition, nearly a half-century in the making, that promises to move the administration of the county out of hands of the last Anglo oligarchy and into the hands of a new Latino one, and close a military base that creates quite a bit of the county's economic activity. In Lone Star parents gather at the local high school to argue with each other about the content of their children's history classes, while behind them hangs a map of Texas looking like just any set piece until you realize that what they're fighting for is simply that map—the representation of Texas to future generations.
But like the map of Texas, Rio County's search for stories about itself is both the object of and the backdrop to the predominant action in the film—a trio of family histories each with roots in the Texas desert. When a forty year-old corpse, wearing only a Rio County Sheriff's badge, is discovered on an abandoned rifle range, Rio County Sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Copper) uses the story of his father, Rio County's legendary sheriff, Buddy Deeds, as the map to help him to navigate the murder investigation. The road down which Sam's investigation leads brings us into contact with other fathers and sons attempting reconciliation with each other, a mother trying to forget her past, and her daughter who wants to discover it. It also leads Sam to rekindle the most beautiful of recent screen romances with Pilar (Elizabeth Pena), the high-school history teacher and his childhood sweetheart.
Though his father's story provides Sam a key to the past, he is notably uncomfortable with the tension between "truth" and "fiction" that the idea of a "legend" inspires. Indeed, he is uncomfortable with the fact that his father is a legend at all. At the dedication of the new county courthouse christened in his father's honor, Sam reminds those gathered that though Buddy Deeds was in public a sheriff, "at home he was also judge, jury, and executioner." Sam's discomfort with the stories of his father's benevolent rule over Rio County and his memories of a troubled filial relationship with him lead Sam at every turn to want to tell people, in his words, "the truth."
But as one character in Lone Star remarks, "people like stories better than truth," and when the body in the desert turns out to be that of Buddy Deeds' immediate predecessor, the despotic, cold-blooded Sheriff Charlie Wade, the space between fiction and truth threatens to narrow. The most famous story about Buddy Deeds, of course, is how his sense of justice and morality led him as a young deputy to refuse to do Wade's dirty work and to run him out of the county, though no one knows exactly how. Legends, as a matter of course, are based on the fuzziest events in their subjects' lives. They are whole narratives about people, events, and regions based on storytellers' speculation and hint about unavailable information. And for Sam, the idea that his father might have killed a man in cold blood offers him the chance to validate his assumptions of his father's "true" character.
Though Lone Star is not the first story to associate a search for one's personal origins with a community or nation's search for its own, it recognizes a danger in refusing to recognize them. When Pilar's mother, Mercedes, herself an immigrant, and now an upstanding member of the Chamber of Commerce and the City Council, sits on her gorgeous veranda at night and sees a group of people running through her yard, she mutters "Wetbacks," and promptly calls the border patrol from her cell phone. "You want to see Mexicans?" she asks her daughter at one point in the film. "Just look around!"
Mercedes' actions and attitudes (she is, in an informal capacity, an English-only advocate) suggest the fragility of the myth of immigrants in America, at a time in our country's history when we are preparing to again limit the ability of people from other countries to become citizens. Mercedes is on par with the Rio County bartender who confides to Sam his fears that Sam will be the last white sheriff, and barely conceals his fear of miscegenation. Their dilemma is America's: who do we want to say we are, and what language are you going to say it in?
The search for origins is as old—literally—as Adam and Eve, and resurfaces again and again in American films with films as diverse as Citizen Kane and Star Wars, but in a way Lone Star takes the old origins mythologies and redevelops them. The end of Lone Star is entirely satisfying in late twentieth century America, but it would have scandalized the ancient Greeks. Had Sophocles directed Lone Star the Furies would have descended in the end to lay waste to Rio County. Indeed, the revelations in this film, though powerful, are of a different weave than the kind of revelations we find in, say, Oedipus Rex.
Lone Star is appropriately named, for Texas in the American collective imagination is nearly synonymous with the American West, the home of the stories that we as Americans tell about ourselves. In our history, the West has always been a place where different American cultures encountered each other and battled for land and supremacy. In our movies, the Western has given us a place to talk about our history, decide who we are and who we want to be, and from that make new stories about ourselves.
The American dream proves elusive and compromising in Big Night, Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott's film about the Paradise, a restaurant owned and operated with excruciating love and care by Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Tucci), brothers from Bologna who came to America with the dual hope of somehow educating the populace and getting rich. The theory that people will return again and again to pay for excellent food works in theory, but while Primo labors in the kitchen over a fabulous dish of risotto, Secondo must deal with their few customers, one of whom points to the basil on her husband's plate and says, "see, honey, yours comes with leaves." She is the kind of customer that is, in Primo's words, "a criminal," and proves it by turning her nose up at that exquisite risotto and ordering a side of spaghetti and meatballs. Primo is much happier with customers who understand his endeavors, like the artist he feeds nightly, and who pays him with his latest canvases. "What would I do with money?" Primo asks, in a verbal act of communion with his favorite. Secondo, on the other hand, understands that paintings by nobodies don't pay the rent.
The alternative to the Paradise is down the street at Pascal's Italian Grotto, a type of food hell where, Primo is sure, "the rape of cuisine" goes on every night. Indeed, it does present a marked contrast to the starched white, beautiful linens that adorn the tables of the Paradise. Filmed with little light illuminating the gigantic plates of spaghetti and meatballs that Pascal (lan Holm) serves his raucous customers, entering Pascal's Italian Grotto is a bit like entering Jabba the Hutt's Palace: the visitor quickly develops the idea that this one layer of decadence is only the cleanest, most presentable layer, and that beneath it exists a labyrinth housing things unimaginably terrible. The visitor is assaulted with over-stimulation, startled with the noise and the smoke generated by the crowd to entertain it. In an atmosphere that deadens the senses, what does the food matter? It's a good thing that Pascal runs his restaurant from an office rather than the kitchen, because too long a time spent in that place might reveal even more horrifying aspects of hell.
That the most important place in Pascal's Italian Grotto is an office instead of a kitchen as warm, functional, and quiet as the one at Paradise is, of course, immediately telling. Pascal is a businessman whose motto is, "Bite your teeth into the arse of life!" and he has no time for artistic aspirations like Primo's. When Secondo approaches him about a loan to keep the doors of Paradise open, Pascal refuses him, instead suggesting the "big night" of the title. A famous singer friend of Pascal's will be invited to the Paradise for dinner, and the publicity that his visit generates will be a boon for the restaurant.
Big Night is a story of the fall, complete with a snake—Isabella Rossellini's long, elegant, braceleted arm twisting to wave at Secondo from the window of a Cadillac. Rosellini's character, Gabriella, is even less of a temptation for Secondo than the Cadillac itself. Pascal owns it, and Secondo even takes time before the party to visit a Cadillac salesman (Campbell Scott) and take a test-drive. It is the ultimate symbol of American prosperity (in West Side Story Bernardo wanted to go back to Puerto Rico in one) but also the fruit of selling-out, and in one shot it sits parked on the street in front of the Paradise as an American flag flies in the distance. It is Secondo's optimal desire, his reason for being in America.
Inside the Paradise, however, Primo prepares a meal to rival all meals, not for the money he could make, but for the simple reason, he explains, that "to eat good food is to be close to God." Other movies make the connection between food and spiritual life—Babette's Feast springs immediately to mind—but Primo prepares a feast to welcome his and his brother's savior, while Babette herself is the savior, making food for people whose stark religion keeps them in a type of spiritual hibernation. The guests at Primo and Secondo's dinner have in the entertainment and spectacle of Pascal's Italian Grotto much more to tempt them than Babette's poor parishioners. In Paradise, Primo's morality is simple: "People should come for the food."