Part 19: Fandango
Late last Saturday night—or early Sunday morning, depending on your orientation as a night owl or a morning person (I'm neither, just a fatigued dad of two)—somewhere past 2:00 AM, I sat on my faded olive green couch feeding Cate, my beautiful nine-month-old daughter who continues to resist our entreaties to sleep through the night. Of course, at nine months her ability to understand English—much less English spoken with a Texas accent through garbled, monosyllabic grunts at 2:00 AM—is still quite limited. To avoid falling asleep I flipped the tube on and searched cable TV for something better than infomercials about shoes that make your butt slim and juicers so good they can hasten the second coming of Christ. Somewhere around channel 516 I clicked through a familiar image: the opening scene of Fandango, a movie filmed in West Texas in the early 1980s by UT law student-cum-filmmaker Kevin Reynolds.
Sometime around 2:30, after she had finished her bottle and fallen sound asleep in my arms like a precious little lump of clay, I gently laid Cate back in her crib and ambled back through the darkness toward the flickering lights of the TV in the den and continued watching Fandango, an occasionally sophomoric but always entertaining—and surprisingly poignant—coming of age/road trip movie I fell in love with during my teens but which I more fully appreciate now as an adult in spite of its numerous flaws and silliness.
The film follows the adventures of The Groovers, a group of five University of Texas seniors on graduation night in 1967 (including a then unknown Kevin Costner playing Gardner Barnes, the lead protagonist, and a pre-Breakfast Club Judd Nelson who plays Phillip, a nerdy ROTC enthusiast eager to fight in Vietnam), who drive west from Austin on a pilgrimage to dig up DOM, a bottle of Dom Pérignon buried on a hill overlooking the Rio Grande somewhere between Presidio and Lajitas, Texas. In addition to Phillip, at least two more Groovers—including Costner’s easy-going character—are bound for Vietnam, and their road trip to dig up DOM is a final attempt to enjoy "the privilege of youth" before heading off to war. (The movie's title, Fandango, means "a lively Spanish dance," or, alternatively, "a foolish act.")
Along their journey toward DOM the Groovers visit historic Marfa, Texas where they engage in some hijinks with a couple of local high school girls before sleeping beneath the decaying ruins of a large house that was once the film set for Giant. The crux of the film features a hilarious scene in which the tightly-wound Phillip (Nelson) honors a dare by his fellow Groovers to go sky-diving in a remote Texas parachuting school run by a pot-smoking Vietnam vet-turned-hippie named Truman Sparks. Of course, the first parachute doesn’t work since it’s packed with Truman’s dirty laundry, and the scene turns both comical and tense. The efforts to encourage Phillip to open his backup parachute are hilarious, and for most folks who’ve seen the movie I imagine this is the scene the likely remember most. (In fact, a black and white version of the parachute scene was originally a 30-minute student film before director Reynolds was encouraged to expand it into a feature-length film by Steven Spielberg, who produced the movie.)
However, the real star of the film is not Kevin Costner or Judd Nelson, but the beautiful, hot, desolate West Texas landscape. In one scene, regarding this harsh, barren environment, Nelson's character Phillip—a New Jersey native—remarks: “Texas is really ugly, you know? I mean, what could anyone possibly like about this state?” In response, Costner delivers a classic line (which also happens to be one of my favorite all-time quotes about Texas), “It's wild, Phillip. Always has been, and always will be—just like us.” Texas is indeed “wild.” Beauty is clearly in the eye of the beholder, but few would argue with the notion that the Lone Star landscape—not to mention its culture—is anything but wild.
As I gazed outside my window I was struck by the rather stark juxtaposition between the landscapes of desolate West Texas and dense, suburban Chicago. In spite of being spring—Palm Sunday, in fact—the weather had turned cold again and a gentle snow fell on the rooftops and against the window. It was quiet and I was alone with my thoughts watching this coming of age film from my youth. Complicated, unresolved emotions from childhood came flooding back. Memories of divorce and its attendant gut-wrenching pain and loneliness were coupled with images of high school antics that should have landed me in jail or at least detention.
The film's stark, beautiful images of the desolate West Texas landscape reminded me of vivid scenes from numerous college road trips and myriad personal fandangos from my early 20s, and I began to experience an overwhelming desire to be in wild, wide-open spaces like the arid desert near Big Bend depicted in the film. These images of West Texas coupled with a haunting, lyrical soundtrack by Pat Metheny in the film’s final act, which involves an enchanting, dream-like wedding scene, produced a melancholy I haven’t experienced in years as I reflected on my life as a teen in 1985 coping with my parents' divorce compounded by the messiness of high school.
I distinctly remembered the anticipation of adulthood with all its attendant fears and excitement, wondering who I’d be and what I’d be doing in my 20s and 30s, and what life would look like as a father at middle age in my 40s. Also, I thought intensely about the Texas of my youth. My memory of Texas from this seminal period in my life coupled with the mythical image of the Lone Star State formed by literature, film and fable is fused in my mind creating a fanciful image of home that never really existed. My personal history and emotions are so distinctly tied to my perceptions of Texas circa 1985 that it’s frankly quite difficult for me to have a clear image of this unique place—especially while watching TV in the middle of the night in a second-floor apartment in Chicago with snow falling during the height of spring.
Twenty-Six Year On
In my mind's eye I'm still about 25, about the time I was first fully independent, employed and self-actualized. Of course, the mirror always betrays this image, especially my graying temples. Similarly, my image of Texas is also from a younger period in my life, somewhere around the mid-1980s, when I was an immature teenager in suburban Dallas. It would seem my image of Texas is, in fact, stunted by my premature departure at the age of 22.
Having never lived in Texas as a fully independent, post-collegiate adult, it is fair to say I have a rather immature, incomplete half-image of the Lone Star State. Movies like Fandango along with seminal albums from my youth like Stevie Ray Vaughan's The Sky is Crying and iconic books such as All the Pretty Horses, The Last Picture Show and Lonesome Dove seem to inform my memory from this period more than any real knowledge about my home state of Texas. Not that I don't know many specific, concrete facts about Texas—after all, I dutifully took 7th grade Texas history (albeit taught by my rather dim basketball coach) like everyone else back home. It's just that I now realized my perspective is flawed and my vision of the past and of my home is refracted through the awkward, disjointed prism of youth and immaturity.
After the credits rolled up the screen and the soundtrack faded I walked softly back to my warm bed and fell asleep next to my beautiful wife. Fanciful images of Texas crept into my dreams and danced in my head, and for the next couple hours I was back home, or at least home as I want to remember it.
And one thing is for certain: soon it will be time for another fandango, only this time I will enjoy the adventure as a fortysomething wide-eyed adult in the company of my beautiful girls.