Film event: AFS will screen two documentaries about famed Texas writers

Horton Foote and Tim O’Brien are the subjects; Anne Rapp and Aaron Matthews are the filmmakers


The Austin Film Society will be highlighting two documentaries about two great Texas writers this weekend, with a two-day event at its cinemas on Middle Fiskville Road.

On July 22, the society will screen Anne Rapp’s documentary, “Horton Foote: The Road Home,” at 7 p.m., with Rapp in attendance. After the screening, Rapp will discuss the film with Austin director Richard Linklater.

And on July 23, at 4:30 p.m., the society will screen “The War and Peace of Tim O’Brien,” from Brooklyn documentary filmmaker Aaron Matthews. O’Brien will attend the screenings, as will Matthews and Linklater, with a Q&A to follow.

All participants are expected to mingle with filmgoers in the lobby after the screenings. If you’re interested, he’s a more in-depth look at the two movies:

People who follow the Texas literary scene know that the late Horton Foote ranks among the best of the state’s writers. So it’s gratifying to report that a new documentary about him captures his brilliance and warmth and bolsters his place in the literary canon.

“Horton Foote: The Road Home” explores the themes and characters of Foote’s many tales and screen adaptations, from “Tender Mercies” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” to “The Trip to Bountiful” and “The Orphans’ Home Cycle.”

The documentary is a longterm project of Austin screenwriter and director Rapp, who met Foote in 1981, when she was the script supervisor for “Tender Mercies.” (Foote won the Oscar for best original screenplay for “Mercies” — his second Oscar after winning for screenplay adaptation for “To Kill a Mockingbird.”)

On the set, Foote and Rapp became friends, in part because of their love of storytelling and in part because they both grew up in small Texas towns, Foote in Wharton and Rapp in Estelline.

Related: Film review: New Horton Foote documentary gets to the heart of a writer

In the years that followed, Foote and Rapp stayed in touch through letters, while Foote worked in New York. Once he came back to Wharton in his later years, Rapp would visit him at his home there, and they would spend hours driving around the town while he told stories about the people who lived on various streets.

Rapp says she was “able to follow Horton around with a camera the last three years of his life.” And she says their lifelong friendship “allowed me to capture a much more personal and inside view of his life and work, and also capture the connection between his hometown and his successful body of work in more intimate detail.”

Indeed, the heart of the documentary lies in the footage taken inside a car as Foote travels around Wharton. Foote died in 2009.

Besides the footage from the car, the documentary includes several innovations, including various actors, in black and white, reading short monologues that demonstrate the poetry of Foote’s language.

And as you might expect, various literary, film and theater heavyweights weigh in on Foote’s legacy. They include Bruce Beresford, Edward Albee, Betty Buckley, Elizabeth Ashley and Richard Linklater.

As the playwright Albee says, Foote “doesn’t write characters, he writes people.”

Eudora Welty once talked about how she grew up without a TV and that her favorite pastime was riding around in the backseat of a car and listening to her family talk. It trained her to listen, she said. And that was Foote’s experience as a child as well, saying he “soaked it up.”

Various segments of the documentary deal with his greatest works, many of which featured women who were survivors— “the meat and substance” of his tales. That’s certainly the case with “The Midnight Caller” and “The Trip to Bountiful.”

But Foote also had a knack of capturing the troubled spirits of men, most notably in “Tender Mercies” and “One Armed Man.”

In a remarkable moment, Foote looks into Rapp’s camera and says the following: “I’m on the side of those of us who have to struggle in the world and are easily bruised and damaged.”

That’s a wonderful sentiment for tumultuous times of today. And “Horton Foote: The Road to Home” is a balm for the soul.

Tim O'Brien
Texas writer Tim O’Brien. Courtesy Austin Film Society

If Foote favored those who are bruised and damaged by life, then he would certainly be on the side of Tim O’Brien.

O’Brien was drafted into the Vietnam War in 1969 and is still dealing with that war’s trauma. The new documentary “The War and Peace of Tim O’Brien” follows him as he wrestles with a final book for his two sons, Timmy and Tad, after a 16-hiatus from writing.

Documentary filmmaker Aaron Matthews acts like a fly on the wall as O’Brien muses about his life and whether his sons will truly ever understand him. They don’t ask him much about the war, even though O’Brien’s “Going After Cacciato” and “The Things They Carried” are two of the most searing novels ever written about Vietnam.

And O’Brien muses about his own father, a frustrated alcoholic who didn’t leave his son any details about his inner life. So O’Brien, sensing his mortality and fearing that he will not live to see his sons grow into adulthood, starts writing his final book, “Dad’s Maybe Book,” which was published in 2019.

We see O’Brien as he pulls out note cards that indicate possible chapters, and we watch as writes in the wee hours of the morning, often hitting a block, then heading to the kitchen, where he cleans the grout in the floor with paper towels.

We also see him try to sleep in what he calls the trench. It’s actually a bed, but he pulls the covers and the sheets over him, as if he were fortifying a spot in his home from attack.

O’Brien and his wife Meredith had their two sons when O’Brien was in his late 50s. He’s 75 years old today, and he muses on camera that he probably won’t live much longer. He bluntly says that he’s a smoker, and Matthews shows him chaib-smoking throughout the film. There’s no indication that he will quit, even though his family wants him to.

He takes his oldest, Timmy, to an outdoor pickup basketball game, and he smokes as he watches Timmy go for a layup. He smokes in his office as he tries to write and frets over whether he will ever finish the book. In short, he smokes constantly, going through two packs a day. (In case you’re wondering, he smokes Carltons, which are rated among the least harmful cigarettes by various studies, but that’s not saying a whole lot.)

The heart of the documentary lies in O’Brien’s longing to leave something personal for his boys. He says he hopes “Dad’s Maybe Book” will help his kids “find my ghost in these pages.”

Unlike with the Foote documentary, the O’Brien documentary does not linger on O’Brien’s place in the literary canon. At times, O’Brien says that he doesn’t really liked to be categorized as a war writer. Instead, he says that he would prefer to be known as a chronicler of moral failure.

Whatever the case, it’s safe to say this: O’Brien is one of the finest writers living today.

But Matthews, an English literature grad of Wesleyan, seems to assume that’s understood. He keeps his focus on the production of a book, and that tack has its merits. For O’Brien, writing is hard, with each sentence fighting for its life. O’Brien, who’s haunted by mortality, is fighting, too.

For some, the war is never over.

Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy is a former movies editor for The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman.

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