Out of all the movies I received as Christmas gifts, I was most excited to watch True Stories. I’ve been dying to experience this cinematic anomaly ever since the Red Letter Media crew covered it on re:View, and Criterion’s gorgeous digital restoration arrived just in time to satisfy my curiosity.
This is a travelogue of modern (circa 1986) America made by aliens that don’t fully grasp the intricacies of human behavior—appropriate, considering it was directed by Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, an extraterrestrial that occasionally masquerades as an earthling. It stars such oddballs as a compulsive liar, a wealthy woman that never bothers to get out of bed, a computer technician that beams messages into outer space, a conspiracy-obsessed evangelist, and John Goodman as a lovesick man that, in his own words, “maintains a consistent panda bear shape.” And guiding us along on this bizarre journey is Byrne’s own rambling narration, which (much like his song lyrics) consists primarily of non sequiturs and word salads.
The film doesn’t merely celebrate such absurdities as dueling auctioneers, opera-singing security guards, and accordionists on parade, however; it also manages to discover moments of genuine poetry in the most mundane of places (a dinner table, a shopping mall, a partially-constructed prefab stage, and a DUI stop, to name but a handful of examples). This clear sense warmth and compassion towards its subjects sets True Stories apart from the works of John Waters, Werner Herzog, and David Lynch; it doesn’t judge these characters for their “otherness,“ but treats them as ordinary people, despite their quirks—which makes it a true paragon of “specialness,” indeed.