Saturday, May 12, 2012

Josh Carter's TALES FROM DELL CITY, TX gracefully, genuinely explores a small town

What's this? A second film in as many months that makes the questionably great state of Texas look like a wonderful place to be? Sho 'nuff. After a slew of movies -- narratives and docs -- that might have you running for more northern climes, up pops, first, Richard Linklater's lovely Bernie, and now we have Josh Carter's documentary, the utterly charming (and as dear as those frolicking baby lambs it shows us), TALES FROM DELL CITY, TEXAS.

Lying only 70 miles east of El Paso, back in the 1950s and 60s, Dell City was a thriving farm/ranch community boasting several thousand residents. Today the town is down to but a few hundred hardy folk, but, ah, what folk they turn out to be! Mr Carter, shown at far left with his sound man Wayne Bell, not only introduces them and their town to us, but he democra-tically goes about querying each one about how he or she would choose to film the town -- and what theme they might use. The towns-folk oblige mightily, even agreeing to make their own tiny films which are then inserted into the larger opus. These include the restaurant, Rosita's Cafe, below, the hub of the town's social life -- not to mention its breakfasts and lunches; how young couples cotton to this odd and lonely place; the joy of watching sheep & lambs; and ranch life in general. The whole pac-kage runs, I should inform you, only 71 minutes, including credits.

The through-line of the film is water -- and the growing necessity for this. Echoing Jessica Yu's recent doc, Last Call at the Oasis, "Looks like water's gonna become more valuable than gold," notes one fellow interviewed, Bobby Jones, Jr., below. Dell City, you see, has long had a remarkable reserve of water under its land. This, more than anything else in the years to come, just might keep the town afloat, so to speak.

A near ghost-town now, Dell City remains, in the words of the town policewoman, below, "incredibly beautiful."

And though the film itself is certainly not -- "homemade" takes on new and ever drabber meaning as you watch the dreadfully shot footage -- yet very soon, that lack of visual flair (or more likely, budget) ceases to matter. It's the people who count, and Carter has captured them with remarkable ease and honesty.

We bounce from Rosita, who owns that cafe, to the Lutrick family, the parents of whom were about to lose their farm when son Jimmy, above, took over and now has it running pretty well. (Jimmy shows us the new pipeline he had installed; ah, water, again.) There's even a gay among the small population, or at least so it seemed to this viewer, though no one mentions anything so crass as sexuality: the beauty shop owner, who tells us that, while Dell City is located in the largest county in the state, that country is also the least populated.

We don't see (because no one in Dell City seems to be well off) but we do hear about class divisions. We're present for the auctioning off of a recently deceased (and bankrupt) man's equipment, and we also meet the 91-year-old bar owner who finally must sell her bar. Another bar owner-cum-artist, Bonnie Larreau, above, has decided to stick it out. When she explains why, you'll probably agree.

Mr. Carter uses chapter headings throughout his film, and as it progresses, these grow sadder, for we come to understand how hard these people are trying to hang on. In a sense the film is a eulogy -- and a tremendously moving one -- for Dell City, filmed in advance. Yet these folk are determined to somehow make it, and maybe, given their special water situation, they will.

One of the townfolk, T.D. Pope, when asked what he'd make a film about, tells us, "I do like to watch those baby lambs!"  (See above.)  You will, too. And if you happen to have seen two other much remarked upon documentaries over the couple of years -- Sweetgrass and Le Quattro Volte -- you'll probably find these sheep a lot more fun (and filmed more compactly, too).

Tales from Dell City, Texas, in fact, is a better documentary all 'round than those other two films, both of which had their strengths. This one is more meaningful, more humane, and dare I say it, less pretentious. It will open this coming Friday, May 18, in Manhattan at the Quad Cinema. Click here to see any other currently scheduled playdates. There is one scheduled for El Paso this coming August, but I hope we'll see even more. And that, eventually, this little homemade gem will arrive on DVD and/or streaming.

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