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Leah Churner on We Always Lie to Strangers

When I started writing for Reverse Shot, I didn’t know what a “reverse shot” was. I’d stumbled upon this cluster of cinephiles at a party, and was impressed not so much by the sense that some of them seem to have memorized Trivial Pursuit: Silver Screen Edition (had I intuited the group’s mania for board games I’d have avoided them entirely) but by the way they articulated their knowledge. These were eloquent, funny people, and I wanted to be eloquent and funny, so I strove a little too hard. Rather than kicking my phony ass to the curb, though, the editors encouraged me to keep at it. I recall Googling “reverse shot,” only to be referred to a broader topic I was also unfamiliar with, “continuity editing”—here was a visual geometry I’d been blind to all my life, the actual grammar of the language of film. This was the first of many lessons arising from my acquaintance with this group.

Casting around for something to say in this symposium, I thought about the movies of the aughts that cut me to the quick: Kill Bill Vol. 2, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Margot at the Wedding, Lake Tahoe, Bernie, and Magic Mike. But these are all suspended in a fog of extratextual memories; I couldn’t begin to parse their merits apart from the way I’d personalized them. I wanted to choose something fresh. A. J. Schnack and David Wilson’s elegant new documentary We Always Lie to Strangers, which I saw at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, hit me with the same sense of discovery and surprise I’ve come to associate with Reverse Shot.

Strangers is a big-canvas nonfiction drama about the lives of tourism-industry workers in Branson, Missouri. This tiny Ozarks outpost, once deemed by 60 Minutes “the live music capitol of the Universe,” receives more than 7.5 million visitors annually, most of them senior citizens. They come by car and bus to sample over 50 stages’ worth—“more seats than Broadway”—of family-friendly musical entertainment, comprising light comedy routines, pop standards, patriotic numbers, and gospel songs. Competing with the musical shows are additional attractions for younger customers: putt-putt courses, go-kart facilities, log flumes, and wave pools.

When I read the synopsis on the festival schedule, I was pretty sure it would be right up my alley. I’m a sucker for gaudy regionalism, rhinestone suits in particular, and the blurb’s accompanying photo showed men wearing the same sort of bespoke “rodeo” fashions featured on the stage of the “Grand Ole Opry” in Robert Altman’s Nashville. Schnack and Wilson’s film implicitly pays homage to Altman’s seventies opus; like Nashville, Strangers is a backstage musical that simultaneously revels in and critiques indigenous cracker-barrel spectaculars, and frames the locale as a microcosm of American history and identity. Yet, Strangers differs in some crucial ways. It’s a documentary rather than a fiction film, and the awareness that the subjects are actual people rather than actors colors our perception. In addition, Schnack and Wilson are Missouri natives. (Trivial Pursuit: Silver Screen Edition memorizers will want me to point out here that Altman was also from Missouri, but his film was about Tennessee.) The filmmakers’ biographical ties to the region, though never explicitly spelled out, show through in a deep-rooted mood of chivalry, the kind of bittersweet, affectionate tone one associates with home.

Filmed over the course of five years, Strangers introduces us to members of three local dynasties: the Presleys, of the long-established, ultra-conservative “Presley’s Country Jubilee”; the Lennons, a sprawling clan of “raging liberals” from Venice, California, who perform in a variety of sibling configurations; and the Tonocos, a small family struggling to keep afloat a low-budget outfit called “The Magnificent Variety Show.” In addition, we get to know hired performers from outside the family circles, Elisha Conner of “Magnificent Variety,” a divorced single mother of two, and Chip Holderman, of the riverboat revue “Showstoppers!” (ballet one minute, ’N Sync the next), who is also divorced, with two children. Chip is gay, and we may be surprised (or unsurprised, due to all the show tunes wafting in the air) that Branson has a relatively large gay population. The most important character in Strangers, however, is Branson itself. The subjects spend a good deal of time ruminating on the town’s identity; as Bill Lennon explains early in the film, the place “seems very simplistic on the outside, like you could paint it in a dozen sentences. I think you will find that the surface truth doesn’t match the actuality.”

Coming into the theater, I expected more of a dramatic, Scooby-Doo–like unmasking of the “actuality” of Branson; if not a sex-scandal-laden indictment of the “dark side of the heartland,” than at least soupçon of condescension. Perhaps I’ve been watching too much reality television, or too many tabloid docs like Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles, because I was ready to be magnanimously bemused. (Aren’t they adorably eccentric, these hillbilly divas and cornpone choreographers, with their snapping fingers and god-blessin’-America? How quaint.) USA Today reporter Dan Reed nails the voyeur’s point of view in one scene, remarking to the mayor, “Branson is a kitschy town. It’s a guilty pleasure. Americans look down their nose at kitsch, but we all love it.” The mayor disagrees. She says those entertainment attractions are not what Branson is “about.” Rather, the town is built on the core values of “hospitality, God, family, and country.” This pat answer provides more merriment for Reed, but what if the mayor is right? What if, beyond the thorny politics and the jazz hands, Branson has something to teach us?

Strangers is a kind of meta-exposé—rather than subverting the town’s marketed image, it challenges our expectation that such subversion will occur. There’s a whiff of the academic here, but it’s never heavy-handed. The sophisticated psychological twists and turns are the handiwork of not just indigenous Midwesterners, but veteran documentary programmers: Schnack (credited as the director/producer/cinematographer/editor) is the founder of the Cinema Eye Honors for Nonfiction Filmmaking, while Wilson (director/producer/cinematographer) is a cofounder of the True/False Festival in Columbia, Missouri.

The title We Always Lie to Strangers, which comes from an old Bransonite saying recalled onscreen by Bill Lennon, should clue us into an imminent distancing scheme. It is a riddle. Who are “we”? Who are “strangers”? What’s the lie? Does “we” refer to the people of Branson, to human beings in general, to the filmmakers themselves? Is this film about the gap between life and art, or the illusory nature of documentary filmmaking itself—the arrangement of abstract experience into finite narrative?

Schnack and Wilson set things up so we initially look down on Branson, literally: the opening shot shows a map of Missouri. In this stage, we are the “strangers.” The image dissolves into an aerial view. It’s almost reminiscent of Google Maps. We zoom in until we’re over the tops of the trees, and then we’re in “street view.” We see tourists on picnic tables, skaters at a roller rink. From above, the town is a dot. Zoom in, and it’s not a dot anymore; once we get to the rooftop-level magnification, any chosen geographical coordinate is an arbitrary place—a parking lot, somebody’s backyard, whatever, no more the nucleus of Branson than the big waterfront commercial development where a gaggle of Chinese acrobats are trotted out to perform for Al Roker on Today.

The more acquainted we become with the townspeople, the more we realize that Branson has no social center. Everyone, from the top-earning performers to the part-time company members, to the women who married in to these theater families, feels like an alien. Bill Lennon, who has lived in the town for going on 20 years, still jokingly refers to himself as a carpetbagger. His wife, Gail, feels self-conscious as the only New York Jew among the Lennon’s Catholic-bred Southern Californians; she may be the only East Coast transplant in her zipcode. Sassy-mouthed Elisha Conner considers herself the town’s only iconoclast, while mayor Raeanne Presley, on the opposite end of the totem pole (she became a Presley in the 1970s when she married the family drummer), feels frustrated that nobody understands how hard she’s trying to improve the town’s economy and social services for people like Elisha and for Tamara Tomoco, the struggling small business owner who’s put all her possessions on the line to keep “The Magnificent Variety Show” going, and is close to bankruptcy. Finally, Chip Holderman is in the most obviously awkward social position; he is still performing in “Showstoppers!” with the ex-wife he divorced when he came out of the closet. The only reason he stays in this Bible-thumping place is to be near his sons, and somehow this devotion reinforces his ex-wife’s new husband’s homophobia. By giving us a privileged view of the Bransonites’ lives, Strangers puts us on the inside. The music also helps; between the staged Christmas carols and sashaying renditions of “Y.M.C.A.” and “Proud Mary” are nondiegetic interludes of music by the a capella indie folk group Mountain Man, a female trio whose Appalachian-styled harmonies are plaintive, quiet, and bewitching. Accompanied by shots of sky and landscape, this music pulls us out of the Astroturf and into nature, creating a slow, contemplative mood that opens up a space for true identification.

But not entirely. Near the end of Strangers, just as we’re growing confident that we’ve got the film’s message figured out—i.e., everybody in Branson is an island—Schnack and Wilson play their ace, the concept of the “Toby Show,” from which Branson’s culture descends. As Gail explains it, the Toby show is basically a Midwestern version of vaudeville; dating back to the early 20th centuries, this form of variety theater usually centered around an iconic stock character named Toby, a cunning yokel who feigns stupidity in order to pull one over on the city slicker. “Everyone figured he was dumb,” she says, “but in the end he was the smarter one.” Everyone in Branson, it turns out, takes for granted that this is the gig. They know what visitors want, which is the same thing we viewers expect: to see, as a Presley performer puts it, “one real hillbilly.” He likens it to tourists in Hawaii, who feel cheated if they don’t see a hula girl. Bill describes the Ozarks tradition of swapping “windys” in the general store—tall tales with good punchlines delivered in exaggerated accents for the benefit of eavesdropping strangers. “The city people would go back to their car and say, ‘You know what I heard in there?’ A lot of stories got spread around the country based on the hillbillies telling windys.” Thus Strangers maneuvers the viewer back on the outside, but it does so with profound emotional resonance; showbiz in Branson goes on, as companies fold, relationships are severed, feuds end, and a patriarch, the last of the Toby Show generation, dies. What is exhibited here is not kitsch, but dignity. Ultimately, the “surface truth” of Branson’s family values is the reality. The last scene, a chorus of “America the Beautiful,” left me in a blubbering pool of tears.

We Always Lie to Strangers depicts the vagrancies of a subculture that reminds me a bit of Reverse Shot, and not just because most of us share a flaming fondness for show tunes. This community of writers is one I’ve somehow felt simultaneously “inside” and “outside” of, never able to catch up to their smarts but never left behind either. I am lucky to have met them. Now I am fairly confident that I could explain continuity editing to a stranger at a party; what’s harder to put into words is the affection I’ve felt for these friends and my respect for their love of movies. Reverse Shot was, and continues to be, a force of mystification and demystification in my life, always revealing new things I don’t know.