Documentaries on the Lone-Star State.

Documentaries on the Lone-Star State.

Documentaries on the Lone-Star State.

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Aug. 6 2004 3:23 PM

Supersize Me

A pair of Trio documentaries take on the outsized personalities (and girths) of the Lone Star State.

But the horses are normal size
But the horses are normal size

Texas: America Supersized (Sunday, 9 p.m. ET on Trio) is a one-hour documentary written and narrated by the British-born journalist Christopher Hitchens that asks: "With a Texan in the White House, are Texan values taking over America?" Hitchens is always a surprising figure, contrarian and insanely prolific, a left-wing hawk with a wide-ranging mind the size of, well, Texas. He's also a dapper chap who appears to enjoy the limelight as he drives around the state, buying elephant-leather cowboy boots or riding in a border patrol vessel along the Mexican border, his lank locks flowing behind him in the wind.

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate’s movie critic.

Those "Texan values" are summed up early on by interviewee Molly Ivins as "religiosity, anti-intellectualism and machismo." In an illustration of these values, Texas: America Supersized intersperses interviews with oil magnates and gun-toting ranchers with familiar clips of Bush promising, "We will smoke them out of their holes … we will bring them to justice, dead or alive." Yet the film's juxtaposition of good ol' boy swagger and presidential politics is no easy irony à la Fahrenheit 9/11 (a film that Hitchens despised). Hitchens seems in equal parts entranced and repelled by the outsized ethos of the nation's second-largest state. And his opening question—if the United States is in fact becoming more like Texas, "Should we be worried, or should we rejoice?"—never allows for an easy answer.

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Texas: America Supersized is like a thoroughly researched essay that never quite gets around to making a point. One example: A segment on the Alamo is set up as "the essential moment in Texas history," the key to understanding the roots of Bush's current wartime policy. The colonists who fought the battle of the Alamo were killed, but the battle would come to symbolize a tough, live-free-or-die Texas, thus helping the state to win its "wider war" for independence. Given Hitchens' controversial support for the Iraqi invasion, is it possible that he's saying that Iraq is our Alamo, a battle that must be lost in order to win the wider war for democracy in the Middle East?

If Hitchens had developed this point and others like it, things could have gotten really interesting, but alas, the documentary is surprisingly muted when it comes to Hitchens' own point of view. As is often the case with his journalistic writing, Hitchens' formulations are daring, but his opinion is hard to pin down. After an interview with Austin-based director Richard Linklater, who makes the by-now-familiar point that Bush is heavily influenced by his team of advisers, Hitchens observes in voice-over, "I think I would give Bush more credit for being his own man." Why? He never elaborates. Later, as Hitchens drives through the sterile Dallas suburb of Plano, he muses about the "manicured bliss" of the lawns and the "white, conservative, Christian, clean" population. "I feel I could be very happy here," he concludes mildly. Is he kidding? It's impossible to tell.

If this isn't enough Texas for you, satisfy your craving with Fat City, which will air immediately thereafter. Fat City, a made-for-Trio original, is a more successful, if less ambitious, documentary—at least it gives a better sense of what it's really like to be fat than Hitchens' documentary does of what it's like to be Texan. Narrated by Dallas legend (and real-life Fort Worthian) Larry Hagman, Fat City takes us on a tour of Houston, Texas, the town with the heaviest population in the United States for three years running. After ticking off the factors that have contributed to this dubious honor (the massive restaurant portions, the urban sprawl that makes walking impossible), the documentary focuses on the story lines of three different figures who reside in Houston's gastronomical landscape.

Diane on sensuality The most fascinating of the three is a 600-plus-pound woman named Diane, whose heft has confined her to a wheelchair but who resolutely refuses to diet or change her lifestyle. Diane could serve as a cover model for a magazine on self-esteem: "Granted, I'm the largest of everybody [in my family], but if you ask me, I'm the prettiest." When she proudly displays a picture of herself in a see-through black lace catsuit, you have to admire Diane's moxie, but it's hard not to sympathize with her family's concern for her health—after all, the lady sleeps with an oxygen mask. Lighter on his feet but just as sure of himself is 265-pound Bud, a "competitive eater" who frequents the kind of Houston establishments where you get a 32-ounce chicken-fried steak for free just for finishing it in a single sitting. (In a real-life version of an old Simpsons gag, Bud was once banned from an all-you-can-eat buffet after polishing off two prime ribs in an afternoon.) Last, there's Tiffany, a young mother who's considering stomach-stapling surgery to lose some of her 305 pounds, partly in the hope of serving as an inspiration to her son Jordan, who at 11 years old already weighs 167 pounds. All three are treated with respect by the filmmakers, but those who, like me, are skeeved out by onscreen scarfing—Bud's methodical demolition of a foot-high "monsterburger" is particularly disturbing—will come away from Fat City craving a nice salad (dressing on the side, please).

Bud: consumer extraordinaire Sunday's back-to-back screenings kick off a month of Texas-themed programming curated in the typically obsessive Trio style. There will be four more documentaries about the Lone Star State (including the provocatively titled Texas Teenage Virgins and a survey of the oil industry called Business, Texas Style), along with a lineup of films set in Texas, from the John Wayne classics The Alamo and Red River to the Coen brothers'Blood Simple and Austin-based director Richard Linklater's Slacker. And if you can't wait till Sunday to get started on your Lone Star marathon, you can tune in to the Outdoor Life Network tonight at 8 p.m. ET (check local stations for listings) to catch a very special episode of Fishing With Roland Martin, described in my TiVo program guide as follows: "President Bush and his dog, Barney, fish his personal ranch pond in Crawford, Texas." That's Bush's pond, not Barney's, I presume, though host Roland testifies that the presidential pet gets in on the action as well: "He was really interested in every fish we caught. He licked on 'em and what-all."