Monday, May 05, 2008

Death in Houston: revisiting the sad life of Eagle Pennell, local film legend

My old friend Steve McVicker, late of the Houston Chronicle, has a piece in The Texas Observer about a mutual acquaintance of ours -- the late Houston filmmaker Eagle Pennell, who has the inglorious epitaph of drinking himself to death before the age of 50.

It's a story you may not care to read if you didn't know Eagle, and the facts really aren't that remarkably different from the demise of any other alcoholic, except that Eagle made movies (low-budget affairs that you likely never saw) and achieved a certain level or notoreity that most of us don't.

Other than that, the actual process of Eagle's death is as unseemly as any other rummy's.

Yeah, it's a shame, etc., etc.

But you feel for Eagle's friends and family, who eventually concluded they had to turn the guy away cause, let's be blunt, there's nothing more obnoxious than a down-and-out drunk who keeps fucking up and showing up at your doorstep in the middle of the night (and God forbid if they have a phone.)

Now, I never actually had to do that -- turn Eagle away, that is -- cause I gave up the demon rum about 7 or 8 years before Eagle flamed out, so I wasn't privy to the third act.

But, in my salad days, and I use that term with a big dollop of self-deprecating sarcasm, I drank with Eagle on quite a few occassions, usually in the bar known as Bitterman's over on West Alabama.

With Eagle, the topics of conversation usually were movies, football (especially high school football) and stuff I might be able to help him on for our combined greater glory.

Still and all, when you're in the bag, it's not entirely unpleasant to imbibe endlessly with someone who has vaguely similar interests.

Unfortunately, on more than a few occassions, the football talk would lead to Eagle wanting to demonstrate his forearm shiver on anyone willing (or unwilling, for that matter) to act as the blocking dummy.

At that juncture, the immediate vicinity would tend to clear out and Kent the bar owner would roll his eyes. Oh dear.

Once, Eagle and I took a Friday night road trip to see his old high school team from Bryan in a playoff game. It was cold as hell. We sat in the car finishing our tall boy beers before venturing into the statium -- the brewskis, of course, being more important than making the kickoff. Nothing remarkable happened. But he seemed happy watching his high old high school team play, halcyon schoolboy memories being what they are. I think he was a tight end. He was probably pretty good, too, since he was a pretty big guy, tall and rangy.

Anyway, we lost touch eventually, mostly cause I stopped showing up at the bar. The last thing I remember was him obsessing on was doing a remake of the Kurosawa movie Yojimbo.

Then, much further down the road, my editor called one afternoon to say she had received a call "from somebody named Eagle."

I hadn't seen the guy in years.

It was a day or two before Thanksgiving, and he was organizing a football game at one of the parks for Turkey Day, he told my editor. He left a phone number. I started to say it was gonna be a "touch" football game that was being proposed, but now that I think about it, it was probably tackle.

"Oh, he's just this guy I used to drink with sometimes," I told my editor.

I didn't return the call or show up for the game. Probably no one else did either, I figure. Except maybe Eagle, and he was probably a no-show, too, now that I think about it.

But I'm certain a tackle football game in the park on Thanksgiving Day seemed like a grand idea at the time -- at least to Eagle.

Now, he's been dead, what?, 7 or 8 years, and I haven't thought about Eagle more than a handful of times, until, of course, McVicker wrote his story for the Observer.

Oh, yeah, I have one distant memory of the three of us -- me, McVicker and Eagle. We had been at the bar the previous night, and I came up with the bright idea of cooking chili and having McVicker and Eagle over to my place to watch football the next afternoon.

The next afternoon came way too damn early, for my taste. The two showed up at my place for the chili at the crack of noon and me, hung over and groggy, made some of the crappiest, most tasteless chili ever concocted in the State of Texas, since I didn't actually have the proper ingredients in my barren pantry, though I'm fairly certain I had told them the previous night I was one hell of a chili cook.

They ate it, though, and didn't bitch, but I know what all three us were thinking while we stared at the football game -- this is some shitty-ass chili.

So now we're left with the question, why does someone like Eagle Pennell drink himself to death, despite numerous trips to rehab, despite friends and family who tried to help (at least for awhile), despite falling so low that he was sleeping in parks and such when things got really bad.

My best answer to that is fear. Despite his swagger, his true Texan credentials, his apparent talent at what he set out to do, he was just too damn afraid -- afraid of what life would or could be like without alcohol since alcoholics, at base, I think, are 'fraidy cats.

Or maybe he just didn't give a shit.


Harley The Hog said...

Oink! Oink!

What's so sad about this life, except the ending and every damn person I have ever heard of life ends sadly, never seen one where there was 100% celebration.

If it wasn't for alcohol, you wouldn't have a story to tell, a relationship to wonder about, and Eagle would have been a lackluster invisible nobody like the 99% of us anonymous members of the animal farm.

Give fermented beverages some credit. It's the most widely employed consciousness changing tool invented from the dawn of man. This is because it has the most benefit both mental and physical (blood pressure, high cholesterol effects, longevity, etc.) with the least harm to the individuals (taken as a whole) of all similar pharmaceutical agents tried so far. And its cheap and available to all, no discrimination like most stuff.

In terms of the "fraidy cat" theory, just the opposite has been proven, see

Eagle simply abused his meds, no different than the masses of today's zonked culture on mostly legal over the counter and prescribed stuff.

One who enjoys a good fermented mash in the trough--Harley

Banjo Jones said...

harley my good man:
as the sci-guy points out, the study says alcohol suppresses the fight/flight impulse, but the lad failed to connect the dots ... with the flight impulse impaired, the alcochol sufferer's ability to flee the sorrows of gin (or what have you) are disabled, sometimes leading to an early demise.

still, i celebrate your enjoyment of certain fermented beverages and say bully for you; it just doesn't work that way for some of us wretches.

thanks for reading & commenting.