The Last Picture Show (1971, Peter Bogdanovich)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

Tragedies unspoken, a gathering of interconnected stories so real that its melancholy is kind of oppressive — but of course, that hardly does this film justice. In the end, partial as I am to Targets and Paper Moon, Peter Bogdanovich’s career didn’t amount to much more than this. Did it need to? This is one of those experiences you willingly put yourself through that genuinely hurts, in the best way; lives were dragged through the mud because of it, on and off the screen and in between, yet somehow its lived-in ache and power seem to compensate. By fusing the clarity and palpable dread of Orson Welles and the open spaces and secret pangs of John Ford with the newly permissive emotionalism of the art film, Bogdanovich creates the film equivalent to a barren, stoically miserable ballad. The almost claustrophobically moody story about small-town coming of age, from Larry McMurtry’s partially autobiographical novel, has a certain amount of sentimentality at its core — telling the story of Texas teens in the ’50s in black and white with plenty of country music, what else could you expect? — but it is a story about real people, and they are portrayed by an ensemble of brilliant performers playing with confident rawness at the top of their abilites. And the vast landscapes and eerie stillness — there’s no replacement for real location shooting or real black & white film stock, am I right?

The forlorn wanderings of the two boys, Duane and Sonny (Jeff Bridges and Timothy Bottoms) are in large part the anchor of the film, though they are overshadowed in one’s memory by the performances of the women in the film, the sole exception being Ben Johnson as the sad-eyed and compassionate Sam the Lion: Cybill Shepherd’s comically exuberant “bad girl” Jacy, her mother as unforgettably wrought by the incredible Ellen Burstyn, and the tremendous Eileen Brennan as the face of Sam’s Place whose complex relationship with her customers is admirably free of artifice and cliché. For me, and I’m sure many will feel differently, the central and most consuming story in a very multilayered and intricate movie is that of Cloris Leachman’s terminally sad Ruth Popper, her mildly terrifying marraige, her unapologetic happiness with an illicit teenage lover, and the lifetime of contours on her face. More than the quest to lose virginity, the restlessness of rural life and adolescence, the shouldering of responsibility, the insane inevitability of both losing and repeating the past, all handled delicately, The Last Picture Show is about that face. Leachman is saintly.

She depicts the central problem. In the setting Bogdanovich and McMurtry show us, truth is frowned upon, emotions ignored by everyone but the impulsive children whose behavior is twisting toward that of their parents — they do things in order to be accepted. The revelation, of course, is that this isn’t limited even slighty to this time and place. It’s life. When the local cinema closes, another bit of hope and passion seems to die away. This is a world of denial.

In a sense, then, I’m perplexed at how this could be seen as a piece of nostalgia. It’s a valentine to the awkward, tentative discomforts of growing up that reveals slowly the way the awkward, tentative discomforts fail to stop when one reaches adulthood. What the movie captures is naivete — a breath of fresh air just after the idelogical ’60s. Much like The Graduate, The Last Picture Show surrounds its confused young characters with morbid diagrams of their futures, to which they are almost completely blind.

Their freedom to escape and change and reshape themselves is squandered by their surroundings and by the systematic way they have learned to live. The Graduate is a good-natured comedy until it turns over with cynicism in its final scene, tainting everything that came before; The Last Picture Show, for all its ample cynicism and heartbreak, ends with a note (in Ruth’s eyes) of hope that in all this murk, some kind of humanity can survive, that an escape from one kind of dehumanization may not have to lead to another, that life — “I guess if it wasn’t for Sam, I’d have missed it, whatever it is” — doesn’t have to be missed. The absence of shortcut romance in all this haze is vastly preferable to something like American Graffiti, which is far less potent in both pathos and humor (Bogdanovich’s witty use of Phil Harris’ bizarre hit “The Thing” is funnier than anything in George Lucas’ film) — its melancholy, however overwhelming, is entirely earned, even if we can admit that melancholy scored by Hank Williams is one of the better sad feelings life permits us to have.

Having said all that, the movie does show some longing for its era. This is a result of the romanticism that charges seemingly every frame. It has some degree of realism and a drastic range of emotions, but it’s never gritty. In a way this is a welcome contrast to the work turned out at the time by nearly everyone else, but sometimes you wonder if the temptation to be pretty wasn’t occasionally too much for the temptation to tirelessly document sad nights and darker mornings — if the entire film were thoroughly as devastating as its final scenes, it might indeed be too much to bear. I’m tempted to say, however, that this element ultimately enhances the movie — it adds another complication to something brimming with nuances. You will come away from The Last Picture Show with mixed emotions… and I think that’s as high a compliment as a movie can get.

[Originally posted (as an IMDB comment!) in 2004.]

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