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One of my favorite films is The Last Picture Show. It is a film that was
directed by Peter Bogdanovitch in 1971, yet almost 30 years later it still
seems fresh and alive to me. There is a desolate, spare quality to the
1950's small west Texas town we are invited into and its desolation is
apparent to us from the opening scenes. It was filmed in black and white,
which enhances the dramatic quality of the town and takes us back to a
simpler time. Just as our lives are discontinuous, with jarring scene
changes and ridiculous episodes of embarrassing events, so is life presented
to us in this small town. The film's purposely jarring editing is
transformed in our minds, as we watch, from a disjointed amalgam to a stream
of consciousness effect that is very lifelike. One knows, then, that you are
entering an alternative world just as real in its way as your own. This
movie pulls you in.
There is no musical score in this film in the normal sense. The only time you hear music is when a radio is on or a phonograph is playing in the background. This lack of a musical score dubbed over the film enhances the illusion of reality. Another aspect of this sound editing is the choice of music that is being played by the different characters. Bogdonavitch uses song and artist selection to subtly comment on the character of the person or people who are listening to it. In the case of Sonny the music he selects is always Hank Williams and it alludes to the hardscrabble life and down to earth quality of his character. In contrast at JC's home, the manipulative teenager played by Cybil Sheppard, you hear a cover of a Hank William's song that has all of the life sucked out of it, similar to a Pat Boone cover of an Elvis Presley song. It is a direct comment on JC and her family; her family has grown wealthy by owning oil wells and they pretend they are still the same people as before. It is obvious they are not just by this simple musical selection. It is eloquent in its simplicity.
The center of the film and the major theme should you listen to your heart or your libido if the two don't combine in the same person? Perhaps the saddest comment in this film is that too often these two halves to a whole do not come together as a package and people are forced to chose. None of the characters are particularly happy with their mates. Everyone is on the prowl for that perfect person they know they will be happy with. Time and again they think that they've found the perfect person based on their sexual attraction but when they begin to show their authentic selves are then rejected. Those in long term relationships with an emotionally compatible mate but with no sexual interest face an equal dilemma a lack of excitement and joy and are destined to be the ones that reject. It exposes both sides of this human dilemma, a duality that can become split and non-integrated, and does it in a sophisticated and lyrical way. Most people experience this split at some time and in this film, as in life, there are no easy answers. That's why I love this film.
And there is Billy, the boy who continually sweeps the street in a hopeless gesture to turn back the inevitable, representing that demented and futile longing for a past that was never quite as good as you remember it. He represents that longing for an illusion that disappears just as we are about to grasp it and the sadness of that. The broom that is never fast enough for the blowing dust of time.
This is a character study wherein the main character is a small West
Texas town, circa 1951. In the U.S., the early 1950s symbolized a
transition from nineteenth century agrarian values to twentieth century
urbanism. In the film, various people who live in the town must
confront the reality that time moves on. Things change. Assumptions of
previous generations give way to the untested assumptions of the
future. The film's theme is thus American cultural change, and the
personal disillusionment that such change can bring. It is a powerful
theme, and the film imparts that theme with logical clarity and
In the hands of lesser talents, the subject matter of unimportant people doing unimportant things might have yielded a tiresome soap opera. But the film's script is poetic, the direction is skillful, the B&W cinematography is artistic, the casting is perfect, and the performances are superlative.
The story draws heavily from early American individualism. Life here is mostly physical, not mental. Human relationships are direct, immediate, one-on-one. Except for schools, which are given some prominence, cultural institutions exist in the film only vaguely or not at all. For entertainment, people listen to radio, which features the mournful country-western music of Hank Williams. Or, they go to the town's decrepit picture show, where an elderly Miss Mosey kindly returns money to the kids who got there too late to see the cartoons.
If the film has a weakness it is in the presentation of a realism that is incomplete. We see mostly stifling bleakness, though that is ameliorated somewhat by humor. What we don't see are the uplifting influences and the optimism that sustained agrarian generations through hardships and rough times.
Nevertheless, within the film's story parameters, the film does convey an accurate account of what life was like for ordinary folks in West Texas in the early 1950s. I doubt that this film could be made today. Contemporary audiences have been conditioned to expect non-stop action, loudness, glitz, and overblown special effects, all of which are absent, mercifully, from this film.
Low-key, perceptive, bleak, and melancholy, "The Last Picture Show" easily makes my list of Top Ten favorite films of all time.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy to befall any artist is to have their life
become more compelling than their work; such is the sad case with Peter
Bogdanovich whose meteoric rise to fame was matched only by a truly
famous fall from favor and a bewildering journey through tabloid hell.
(Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers mined the not inconsiderable drama of
the first act of his life to sporadically great comic effect in 1984's
Irreconcilable Differences. And his tragic love affair with Playboy
model turned actress Dorothy Stratten is fictionalized in Bob Fosse's
astonishing, horrifying Star 80 (1983). How many directors become
characters in films?)
Bogdanovich's love affair with film is undeniable, though it has, in the past three decades, yielded far more perplexing misfires (The Cat's Meow, At Long Last Love, Nickelodeon) than unqualified successes. That said, The Last Picture Show is an extraordinary accomplishment and worthy of its place in the list of great films of the 1970s.
1971's other important films (Friedkin's The French Connection, Pakula's Klute, Kubrick's Clockwork Orange) are loud, angry, violent and contemporary in-your-face reflections of a society in which rage and nihilism, engendered by Vietnam and the growing discontent over government corruption, is the currency of communication. The uncertainty coursing through the veins of American pop culture also begat in equal, if not equally graphic, measure a palpable sense of sorrow at the destruction of a simpler way of life (no matter how "true" that memory may be).
Like Jewison's Fiddler on the Roof and Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Last Picture Show is a powerful and poignant evocation of the death of a community and a way of life. Thematically rich and imbued with Bogdanovich's remarkable knowledge and passion for film, the movie works on a dazzling number of levels; and Bogdanovich's use of nostalgia and traditional, archetypal genre conventions both enriches the movie and compounds the heartbreaking loss at the heart of the story.
His deft handling of a cast comprised of then (largely) unknowns (Bridges, Bottoms, Shepherd) is first-rate and he draws forth superb, often sublime performances from everyone (in particular, Johnson, Burstyn and Leachman). There isn't a false note or a misstep in the movie and there is a naturalness here that is not easily achieved or earned. The great production design (by Bogdanovich's then wife and partner Polly Platt whose contributions to his work and her subsequent involvement in the best works of James L. Brooks should not go underestimated) and the achingly beautiful cinematography by the late Robert Surtees are vital to the success (emotionally, intellectually, thematically) of the film.
The Last Picture Show is a truly rare work of surprising depth and emotional resonance; and the heartache for a time and place forever gone and the desperate and quiet struggles of its very real, very human denizens is matched only by the sorrow found in contemplation of Bogdanovich's Icarus-like fall from such exalted heights.
Adapted with director Bogdanovich by Larry McMurtry from his own novel, this film remains true to its source. A modern adaptation would no doubt have adopted the voice-over approach of narrative, but here each scene is played out from a more objective point of view. The book consists of a series of events played out over a protracted period of time, with McMurtry's sparse but effective prose acting as a bridging device between scenes. The translation to the screen loses these links, giving the film a slightly episodic feel which runs counter to modern Hollywood film making practice. This is no bad thing, and in every other aspect the film follows the book almost literally, but watching it now does highlight the difference between the formulaic approach we are now accustomed to, with mise en scene, plot turning points and climaxes crudely and obviously spelt out, as opposed to that of Hollywood's final golden age, where the director was given more of a free reign to stamp his own identity on the film, and audiences were more receptive to different styles. Here the spirit of the novel is captured perfectly; that of the desperation and claustrophobia of small town life, where generation after generation undergo the same rites of passage, living out the same lives of frustration and unrealised dreams. The films strength is that it never forces us to identify with any one character, evenly distributing the amount of screen time over the different generations and, almost like a fly on the wall documentary (though heavily stylised in its powerfully expressive monochrome cinematography). Coupled with some sturdy performances from all of the members of the cast, and some memorable images, The Last Picture' comes across as an enchanting, evocative and accessible portrayal of a lifestyle most of us have never and will never experience. Now surely this is what the art of cinema is all about?
Here is a movie that perfectly captures a time and place. The time is
the year between November, 1951 and November, 1952 and the place is
Anarene, Texas, a small town in north central Texas. The screenplay was
written by Larry McMurtry, in collaboration with director Bogdanovich,
based on McMurtry's novel of the same name. Anarene is just south of
Archer City, McMurtry's home town where the movie was filmed. McMurtry
knows whereof he speaks, the movie has the feeling of total
The story centers around two best friends, Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges), as they pass from being high school seniors into adult life. Given their backgrounds, coming from broken homes and living in boarding houses, there is little idea that they will go to college. The movie details how the two handle this pivotal and bewildering time from being on the high school football team one year to being on their own without much of a safety net the next. In a wider context the movie is about larger transitions: from youth to adulthood for the young people, from a frustrated and bored middle age to an even less promising future for the older folks, and from a town with some social cohesiveness to a town dealing with the isolating effects of a bankrupt economy and the advent of television. The rather bleak prospects that Sonny and Duane face parallel the prospects of the town. You are made to think about transitions in your own life.
The movie is populated with many finely drawn characters, all acted with supreme skill. There is not a false note struck in the entire movie. By the end we know the characters so well that they seem real. Jeff Bridges was nominated for an Oscar, and I don't understand why Timothy Bottoms was not nominated as well, since his performance is of equal quality. Bottoms plays Sonny with such genuine good-natured charm and honest sincerity that it is hard to believe he is acting. And Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman both won well-deserved Oscars. Kudos all round to the entire cast.
The movie is beautifully filmed in black and white befitting the stark settings and story, and the time period. It is filmed as if it were made in the period portrayed.
If you have ever lived in a small town or if you grew up in the American heartland in the 1950s, this movie will evoke overwhelming nostalgia. But the story is so powerfully told that I think that for everyone it will evoke nostalgia for a time and place, even for that which they may never have known.
The town, as well as the movie, is held together by Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) who owns the movie theater, the café, and the pool hall. In fact he owns just about everything there is to do in Anarene, except for watching the hapless Anarene High football team ... and sex. It is no wonder then that sex, in its many faceted varieties, plays a big role in this town, and in this movie.
There are so many wonderful and memorable scenes that it would simply require a small volume to recount them. One scene that grabbed me was when Sam and Sonny are at a lake outside of town, ostensibly fishing, and Sam reminiscences about old times, about when he came to the lake twenty years earlier with a lover. Sam makes the comment, "You wouldn't believe how this land has changed." The camera pans the surroundings and it is hard to see how this area could have changed much in the last thousand years, but Sam is clearly attuned to the subtle changes, since memories were impressed on him in a time of strong emotion. We all have clear memories from when and where we have been happy, even if it is a small lake in a desolate flat land. And Sam's specific comment can be taken to apply more generally to the basic theme of the movie. This incredible scene ends with Sam's saying, "Being a decrepit old bag of bones, that's what's ridiculous," and anyone who is not close to tears at that point will never truly appreciate the beauty of this movie.
Seemingly this movie should be depressing, but the effect is more of a melancholic look into the lives of ordinary people who are just trying to play the hands they have been dealt in life.
It wasn't until the movie was over and I was reading the credits that I realized how cleverly the music had been woven into the film. All of the music is from the time period and is a part of the action and not background music. It is played on home radios, car radios, truck radios, 45 rpm players, jukeboxes, and at a community Christmas dance. The Hank Williams song, heard on the radio in Sonny's old truck in the opening scene, "Why Don't You Love Me Like You Used to Do?" sets the tone for the music as well as the movie. There are great songs taken from over a dozen country and western classics from the era. Ruth (Cloris Leachman) is listening to Johnny Standley's quirky, "It's in the Book," (a unique and strangely satirical offering to be popular at any time, let alone reach the pop charts and sell a million records in 1952) during the final scene between her and Sonny.
Why is this movie so special? That's kind of like asking why one likes a certain piece of music or a painting. Everything comes together here in one of those magic moments - the acting, the filming, the story, the music, the editing - to create a simply-told and remarkably affecting work of art.
Peter Bogdonovich's great love of film, combined with Larry McMurtry's superior storytelling (he wrote the novel and both collaborated on the script), is in glorious evidence in this elegiac study of life in a small Texas town in the early Fifties. Bogdonovich pays a heartfelt tribute to the America of John Ford and Howard Hawks but the subject matter is contemporary, anguished, appropriate for the time in which it was made. Filmed by the great Robert Surtees in a flat black and white that perfectly evokes the bleakness of rural Texas life and peppered with a fine soundtrack of the popular country hits of the time, Bogdonovich creates a mise en scene understated and keenly observant of the details. It's also filled with McMurtry's trademark mix of humor and pathos. The cast (including Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms, Cybill Shepherd, Ellen Burstyn and Cloris Leachman) is letter-perfect but it's Ben Johnson as Sam the Lion who gives the film its center: in an overwhelming (yet masterfully restrained) performance, Johnson unforgettably absorbs the town's despair, loneliness and regret; his short monologue about lost love is delivered with such deceptive simplicity that its power sneaks up on you unawares. One of the great performances and one of the groundbreaking films of the Seventies.
A beautiful and heart wrenching movie that gets better and better as
the years go by. I saw this when it came out in 1971, I knew it was
good, but I didn't really understand how good or why. Over the years I
have gone back and watched it again, and as my life changed I began to
relate deeper each time I saw it. Bogdonovich was WAY ahead of the game
on this one.
This is one of those rare movies that you can go back every five years and watch for the first time. Myself having been raised in Del Rio, Texas in the late 50's and early sixties, I can attest that this is a totally accurate picture of what coming of age in west Texas was really like for most of us.
This is a really outstanding film. It is a director's movie, with every nuance strictly controlled by Bogdonavich. It's a sweaty, sad, depressing sort of film. The vitality of the town has been drained by decades of malaise. The kids feel hopeless. The adults go from person to person and have affairs and experience emptiness. There's some depressing football team that can't tackle. But mostly there is a street with dirt on it and a mentally challenged boy who likes to sweep. It is rife with symbols. This boy is trying to sweep away the dirt that is infesting the town, but he has no effect. As a matter of fact, he is victimized by the other boys in the town--part of their fun. We have the contrast of the rich family in town with the Ellen Burstyn character and, of course, her daughter played by Cybill Shepherd. The boys who are in a hopeless prison of the town's making are like a bunch of horny bulldogs. She is the queen in the town, but that's not much of an honor. These guys are going nowhere and she might just be there, like her mother, 20 years from now. The director builds a world that isn't pleasant, but it's certainly a total depiction of a place without a future. The movie theater represents a last connection with excitement and enjoyment. But nobody goes anymore.
A heartfelt, unbelievably frank film on teenage sexuality, it manages to capture the intensity and tumult of the feelings of its depicted young characters superbly well. The cast is excellent, playing each character out in a realistic and moving manner. Timothy Bottoms in particular displays one of the most earnest performances of all time, and the rest of the actors and actresses are so good in general that it is hard to single one particular one out. The film is superbly shot in black and white, which helps depict the entrapment of the characters' emotions, and to really purify the desire to express their feelings. Without doubt this is one of most honest character studies ever filmed, and it just gets better on a second viewing.
In this nostalgic, atmospheric study of small town life in the fifties
as seen a decade later, filmed on location in Wichita Falls and Archer
City, Texas (from a novel by the incomparable Larry McMurtry), the
force of slow, inevitable change is symbolized in the showing of the
last picture at the local movie house. That last picture show,
incidentally, is Howard Hawks' celebrated Western, Red River (1948)
starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift.
Well, the movie houses came back to life as multiplexes charging eight bucks a pop, but the Western movie died out, and the boys watching that movie went their separate ways into manhood.
Peter Bogdanovich's direction is episodic and leisurely, naturalistic with just a hint of the maudlin. We get a sense of the North Texas prairie wind blowing through a cattle town where there is not a lot to do and a whole lot of time to do it. Hungry women and a sense of drift. Boredom, gray skies and a lot of dust. You could set 'Anarene, Texas' down any place in southwestern or midwestern America, circa 1951, and you wouldn't have to change much: a main drag, a Texaco gas station, a café, a feed store, flat lands all around, old pickup trucks and a pool hall, youngsters with a restless yearning to grow up, drinking beer out of brown bottles giggling and elbowing each other in the ribs, and the old boys playing dominoes and telling tales of bygone days.
Robert Surtees's stark, yet romantic black and white cinematography, captures well that bygone era. The wide shot of the bus pulling out, taking Duane off to the Korean War with Sonny watching, standing by the Texaco station with the missing letter in the sign, was a tableau in motion, a moment stopped in our minds.
Cybill Shepherd made her debut here as Jacy Farrow, a bored little rich girl playing at love and sexuality. Part of the restorations in the video not shown in theaters in the early seventies includes some footage of her in the buff after stripping on a diving board (!). She is as shallow as she is pretty, and one of the reasons for seeing this film, although in truth her performance, while engaging, was a little uneven.
The rest of the cast was outstanding, in particular Timothy Bottoms whose Sonny Crawford is warm and forgiving, sweet and innocent. Jeff Bridges's Duane Jackson is two-faced, wild and careless, self-centered and probably going to die in Korea. Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman deservedly won Oscars as best supporting actors. Leachman was especially good as the lonely 40-year-old wife of the football coach who has an awkward affair with the 18-year-old Sonny, while Johnson played a lovable, crusty guy that the kids looked up to. Sam Bottoms played the retarded Billy with steady, tragic good humor. Ellen Burstyn as Jacy's terminally bored mother, and Eileen Brennan as the wise waitress with a hand on her hip were also very good.
Memorable, but perhaps too obviously insertional, are the medley of country, pop, and rock and roll tunes from the late forties/early fifties jingling out of car radios and 45 record players throughout the film.
Peter Bogdanovich followed this with some hits, including the comedy What's Up Doc (1972) with Barbra Streisand, Ryan O'Neal, and Madeline Kahn, and the excellent Paper Moon (1973) with Ryan and Tatum O'Neal, but then tailed off.
I don't think he ever lived up to the promise of this film, an American classic not to be missed.
(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon!)
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