January 30, 2010

#95: The Last Picture Show

Next on the list is Peter Bogdanovich's black-and-white love letter to a disappearing American west. The Last Picture Show was adapted from a novel by Larry McMurtry, the screenwriter who later penned the Oscar-winning screenplay for Brokeback Mountain, and marks the screen debuts for Cybill Shepherd and Randy Quaid. Fun facts!

Company: just me and instant Netflix this time. It proved to be a good choice. I always love a buddy but this seemed to benefit from silence.

Cuisine: my dinner: baked tilapia and zucchini with fusilli. Completely delicious. Why don't I ever make fish? It's so easy.

Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd. Doesn't Timothy Bottoms look sorta like a mix of Paul Dano and that kid who played Peter Brady in The Brady Bunch Movie?

The Last Picture Show takes place on the eve of the Korean War in a small town called Anarene, Texas, and follows two friends, Sonny (Bottoms) and Duane (Bridges) as they graduate from high school. Both boys fall for the same girl (Shepherd), but Duane is dating her and Sonny ends sneaking around with the wife of his basketball coach (Cloris Leachman in an Oscar-winning performance). Duane's girlfriend Jacy's mother (Ellen Burstyn) is the richest woman in town but naturally in a loveless, thankless marriage, and finds ways to occupy her time.

Ruth (Leachman) looks on enviously at Lois (Burstyn) at a dance at Christmas.

The film is largely silent, and only scored by popular music from the time, a common practice now but an innovation then. Large spans of the film are silent save for a tinny Hank Williams song playing on a radio somewhere offscreen. Add this to the black-and-white palate and the near-total eye-level camera work and the film becomes a somber ensemble piece, in which no piece of acting feels fake and everyone, even the rookies, are on top of their game. The film scored four supporting actor Oscar nominations for Bridges, Ben Johnson (the winner), Burstyn and Leachman (the winner), and remains the only film in history to have that many supporting nods. I think this is a testament to how strong the cast is as a whole. I wouldn't have been surprised to see Bottoms and Shepherd with nominations too, but they were 19 and 20 at the time, and almost complete unknowns.

What made the movie a revelation at the time was how frankly it deals with sexual liberation. Sex is viewed as a pastime, even a game, in a place where there's barely anything else to do. One man, Sam the Lion (Johnson) owns the town's pool hall, the only restaurant, and the movie house -- without them, the townspeople would have literally nothing else.

Jacy experiences love amidst billiards.

It's as though sexual experience is the barometer by which a person's knowledge is measured. Everyone wants to have it, and then as soon as they have it, there's no further you can really go. They're back to being bored in their boring little town. What I loved is seeing how these kids, no matter what their dreams or ambitions, are destined to end up in this little town; mirror images of them exist everywhere, from the owner of the pool hall to the kind but weary waitress (Eileen Brennan). They're all so anxious to get going, to hurry up and have sex, as though they were racing the clock -- but against what? In this town, there's no rush, because even those who try to escape ultimately end up there again. You could even argue the character who goes off to war near the end of the film is destined to end in Anarene.

It's all too bad, because they're good natured kids, and all of them are pretty easy on the eyes too. The generation gap is clear -- the old men of the town shake their heads in disgust at the terrible high school football team, but you know those football players will end up as those men, rooting for but ultimately disappointed by a bad team.

Is this all a metaphor for the disappearing West? Bogdanovich shows clips of Red River and other Western classics, and paints such an emotional landscape that we feel like we're watching a Western, even though there's no horse or lasso or John Wayne in sight. The town feels like it's disappearing; even a hamlet of 1,131 people should feel more populated than Anarene, and yet it seems like a ghost town.

"Never you mind. Never you mind."

Maybe it's just a city of broken dreams, of young kids wishing they'd get out, having sex too soon and marrying the man who get them pregnant (the mothers of these high school seniors seem almost uniformly to be near 40), and then settling down to raise the kids. Is it a cycle of regret? Can anyone break it? The one who does is off to Korea. Will he come back?

Sonny watches the bus drive away. I'd imagine he could envision himself there.

I don't think the film provides any easy answers, and perhaps it asks you to formulate your own questions. At a glance, The Last Picture Show might seem like a cautionary tale for growing up too fast, but I have a feeling it would reward multiple viewings, like most classics. I suppose the story isn't especially revolutionary, especially now given that most movies employ sex as a plot point nowadays, but the emotional portrait of this small Texas town is certainly powerful.

I didn't think I'd like it as much as I did, but I think when I look back on this movie I'll remember the silence, powerful and awful and aweful, and how much can be said without words. Bravo.

Well, I got through six movies this month, ninety-four to go. Not really on track, but given what's been happening in my life, I think I did okay. I'll try to bump it up in February. Next up: a Royale with cheese. Quentin Tarantino's mid-nineties crime comedy Pulp Fiction.

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