(0035X) The Last Picture Show

The Last Picture ShowOctober 24, 1971 | 1 week at #1

Seen by Martin before? Yes

What did I expect? A flawlessly dreary drama about 1950s Texas.

What did I get? I’m impervious to the well-documented allure of The Last Picture Show. There can be no question of the quality of the filmmaking or the ambition of the enterprise, but it just does not do much for me. The movie’s precise, black-and-white cinematography is simply gorgeous to look at, intelligence and taste are everywhere evident, but the characters are not involving enough, there’s too much unremitting misery (with hardly a thing in any other emotional register), and the lofty intentions of the filmmakers constantly drown out the activities of the characters. It may be a great movie, but it’s just not for me.

I can’t deny that The Last Picture Show is an important movie. The movie acted as a kind of broker of neorealist and nouvelle vague technique for American audiences, and the realism it injected into our conception of “the West” was surely necessary. The impulse was revisionist, and the impulse was good. To Bogdanovich’s credit, despite the influence of Rossellini and Truffaut and those other continental guys, The Last Picture Show does feel distinct from its European analogs and precursors, it’s got that flinty objectivity. Bogdanovich’s obvious immersion in and love for American movie history as well as the authentically western setting guaranteed that it would feel different.

Bogdanovich may have been too certain of those “truths” he was unleashing, too cocksure about rejecting the complacent narrative fudges in the B-movies of yore as fakery. Bogdanovich took “the West” and methodically stripped it of every affectation and mannerism imaginable — but then that very thing became its affectation and mannerism. The characters’ lives are relentlessly drained of all elation and solace, resulting in a distortion of a new kind. Bogdanovich is always making sure you notice how terribly “real” it is — and no doubt there was much truth in this self-consciously humdrum depiction of rural Texas life — but the possibility of rich, nuanced characters is lost in the process; they’re all object lessons in despondency. You can hardly hear them over the din of the strong directorial agenda. What some surely characterized as much-needed deromanticization ends up feeling like the bloodless working out of a thesis.

America in 1971 was ready for a mature cinema, and Bogdanovich duly became its poster boy. I comfort myself with the delusion that I would have been immune to its charms at the time, but that’s probably not true; its overweening reputation derives from its necessity. The Last Picture Show has dated well, but not quite well enough, prompting the interesting thought that, just maybe, La Notte and Persona, to name two random Euro classics of the time, today feel more than a bit mannered in their own right.

I know I’m at least a little wrong about The Last Picture Show, but I can’t talk myself into embracing a movie as pretentious and joyless as this, no matter how impressive — and it is very, very impressive. But something deep in its core repels and annoys me. C’est la vie.

What here smacks of 1971? The cinematic ambition.

IMDB score: 8.1

My score: 7

Director: Peter Bogdanovich

Writers: Larry McMurtry and Peter Bogdanovich

Starring: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Ellen Burstyn, Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman, Cybill Shepherd, Eileen Brennan, Clu Gulager, Sam Bottoms, Sharon Taggart, Randy Quaid, John Hillerman, Noble Willingham

IMDB synopsis: In tiny Anarene, Texas, in the lull between World War Two and the Korean Conflict, Sonny and Duane are best friends. Enduring that awkward period of life between boyhood and manhood, the two pass their time the best way they know how — with the movie house, football, and girls. Jacey is Duane’s steady, wanted by every boy in school, and she knows it. Her daddy is rich and her mom is good looking and loose. It’s the general consensus that whoever wins Jacey’s heart will be set for life. But Anarene is dying a quiet death as folks head for the big cities to make their livings and raise their kids. The boys are torn between a future somewhere out there beyond the borders of town or making do with their inheritance of a run-down pool hall and a decrepit movie house — the legacy of their friend and mentor, Sam the Lion. As high school graduation approaches, they learn some difficult lessons about love…

Get it at Amazon!


3 thoughts on “(0035X) The Last Picture Show

  1. Paula says:

    Maybe what highlights 1971 is the subject matter. Anyone born after 1975 has grown up with the expectation small town retail is dead and gone, buried under a Walmart parking lot on the edge of town, and that the once vibrant jobs and agricultural base of small town economies is equally dead. But in 1971 that idea that the town, itself, was dying was still pretty new; after all, it was just a few years earlier that Andy Griffith’s Mayberry was being held up as the iconic view of American small town life.

    Using a small town as a metaphor for a slow death of the spirit isn’t that new; after all, Sinclair Lewis wrote Main Street in the 1920’s. But tying that idea to a plot line where the town itself was dying right along with the people who inhabited it was new, and at least in my memory it was a first.

  2. That’s an amazing point I had not considered — or indeed, could not consider, for the reasons you mentioned. You’re probably right about that, the subject matter was new in that sense. I find myself wondering about The Grapes of Wrath, and The Best Years of Our Lives as possible precursors…. strangely enough, I’ve never seen either movie. It’s clear that there was a lot of humdrum “reality” Hollywood never paid much attention to, and it was high time for more realism in American movies, and Bogdanovich was certainly right to focus on that — for me, though, it’s too gestural and overdone, and I find it hard to relate to it.

  3. Paula says:

    GoW is a great movie, and it’s funny but I almost mentioned it when I wrote my first comment. While it does involve looking at the affect on people of a way of life coming undone, the focus of the movie is on what happens AFTER the family is thrown off their land. Aslo, in GoW the causal issues are a very specific combination of environmental and political factors that just is not valid for Last Picture Show. Part of what made LPS so good – and so early 1970s – was the lack of a real villain. Grapes of Wrath was a good lefty Warner’s Bros movie and stuck to Steinbeck’s view that, while you couldn’t blame anyone for the drought, you sure as hell could hold the moneyed classes directly responsible for what happens to the Joads. In Last Picture Show the town is dying and there’s no real reason why, and the sense no one can prevent it. There’s a lack of focus for what to do next that I think was hitting the whole country back then. The time period from mid-60s to mid-70’s saw a huge cultural shift in this country, and this movie came out smack in the middle. I saw it again a few years ago and was struck at how much it (most likely unintentionally) manages to express the feeling that everything known is going away, but without any idea of what’s coming next.

    Best Years of Our Lives is a fabulous movie – but in my opinion not really valid to this discussion.

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