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The Last Picture Show (1971)

by on 2011/09/30

“It’s kind of an itchy age.”

* * * * *

I knew Peter Bogdanovich was a director, but I don’t believe I’d ever seen his work. Until now, he was just another face in the talking head film scholar crowd, along with Rudy Behlmer, Drew Casper, Christopher Frayling, Leonard Maltin, Richard Schickel, and Martin Scorsese, among others. Mostly he was memorable for somewhat resembling one of my professors, and appearing in almost every documentary on Hitchcock, Welles, and Ford.

If The Last Picture Show is any indication, I may need to keep an eye out for others. In a word, it’s fascinating.

Set in small-town Texas, beginning in 1951, the sprawling narrative follows a scattered ensemble, focusing mostly on Sonny (Timothy Bottoms). He and his friend Duane (Tron’s Jeff Bridges) face dead-end drudgery upon graduating from high school. Their days as failed football heroes behind them, they fill their time bumming around, chasing girls, and loitering in the pool hall, cafe, and theatre of Sam the Lion (western stalwart Ben Johnson of One-Eyed Jacks, Shane, and The Wild Bunch).

Little changes in the town, in the grand scheme of things. People come and go, are born and die, pair up and break up. The stories told by Sam and waitress Genevieve (Clue’s Eileen Brennan) suggest events in the past were little different from events in the present, whatever else they claim.

The main source of excitement is the interpersonal drama. Sonny breaks up with Charlene and wrestles with his provincial prospects and slim romantic pickings. He’s hardly alone, however. Every character reeks of desperation, hoping for a good life or love. Unspoken taboos are broken as an unending soap opera bubbles under a facade of age and abandonment.

The town is like few you’ve seen before, perhaps only in the films of David Lynch. It evokes its period perfectly, but adds more modern elements than you’d expect from the era of Roy Rogers: violence, language, and nudity . . . ever so much nudity. I felt Bogdanovich was trying to be more Pre-Code than Pre-Code. I imagined him asking, “You know I missed in Shadow of a Doubt? Full frontal nudity, and sex!”

Fortunately the “modern” explicitness doesn’t curdle the retro flavour. The provocative tone is tastefully done, never crude, simply matter-of-fact. No one here is innocent. If they’re not actually committing what they label a sin, then they’re turning a blind eye to it. Yet we’re led to understand the reasons for their desperation. As I observed in Election, it’s a rare effort which showcases balanced characters, none of them wholly “good” or “bad”, just honest.

It’s somewhat unpredictable. There is no grandiose arc as such, but a series of sequential vignettes. I didn’t mind that approach a bit, since I found it all so compelling. There were small things I didn’t enjoy — a handful of jarring edits — none sufficient to pull the rest of it down. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

And when I said Shadow of a Doubt, it wasn’t by accident. The Last Picture Show is not merely a Seventies affair with desaturated stock. It goes beyond the pot-boiling small town, the decorations of decrepit buildings, old trucks, and Hank Williams’ country music. The choice to use grainy black and white, the setups, lighting, and deep focus . . . everything blends together to seem as much like Citizen Kane as Blue Velvet.

Peter Bogdanovich learned well in studying the work of the masters. Encompassing conventions of biography, documentary, drama, history, romance, and even suspense, The Last Picture Show achieves a landmark for fans of classic cinema. It’ll make you believe the good old days very well might have been. At least in film.

* * * * *

Rated R

126 minutes

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