Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Film # 19: The Last Picture Show (Jun 21st)

The Last Picture Show

1971, 126 min.
Directed by Peter Bogdonavich

"If she was here I'd probably be just as crazy now as I was then in about 5 minutes. Ain't that ridiculous?... Naw, it ain't really. 'Cause being crazy about a woman like her is always the right thing to do. Being an old decrepit bag of bones, that's what's ridiculous. Gettin' old."
-Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson)

It's an exciting week for the Summer Film Series, and I was rubbing my hands in anticipation. This week has a series of Texas-themed stories, from Giant to Lone Star to Places in the Heart. What better place to partake of these grand stories than Texas's cultural center? Austin is known for its cultural diversity, so to me there's no better place to celebrate the life of Texas on film. After a busy weekend, the week would kick off on Monday night with The Last Picture Show. This time, I made sure to arrive early. This was a show I did not want to miss. As I arrived, I found many others had the same idea. It was a packed house, y'all.

I've always wondered, is there a greater curse than being labeled a "rising talent?" Expectations are a heck of a thing; they carry burden and risk. Risk of being a star that may burn too brightly, too soon. A great start to a career creates a sense of expectancy that few can ever maintain. Take for example, Peter Bogdonavich. The Last Picture Show was not his first feature, but is amongst the best to come out of that newer Golden Age of American cinema, the 1970s. Widely regarded as a brilliant film, it has remained Bogdonavich's crown jewel. It is a masterpiece painted in a palette of black and white, but the details and souls involved exist in shades of gray. Everyone in the film seems to be stuck in this one light town; their lives parked in neutral as they don't know what to do with themselves.

The Last Picture Show is a subtle but insightful film, and is one of those that slowly sneaks up on you while viewing it. It's a "slice of life" picture, and follows life in the fictionalized town of Anarene, TX in the early 1950s. Ostensibly a coming-of-age story about two friends during their last year of high school, the film slowly pulls back the curtain to reveal the lives of many of the townsfolk. Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges) are two teens who are typical in many ways. They play sports, hang at the local billiard hall, go to the picture show, and neck with their girlfriends. It's a directionless existence for the duo; barely outlining any future plans but lacking any stimulus but their hormones. These boys have little to no ambition, but it's interesting to see how the limits of a small town have fostered this apathy and restrains the dreams of its young.

What's immediately striking in the film is the atmosphere of a small town, be it in Texas or anywhere else. You can see the latent boredom as the driving force behind the young and old. People talk of ambitions and long term plans, but everyone is shackled to the state they're in. Bear in mind, I'm not talking about Texas, for these people dwell in a state of malaise. As anyone who grew up in small-town America knows, the gravity can be pretty damn strong. It's hard to let the initiative of your personal rocket ship escape a small town's inertia. Dreams rarely take flight because, once the town has its hooks in you, its difficult to escape. For some, the best they can hope to accomplish is to merely stay in orbit. Trust me, I grew up in a smallish city near the Texas coast. This authentic illustration of despair is captured perfectly. Perfectly, I tell you.

Despite depicting a whole lot of nothing going on, Picture Show is very frank in its presentation. It presents those good ol' days with a healthy dose of reality. Those with romanticized ideals of the post WWII era are in for a shock. The '50s weren't just poodle skirts and slicked hair. The movie's forthright attitude is seen in the townsfolk repeated scorning of the local football team, in coaches challenging manhood, and in the presentation of sex. Frankie Valli was mistaken, Grease isn't the word, sex is. Lots and lots of sex. Now that I think about it, maybe I was wrong also regarding the occurrence of nothing. In Anarene (as Jerry Lee Lewis said), there's a whole lotta shaking going on.

Picture Show is very carnal in its nature, and everyone seems to have a case of wandering hands and wavering monogamy. While initially shocking to see, the sexual dalliances are ultimately saddening because it's one of the few reminders that the town is still alive. Baseball may be America's pastime, but sex seems to be Anarene's. A close second place is gossip, since so many are quick to stick their noses (and other body parts) into other people's business. Everyone has an ear to the ground and loose lips. The older generation may be just as lecherous as their kids, but it appears discretion may be the only thing they learned over the years. Careless teenagers are much more cavalier with their bodies and the hearts of others.

Boys will be boys when it comes to their sex drives. It is interesting to note that the level of nudity, while shocking to the audience, is merely old hat to the young males. They learn that nudity may be one thing, but sex is a whole different animal. Duane is persistent in his attempts to deflower his girlfriend, yet shows complete surprise when he begins to make progress in his campaign. Sonny's views are more sensitive than his single-minded buddy, but how he handles sexuality proves to be just as feeble.

In stark contrast to the boys in town is Duane's girlfriend, Jacy (Cybill Shepard). She is the school's beauty and resident popular girl. Did I mention she's also the richest? Because that helps sweeten the deal, as well. Although presented with more opportunity because of her wealth, she still struggles with the town's (and her mother's) grasp on her life. While she is the only one of the youth with any semblance of having a long-term goal, it does keep shifting (and leads more to self-gratification than actual progress). Jacy may be an emerging independent young woman, but she's still short-sighted. I'm pretty sure that Gloria Steinem would not be amused. Jacy tries to wrestle control of her hazy future by using her body. Sex is but a part of the game, and her talent for manipulation is a toxic side-effect. They say girls love a bad boy, but the problem is her boyfriend is just an entry-level jerk. Therefore, her sex drive calls for her to play the field. Jacy may be the most complex of the young characters and Cybill Shepard plays it very well; showing the nuances of a girl unsure if what she's doing is right while having the will to follow through.

Despite the fine performances from the young cast, the finest acting is showcased by the tired and despondent adults in the film. The elders are populated by character actors, but each shines brightly in this film. My personal favorite is Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson in an Oscar winning performance), the most respected man in the town. Because of his paternal nature and the fact he owns the pool hall, the diner and the movie theater, you could say he is the very soul of Anarene. He is also a father figure to the two boys, providing guidance when he can and trying to break this generation of the "trashy behavior" he's been around all his life. Sam is a moral compass who hopes to point the way out of Anarene. Shame everyone is too busy doing nothing to listen.

Also noteworthy are the older female roles. Each are strong women with their own crosses to bear. Ellen Burstyn is Lois, Jacy's mother, a slightly overbearing woman who wants the best for her daughter in an effort to correct her own mistakes made in the past. Eileen Brennan, as Genevieve (the local waitress) is touching as a woman who works hard towards the carrot dangling in front of her, but has no illusions of ever reaching her goal. Like Sam, she adds a parental touch to the boys that indicates what they need before direction is guidance. These women add to the atmosphere of the town's sorrow, and they help reflect the tone of the film. Their performances hint at the truth that becomes apparent to the audience... that Anarene is a ghost town and doesn't even know it.

Cloris Leachman also won a Oscar for her supporting role, and she is by far the most tragic character in the film. Those of you who are familiar with Leachman only from her recent appearance on "Dancing with the Stars" should see his film to see why she was a star to begin with. Her role as a depressed housewife drips with melancholy, and we can feel how lonely she really is. As she transforms because of her newfound sexual glory, we in the audience wince because we can see that the other shoe will eventually drop. Yes, she should know better; but after years of unhappiness, it's really hard to reject the promise that hope brings. If Ben Johnson is the soul of The Last Picture Show, then Cloris Leachman is its heart. As a result, our heart breaks with hers.

Flavored by the old country music by the likes of Hank Williams, Eddy Arnold and Bob Wills, the film is a Texas-sized platter of small-town hopelessness. The Last Picture Show displays a wisdom far beyond the years of its director, since Peter Bogdonavich was 31 when he made this film. While it's not hard to believe someone so young could hit the nail on the head about teenage angst, it is remarkable that he could also nail the lamentations of middle age so well. Although he made a few strong films after this, none approached this level of sheer brilliance. In retrospect, Bogdonavich should've just pulled a Harper Lee. Write your "To Kill A Mockingbird," recognize it can't be matched, and retire.

The Last Picture Show isn't just Bogdonavich's crown jewel; it's a gem for all of us to treasure. Curse of the "rising talent" label or no, I'm simply glad we have this masterpiece for generations to experience. It paved the way for "high school as metaphor for life" cinema, and such deliberations on the merits of youth versus experience broke ground that John Hughes would continue to cultivate in the 1980s. Ultimately, it reminds the audience how disheartening it can be watching youth being wasted on the young. The world may be their oyster, but often they don't have the knowledge to really give a shuck.

The movie's brilliance was certainly discernible to all that night. Each of us in the audience were touched. We were laughing and crying when the moment called for it. As the end credits rolled, they were met with thunderous applause. Imagine that, cascading cheers and adoration on a film that is nearly 40 years old. But like its themes, the movie itself is timeless. For me, it left emotions in it's wake, rippling in my mind long after this picture show at The Paramount ended that evening. It continues to glow upon the silver screen all these years later; shimmering because the stars that night were big and bright indeed, deep in the heart of Texas.

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