Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of 354 films. With 266 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go, Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. This week, he takes on Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show.
The year is 1952 in the small Texan town where The Last Picture Show takes place. Like many small towns today, the social fabric of a community – once held together by stronger family values and moneys – has begun to deteriorate. There is a social decadence in this town that seems to absorb nearly everyone. Plagued by bleak opportunities and dissolving connections, its residents are in despair. Delving into loneliness, infidelity, and alcoholism, the film is a close-up look at the type problems that plague small towns that have few prospects for a different life.
- Director: Peter Bogdanovich
- Writer: Larry McMurty
- Cast: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Ben Johnson
In this coming of age story, high school friends Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges) are the focus of this story. The characters speak and act like normal people – Bogdanovich has an ear here for regular talk. They explore sex, loyalty, and their relationships with genuine curiosity and fear. As they become disconnected due to the looming threat of adulthood their sexual exploits increase, which eventually threaten the strongest of bonds. All throughout the character of Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), the owner of the only entertainment left in town, provides a sense of stability to the town.
What I love about this film is how it evokes the mood of wilting adolescence unflinchingly. It is clear that much has been lost in this town, and there is an unspoken longing for days gone by. The older people in town seem to take High School Football games too seriously, perhaps seeing it as one of the few things for which they might still cheer. The town is torn economically and nearly all relationships seem vulnerable to betrayal. In a final scene, a character says, in way that is telling of the town itself, “I am around the corner now, you’ve ruined it, it’s lost, completely”. As the last picture shows in the local movie house in a final scene, it serves to bring about a state of reflection, a look back at a time when Texas “had a glory, adventure, blazing trails and a kind of reason for being”.
The sense of loss comes to include the loss of social values. It is clear that there is almost nothing resembling a moral compass when it comes to sex – but this also seems to be a commentary on the mores of the 70′s put in the context of older films (which couldn’t show casual sex), and the realities of small town life. Seemingly apathetic and bored by his girlfriend, Sonny leaves her and soon finds himself aimlessly becoming involved with the wife (Cloris Leachman) of his high school coach. There is scene where Sonny first sleeps with his coach’s wife that takes a brutally-honest look at the awkwardness surrounding their age difference and the secretive nature of their involvement. The wife conveys, mostly with her face, the conflicting feelings of guilt and desire. This scene is good at reducing an encounter of this nature to a nearly primitive state of need, not embellished by romanticism or any other implied judgment. You’re left observing characters barely escaping their emotional shortcomings.
Meanwhile, Duane loves the school beauty Jacy (Cybil Shepherd), but her eyes seem to be placed on someone with better prospects. There is a scene where her mother warns her that she must aspire for more, lest she end up in a monotonous marriage like her own. Her mother, we discover, is prone to extra-marital affairs of her own. The black and white photography help strip the lives of its characters down to the essence of their daily actions. All skeletons in the closet are exposed. With such “nakedness” in mind, quite appropriately, this is also one of the first films to strip away the use of a musical score, using only diegetic music (jukeboxes, car radios, etc.).
The dialogue is very direct about the social issues it tackles. There is a scene where teenage boys speak about helping a young boy lose his virginity. While other films portray the 1950’s more romantically, the boys here are crass, but honestly so. With their unabashed straightforwardness, you get the feeling that any thoughts or concerns boiling under the surface could be addressed at any moment. Jacy’s character is particularly unabashed in her ability to tell her boyfriend, and other men, whatever is on her mind. There is no code (ratings board or otherwise) that people abide by. The Last Picture Show was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and with four nominations for acting: Ben Johnson and Jeff Bridges for Best Supporting Actor, and Ellen Burstyn and Cloris Leachman for Best Supporting Actress. It won two (Johnson and Leachman).
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
I am in complete agreement with you that the film is mainly “an evocation of mood”. There is no real direction given to the lives of these characters. When one character signs up for the military there’s very little said about what he expects to find in Korea, and just as little about what he expects to find when he returns home. In a town where communication is mostly done from person to person, we never see anyone acknowledging that pone might not come back. As you state, the film seems to merely exist. I also agree with the sentiment that this film seems “new and old at the same time”, and that the black and white photography lends itself to its “timelessness”. This film is by no means a sweeping epic, nor is it one that attempts to make bold declarations about society. What I love about it more than anything is that it dares to take a hard look at monotonous lives merely existing, and without beating you over the head, allows them to show what it would be like to merely experience life as it comes.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GREAT
Do you like The Last Picture Show? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: McCabe and Mrs. Miller