Director: Peter Bogdanovich
We’re not the Guardian on a Friday or Pitchfork are we. As reviewers our job appears to be threefold: to point our colleagues at new stuff of interest, to warn people off the bad stuff (son – 13- came back from ID Resurgence saying it dragged a bit – he’s the target audience so nothing to see there), and with the old stuff share our passions about jewels that may be lying in the grass.
So The Last Picture Show. Made in 1971 by the then-unknown Peter Bogdanovich and featuring the then also-unknowns Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd and Tim Bottoms. I first watched this in my twenties – drawn in by its name which crops up in every list of great movies- and its lack of upbeat action and visuals caused it to pass me by. Twenty years later I’ve just watched it again and can declare it to be an absolute masterpiece. So I’m sharing it here.
It shares DNA with the American coming-of-age movie: most clearly American Graffiti and Rebel Without A Cause. The former’s critique of the American dream is barely there behind the cool cars and music, the latter’s casts the rebel as an incoherent and glamorous figure who will ultimately return to the fold.
Bogdanovich’s film is in a different league of film-making from Graffiti. Rather than the white-picket suburbs of Rebel or the strip of Graffiti we’re in a dusty and windswept small Texas town far from the highway in 1951 in which the only real industry is oil. Shepard plays the son of the oil company boss, the richest and prettiest girl in town, and girlfriend of Bridges. All three – Bottoms is the high school football star – are in the last year of High School; their lives centring on the cafe, the pool hall and the cinema run by father-figure Sam the Lion. The interiors of these spaces are all cheap chipboard, concrete floors and are all as run down as the streets. The streets are empty bar the occasional rootless older men and women whose lives are emptying out as the town does. Main Street is shuttered, the picture house is closing down.
What happens – secret elopements, affairs and fights – is conventional enough as a plot. It’s no surprise that eventually the central characters are all led to having to decide whether to go or stay. The only moment of plot surprise – a sudden and violent death – is the one false note in a near-perfect film (and critics note is a clear nod to Rebel). So why has it made such an impression this time round?
It’s extra-ordinary visually. The luscious black and white cinematography gives the film a documentary feel. Composition is exemplary. Freeze virtually every frame and you could be looking at a photo by Ansel Adems, Richard Alvedon or Walker Evans. Only Shepherd and her mother are allowed anything like a conventional Hollywood look, as if to emphasise their wealth and status.
The performances are uniformly excellent – from the leads who made their names here to grizzled film veterans such as Ben Johnson (Sam the Lion) and Chloris Leachman as Ruth the lonely football coach’s wife. Bogdanovich evokes character and situation at a natural pace without any exposition – so the first twenty minutes are somewhat confusing. Later on however all the events appear as natural and inevitable as the closure of the picture house. Tellingly half-a-dozen times we see televisions in the homes of the characters, another factor closing down Main Street.
Made in 1971 it’s clearly a product of the new Hollywood. The fifties are not seen here as any kind of Happy Days but one in which the decade between WW2 and Rock and Roll was one of conformity and predetermined life chances. Bogdanovich uses the fifties to critique how the adult generation fail the next: only Sam the Lion, emblem of a different era, is able to offer any kind of moral guidance. The sexual politics of the film are fascinating. Usually the pre-Beatles era is seen on film as one in which strict morality prevailed and pre-marital or extra-marital sex drew instant punishment . Here there are the familiar fumbles in cars and unhooking of bras from Grease, but the characters have messy, unsatisfying and duplicitous sex without their lives falling apart.
If it has a fault it’s that laughs are perhaps in too short supply. Like the grim-faced victims of the Depression that stared out from Walker Evans’ photographs, moments of pleasure are seen as fleeting in the midst of struggle and emptiness. The tone is elegiac and melancholic, a portrait of a town and its inhabitants slowly fading away.
Finally, there’s much for Afterworders to relish in the musical aspect of the film. Apart from a Saturday night dance which does much to establish the town’s social order early in the film, the film records how music is a constant companion via the jukebox, radio and television. In cars, in the cafe and pool hall and in living rooms the pre-rock music of Hank Williams, Tony Bennett, Webb Pierce and many more float in and out of the film. In music too change is coming, and much of this music will be shortly swept from the lives of teenagers.
I hope I’ve persuaded you to seek this out if you’ve never watched it, or to watch it again if you didn’t quite connect first time around. I’m now going to seek out – forewarned as to its critical status the sequel- Texasville – like Picture Show adapted from a Larry Mcmurtry novel.
Might appeal to people who enjoyed:
The Big Chill, American Graffiti, Rebel Without A Cause, Walker Evans, Richard Avedon, ‘Americana’, Cybill