THE LAST PICTURE SHOW A
USA (118 mi) 1971 d: Peter Bogdanovich
USA (118 mi) 1971 d: Peter Bogdanovich
A darkly layered melancholic film adapted from the Larry McMurtry novel which has the true ring of authenticity stamped over every frame of the film, and don’t we wish films could be this refreshingly honest today, particularly the inhibitions to tell the truth about sex? Featuring a first rate cast, set in a small windblown west Texas town where you either work for the oil industry or you don’t work at all, where there’s next to nothing to do, so the entire town comes out to support the local high school football team every week and then lives or dies with their efforts. Filmed by Robert Surtees in Black and White, the town looks worn out and lived in before anything happens, where the flatness of the land extends in all directions beyond the horizon, where there is the feeling of no escape from this predicament where the same thing is likely to happen week after week. Only death brings change, as otherwise humans are tiny specks on the landscape. Seen through the eyes of high school kids who haven’t a clue what to expect other than a grilled cheeseburger with onions and a coke, the older ones around them, in contrast, have seen it all. They can look out into an endless patch of land that probably looks no different than it did a hundred years ago and speak of how it is all changing, how time feels faster, how the world is closing in on them making them feel squeezed when there used to be wide open empty spaces. They’re not really talking about the land, but the person standing there observing how life has changed, how in their youth everything felt possible, they could feel wild and carefree, but nowadays by the time you’re out of high school, your future is set. There won’t be any other possibilities, and it’s going to be that way for the rest of your life, where only death will change the inevitable.
Anarene (filmed on location in Wichita Falls and Archer City, Texas) is a small, dusty town of a little over a thousand with a diner and a pool hall that never seem to close, and a single run down movie theater that plays old classic movies where an old woman, the lone employee, struggles to make popcorn. A clue as to why they’re in this predicament on the verge of closing down is they don’t charge much more than a quarter. This is an era where radio is still king, where Bob Wills and Hank Williams reign supreme, the late 40’s and early 50’s, before most of the residents in town even own a television set. Boys work in the oil business or join the army after high school, while girls get married. That’s just the way it was then. Somehow, it felt simpler and less complicated, but people faced the same problems then as they do today. Timothy Bottoms plays Sonny Crawford, a sweet kid with a kind heart, while his best friend Duane (Jeff Bridges) is an oil roughneck with slick, greasy hair and a volatile temper. Like some kind of Peyton Place soap opera, Duane is going with the richest, prettiest girl in town, Jacy, Cybill Shepherd in her film debut, who is spot on as the spoiled brat with a charming smile who is used to getting whatever she wants by going into her helpless routine, a sex tease who can change the way a man thinks with the batting of an eye. After a worn out relationship with a girl dies of disinterest, Sonny hasn’t really got anyone except Duane. Ellen Burstyn as Jacy’s mother is one of the best things in this film, as she married the richest man for miles and is miserable, but she knows Duane is not the right kind of guy for Jacy, which is the only reason she’s with him in the first place. Clu Gulager plays Abilene, a pool shark who works for Jacy’s father, a man with a love for money and women and is usually mixed up with one or the other. Ben Johnson from the old John Ford westerns plays Sam, the grizzled old owner of most of the town’s establishments who has the decency to employ Billy (Sam Bottoms, Timothy’s real brother), a mentally challenged young boy who spends his futile time sweeping the dust from the sidewalks and the streets. Sonny is the only other kid in town who takes a liking to Billy, who worships him because of it. Eileen Brennan runs the diner with an iron fist, but is a soft touch with a no nonsense veneer, while Cloris Leachman as Ruth Popper is a revelation in this film, playing the eternally sad wife of a high school coach who is rejuvenated when she has a secret affair with Sonny that the entire town somehow knows about. Every one of these performances is something to rave about, all remarkably contribute to the overall tone of authenticity, as these characters feel lived in like a comfortable pair of old shoes. Somehow it all works.
This film is as much about the teenage kids as it is about their all but absent or missing parents, whose empty lives they are about to fill, which is a sad truth about isolated small towns where money remains in the hands of a privileged few and everyone else suffers. Jacy plays just about every guy in town, each move more calculated and self-centered than the next, but she gets away with it, making everyone else around her miserable. There are a couple brilliant scenes in this film, the town Christmas party with all of its ramifications, Sonny kisses Ruth for the first time as he’s helping her take out the garbage and Jacy leaves Duane for a rich kids naked pool party where first time initiates must strip naked on the diving board while everybody watches, which Sybill deftly handles, both the first and second times Jacy and Duane have sex in a motel room, both of which are comical, where he’s still talking about it to her as they’re singing the state song of Texas at their graduation ceremony, Sam’s personal confessions to Sonny out at the lake, one of the turning points of the film which won him an Academy Award, or my favorite, when Sonny’s crazy enough to fall for Jacy’s scheme to get married, alerting her parents so they barely get past the state line, only to lose her forever when her father snatches her away for good and Sonny has to ride back to town with Jacy’s sympathetic mother and a flask of bourbon, where for one brief moment in time the balance of adulthood and childhood are perfectly in tune with one another, and finally Sonny’s visit to Ruth at the end which resonates with a kind of fury that’s been missing in this film, where someone has hell to pay, but which turns on a dime and becomes one of the more eloquent transformations of damaged souls crying out in muted pain. This film is brilliantly written, so much of it understated, perfectly capturing that moment in time when a child is no longer a child anymore, where they have become who they are without even realizing it, still clueless perhaps about themselves and their future, but they are the living embodiment of heartbreak as time has literally begun to pass them by.