Blog Directory CineVerse: A lasting picture shows us golden truths

A lasting picture shows us golden truths

Sunday, October 17, 2021

The Last Picture Show, directed by Peter Bogdanovich, turns 50 years old this week. What makes this movie so relevant and resonant on its 50th anniversary? Consider the following points, which give credence to the film’s longevity and legacy.

Why is The Last Picture Show worth celebrating all these years later? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • It still matters because it endures as a fascinating time capsule of a specific time and place: a small town in Texas between 1951 and 1952. The Last Picture Show stands as both a work of timeless Americana while also feeling like an elegy and farewell to an epoch in our nation’s history now forgotten by many – an age that had its good and bad points. Many Americans thought of the years following World War II, particularly the decade of the 50s, as a kind of golden age, one filled with greater prosperity, more creature comforts, and pop-culture excitement with the coming of rock ’n roll and the increasing popularity of television. But the way that Bogdanovich and company portray this culture is through a lens of loneliness, disaffection, heartbreak, and impermanence. It’s hard for viewers to believe that lives and relationships in Anarene will progress and prosper; those who choose to remain in this town will begin to fade from relevance and history like Sam’s movie house did.
    • In his review of the movie, Roger Ebert wrote: “The film is all about an evocation of mood. It is about a town with no reason to exist, and people with no reason to live there. The only hope is in transgression, as Ruth knows when she seduces Sonny, the boy half her age.”
  • It has stood the test of time thanks to its impeccable design and aesthetic realism. The littlest details feel period-authentic, from the country music and television programs that were popular at the time to the clothes, hairstyles, colloquialisms, and mannerisms of the townsfolk. Consequently, we believe that life in a small town in the early 1950s is depicted accurately: the ennui, the mundanity, the close-knit nature of the community, as well as the simple pleasures townsfolk pursue.
  • It’s this level of honesty and the film’s sexual frankness that continue to make it significant today. The Last Picture Show remains believable by virtue of its fine performances, fine script and quality dialogue, attention-getting and slightly shocking in its carnal content, and thought-provoking in its themes and messages.

In what ways was The Last Picture Show influential on cinema and popular culture or set trends?

  • Bogdanovich was part of the breed of up-and-coming new Hollywood filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Dennis Hopper, William Friedkin, Robert Altman, and Steven Spielberg. Many of these directors strived to make bold new, modernist statements, tell cinematic stories in daring new ways, and deviate from classic Hollywood filmmaking. Bogdonovich, however, was more of a neo-classicist steeped in the traditions of old Hollywood masters like John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Orson Welles. He pays homage to all three in various ways, including by using Hawks’ film Red River as the actual last picture show feature; casting John Ford stock company actor Ben Johnson, known for appearing in many westerns, in a key role; cutting efficiently within the camera, as Ford did, which means filming shots and sequences to make editing easy; by reintroducing each character and corresponding actor right before the end credits roll, as Citizen Kane does; and by including a thematically important monologue that evokes an important memory – Sam the Lion’s recollection at the fishing hole, which recalls the Bernstein monologue in Kane in which a memory of a beautiful woman with a parasol is remembered.
  • The Last Picture Show is more of a melancholy and nostalgic piece, a period movie that looks back instead of looking ahead or exploring modern-day themes that would have perhaps been more relevant in the early 1970s when the picture was released. It’s considered a cousin to Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons in that, like Welles’s film, a community and its way of life is transformed due to emerging technology – in this case, the advent of television and the increasing emergence of highways that could serve as swift escape routes out of town.
  • Still, Bogdanovich did push the envelope and defy expectations. For instance, he took Orson Welles’ advice and shot the movie in black-and-white, which was a rarity for an early 1970s film. Secondly, The Last Picture Show was frank in its sexuality and dialogue, featuring oodles of aberrant sexuality, including teenage promiscuity, adultery, homosexuality, and pedophilia.
  • Also, it uses popular country music of the period as its soundtrack as diegetic music that sometimes comments on the characters and situations; no proper soundtrack was written for the film.
  • The filmmakers further deserve credit for indirectly influencing cinema by helping to propel the careers of several then up-and-coming as well as overlooked actors, like Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Ellen Burstyn, Cloris Leachman, Eileen Brennan, and Randy Quaid. The ensemble cast here is one of the best ever assembled, all the more impressive considering how few of these names were known to audiences at the time.
  • This also helped kick off the retro craze for 1950s culture in the 1970s, or “decades-displaced nostalgia.” Think about how many popular works released in the 1970s hearkened back to two decades earlier, or the previous generation: films like The Lords of Flatbush, Grease, and American Graffiti as well as TV shows such as Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, and the Sha Na Na variety show.

What’s the moral of the story here? What messages or themes are built into The Last Picture Show?

  • The need for human connection, compassion, and dialogue. Ruth Popper is an excellent example of how unhappy life in this small town can be for its citizens. And Sonny is aching for a physical and emotional relationship with a real person who cares about him.
  • The passing of old values and traditions, as embodied by the transition of a small town in Texas between 1951 and 1952. This period chosen is significant, as it marked the increasing shift and audience loyalty toward the vapid medium of television and away from movies watched in a theater, as well as the onset of the Korean War and the Cold War, conflicts in which cowboys like Sam and the rugged frontier values they stood for became anachronisms that didn’t fit in.
    • The fact that it depicts the movie house is dead and the small screen is blossoming tells us that this already insular town is about to get a lot more insular and its people will become more alienated and withdrawn; the legacy of the boom of television was that small towns and communities started to lose their unique culture and eventually became more and more homogenized.
  • The inevitable demise of a close-knit culture or small-town community, as embodied in the sudden passing of Sam, who serves as the town’s moral hub, and the demise of the movie theater.
    • Hence, one can more easily decipher the message of the film’s poster: “Anarene Texas, 1951: Nothing much has changed.” This is an ironic tagline, as plenty has changed by the end of the film (including the deaths of Sam, the movie house, and several relationships), yet the fates of many of these townspeople probably won’t change.
  • The younger generation vs the older generation.
    • Ponder the contrast between Sonny, Jacy, and Duane versus Sam, Lois, and Ruth. The older generation represents a regretful, trapped, or obsolete bunch whose lives and opportunities have passed them by; despite being more attractive, hopeful, and yearning, the younger breed seems doomed to repeat the mistakes of the older generation and remain stuck in this town, with not much to anticipate or bank their futures on.
    • The only true mature adult in the bunch is Sam the Lion; the other grownups appear to be living arrested developments as kids who never properly matured.
    • Both generations are waiting for life to start getting exciting, but few dreams become reality in this restless, lost town.
  • Beauty is truth, truth is beauty. This Keats truism resonates in how Sonny discovers that real beauty is found far beneath the skin, in the form of a warm and caring partner like Ruth, not a shallow and selfish looker like Kacy.
  • Youth is hampered by inexperience and naïveté. Characters like Sonny, Duane, and Jacy are looking to end their virgin status and start living more mature lives like the adults they model from. The boys’ ineptitude as athletes-- such as their inability to play football well-- serves as a metaphor for their sexual greenness, which older men in the town tease them about and rebuke them for, saying things like “you just never learned the fundamentals. You know, blockin’ and tacklin.’”

Who did this film appeal to initially when it was released in 1971, and who does it appeal to today?

  • Film critic James Berardinelli wrote: “The Last Picture Show is a rare movie that plays differently, but equally well, to members of separate generations. For those born in the mid-1940s and earlier, this is a nostalgia trip – a journey through memories unearthed in the nether spaces of the mind. For younger viewers, those who came into being after the Second World War, the last picture show is a time capsule of an era that, while not that long ago, is unlike anything that came after.”

What elements from this movie have aged well, and what elements are showing some wrinkles?

  • You can make a case that the filmmakers could have chosen to downplay the sexual attractiveness of Jacy and, by extension, Cybill Shepherd. For instance, in the sequence where she seduces and surrenders herself to the oil rig worker Abilene, she appears quite comely, and these shots are meant to titillate. Likewise, the strip scene in the pool builds sexual excitement, even though we feel her awkwardness. On the other hand, it was important to show how an attractive character like Jacy would be coveted by many boys and men of different ages in a small town, and how she learned to use her sexual charms to manipulate men and follow in the footsteps of her mother.
  • Besides that possible problematic aspect, there aren’t many other examples of things in the film that haven’t aged well or don’t feel plausible or faithful to that era. This is practically an unimpeachable movie in that it’s difficult to find faults 50 years later, which is a testament to the stellar work of everyone involved in the writing and production.

What is The Last Picture Show’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • One of its greatest gifts is its sexual honesty and forthright approach to depicting matters of carnality, particularly teenage sexuality and the awkwardness that can accompany it. Rarely before had a mainstream Hollywood film attempted to so genuinely portray the clumsiness, embarrassment, and discomfort that can accompany foreplay and intercourse. Except for that scene involving Jacy and Abilene, which conveys the excitement and pleasure of deviant sex—albeit one that ends in disillusionment—every tryst or sexual exchange involves either disappointment (like when Duane can’t perform with Jacy in the motel room or Billy is berated by the town whore Jimmy Sue), monotony (such as when Sonny fondles his girlfriend in the truck), inelegance (case in point: the creaky mattress springs in Ruth Popper’s bedroom), or perversity (as evidenced by the preacher’s son kidnapping the little girl with evil sexual intent). This film could not be remade the same way today, as Hollywood is much more sensitive when it comes to how it depicts sexual situations nowadays. That’s why a feature like The Last Picture Show remains so refreshing and revealing about the imperfect sexual moments experienced during young adulthood.
  • Its second greatest gift is the range of wonderful performances given by an extraordinary cast with a deep bench. This could be Cloris Leachman’s finest outing; it’s certainly Ben Johnson’s best work, and arguably Eileen Brennan’s, too. But you also think of the incredible acting by the unsung Timothy Bottoms, who breaks our hearts near the conclusion when, in tears, he admonishes the insensitive throng with the line of the movie, “He was sweeping, you sons of bitches, he was sweeping,” after which he delicately lays Billy’s dead body down on the sidewalk, covering him with his jacket. The fact that Bottoms didn’t become a bigger star with further memorable parts in important films feels tragic. Rarely has Ellen Burstein been better in a part that almost seems custom-made for her, and a young Jeff Bridges shines as Duane, demonstrating what he was capable of in much bigger and more important turns later in his career. Robert Altman once said that directing is 90% casting, and that adage feels appropriate here – not to diminish the talents of Peter Bogdanovich or his collaborators, but The Last Picture Show would have certainly faded to black prematurely with a weaker roster of actors.

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