Last Picture Show, TheReviewed By PaulBryant
Posted 05/03/04 09:16:11
A lot happens in one year to young Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms), a high school senior living in Texas who lives, loves, loses and learns things the hard way. Growing up in the early 1950’s offers Sonny more than his share of variables - a changing landscape of politics, social ideals, sexual conventions, and a country still recovering from one war, and on its way into another.The story concerns the small Texas town of Anarene, where the trials and tribulations of its inhabitants can’t help but intertwine. At the forefront is Sonny Crawford, a sad-eyed self-conscious high school senior, who is known and liked by everybody in town. He and his best pal Duane (a very young, energetic Jeff Bridges) are incompetent football players who each have their separate crosses to bear with their high-school sweethearts. Sonny’s girl is dumpy and sour-faced, and he’d rather be going out with Duane’s squeeze Jacy (played by the overly flirtatious Cybill Shepherd).
This is only an inkling of things to come, as director Peter Bogdanovich unveils his existential humdrum at a gradual pace, letting us peer into the faces of his elder characters and imagine the lost hopes, dreams, and loves that have left them, while the town’s youth are unaware of the life experience they are on the verge of discovering. In what is nowadays still a very racy picture, the inhabitants of Anarene seem to screw each other in every possible corner of the one-horse town – dusty pool halls, pickup trucks, dingy motel rooms, and squeaky old beds. With independent pictures rapidly rising to prominence though the 70’s, many people felt they were taking the morality of America with them, but as fine as this film couldn’t exist without its daringness to show nudity and sexuality. It is a beautiful meditation of life, not just in small towns, but the kind of life that a lot of Americans were living in the 1950’s, and didn’t want to talk about.
The 1970’s (and late sixties) were a time of change and revolution in the mainstream film industry. Gone were the days of the studio system churning out project after project, and in their place grew a wave of more personal, more independent, more human pictures. The film student crowd of Coppola, Lucas, De Palma and Scorsese crept into prominence in the late sixties, as did a young film enthusiast and critic named Peter Bogdanovich. Bogdanovich never went to film school; instead, he went to films. By the time he was 18 he had studied for over a year under Stella Adler, learning the acting doctrines of The dreaded Method, and the basics in directing. But he gained a film reputation not as an actor, but as a critic. Writing program notes for revival theatres gave him a chance to see some classic movies for free – DVD’s were but a pipe dream in the 1960’s, so the only way Bogdanovich was able to see great movies from the past was at revival houses. I can’t help but envy his predicament; with late night cable TV, VHS and DVD, the revival house theatre is no longer a staple. After writing hundreds of theatre program notes, he soon began writing articles, reviews and editorials for newspapers letting his impressively simplistic writing style and intelligence for all matters film garner him a high reputation.
“The Last Picture Show” needed a man like Peter Bogdanovich behind the camera to make it a great film. He was one of the first of the American ‘romantic’ filmmakers. Like the French New Wave directors, Bogdanovich is a man whose life has been immersed in movies since childhood, and he is more than capable at calling upon his considerable knowledge of film techniques from the thousands of Hollywood pictures he has seen for use in his own work.
The film is peppered with beautifully succinct dialogue, which matches the stark photography by Robert Surtees. I have viewed the film only in its DVD release thirty years after its initial theatrical release, and it embodies the perfectly faded look of 1950’s snapshots. The images are flat and grey, with a minimal amount of contrast evoking the monotony in the lives of the characters. Though I’m sure the film’s negative has faded some in the past thirty years, I doubt that the visual intent has gone with it. High contrast ‘pretty pictures’ just wouldn’t fit here, which I am sure is why Bogdanovich and Surtees decided to shoot in black and white in the first place. Along with the stark photography is a brilliant musical 'score' comprised only of tinny pop tunes from the early 50’s that crackle from various radios. Bogdanovich embodies the nostalgic sentiment needed not just to direct a period movie, but to direct it with so much reality and emotion.
The cast warrants all the countless accolades they have garnered over the years. To imagine having Ellen Burstyn, Cloris Leachman, Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms, Cybill Shepherd and Ben Johnson all starring in the same film sounds too good to be true. Each of their performances brings such perfect life to the character they portray, it is as though each player was born into their parts. Johnson may give the best performance of them all, and certainly delivers one of the greatest speeches ever given in modern movies, explaining to Timothy Bottoms about the reflections one has in the twilight of life (it echoes a speech given in Bogdanovich’s own hero Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane”, and is delivered with just as much sentimental brilliance as Everette Sloane did in that film). This particular scene (at the local fishing hole) is a perfect example of old-style filmmaking, the kind we aren’t privileged to see very much anymore. Instead of cutting up a long dialogue scene into an array of over-the-shoulder reaction shots, Bogdanovich lets his camera gently move in towards the rhapsodizing Ben Johnson, only cutting to let in a point-of-view shot of the old man staring out at the familiar landscape around him. Welles himself once told Bogdanovich in an interview that such long takes separated “the men from the boys”. Orson couldn’t have been more correct here, and the speech Johnson gives separated him from the rest, and without a doubt won him the supporting actor Oscar.
We need more efforts from Bogdanovich, and other directors like him - Sidney Lumet and Mike Nichols pop instantly to mind. Commercial and music video directors, and bottom-feeding big-budget action flicks have all but destroyed ‘real’ filmmaking in Hollywood. Anytime we can see a project from a director who understands the fundamental language of cinema instead of a director who can just manipulate flashy images in the cutting room is a welcome respite. Hopefully movie-makers will stop considering the commercial success of a film as its only merit, as this is a disease that affects an increasing number of directors and producers, putting a limit on the output of well made films. A lust for money has robbed the filmmaking world of its black and white photography, and stolen away the patience of its audience. What we have in their place is a slew of teen-schlock spring-break-sex-romp comedies, and serial-murderer crime-thriller body-strewn crap – and things are getting worse.
“The Last Picture Show” exists in the 21st century as a picture postcard from the 1950’s – just faded and scratched enough to seem even more indicative of its times than when it was released in 1971. It is a brilliant snapshot in time in which we are privileged to peer into an era of great change. It is an America standing at a crossroads between WWII and the Korean War, between radio and television, between cinema and television, between carefree high school days and real-life problems, between innocence and virginity and the complications of sexual relationships.It might be Ellen Burstyn’s line to her daughter Cybill Shepherd that sums the movie up most appropriately, as she explains about relationships, “…you win some, you lose some.” That line perfectly summarizes “The Last Picture Show” - the way we gain things in life and lose them, all for our feeble attempts at happiness.
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