A recent insomnia movie viewing brought me back to Peter Bogdanovich’s remarkable 1971 film, The Last Picture Show. Like all movies of this caliber, upon every viewing new layers reveal themselves and make the work seem even more indispensably than previously thought.
Set in 1952 in a small Texas town called Anarene (Based on Archer City, Texas, the real life hometown of screenwriter and author Larry McMurtry), The Last Picture Show focuses on a group high school seniors played by young ‘soon-to-be stars’ such as Jeff Bridges, Sam Bottoms, Randy Quaid, and Cybill Shepard in her first role. These kids deal with both unique and typical coming-of-age struggles in a frank way largely controversial for the time. Simultaneously, we get a glimpse into their future as the film follows the stories of middle-aged Anarene residents, some are parents, some are football coaches, and some are lovers. As the story unfolds the intersections between the characters build into plenty of dramatic tension as the crossroads of everyone is negotiated as deliberately as a lonely road intersection.
Perhaps it was the hour I watched, but this time around I was most struck by how fragmented the film’s structure plays, especially early on. Rarely does the film flow from one scene to the next in synchronicity, instead using abrupt transitions forward, sometimes moving weeks ahead without the slightest signal of significant time passage. This choice helps present a sleepy town rolling forward just as it has for decades and will continue to for years to come. Little makes you believe we are on the precipice of change. Thus, the story being set between two major American wars relates to the solitude of this town rather than emerging progress.
Without a hearty plotline, the lush black and white photography holds most of the weight while film walks quietly like a stage play, introducing the lives of these young people. Allusions to the classic western abound as the film centers around one main street fit with a corner store, a local watering hole and one dilapidated filling station. The vast expanse alluded to in such shots as the wide angle that introduces us to Ellen Burstyn’s small home against a backdrop of sprawling valley leading to distant mountains lends a sense of desperation. Unlike the freedom of the standard western, the expanse here seems more repressive. There is something enormous in looking out at the desert in front of you, metaphorically freeing and naturally beautiful. Bogdanivich no doubt appreciates these attributed artistic meanings, but in The Last Picture Show he’s more interested in the practicality to it. These characters exist in the middle of nowhere, without a thought that something greater might be possible on the other side of the mountains. To this end, The Last Picture Show uses its western setting as a measure of claustrophobia not boundless liberty.
Not until Ellen Burstyn, playing Shepard’s young mother, Lois, roles up into a close up and lowers her sunglasses, does the plot begin to take shape. We realize at this moment, that precariousness of the youngsters in Anarene is really just a precursor to the repressed lives they will evolve into. Back at home, Lois inquires about her daughter’s sexual encounters with Duane, the aloof high school football star (played by Bridges). Appalled by the insinuations of her mother, Jacy (Shepard) remarks “That’s sinful.” But nothing on Lois’ face seems proud of her daughter’s abstinence or even in agreement with it. In fact, Lois looks almost jealous that an exciting personal life filled with sex, boys, and pool parties is still even a possibility.
During Sonny’s (Bottoms) first sexual encounter with Leachman’s lonely wife, Ruth, she cries a slow repressed stream of tears. Interestingly, she looks away and here Bogdanovich makes the squeak of bed springs more and more present on the soundtrack. The bleak tone of the picture weaves such an intrusion so seamlessly that it could be entirely missed behind her emotional face. Her thoughts here are key to the entire purpose of the picture. Not only does Ruth cry because she’s been repressed for so many years since the glory of her youth, but also because this encounter is likely the same kind of wild excitement that she experienced when she was Sonny’s age. Just like sneaking off into the bedroom and trying to have intercourse quiet enough that the parents don’t here, Ruth can’t help but focus on the sounds her bed makes. These are sounds that could literally cause somebody to find out about them. It’s hard to say whether Ruth cries because she literally acknowledges this memory in the middle of sex or if the tears tap into a need she has held captive inside her for so long.
The fragmented nature of things doesn’t allow for overly tense moments to build. Because the security of her infidelity is never threatened, Ruth’s tears can’t be seen as fear of being caught or even guilt of being unfaithful. The next time we see Sonny and Ruth alone in the room they are set up on the floor, in their pajamas with a blanket set down. This looks more like a high school slumber party than a fiery sexual affair. Ruth isn’t looking to re-attempt a life now filled with the excitement of being with a young man she truly loves, so much as reliving the exact life she once lived, warts and all. Of course, this affair will not end well, that’s never a practical possibility or even a metaphorical one. Perhaps that’s what those tears are all about.
The Last Picture Show is a purely American film. It’s drenched in pastiche nostalgia for the past. Both the people in the film and the film itself are constantly looking back with extreme fondness. However, once the layers are peeled away the outcome is harsh. The film is not about hope for a better future or resurrecting dreams from the past or a search for Hollywood ideals. The Last Picture Show is about a constant flow of life, sometimes good and more often bad. A life where we never really know how great we have it until it’s entirely disappeared. Only what the older characters discover, in the younger characters now living out their pasts, is that they never had it all that great to begin with.
Unlike American Graffiti, we can’t look back at the past of The Last Picture Show with a smile. For a man so in love with classic westerns (the town’s called Anarene because it rhymes with Abilene from Hawks’ Red River), it’s shocking that Bogdanovich created such a bleak look at this world. The results are compelling because there’s nothing judgmental in Bogdanovich’s hands. Somehow it’s an altogether depressing work, yet one presented with great love.