Peter Bogdanovich’s breakthrough third feature is still one of the greatest in American cinema, not least for how unexpected it was – and still is.
The director came out of film criticism and venerated Orson Welles, yet The Last Picture Show has nothing of the archness these influences may suggest. It is not as sarcastic as Welles’ debut Citizen Kane, or as deconstructive and intellectualised as many “critics’ films” like those created during the French New Wave (another important group for Bogdanovich and his New Hollywood peers). Bogdanovich’s film is instead a fairly straightforward, sincere and elegiac depiction of teenagers trying their darnedest to break free from their Texas small-town trappings – not a hint of irony, or winks-to-the-camera, involved.
The writer-director’s great intelligence, rather, comes through in the way he plays setting and character against each other, breathing life and vitality into this series of small intersecting stories. There is little central plot, though much development; and while the film features a fair amount of symbolism and literacy, this is deftly masked and never distracts or detracts from the viewer’s deep investment.
What on earth is the film about then? The Last Picture Show is monochrome and slow-moving, much like the place it depicts. Bogdanovich chooses, though, to imbue each moment with such depth that ultimately, little of the film is easily placeable. The landscapes, for instance, may be completely vast, but the buildings are dark and claustrophobic. Everywhere one turns, the world is both open and closed. There is little suggestion of interactions with out-of-towners; the most thrilling sequence, a road trip to Mexico, occurs off-screen, this madcap weekend elided entirely.
Plot-wise, there is little to describe. Much happens, but it can’t be summed up with much brevity. Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges, in his breakout role) are seniors in high school who frequent the dank local pool hall and the run-down cinema which, like a couple of other key characters, doesn’t survive the film. Duane is more attractive, more athletic, and ultimately joins the Army. He is also dating the prettiest girl in town, Jacy (Cybill Shepherd, also brilliant) whose mother (Ellen Burstyn) is herself something of a fading beauty. Sonny, for his part, decides at the start of the film to break up with his paramour and eventually starts an affair with a much older woman, played to Oscar-winning effect by Cloris Leachman. The film’s other Oscar winner, Ben Johnson, plays local legend Sam the Lion, a kind of good-ol’-boy paternal figure with great influence on Sonny and Duane, even after his inevitable fatal stroke halfway through.
There it is: the whole thing in a nutshell. It is wrong, however, to be fooled into thinking that any one story or character takes precedence over others. In fact, the poignant drama that drives this small town comes entirely from the way the characters interact, interweave and develop, meticulously and realistically, over two hours. That, for Bogdanovich and co-writer Larry McMurtry (another Hollywood legend, who also wrote the source novel), is the point: this is about an old America in careful, yet jarring, transition. There are no thrills, spills and shocks. Instead, each of these diverse and wholly humanised characters comes gradually to understand their complicated relationship with their provincial prison: they are both a part of it and, in spirit at least, apart from it.
And neither is any of this really spelt out for us. Those comments above about Bogdanovich were not empty filler: key to the film’s effect is that, though clearly intelligent, it goes beyond this and never panders to its own thematic machinery. It is not an essay on the death of the small town; it is a genuine emotional journey, appealing less to critical faculties and more to whatever nostalgias we may hold for our own origins, and for the slow and strange beats of our lives and relationships. Part of the film’s wisdom and appeal comes in its very setting: desolate, decrepit, and nondescript enough to be universal. It isn’t even immediately apparent that this is not 1971 – rather than Vietnam, Duane ships out to Korea. Though The Last Picture Show is set twenty years earlier, it is not a “period piece” (for comparison, see George Lucas’ American Graffiti, released two years later).
This is just another of the film’s subtle and strange shifts in mood. It really is difficult to pin down. Even the moody cinematography is contradictory: half mimicking a New Wave or Neo-Realist picture in its careful ignorance of convention, yet always with the crispness, depth and attention to framing that characterises more classical pictures.
Bogdanovich has utilised this clever, cineliterate approach constantly over his career, although none of his subsequent films have been anywhere near as classic – or even as interesting – as The Last Picture Show. His follow-up, What’s Up, Doc, is an underrated gem, a mash-up of fifty years’ worth of comedy genres (including, as per the title, the peculiar beauty of Chuck Jones cartoons); Paper Moon famously won Tatum O’Neal an Oscar, but has faded from collective memory despite being, again, a very clever and moving pastiche of older styles and genres. After 1974’s excellent Henry James adaptation Daisy Miller, Bogdanovich’s critical and commercial success all but collapsed. A brief respite was seen in 1985’s Mask (the Eric Stoltz one), but otherwise this once-lauded director has kept much of his legend afloat returning to scholarly pursuits – his books, largely academic biographies and conversations, always sell well and his audio commentaries on historically-significant films are big draws on DVD re-releases.
This month saw the UK release of Peter Bogdanovich’s 17th feature, She’s Funny That Way. As with his other films since Mask, it looks unlikely to set the world alight. Yet The Last Picture Show, way back in 1971, showed a young academic exquisitely documenting the somehow quiet and violent transformation of his country and his beloved artform, in all its bedraggled glory. It never drastically changed cinema in the manner of our other big recent celebration, Jaws, but it remains a perfect, raw, important landmark in filmmaking. The Last Picture Show is one of those smaller pieces of art working with, and against, the flash-bang madness of event cinema, and should be cherished and celebrated as a lovely and unique historical masterpiece of disquieted uncertainty.