“Just remember, beautiful, everything gets old if you do it often enough.”
If Wikipedia is to be trusted, The Last Picture Show came about by a strange sequence of events. Stage actor and film critic Peter Bogdanovich was 31 years old with some directorial experience, and he happened upon a paperback copy of a novel, The Last Picture Show, while in line at a drugstore. He found it boring and put it back on the shelf. Just weeks later he was encouraged to turn the book into a film. Bogdanovich handed to novel to his wife who told him she didn’t know how he would ever make a film out of it, but she thought it was a fine book. Bogdanovich somehow adapted the complex text into a cohesive script, sequencing the jumbled events in order, and the end result (on a budget of just over 1 million dollars) is a smart but depressing film which I enjoyed very much.
The movie explores the town of Anarene, Texas in the year 1951. The town is on an economic decline, and its residents feel tiresome, jaded, and even trapped by their circumstance. Best friends Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges) are nearing their high school graduation, and they enjoy spending time at the local pool club and picture show (a business also on the decline). Over the course of a year, we see Sonny and Duane grow out of their high school ways as they make key decisions about their futures. Other significant characters include Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd), Duane’s girlfriend and the most beautiful girl in the senior class, along with Sam “the Lion” (Ben Johnson), a leading figure in the town and owner of the picture show.
What I love about this film is the mood that pervades every scene. Characters appear weary as their default state, stumbling their way through life without much impact on the world outside their confined city limits. These characters must rely on each other to satisfy their needs, sexually and emotionally. There are films about boredom in one’s environment, but The Last Picture Show seems to go even further. This film would suggest that this such an environment makes its captives weak – it ruins their lives. While this is a film with a lot of fun moments and engaging characters, it leaves you hollow in a powerful way that reflects the nature of the town itself. When characters finally try and escape, be it by eloping hastily with an acquaintance they don’t truly love or marching off to fight in Korea, you root for them despite their foolishness. As an audience, we just want to see someone make it out and achieve something bigger than all of this, and it makes for a terribly somber film.
It’s hard to pin down a conventional plot, as the film is really just a series of shifting relationships and actions in loose sequence over the course of a year, making the film feel almost like an ensemble performance than a hero’s journey. At times it seemed that Jacy Farrow was the film’s protagonist, and her character arc is just as complex as the two leading males. I also found her more complex overall, seeking some sort of validation and comfort with her life, doing whatever it takes to achieve this. She’s also endlessly fascinating to watch as a character: conniving and manipulating her way towards her goals despite the cost. Early in the film, Jacy’s mother warns her that she’s “not scary enough” to have a husband that makes decent money, but by the end of the film, I would argue that Jacy is the scariest figure in the town, endlessly seeking satisfaction from her environment at the expense of others. This also ties into the overarching motif of the town on decline, as if this place just isn’t enough to satisfy anyone.
The performances are nuanced and heartbreaking throughout the film. Just about every leading figure is dynamic and fascinating from the second they enter the frame, and they all hold a muted sort of ambition that keeps them from being happy. It’s fun seeing a young Jeff Bridges as the determined but misguided character he plays, seeking fulfillment in conventional marriage and settling down but ultimately resorting to the military for some sort of action or escape when his primary goals fall through. I think anyone who watches this film would agree, however, that Sonny is the more interesting of the two leads. His quiet demeanor only grows more saddening as the film proceeds, and we long to see him smile as he did in the film’s opening moments. Again, though, I still find Cybill Shepherd to present the most engaging performance in the film. We see her character change more than any other, and we see her mature in a saddening but familiar way that brings a complex mood to the film. It may seem like The Last Picture Show has a lot of “not much happening” scenes, but these actors portray them perfectly so, to reflect the crushing simplicity of such an insignificant town where escape feels nearly impossible.
Experiencing The Last Picture Show is slow and jumbled, but it’s a film that encourages its audience to resist connecting too many dots and start stepping back to embrace the whole. If you can immerse yourself in the small town atmosphere of the film and empathize with its residents, The Last Picture Show is a movie that will resonate with you, and powerfully so. Its muted, forlorn tone and its flawed but desperate characters build the film into a tremendous piece of art, and it truly resonated with me.
Films Left to Watch: 911