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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: The Last Picture Show (1971)

Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Starring: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Ellen Burstyn, Cloris Leachman, Ben Johnson

It begins and ends with sweeping shots looking over the quiet, desert town, which resembles a ghost town more than a place where people actually live. Country music plays, lamenting lost love and lost hope, something that reverberates through every scene in the film. More than anything else, The Last Picture Show is an elegy, not just for the dying town of Anarene and its people, both young and old, who trudge through life more out of habit than desire, but also for the motion picture and the experience of going to the movies, which forever changed with the invention of television.

Television sets are always present in the film, both in the foreground and playing somewhere in the background. Rather than going out to the picture show, the people of Anarene mostly sit around watching television, waiting for something worthwhile to happen. Boredom permeates their lives, where even the local gossip isn’t that exciting, even when it has to do with Sonny’s (Timothy Bottoms) affair with Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), the high school coach’s wife. But, then again, everyone seems to be involved with someone they shouldn’t be involved with, but it does little to lighten their heavy lives.

Much of the story concerns Sonny, his best friend Duane (Jeff Bridges) and Jacy (Cybill Shepherd), the girl they both lust after. All three are in their final year of high school at the beginning of the film, graduate in the middle to little ceremony, and by the end of the film have gone on to start the rest of their lives. Duane will join the military and be shipped out to Korea, Jacy will go away to school in Dallas, and Sonny will stay in Anarene (despite a fierce desire to leave, he just can’t break away) and become a fixture in the town. While watching a football game towards the end of the film, a man will ask him if he recalls when he used to play for Anarene. It was only a year ago, Sonny reminds him. “Seems like longer,” the man replies and it does, perhaps because Sonny seemed to have no particular attachment to that stage in his life while he was living it, as if it had already been forgotten.

Both Sonny and Duane plod through life, going to the movies, taking turns with their girlfriends in Sonny’s pickup, driving around, searching for something to do. They only experience real excitement on the occasions when they leave town, as when Sonny and Jacy run off to get married (a sequence which tells you the most about attention loving Jacy, who scans the highway looking for the police she hopes her parents have sent after them), and when Sonny and Duane go down to Mexico for a weekend, only to return and learn that Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) has died in their absence. The loss of Sam is a blow to the town in general and Sonny in particular. Sam owned the picture show, the cafĂ© and the pool hall, the only three places anyone seems to go in Anarene and in losing Sam, the heart of the town seems to stop beating. For Sonny, the loss is of the only real adult presence in his life; he doesn’t have much of a relationship with his parents (he and his father share one scene, where they run into each other at a Christmas dance, exchange awkward hellos and go their separate ways), but Sam is always there, a comforting presence and one who is always ready to teach Sonny a lesson if he needs it.

All of the performances in this film are remarkably good, but that of Ben Johnson is especially so. There is a scene where Sam tells Sonny about a girl he once knew that is so full of happiness, sadness, regret and amazement that it alone would have earned Johnson his Best Supporting Actor Oscar, even if this moment wasn’t surrounded by several other great scenes involving Sam. After Sam’s death we learn that the girl he loved was Lois (Ellen Burstyn), Jacy’s mother, a bored housewife having an unhappy affair with Abilene (Clu Gulager) and on the watch to make sure that Jacy doesn’t make the same mistakes she did. In a scene following Sonny and Jacy’s elopement, he learns that Lois is the woman Sam was talking about. “I can understand why he liked you,” Sonny tells her. “He loved me,” she corrects and in this moment the gap between the generations is never more apparent. Sonny, Duane and Jacy define their relationships in terms of “like” (which can also stand in for “lust”), while those with more experience understand the distinction between “like” and “love,” and the remorse that can follow when you act impulsively and without knowing the difference.

Burstyn is fabulous and gets many of the film’s best lines, my favourite being her assertion that 40 is “an itchy age” when she tries to explain to Jacy why she and Ruth are both cheating on their husbands. As Ruth, Cloris Leachman delivers an extraordinarily controlled performance. When we first meet her, she appears as someone whose inner light has long since been extinguished. When she begins her affair with Sonny (which begins with the most appropriately awkward sex scene ever filmed), it’s as if she’s come to life again. And then, when Sonny’s head is turned by Jacy, we watch Ruth waiting for him, seeming to deflate as she realizes that he’s not coming. Leachman delivers a really powerful and brave performance, especially in that final scene where Ruth finally lets loose all the anger and hurt that has been building up inside of her.

This is a film of tremendous sadness. The night the picture house closes, the last film to be shown is Red River (which it seems that only Sam and Duane and their friend Billy attend). That film, John Ford’s classic western about the promise of the West, is in stark contrast to life in Anarene, where such promise has faded away and left little behind. We end where we began, with a pan across the empty main street. It is one of the loneliest shots I have ever seen.

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