The Last Picture Show (1971, Peter Bogdanovich)
Saying that film itself is an important part of people's culture seems rather obvious. After all, this is a movie blog, with most of the readers who pass by being movie bloggers themselves. Singing the high praises of cinema is simple enough and also quite fun to do in the case of such a community. In the wider landscape of general society, movies as art is a notion which can go unnoticed, or under-noticed. Theatre, ballet, music, paintings and to a lesser degree architecture all can claim their rightful place among the building block of culture for almost any society with greater ease. Film, however, is frequently relegated, many times rightfully, to the realm of commercialism. If one ponders the issue for a few minutes only, one can understand that even commercial movie endeavours speak to the culture of a society, despite what some cinephiles might prefer to believe. One type of film will sell better than another because of what a given society as a whole enjoys. The day the movies go away, even the crassly commercial ones, is the day society loses a bit of itself.
Peter Boganovich's most recognized film never remains truthful to any solidified narrative, preferring rather to loosely follow around a select number of characters as they see their lives go from nowhere to...nowhere in a small, nearly dilapidated, inconsequential Texas town during the 1950s. The three characters Picture Show follows most closely are Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), Duane (Jeff bridges) and the latter's current girlfriend, Jacy (Cybill Shepherd). The movie opens with Sonny being harassed by the townsfolk about a poor performance in his high school team's most recent American football match. Just that little tidbit of information is already sufficient to give the viewer an indication of the sort of place this town is, a town where a high school sporting event means the world, where town pride and potential fulfilment is put entirely on the line. The days turn to weeks, which turn into months, while the town continues to lose people, either because some genuinely made the attempt to move on, while others have met more untimely ends. Through it all, Sonny experiences not one but three different relationships with women: the first with the girlfriend he has at the start of the picture whom he promptly dumps for her crummy behaviour, the other two being a the middle aged wife (Cloris Leachman) of his physical education teacher and, eventually, none other than Jacy.
There are a handful of very good reasons why people keep coming back to The Last Picture Show as an example of one small section of American society. Certainly many other films have, in the decades since, tried to capture the mood, scope and significance of what it means to live in an American town, either large or small, but Peter Bogdanovich's film has a special quality about it. Watching it, it almost feels as though there is a timelessness about it, this despite the fact that it is a film made in the 70s about a portion of America from the 50s. A lot of that has to do with the nature of the town and its inhabitants. They represent the portion of society (by 'society', the article is referring to most Western, modern societies) that never seems to catch up with the times, that always lives in its own bubble. Few newcomers ever arrive, and why would they? There is literally nothing to do, whether one is young or old. Bogdanivich sublimely captures the idea that a town can continue to exist in a cultural vacuum in which the culture itself is virtually null. Who founded such towns and how did the community arrive at the stage it exists at a given point in history? The answer arguably matters little given that the region's culture may very well stay the same for some years to come still, or grow even duller.
The characterizations of the three teenagers Picture Show follows closest is a testament to the very nature of the place they dwell in. Why? Because each feels incomplete in a sense. Jacy is very beautiful and looks to use her precious looks to finally lose her virginity, yet conversely seems strangely prudish about nudity at times. Duane, perhaps the one of the three the viewer sees a bit less of, is something of a mystery. Handsome and an overall decent person, he is will not shall away from physical confrontation provided someone irks him just enough. Sonny is the most incomplete, for as the movie closes, it is still uncertain as to what kind of an individual he is. His sexual life was by far the most successful of the three, yet all three romantic episodes came to crashing ends, usually because by his own doing, thus putting a black stain on his image as a quiet, okay fellow. The mere fact that they are exiting their teens and slowly entering adulthood partly explains why the film never permits the viewer from knowing them as intimately as could have otherwise been the case. The late teenage years consist of a period in which individuals do spend a lot of energy searching for themselves, asking themselves who they currently are and who they may want to become. A far more compelling explanation lies in the fact that they are a product of the society their personalities and psychologies have gestated in all their lives. With no specific, stimulating culture to call their own, what sort of young adults should one expect to see emerge?
The introductory paragraph of the current article was, admittedly, slightly misleading. Granted there is a movies theatre in Bogdanovich's world, but it is only seen and mentioned about infrequently. However, it is referred to as the last remaining cultural artifact of significance the town has to offer its simple denizens, which is an impressive opinion given that the establishment in question plays mostly cowboy action films. Nevertheless, such a form of entertainment is but one small piece of that culture's fabric, just as The Last Picture Show is a representation of what the sort of culture it is depicting can be like. The film therefore operates on a meta level of sorts, at least to a certain extent. While no documentary, the movie can still be used as a window into a very specific world, albeit via a fictional story. The world it is depicting is not sophisticated, is lacking in stimuli, in venues for intellectual, monetary and cultural advancement. Picture Show is expressing just how precious culture can be and what may come of a place which either has none of its own or, more specific to the example utilized in this movie, when it loses one of its last venues for cultural expression, curiously enough a movie theatre.
The use of black and white cinematography is a judicious one. True enough, film buffs frequently shower praise on movies which make the same artistic choice of filming in this classic colour palette (or lack of colour palette given how black is apparently not even a colour). That is simple praise, mind you. Yes it does tend to look very handsome, including in the example of Picture Show, but its purpose here is much greater than merely having the visual style help the film stand apart from most. The story's time setting of the 1950s is perfectly represented by the black and white images, helping the viewer to time travel to not only a bygone town, but a bygone era as well. There is nothing wrong when contemporary films which set their plots many decades ago prefer to adopt a more regular visual style, that being to shoot in colour. As is, however, The Last Picture Show's arresting cinematography style is yet another example of how Bogdanovich helps creates the fictional representation of a historical artifact.
When all is said and done, there is no sense that the small Texan town has breathed its final breath. It can very well continue living its solitary, sad existence for many more years to come. The ending is not especially dramatic, nor is it either especially happy or sad. Time simply keeps on ticking. The viewer may wish it sees better days when lives have more meaning, when dreams can reach beyond learning 'how to tackle' in a high school football game, although the director, true to the overall tone of the picture, never reveals if this is even a possibility. Thankfully, he does not explicitly mention it to be a strict impossibility either, and for that reason there is still a glimmer of hope.