95: The Last Picture Show

oilThe Last Picture Show, 1971.

From Jon:

I’m not really sure what to write about The Last Picture Show.  It’s a well-made movie.  It’s filled with great actors and great performances.  It’s wonderfully stylistic.  But I just couldn’t connect with it.  There were moments when I came close, moments when I felt I was in tune with what was going on, and then someone would randomly grab a young girl’s crotch.  It was a good movie and watching it never felt boring or forced, but ultimately I didn’t take much from it and that leaves me at a loss for how to fill up this post.

It was fun seeing a bunch of actors that have been mainstays throughout my life looking so young.  It was shocking to see Jeff Bridges and Randy Quaid before they went crazy.  And I finally understand what all the noise was about Cybill Shepherd; she was stunningly beautiful in this movie.  It was also amazing to see Cloris Leachman in such a dramatic role.  I really only know her as a comedic performer and as brilliant as she is in those roles, it was truly stunning to watch her nail the part of a disillusioned middle age housewife and wring every ounce of emotion out of it.  For me, Leachman was the heart and soul of the movie.  I was excited to see that she won an Oscar for the performance.  Ben Johnson, on the other hand, I didn’t really understand.  He won for Best Supporting Actor and set the record for the Oscar winner in that category with the least amount of screen time, 9 minutes and 54 seconds.  I didn’t take the time to look back and see who he was up against, but there was nothing in those 9 minutes that really blew my mind.  Jeff Bridges did just as strong a job and played a much more integral part in the story being told.

I’m told that The Last Picture Show is a movie about a small town that is slowly dying.  To me, it was more about how monotonous small town life can be, how one day, then month, then year is just like the next.  Bogdanovich did an amazing job masking the passage of time.  By filming in black and white and setting it in Texas, each scene looked exactly like the last without any color or changing scenery to mark seasons or time periods.  Each shot of Main Street looked the same and it was only through the dialogue that you knew a month or two had passed.  It gave me a feeling of stalled time more than wasting away.  The idea that you couldn’t tell one day from the next added to the sense of boredom all the characters seemed to be fighting, Cybill Shepherd’s Jacy searching for a boy who could give her something more interesting than life in the oil fields, Jeff Bridges’ Duanne looking to join the military, Cloris Leachman’s Ruth wanting to feel love from someone other than her ignorant husband.

I see why people like this movie and I guess I understand why it’s on this list, but I find it hard to say I would list it as one of the one hundred best American movies of all time.  It has some wonderful performances that I really enjoyed.  And the storytelling and filmmaking is bar none.  But I feel like I could list a handful of movies that were of the same quality but much more meaningful to me.  Big Fish, Good Will Hunting, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, I know there are a bunch more I can’t think of, are all movies I think are more worthy than this.

I give The Last Picture Show 3 out of 5 bowls of Rocky Road ice cream.  It’s a well made classic but just not for me.


From Jenny:

This movie was so slow that I felt compelled to ask Jon a couple of probably annoying questions, because I kept drifting off: wait, is that the same guy, who is that?  Are they brothers?  Did I miss something?  Here’s what I remember, what stood out to me:

I found myself thinking about when this movie took place, a lot.  It was filmed in 1971, but set in 1951. I think about what it must have been like to live during that time. But the point was, it didn’t matter when it was. The themes and situations are universal, recurring: teenagers outgrowing small town, falling in love for the first time, falling in love and it’s not love, learning about ourselves and our friends, learning who’s a friend and who isn’t. The characters (comprised of a whole lotta famous people– I knew six right off the bat, so movie people probably know more) are no one you know but everyone you know. The fictitious town in which the movie is set, Anarene, appears to be a handful of years away from being an entry on one of my favorite sites, Abandoned But Not Forgotten.com. The title alone refers to the closing of the movie theatre in town, a sad and powerful symbol. This movie is filled with loneliness and jealousy, a cyclical feeling like there’s nothing more to life, and that the kind of family and town a person is from determines one’s fate. Only one person seems to be at peace, and that’s Sam the Lion.  If I watched this movie again, I’d pay more attention to him.

Another point about the movie being set in 1951.  I like old movies, but sometimes for not the reasons they’re considered good. I like The Amityville Horror because I like looking at Lutz’s kitchen and furniture, and Margot Kidder’s ugly and bizarre lingerie, and details about the structure of the house that scream “1979, but from 1946.” But this movie was more like a play, with sparse props, scenes that didn’t really contain a lot of stuff that told me it was 1951.  Interesting choice.

After seeing this movie then waiting a really long time to process it, one more thing stands out in my mind: the affair between Cloris Leachman’s character, Ruth, the “middle-aged” depressed housewife, wife of the high school basketball coach, and high school senior Sonny (I’ll call him the protagonist for the sake of this entry*), played by Timothy Bottoms. Watching the moment the two of them dive from “thinking about it” to “too late” is kind of painful, because there is no possible good ending to that kind of thing, and you just have to wait it out.  It’s sad in a similar way to how Benjamin Braddock and Mrs. Robinson’s affair quickly turns from exciting to monotonous, but way faster. Like the second time. And watching how happy Ruth was to have something in her life fulfilled by Sonny, that had nothing to do with sex, made me feel really sad, like I wanted to stop watching. It demonstrated how two people who have nothing naturally to do with one another, who should really just pass each other by on the street, can end up intersecting in such a confused and misguided way. Both of them had such delusional expectations because some other part of their lives was lacking, and the best the viewer can hope for is that maybe one of them escapes unscathed. In Sonny and Ruth’s case, it’s the older woman who chooses to keep her feelings to herself, choosing to switch gears into an almost motherly role by the end of the movie. Instead of reacting in anger when Sonny’s immaturity and self-centeredness takes center stage over whatever attracted her to him in the first place, she has some kind of mercy on him, but it’s all hugely unsatisfying. I suppose that’s the way lots of life goes though, like a teenager snickering at an adult for being cheerful, having no idea what years of hurt, disappointment, and loss may be underneath that decision to be happy– to cover up one’s real feelings with what’s best for the situation.

I don’t know when I’d realistically have time, but I’d watch this movie again.  I’d probably get a lot more out of it, but I’d also need to be doing something else while it played, like painting a room or organizing socks. I’d recommend it, even though I probably did a pretty bad job of explaining why.  I hope you don’t totally agree.

For The Last Picture Show, I give three bowls of French Vanilla ice cream (because it’s plain) but I’d put a little butterscotch syrup on it, because that seems like something people in this movie might really enjoy.  I wouldn’t ask for it, but I get why people like it.  Sort of.

*I’d hate to know how old she actually was supposed to be.

**Although Jon just said “maybe the town is the protagonist.” Oh jeeze.  I just need to finish writing this.  

Up Next: Pulp Fiction

Jon: Great movie… highly overrated

Jenny: I already saw this movie more than I wanted to, which was once.