Now Playing: Summer afternoon ambience
A good 12 or 15 years have passed since I last saw Peter Bogdanovich's classic THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971), during which time I had forgotten substantial chunks of the plot and cast. So when Randy Quaid pops up on the screen about halfway through I go, "Hey, this must have been a really early part for him", which is true. But then I think "No, wait--he can't be that old--no way was he a teenager in the early '50s!".
Do you see? While watching the movie I actually forgot that it was made in the 1970s and assumed it was a contemporary work from the early '50s. Such a timewarp effect is no small achievement for a film. In his retrospective review Roger Ebert addressed this specific issue, noting how the director incorporated cinematic elements from the earlier era in his style, elegantly summing it up as 'the best movie made in 1951'. Except for shooting in black and white, the cues are subtle, and lie not in what is shown on the screen, but how it is shown (one example is the use of illustrative close-ups). It's not at all like the drive for meaningless authenticity that made James Cameron spend zillions on custom-made 1910 cutlery and china that no one's ever going to see in Titanic, but a way to enhance the psychological realism of words and images that are already profoundly touched by realism. The Texas boys in The Last Picture Show wear bluejeans, boots and shirts much like Texas boys in the early '70s, but the look and feel of the movie they're in is that of a bygone era. The cumulative impression grabs the viewer, and Bogdanovich skillfully maintains a steady, unwavering charge to the force field he creates between two poles standing 20 years apart.
That is, until the very end, when the sub-plots dissolve and the main characters drop off one by one, and the moving images somehow seem to get older and more distant before your eyes, like a fading photograph. You can literally see 'Sonny Crawford' (Timothy Bottoms) and his small town ageing into history, the empty main street and boarded up shopfronts turning into a nostalgic postcard, Bottoms perhaps lingering as a slightly pathetic heir to local father figure 'Sam The Lion', with fewer customers and duller tall-tales. I can't say for sure if Bogdanovich did something in post-production that creates this effect, or if it's all in my own perception.
The other main impression I gather from The Last Picture Show on this viewing is Cloris Leachman's performance as 'Ruth Popper', the depressive woman who is rejuvenated by a love affair with young Sonny. Their story is simple, but also the most powerful of the sub-plots, as we see Leachman go from middle-aged housewife into a radiant, still young woman from Sonny's presence, and then tragically turn into a bitter old spinster as Sonny's interest wanes. Leachman's performance is archetypal, a benchmark for actresses, with inspired support from lighting and wardrobe--observe how her hair changes with the different phases she's in; not just the look of it but also how she carries and handles it. The tour de force is her meltdown when Sonny unashamedly comes crawling back to her. Facial expression, body language, words and voice integrate into a rhythmic organism pushed to the extreme--a human heart at its most naked. You can actually see the emotions rising up from within to wash over her features, different, conflicting, tormenting.* Apparently Bogdanovich felt this was possible, as he asked her not to rehearse the scene in question, but try and nail it on the first take. Which they did. The Academy Award was unavoidable.
All this said, The Last Picture Show isn't what you would call a 'desert island' movie for me. It is very impressive as a cinematic achievement and has aged well, like most 'New Hollywood' films. The themes of the storyline do not grab me as much as the visual look and the specific elements recounted above. This is probably a limitation of the original novel, as I doubt it's possible to do a better cinematization than what Bogdanovich delivered. Taking the story on its own, what exactly does it say? That housewives are bored? That teenagers are horny? That ageing men are nostalgic? That small towns are dull and need to be gotten away from? That the glory days are always in the past? These are not exactly original sentiments, but rather what you see dealt with in the average TV drama. While the movie as a movie still holds up extremely well, I think time has both caught up with and strolled past McMurtry's story as a story. 8/10
NOTE: Bogdanovich reinstated some 15 minutes into the Director's Cut; except for unsuccessfully prolonging the Clu Gulager/Cybill Shepherd pool-table scene, I think all the additions were welcome.
*some of these reflections may be slightly colored by the fact that the movie screening took place on the afterburn of an ayahuasca trip