Monday, January 3, 2011

The Last Picture Show: Director's Cut

"Nothing much has changed."  Well, that's a tag line that sounds promising.  Normally, I would pass on a movie that sounds like the audio-visual version of a sedative, but this film earned eight Academy Award nominations in 1971, winning two, and they are primarily in the acting and directing categories.  I like me some Oscar bait, so let's check this out.

The Last Picture Show is the story of Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), a high school senior in a two-bit Texas town.  The only things to do in town are go to the movie house, play pool, and go to the diner, all of which are owned by Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), the only man in town that seems satisfied with his life.  Everyone else does dumb stuff, like having petty affairs that are common knowledge in such a small town.  Sonny and his best friend, Duane (Jeff Bridges), are still too young to be disillusioned, but even they know that the biggest adventures of their life will come outside of this town.  Still, they try to find what fun they can in this town, and it usually boils down to sex.  In particular, it often comes down to Jacy (Cybill Shepherd), the prettiest and richest girl their age.  Jacy starts the film dating the handsome and popular Duane, but she is interested in expanding her experiences, and tries her best to manipulate any man who looks twice at her, including Sonny.  But this isn't the story of a love triangle.  It's more like "A Year in the Life of..." their small town.  Things change in that year, both big and small, but the big picture stays the same: teenagers will come of age, once again, in this two-bit Texas town.

That is kind of a bland synopsis of the film, isn't it?  I can't help it, this movie does not really have much of a plot.  It's all about the ensemble cast and a subtle sense of sadness that pervades the film.  The cast in this film is pretty impressive.  I wasn't terribly impressed with Timothy Bottoms in the lead role, but there were many strong supporting performances, including four (!) that were nominated for Oscars, and two that won.  Jeff Bridges (who was nominated) is pretty good as the not terribly bright high school alpha male that struggles to maintain his importance out of school.  Ben Johnson won the Best Supporting Actor award playing Sam the Lion based, from what I can tell, largely on a monologue where he reminisces on loves and risks taken and lost, but always worth the effort.  Sure, it was a great speech, and that speech alone separated his character from everyone else in the movie, but I have to admit that I was surprised that his famous role gets so little screen time.  I was impressed with Cybill Shepherd, in her first film role, playing what amounts to a femme fatale in training.  She might be developing into a manipulative bitch here, but her mother (Ellen Burstyn, in an Oscar-nominated role) is the reigning queen of bitchy despair and skepticism.  Cloris Leachman received the Best Supporting Actress award for her portrayal as the love-starved married woman who winds up having an affair with Sonny.  The rest of the cast is recognizable, but their contributions are relatively minor, although, compared to four Oscar-nominated roles, what do you expect?  Randy Quaid made his film debut in this movie; it's hard to picture now, with his near-permanent casting as a drunken uncle, but his character is a rival with Duane for Jacy's affections at one point.  Sam Bottoms, Clu Gulager, and Eileen Brennan all played functional roles to the plot (such as it is), but they get relatively little time to develop on screen.

Since there isn't much of a plot, the strength of this film lies in the small moments of small town life, circa 1951.  Some of those moments ring true today, like when Sonny freezes when confronted with Ruth's (Leachman's) tears; there is little more frightening to a young man than a woman's tears, because his idiotic first instinct is "How'd I break it?"  The same goes for any scene with Sam the Lion; it doesn't matter if he is talking about dreams, love, or how much you disappointed him, he is that rare adult that commands respect from the kids.  Other moments feel appropriate, but seem alien to me.  Maybe I didn't hang out with the right crowd growing up, but the cool, detached and uninterested attitude toward sex from these teens struck me as strange; however, if you're in a small enough town or clique, I suppose eventually everybody who's anybody gets with everybody else who's anybody.  Still, it makes for some unusually unerotic sexual scenes.

Peter Bogdanovich did a very good job directing the actors in this film (in case the four Oscar nominations didn't clue you in), but he was largely responsible for the film's other impressive nominations: Best Cinematography, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture.  Even if you are unfamiliar with the influence a director can have on a film, The Last Picture Show looks and feels different from 99% of the movies you will see.  It's a black-and-white movie made in 1971, set in 1951 --- that's an interesting choice, given the tendency for films in the early 50s to brag about their Technicolor picture.  The soundtrack is composed only of ambient sound, so when you hear music, it is because there is a radio nearby; that gives the movie more of a documentary feel to it.  But it doesn't go too far in that direction, since there are some very occasional moments shot from the point-of-view of particular characters.  The dialogue is good, the acting is very natural, but...the lack of a distinct dramatic arc bugs me.  Some of the less typical camera shots lead me to believe that I'm missing the message in this movie, but I couldn't tell you why or what it is.

My big problem with this film is that it is clearly aimed at a target audience that I don't belong to, and the subtle filmmaking makes it difficult for me, as an outsider, to decipher what message is being delivered here.  Why is the closing of the town's only movie theater the basis for the film's title?  I'm not sure, but it seems to connect to the general sense of loss that is pervasive throughout the film.  Maybe it's mourning the loss of larger-than-life men, like Sam the Lion (what an awesome name!) and John Wayne, both in daily life and in the escapism of film.  Maybe this is a love letter to an innocent way of life that died out as the post-Depression generation came of age.  Whatever it is, it is frustrating for me to try and fail to understand the point of the film.  The performances are good, but without that subtext, I was only truly impressed with Johnson and Shepherd's work.  I liked the direction in general, but it didn't give me a payoff I could appreciate.  Despite that, there were several inconsequential moments that I was disproportionately amused by:
  • Every time Sonny or Duane drove their truck, Hank Williams was on their radio.  Of course he was.  It's Texas.
  • How easily a beer bottle was broken over Sonny's head.  Either they make better bottles now, or that boy has a metal plate in his head.
  • When Jacy offers to shake hands with a handsome rich boy, he reaches his hand for her and, instead of shaking her hand, gropes her crotch and then kisses her on the mouth.  The stones on that guy...!  Even better, that's is about all he does in the whole movie.
  • I just can't get over Randy Quaid, looking like this, having even a fictional chance with Cybill Shepherd, when she looked like this.
Randy Quaid, Tiger Beat "Dream Hunk" of 1971

So, despite the good acting and the interesting direction, I'm going to knock this movie down a few notches for being too subtle with the point of the movie for me to fully grasp it.  And if there isn't a deeper meaning behind this film, then I guess I think the plot just stinks.
Of course, not everyone agrees with me...

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