Tuesday, 1 January 2019

The Last Picture Show (1971)

 Director: Peter Bogdanovich

In The Last Picture Show, Bogdanovich deliberately filmed the story in black-and-white, really emphasising the down-and-out texture of the world of Anarene, a small town in Texas. The lack of colour takes us back in time to 1951, and a externalises the lack of excitement and joy that exists in the characters' lives.

The film follows the lives of several of the towns inhabitants, focusing particularly on Timothy Bottoms' Sonny, and his friends Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges) and Jacy Farrow (Cybil Shepherd). They try to inject joy, excitement or even just emotion into their lives, often in destructive ways; Jacy works at losing her virginity (and finding a potential husband), while Sonny begins an affair with the older wife of the school's coach.

There is a great deal of pain and bitterness in this film, with occasional moments of humour (the naked pool party scene is uncomfortably awkward). The contrast between the lives of the characters and the worlds of the films they watch at the cinema cut through the cinematic fantasy of the 1950s, while at the same time making us wonder about the need for such fantasies. Two films that characters watch during Bogdanovich's film are Father of the Bride and Red River, one an aspirational comedy about an extravagant wedding, the other a Western about the clash between the old ways and the new, with Montgomery Clift's character Matt trying to strike out a different path from John Wayne's Dunson. Sonny and Duane desire something more than the world offered them in Anarene, something like that offered in the films they watch (it is no coincidence that Sonny breaks up with his girlfriend not long after watching Elizabeth Taylor in Father of the Bride). Yet they find themselves stuck where they are, surrounded by bitter or defeated adults.

In the end Duane has to leave by joining the army, risking his life in the process (he will end up fighting in Korea). Sonny, who has spent the film searching for a genuine human connection, loses the one that had meant most to him, and goes back to Ruth, the coach's wife, who he had thrown off for Jacy. The film's ending is ambiguous. It feels both hopeful and yet hopeless at the same time. Ruth clearly loves Sonny, and yet she is stuck in a marriage she likely can't escape; how will they give each the love and companionship they need? The film doesn't give us an answer.

Bogdanovich clearly loved Golden Age Hollywood films, but he wasn't above pulling apart their rose-coloured view of reality. There is a wryness in his films, and here a pain that comes from watching people make decisions that draw them further away from being happy. The script is wonderful, the acting is superb (with a cast like this you wouldn't expect it to be anything else), and its cinematography emphasises its melancholia. It is a great film.

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