“Being crazy about a woman like her is always the right thing to do. Being an old decrepit bag of bones, that’s what’s ridiculous. Gettin’ old” – Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson)
“Anarene, Texas, 1951. Nothing much has changed…” is the tag line attached to the poster. 1971’s The Last Picture Show, a story that could easily be summarized as a teenage drama based in small-town America, is so much more than that. Like Saturday Night Fever is so much more than urban teenagers dancing and Rumble Fish is so much more than rebellious youth. This is a film that, by charting the changes of primarily two-characters, we see the challenges of life itself.
It is slightly unnerving when the better teen dramas in the last decade are Easy A andMean Girls. I am sure their success and critical acclaim will attest to success on their own terms, but the difference is the use of the marketing term “target audience”. Rather than merely targeting the teenage audience members, The Last Picture Show is a profound and intelligent story. In black-and-white, it is shot almost as a Western. We see tragedy, sadness, loss and regret in the characters that surround our two teen leads. Though we visit, unlike teenage dramas, we are not stuck in a high school or restricted to the confines of bedrooms and house parties. In The Last Picture Show, we see the owners of the pool club and the operators of the cinema projectors. We see the wife of the gym teacher and we see the owner of the factory that employs half the neighborhood. You could argue that Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges) are possibly the most unimportant characters in the story – what we are restricted to, is small-town life.
An Exploration of Life – and not just the Teenage Years
What is brilliant about The Last Picture Show is how profound the story is. On the surface it is a love triangle between Sonny, Duane and Jacy (Cybill Shepherd), but this bland summary does no justice to the scope of the film. Initially a case of unrequited love between one boy and his best friend’s girlfriend, it then becomes more complicated as Sonny is involved with Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), the wife of his gym teacher. We then see the social separation between Jacy and Duane and how, though initially an issue of sex, parties and high-school crushes (with an unforgettable Randy Quaid as Lester), it later becomes a tragic and definitive separation between economic circumstance. Jacy is a girl from money – and she will only find a man with money. Duane and Sonny have neither.
Many more issues are raised; The conflict between the boys’ friendship – and the dramatic shift between the two following Jacy’s interference; The need for escape from the small town – and the ones who make it, whilst there are those who don’t; The mourning and loss of a pillar in the community – and how his faith in the community is what ties many to the town; High school bullying dramatically changes as Joe Bob (Barc Doyle) is found attempting to molest a child – despite his upstanding position and assumed moral high ground as the preacher’s son. The fact that Joe Bob was given $1000 prior to this may underpin an attitude to money – and how money can corrupt and destroy someone. Hardly the trials and tribulations of youth.
The Inevitable Class Divide
I am beginning to see an emerging interest I have in the depiction of class in cinema, and so this dimension to The Last Picture Show, I shall explore further. Jacy is initially the “girl everyone loves” but, over the course of the film, we see her tragic change in character (or maybe a reveal of who she really is). Though a child of affluence, her mother is first-generation – having “scared” Jacy’s dad into being rich. But her Mum does not see the same in Jacy – indeed, she is not “scary” enough. With or without this knowledge, her attitude towards Duane is hurtful and cruel – teasing him in the back seat of a car and pushing him off as he places his hand between her legs. Then, shortly afterwards, she joins Lester at the [naked] pool party of a wealthy neighbor. She has no problem in revealing everything to everyone. She sees the divide and is happy to consent and “join” them. This attitude appears again as she marries Sonny – only to reveal that she left a note for her father to find. In true unresponsible fashion, she is inevitably “saved” from a poorer lifestyle and the marriage is annulled. Despite Jacy’s unhappiness
and her need to be accepted – she is too uncomfortable on her own and she needs someone to take care of her.
Like Martin Scorsese, director Peter Bogdanovich is obsessed with cinema – even today you will find him presenting many documentaries about Alfred Hitchcock, Marilyn Monroe and John Ford – so it is no surprise that technically, Bogdanovich has created a work of Art. His use of soundtrack alone is haunting as radios and televisions are always playing in the background. I would assume this subtle choice of sound shows how life goes on around this community. It doesn’t matter on the grand scale of things, because life just carries on regardless. The TVs will still be watched and the radios will continue to be heard.Even the opening and closing shots as the camera pans across the isolated village connects this film to the John Ford Westerns – the small community and the inhabitants we get to kow during the course of the film.
The Inevitable Reference
The Last Picture Show is in the 1001 Films to See Before You Die and upon the release of the remastered version in April 2011, it became a part of an extended run at the BFI Southbank in London. But neither of these are what brought me to this film. It was way back in 2000, watching an episode of Dawson’s Creek whereby The Last Picture Show became one of the most important films in Dawson’s life. The love triangle between Dawson, Pacey and Joey clearly an echo of the triangle between Duane, Sonny and Jacy (notice how the names almost sound the same). Both groups of friends within small towns, both film and show include storylines of a high-school student engaging in a relationship with an older woman (Pacey/Tamara Jacobs – Sonny/Ruth Popper) and both created by film-fans – Kevin Williamson and Peter Bogdanovich.Akin to Dawson and Pacey, Sonny and Duane are the centerpiece of the story as both boys change dramatically due to their teenage experiences of sex and relationships. What is truly remarkable is how it shows characters who are young and desperate to get out of the situation they were born in. In one stand-out sequence, the boys leave town to visit Mexico (Bogdanovich doesn’t show us their holiday, but teases us as they return, sombrero included and hangover to fend off) and when they return, the town has dramatically changed. The boys have seen the wide world and tasted a little of what it is to be free … but only one can take the jump and leave town.
Simon Columb is an Art & Design Teacher in Secondary Education in London who has always been fascinated with art, music, film, television, contemporary painters, sculptors, etc. Alongside his blog – www.screeninsight.com – he also takes part in a weekly podcast called ‘The Simon and Jo Film Show’ (http://simonandjofilmshow.podomatic.com/), whereby the duo analyses a new release, the London box office and another choice pick from the history of cinema.