The Last Picture Show (1971)
This came as a real surprise to me in the listings. In recent weeks I have changed my mind regarding Peter Bogdanovich the once hot 70’s director has become stuck in the past. Ok that’s harsh, he more nostalgic for an era in cinema which you can only get if you watch the classics at home or at your local indie cinema when they find a 35mm print or a film season on TV. Looking at the trailer for his most recent film She’s Funny That Way (2014) which judging by the trailer is just not funny. When I saw What’s Up Doc? (1972) It felt fresh, of its time and relevant for it’s time. Which is what She’s Funny that Way there’s nothing new, an old idea in a different guise. Maybe it’s just me being critical and not up for a modern-day screwball comedy which are dated, yet still work because we love them for their zaniness and moment in time when that comedy worked, the on-screen chemistry.
When I look at The Last Picture Show (1971) I saw all that nostalgia for a time in the directors youth, taking most of that all out and making it relevant to a modern audience. It’s not your classic fifties drama, certainly not a Nicholas Ray film which cranked up the emotion and colour. Here it’s all taken out, softened the image and removing all the happy families leaving you with real-life of a group of kids trying to make sense of adult life in a run-down Texas town that has long seen better days. Bogdanovich wasn’t the only director in a nostalgic mood in the early part of the decade, George Lucas gave us the gem of American Graffiti (1973), focusing on the last night with a group of friends, driving around all day. It was about the cars, the antics, the last moments of freedom.
The earlier film takes place over a longer period of time, high-school life is coming to an end and adult life is heavy on the horizon, they want to be seen as adults by the town. Looking up to Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) the old-timer who delivers words of wisdom and stories that they eat up. Especially Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges) two young men who are more than willing to explore. They are just knocking about town in their cars, this is a taste of what life was really like and to be honest still is. Bogdanovich is saying you think life was simple and carefree in the movies he grew up with, well thats just not true. There was all the angst, the peer-pressure and sexual frustration, it was simply ignored unless you were James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) when it was in the air.
What could easily be mistaken for a mid-fifties teen film becomes more adult pretty early on with the kids exploring each other. Looking beyond the soft cinematography to find there’s no boundary between what is adult and child in this film, it’s about crossing that line and trying to stay over it without loosing your head, which is pretty hard to do even for a 25-year old sometimes so you never really know for sure. For these young actors who have varying levels of success, none more so than the dude Jeff Bridges. It’s not really about him it’s about his friend Sonny who begins with his one year anniversary with his then girlfriend, splitting up when he can’t sleep with her, naturally frustrated he figures a way to get his cake and eat it. Which takes the form of the coaches wife Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman) who has her own problems to deal with, which we are left to figure out for ourselves.
Whilst Duane has similar issues with his girl Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd) who has pressures at home to go out with the right kind of guy, whilst in the process she grows up to be just like her mum. A woman with all the looks and traits that lead her to where she is now, in a marriage of good position but no real love. Sexual politics between men and women hasn’t changed much either, something that she learns later on. The realities of life are not hidden in this film. Marked over the course of a few years with the run-down cinema which we first see showing Father of the Bride (1950), the ideal of cinema really aren’t being reflected in average American life. An image that the rest of the world was being fed, whilst over the in the UK the social realism films such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). An interesting reflection of the images that both film industries wanted to project of their respective countries. With the first generation of school taught film-makers coming-out new radical films changed all of that. Producing some of the most exciting films ever made in America.
With all these adult events going on in the film, it moves along at a gentle pace, it feels almost normal and part of everyday film-life which makes it so easy to watch until you get hit with teenage sex, death and other shenanigans that would otherwise be censored about 15 years before. It wasn’t what I expected really coming from Bogdanovich, the ultimate film sentimentalist who has tonnes of love letters to cinema made up and ready to deliver.