Dir. Peter Bogdanovich
(1971, R, 126 min)
The Last Picture Show feels like watching tumbleweeds roll along the countryside, and I mean that as a compliment. It subtly but indelibly evokes life in Anarene, a small Texas town that, to the people who live there in the early 1950s, represents more endings than beginnings. The best way to describe this setting, I think, is to borrow one of my favorite lines from Million Dollar Baby: Anarene is a place somewhere between nowhere and goodbye.
Timothy Bottoms stars as Sonny, an unassuming high school senior and a player on the football team, which isn’t very good. His best friend is Duane (Jeff Bridges), who is going steady with the coveted town beauty, Jacy (Cybill Shepherd), a fascinating character who seems at once guileless and conniving. Aware of her own beauty, she manipulates the men around her, and I think it’s equal parts trying to break the small-town ennui and experimenting with her sexual identity: girlfriend, temptress, troublemaker, hopeless romantic. She basks in the admiration of men, but she’s not entirely malicious. She, like most people her age, is trying to find a role that fits her, though none of those roles seem to include compassion.
The kids have their whole lives ahead of them, but the town’s adults seem to have left their best years behind them. Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson, in an Oscar-winning performance) is a local institution, owning the town’s diner, pool hall, and cinema, which makes him the closest thing Anarene has to Donald Trump, yet he still pines for a woman he loved and lost years ago. Lois (Ellen Burstyn), Jacy’s mother, made a practical decision by marrying into money, but she’s unhappy and having an affair with one of her husband’s employees. Ruth (Cloris Leachman, also an Oscar-winner) is married to the high school football coach but is profoundly lonely. She becomes involved with young Sonny, and the whole town knows about it; that her husband doesn’t seem to protest (he hardly appears in the film at all) may tell us all we need to know about their relationship. This generation spends its time longing for what came before; maybe they were the last generation for whom this town still held promise.
Directed and co-written by Peter Bogdanovich, the film is elegiac in mood. Taking place over one year, it shows not the sudden downfall of a community but rather its gradual decline, like it’s evaporating before their eyes. Using black-and-white photography and a score composed entirely of period music (the songs of Hank Williams fill scenes with bittersweet longing), Bogdanovich evokes feelings of nostalgia for a place sad and distant, but remembered fondly. The opening and closing shot pans across a deserted street under a big empty sky. There’s not much left anymore, but once upon a time Anarene was the whole world.