Saturday, April 20, 2013


(Ocotber 1971, U.S.)

In my time, films like AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973), GREASE (1978), DINER and PORKYS (both 1982) and even BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985) have given me a cinematic glimpse of the lives of the American youth during the 1950s (AMERICAN GRAFFITI actually took place in 1962, but whose nit-picking?). These films have given us a very colorful, glorified look and feel for a decade that many who are old enough to remember look upon with great affection and remembrance. In another related matter, I've visited the state of Texas twice in my life; once to Dallas in December 1999 for the Millenium and then again to Austin in March 2003 just as the second Gulf War was commencing. Before these visits, movies like GIANT (1956) and TV's DALLAS (long live J.R. Ewing!) glorified the great state with its glamour and its relentless power. Having pointed those two facts out, this post for Peter Bogdanovich's THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (based on Larry Larry McMurtry's book) completely goes against everything that has glorified (there's that word again!) not only teen life in the 1950s, but Texas, as well. This is a film in dreary black and white that takes place in the very small town of Anarene, Texas where there's not much to do, nothing much happens and nothing really changes. The high school football team is hopelessly shameful to the town and the only real activities are the local pool hall, the local diner and the Royal movie house that looks like this...

Looks like a real shithole, yes, but inside the magic and escape of movies like Vincente Minnelli's FATHER OF THE BRIDE and Howard Hawks' RED RIVER are a very necessary and blessed option for these high school seniors who are very likely not going to achieve much of the so-called American dream from a small town like this. These kids are, if nothing else, a conformity to a typical sterotype of high schools of another era. Duane Jackson (played by a very young Jeff Bridges) is the good-looking, amusing and very popular star of the football team who, of course, is going steady with the prettiest (and richest) girl in school Jacy Farrow (played by an also very young and gorgeous Cybill Shepherd). Duane's best friend Sonny Crawford (played by Timothy Bottoms) is the real focus of the film as he continuously strives to makes his simple and boring life in Anarene a bit more interesting. He's not the only one, though, and it's this longing for life's little differences that makes these kids less ordinary than you might imagine. When we think of youth in the 1950s, we're likely to conjour up thoughts of simple pleasures like drive-in movies, malt shops, sock hops and clean-cut, wholesome values. That's the images we've been sold on the movie screen and in the house of "the Beaver", though. The kids of Anarene, while simple, have their dark sides. Sonny makes his life more interesting by having an affair with the depressed, middle-age wife of the high school coach. Jacy is just dying to loose her virginity and we presume it will be with Duane. Not so...not during the first attempt, anyway. Seems that poor 'ol Duane can't get it up! "I don't know what happened.", he keeps repeating to his poor, disappointed and angry would-be lover. Jacy, once her virginity IS lost, seems to want to have sex with just about everybody, including the town nerd (played by a very young Randy Quaid) and her mother's lover on top of the pool table. Oh, and it seems that many of these kids enjoy getting naked for a late night swimming pool party. This many not seem at all racy by today's standards of youth and morality, but you have to consider that in the 1950s, acts such as these by supposedly simple kids of American values would have been considered dark and naughty. And yet despite the underground secrets and sins of the citizens of Anarene, Texas, the movie poster says, nothing much has changed.

This Texas drama, while appearing dull and ordinary at first glance, is actually quite stunning, not only in it's black and white cinematography, which was certainly the best option for capturing a town of pure desolation, but also in its exploration of youth and the choices they face in not only living their lives in a town that offers little future, but which directions they'll take should they actually be lucky enough to get out. We get a small sense of hope for Duane as he decides to leave town to join the military. Will he return one day? Will he be sent to Korea? Will he live or will he die? The viewer is left with questions of uncertainty not only for Duane, but for the other kids, as well. When the film ends, we are still focussed on Sonny who, now having inherited the town pool hall, it seems will not get much further than he is right now. Because as I've repeatedly pointed out, nothing much changes.

I would point out to you now that the questions we're left with at the end of THE LAST PICTURE SHOW may be only temporary, at best. In 1990, there was a sequel called TEXASVILLE (also based on McMurtry's book), also directed by Bogdanovich which reunited much of the central cast. To this day, I still haven't seen it. Perhaps by the time I get to the letter 'T' in my film collection, I will. Perhaps by then, some or all of our questions will be answered.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Jacy Farrow (to Duane, as they're leaving motel room after having sex for the first time): "Oh, quit prissing! I don't think you done it right, anyway!"

1 comment:

  1. This movie always feels like a dream to me. I was Thirteen when I saw it, it was in black and white, it featured more nudity than I had ever expected and it was really sad. Ben Johnson was a cowboy, he will always be Sam the Lion in my head. The sad way he looked out for the local kids, especially the dim witted kid who swept the dirty streets repeatedly makes me think of all the good people who tried to keep me on the straight and narrow in life. I saw that your little guy is enjoying "Grease", and you hoped some of the racy stuff slipped past him, while that may be the case with older films as well. There were lots of movies that showed that the fifties were not the bed of nostalgic roses we think we remember seeing. Of course there are Brando films and James Dean as well. Picnic and a dozen others, were discrete but suggested that there was some dirty stuff going on as well. What this movie shows is that it was going on not in a glamorous environment, but a cloistered one that was dying. You have a great point about the uncertainty that these characters faced. I never saw "Texasville" so I can't say how it ended up years later, but like most things, they almost certainly worked themselves out.
    The theater I saw this in was way too closely like the theater in the film, a single screen with an upper section for making out in. It closed like all the single screen theaters did over the years. I traveled extensively across Texas in the 1970s with the college debate team. We drove from salt Lake City every year down to Waco and then back to L.A.. There are abandoned little towns everywhere, but there are also occasional small towns that felt like they were thriving and still a part of the past. I have not been to Texas since 1999, but my guess is that a lot is still the same. It's a good memory for me since I saw the movie with my older brother who I lost just a few years later. It was an interesting year in movies, with Billy Jack, and Clockwork Orange (which I would not see for years later) and The French Connection. All of the films that year feel so real in comparison to most of the fantasy stuff we get now a days. By the way, I just saw Jeff Bridges in concert this weekend. If you ever get a chance I'd recommend his show, some great movie memories are shared as well.