31 May, 2011

Summer Movie Series - The Last Picture Show

“You wouldn’t believe how this country’s changed.” – Sam the Lion

There’s a breeze that rips through the dead town in 1951 as the camera moves around from the Royal Theater, which was showing the Spencer Tracy vehicle Father of the Bride.  We hear the sound of a truck engine backfiring.  There is a boy named Billy sweeping the street just because it’s something to do, and he gets into the car with Sonny (Timothy Bottoms).  In the pool hall we meet Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), coughing over a billiards table while rolling a cigarette.  He scolds Sonny for a crushing loss while putting up with Billy’s sweetness as he ambles through the store eating chalk. Soon we meet up with Duane (Jeff Bridges, still recognizable with his manic grin even without the Duke’s cool demeanor), and they stumble into the restaurant where they are accosted by all the bitter old men of the town for being unable to tackle.  Sonny and Duane are co-captains of a high school football teams full of losers, housed in a dead town that grows smaller every day, and they are among the lowest of the low.  They are broke, they are bored, and they are suffocating.  In essence, they are perfect teenagers. 

One scene that really evokes the teenage sympathies is the classroom scene, where the students vacillate between childish hijinks, cries of faith and religion, and looks of apathy upon a teacher of Keats.  Sonny’s eye moves towards Duane’s girlfriend Jacy (Cybill Shepherd), a rich, beautiful socialite whose father is a bored oil magnate and whose mother (Ellen Burstyn) tells her daughter not to become involved with Duane beyond casual sex, saying that there are things outside of the dead world of Anarene.  If being a teenager is about discovering how to navigate through its pitfalls, one of the most commonly discussed awakenings comes in the form of sex.  Many films have portrayed the loss of virginity and innocence as a rite of passage, some mythical connection shared by all that are under the age of 19.  In The Last Picture Show, it’s just something to do to stave off the bitterness of the surroundings, a dying ember of life in a town that may never have known heroics. 

I’ll avoid discussing this movie’s plot much further since part of the experience is actually seeing the film, but I will state that it is one of those depressing classics of American cinema that is essential for greater understanding of film.  There are certain scenes that I want to discuss to examine the themes of teenage loss and adolescence.  Contrast the scene of the Wichita Falls skinny-dipping party with Billy’s loss of virginity to Jimmie Smith, the large woman of the night in Anarene.  Both are frightening experiences that others laugh about, but the principles of the movie stand there realizing that the lack of magic in the act is what is driving them.  Jacy’s unsexy striptease on the diving board (combined with the fact that we have to put up with a naked Randy Quaid) is hard to watch, a shedding of innocence and acceptance of the forbidden fruit of sexual predatory knowledge.  Jacy learns how her body can be a tool to get what she wants, and she uses this coquettish charm to explain to her fellow girls what it means to lose her virginity to Duane, even though he can’t perform in the motel room when they make their first attempt at lovemaking.  In a scene that is perfectly framed with her obviously rumpled sheets and hair, she looks at the girls with a dazed, forced afterglow and says “I just can’t describe it with words.” 

Meanwhile, when Duane places all of his anger and frustration into the concept of getting Billy laid by the horrific Jimmie Smith (whose full face we thankfully never see), it’s a crude act without any form of honor.  All this talk of losing innocence becomes hollow when the boys watch their friend flop stupidly atop this monstrous woman, who promptly slaps him when he can’t perform the act.  What had been a point of boisterous rooting and cheering becomes a silent reverie for what has been lost, and the looks of all the boys at Billy’s bloody nose will be familiar to anyone that grew up too fast. 

After Sam kicks Sonny and the boys out of the pool hall for Billy’s bloody nose, Sonny’s drive outside of town to watch the city lights is great.  It’s a simple reminder of the waning days of youth and vitality within a dying city, and the gorgeous cinematography captures the specific mood necessary for the period.  It’s also a wordless scene, the exception being the music that is blaring through crummy truck speakers.  The best scenes in the movies are the ones without words, where the actors wear their entire lives on their faces.  “I Can’t Explain” by the Who is the most accurate summation of the teenage experience that has ever been committed to tape, and it’s a perfect song to accompany the lives of Sonny and Duane.  It’s just too bad that these characters will never hear rock and roll as teenagers, as it would be a perfect escape from their doldrums and lives.  

(Bonus feature!  I have compiled a recommended soundtrack for the film, which is more specific to mood than actual time period.  It follows after the analysis.)

The last movie I examined, Rebel Without a Cause, used sweeping angles and classic Hollywood tropes to illustrate the universality of teenage problems, giving the proceedings a dated but iconic portrayal (and it didn’t hurt that it starred James Dean in his finest hour).  The Last Picture Show is much like that, taking much of its visual inspiration from the old masters of Hollywood’s golden age.  The film is shot to resemble a classic Howard Hawks or John Ford film, which is appropriate given its Texas settings (the town of Archer City is the home of the film’s town of Anarene; it is also the hometown of novelist Larry McMurtry, who wrote the original novel on which The Last Picture Show is based).  But the weary wisdom of time is communicated through stark black and white photography, and Bogdanovich wisely eschews the zooms and jump cuts of his contemporaries like Mike Nichols and Martin Scorsese (with a few exceptions, those being the monologues of Sam and Genevieve in key scenes).  However, like Scorsese, he does use popular songs to comment on scenes and embellish the setting, and he avoids it sounding of its time.  Like Mean Streets, the music is timeless, evoking the period through its specificity.  Had it used a symphonic score like Rebel, it would not have been as effective. 

(Another interesting Rebel Without a Cause connection: Sal Mineo, Plato from the first film, recommended the Larry McMurtry novel to Bogdanovich for adapting, and stated that he always wanted to be a part of it, but was now too old for the film). 

If there was ever an apt summation of teenage life, it’s that the dreams of old must die so that new dreams can take over.  Except that’s not the case here because everybody holds onto the memories of the old, and it’s a brutal piece of honesty from this work that makes it unique among the other films that will show up on the list.  Most movies engage in entertainment and jocularity for their development; Bogdanovich perfectly captured the instances of painful recognition that make up a great deal of adolescence, eschewing the comedy from the sex and leaving only the scummy feeling of being used in its aftermath.  The characters know this too, and when the waitress Genevieve (Eileen Brennan, never better) advises Sonny that, “In a town this small, when you sneeze somebody offers you a handkerchief,” it means that she probably knows about his affair with the coach’s wife, Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman). 

I had a visceral reaction the first time I watched this movie because it seemed like it was mourning a place and time that we as audience members never get to see; heck, all of the young cast in the film are caught in its dying grasp.  For me, that’s what growing up as a teenager in the South meant: an inheritance of baggage and mythology that you can never fulfill or even want in some cases.  The Last Picture Show works because it’s about a period of time that’s supposed to be timeless (the death of the American dream after World War II, and the sunset years of teenage life).  It covers roughly the same period as Rebel Without a Cause, but its subversion is more obvious as well as more tragic.  It’s possible that Jim will be able to learn from the mistakes of Plato and his own ineffectual father, but Sonny will never escape the confines of Anarene and its plethora of broken dreams.  Even as he drives past the sign of Anarene at the end of the film, he never really escapes the pull of the town because he doesn’t know how.  That’s the painful part of this whole movie: Nobody knows how to get better because nobody knows how to get older as adults.  The final scene between Sonny and Ruth is haunting in its calm. 

There are other scenes that make this a great teen movie, but one thing I’m finding while I watch these films is that the adults provide a great perspective on adolescence and its broken promises, which isn’t always the case (the films of the Eighties often made adults seem like dead-eyed morons that were easily duped by their protagonist children; hello Ferris Bueller!).  There’s a scene where Sam takes Sonny and Billy fishing that is perfect, a description of the moment in life when one knows how young life and lust can brighten one’s time like a supernova, then disappear just as quickly.  “Old times,” Sam remarks to Sonny as he stares at the past that he will never escape, wise and old and seeing a time that will never come back. 

There are so many scenes in this film that perfectly evoke the halcyon days of life during that age.  Sonny learning to roll a cigarette; Ruth giving him a wallet for graduation; the last picture show of Red River and Billy’s blinking eyes as the film ends.  For me, the effectiveness of the picture (both as a film and a teenage movie) comes down to the poignancy of that final scene between Sonny and Duane as Duane boards the bus that will take him to Korea to fight in a war that he doesn’t know he will survive.  Sonny is standing there in his co-captain’s letter jacket, trapped in a past that he never really got to enjoy.  There’s a defining line being drawn in the sand here, and anybody that’s ever grown up in the semi-rural Southern United States can tell you what that line represents.  For Sonny, staying behind means trying to live up to the dreams of Sam and the other strong and noble men of the Old West.  For Duane, getting on the bus means that he sees the world outside of Anarene and gets a chance to try and make a name for himself away from the town where everybody knows everybody else.  

I’ve been on both sides of this metaphorical point, watching friends go off to college and trying to salvage time in a dead end town before finally going somewhere else, and yet repeating this process doesn’t get much easier with age.  This is the truth of teenage life: No matter where you end up going, you are going to leave this age without everybody you love.  You can – and hopefully will – find a lovelier life, but the pain of being earnest in this time is also coupled with a joy that will never fully return.  As the Royal closes its doors with the final showing of Red River, Sonny discovers that as the camera sweeps across the dusty road he’s truly stuck in a moment he can’t escape.  He’s no longer a boy, but he’ll never truly be a man because he won’t go exploring life outside the town like Sam.  Nobody in Anarene is an adult, really.  Sam was right in not believing how the country had changed, because he was surrounded by people that grew up without becoming adults.

(Except that they ruin this point by making the sequel in color and setting it 30 years into the future with Texasville.  Yes, I know that a sequel was written by Larry McMurtry, but still...like Jim Rhodes Prime once said, “next time, baby.”)

Fortunately, the next wave of Americana nostalgia was offered through a setting and device that was much more palatable, shifting the time to the early 1960’s and the setting from dusty Texas to the California strip.  American Graffiti is next on the list of films I will examine. 

Recommended songs:
The Who, “I Can’t Explain” (and by the way, Quadrophenia is the perfect soundtrack to teenage existence.  The original album, anyways; ignore the film version and its soundtrack)
Josh Rouse, “Jersey Clowns”
The Thrills, “One Horse Town” (cop out #43: Almost any Thrills song would be a perfect accompaniment for a night of watching The Last Picture Show). 
Carl Sandburg, “All Night Long”

Wow, this was depressing.  This is a picture of me with Cybill Shepherd at Madame Toussaud’s a few years back, just to offer some humor in this work. 

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