sad, declining places and then there is the Anarene, Texas of “The Last Picture
Show”. I doubt I have ever seen a place as sad and dull ever, real life or in
Bogdanovich’ coming-of-age story has as the central character Sonny (Timothy
Bottoms), a high school student in the above mentioned Anarene, Texas, sometime
in the early fifties. Sonny plays football, but both he and the team suck. He
hangs out at Sam-the-Lion’s (Ben Johnson) pool hall with his friend Duane (Jeff
Bridges), drive around in his wreck of a car and hangs out with girls. And that
is really all there is to do in Anarene.
As in most coming
of age movies there is a lot of interaction between the teenagers, but most
seem driven by sheer boredom. The only thing you really can do is experiment
with sex and alcohol so this they do with abandon. Nothing new, you might say,
is that not the topic of any coming of age movie? The difference here is the
quiet desperation with which this is pursued. Sonny dumps his girlfriend and starts
seeing his coach’s lonely wife, Ruth (Cloris Leachman) while Duane enjoys the
hottest girl in town, the rich Jacy (Cybil Shepherd), until she grow bored and
decides to try something else, such as a nude pool party. Particularly painful
is it when the boys decide it is time for the retarded but sweet Billy (Sam
Bottoms) to lose his virginity and set him up with a prostitute in a car while
they are jeering outside.
the community seems to function on the outside, we learn the same story from everybody
once we get closer. Sonny, who is a good listener, hears from Sam, Ruth, the
coach and Lois (Ellen Burstyn), Jacy’s mother, how they all had dreams of a
better life, but that staying in this place has drained them into a stupor.
Living in this place made them ghosts of who they used to or wished to be.
Sonny and Duane has a fall out when Jacy starts hitting on Sonny and Duane
leaves for the army, leaving Sonny behind in an increasingly desolate town.
I do not think
I ever saw a movie as eloquently describing this kind of quiet desperation. It
permeates everything: the color scheme (stark black and white), the wind howling
through the empty town, the worn-down pool hall, the empty diner, the closing
picture show, but more than anything the eyes of most people in this town. This
is a dead-end, everybody knows it, but for many it is too late to escape. It
was a depressive experience to watch this, but Bogdanovitch is a good enough storyteller
to keep it interesting and despite myself I got drawn into the story.
Often I was
reminded of the far more recent “Ghost World” except that is merely one person
being stuck. In “The Last Picture Show” it is an entire community that has lost
its steam and given up. The quintessential scene must be Sonny having a coffee
with Ruth as she completely looses it and Sonny just stares at her with empty
eyes and then puts his hand on hers. There is real compassion in that.
Picture Show” is also the introduction on the List of both Jeff Bridges and
Cybil Shepherd. Bridges was at this time already an experienced actor while
Shepherd was a model headhunted for the job. Both did an excellent job on this movie
and the rest is, as they say, history.
Picture Show” is a recommendation from me.