September 22, 2004

The Last Picture Show

Small town life is a subject few directors try to cover. Can't say as I blame them since the content is bound to be limited. However, Peter Bogdanovich's black and white 1971 small town soft porn "classic" is a good descriptive of the bleakness and despair that can characterize a <2,000 population town on the plains.

I come from a small town, and I know what it's like to live in a place that is drying up and dying. My town is still alive though, and it's no closer to and no farther from actual expiration than it was 33 years ago when this film was made, and I was about 12 years old.

I remember when The Last Picture Show was released, and I remember the mild controversy, though this was my first viewing. That swimming pool scene was pretty bold for 1971.

I put scare quotes around the word "classic" in the paragraph above because of Cybill Shepard. Aside from the brief visage of her sweet young (at the time) ass, her presence is nearly intolerable. Her acting is as bad as any I've seen in a feature. I didn't even like the strip she did on the diving board. What an attitude.

Fortunately, everybody else in the film is nearly brilliant. I loved Ben Johnson's soliloquies. Sam the Lion -- what a name for a character. And Timothy Bottoms, he was great as the disaffected small town teenager. Eileen Brennan captures the small-town-waitress-at-the-local-diner quite well. (Every small town has at least one locally semi-famous career food server, who is basically miserable because she could've done better, but accepts her fate with some degree of grace, enough so that the people like her, allowing her to eek out a subsistence on her tips.)

Bogdanovich and Larry McMurtry did a great job of bringing out what any small town does have: characters. They are not always rich characters, or even interesting characters. But the characters in a small town are stark. When you live in a small town you can't fade into the scenery like you can in a city. In a small town if you're alive you stand out enough that most everybody knows what you are about. As has been often repeated, everybody knows everything about everybody else in a small town. There ain't no secrets. Yet, as illustrated in this movie, most people think they have secrets, only to discover later to their great embarrassment that everybody knew.

Just like a small town, all this film has is characters. There is no scenery, no interesting sets. The story content is sparse at best. And there really aren't any likable characters in this story. Everybody, rich or poor, is bitter because they got stuck in this godforsaken patch of west Texas. And you can't blame them.

The production decision that separated The Last Picture Show from the pack, and really allowed it to be a "classic," was when they decided to shoot it in black and white. What better way to show the despair and hopelessness than to take all the non-gray hues out of the visuals. Cybill would've looked much prettier and I may have been more forgiving.

I'm reminded of what a videographer told me once, about why we tend to be more affected by black and white photographs than we are by color pictures. When we view a B&W photo, our brain doesn't have to process all that silly color information, and the core meaning of the image is much more apparent. That's why this film is so compelling. A color version would've been completely boring and faded into obscurity.

Seen on Sundance. If I recall correctly from the schedule, it shows again on Redford's channel, and on Starz and another premium channel later this month. If you haven't seen it, check it out.

Posted by Wayne at September 22, 2004 04:02 PM
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