Tuesday, August 19, 2014

AFI Top 100: #95 "The Last Picture Show"

Cybill Shepherd & Timothy Bottoms in The Last Picture Show (1971)

You can't judge a book by its cover. Or a movie by its poster. Or... well, you get what I'm saying. At first glance, the #95 movie on the AFI Top 100 list, The Last Picture Show, appears to be a quiet, character drama, set in the rural west. And it is. Sort of. At its heart, it is an exploration of a ramshackle West Texas town and those inhabitants who still remain, some reluctantly and some for lack of anything better. These are the people who stayed during the Dust Bowl rather than finding greener pastures.  They're lifers.

The Peter Bogdanovich-directed film (based on Larry McMurtry's novel of the same name) tells the coming of age story of a group of teens navigating their last year of high school -- and the circumstances that drive each and every one into sexual awakening.  

Quietly simple Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), pretty-boy Duane (Jeff Bridges), and too-gorgeous-to-be-stuck-in-this-town Jacy (Cybill Shepherd) are at the film's center, and it's not just the teens who are figuring out the 'sex as a tool' philosophy. Every adult unfortunate enough to be still living in Anarene (the film's locale) makes most of their decisions based on sexual desires, as well - or lack thereof.

The plot feels a little like a deathly-serious American Pie. In this world, losing your virginity is THE most important thing that can happen to you - more important than ever finding your way out of this dying town. 

That's probably the subject that surprised me most about this movie: how it handles sex and overt nudity. The stereotypical presentation we're used to for this era tends to focus on sex as a taboo, something everyone is thinking about but no one ever talks about. That doesn't happen here.

Instead, sex is shown and talked about openly. In fact, so much so that it seems nonchalant and, well... kinda gross.Perhaps it's a 'rural' vs. 'suburban' approach. There is so little to do, of course everyone is going to be sleeping with everyone else - even if it's just out of sheer boredom.

Stylistically, it reminds me of one of my favorite movies, A Face in the Crowd (click to read my review). Even though they were made 15 years apart, and under completely different censorship laws, The Last Picture Show aims to capture 1950s rural America (as a "period piece") the same way Crowd did during its present day. A compelling comparison, and one that might be evidence of how successful Picture Show really is.

The primary difference between the two films is the presence of optimism. Crowd explores the uplifting hope that we all cling to, despite our trying circumstances.  

But Picture Show is devoid of hope. At its core, it is about unremarkable people doing unremarkable things in an unremarkable place. And their character arcs never change that fact, at any point during the film - a very un-Hollywood approach to storytelling. Rather, they move forward on their paths, and never manage to shake their pre-destined fates.

Bleakness is ever-present, only sparsely broken up by that last glimmer of youthful vigor, or by sex. Teen optimism is fleeting, if it existed at all. Escaping this ghost town should be the end-all, be-all of accomplishments -- one rarely seen. So it's surprising that when one of our teens manages to [reluctantly] find their way to Dallas for college, it's only revealed to us as an afterthought. Getting out means you might as well be dead. Because you'll never be seen around these parts again. 

That may be my one qualm about the movie. It ignores just how influential optimism can be. How it's what keeps people alive, and how it kept entire towns and populations from disappearing into nothingness. Watching Last Picture Show, you can't help but think that their hopelessness is a valid state of being.

But I also have to admit that a hopeful outcome just might not be in the cards for this town. It may not survive, as many rural towns didn't. And doesn't that contribute to the film's tragic poetry?

I enjoyed this movie very much, despite how much of a "bummer" it is, for lack of a better term. It's worth viewing for the star-studded cast alone. Every face prompted a "Hey that guy!" from our group; an impressive feat. The film was the debut or launching off point for many of Hollywood's most recognizable stars, and there aren't many movies that stand the test of time and can say the same thing.

Rating:  ★★★ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews]

Check back next week for #94 on the list, Pulp Fiction!

1 comment:

  1. When I saw this movie - shortly after it won Best Picture - I was very disappointed. The characters weren't likable, the story was rather sordid, the dead-end quality of everyone's life wasn't what I expected from the final frames of the movie. At 19 or 20 I was primarily jaded - in a good way - by expectations of success, rising above adversity, accomplishing great things. The fact is that much of life for many people is mundane, as horizon-less as viewing the outer world from a small Texas town. So limited ambition and opportunities, taking short-lived joy in earthy pleasures ... is how life unfolds. It isn't right or wrong - it just is. Perhaps there are, in some parts of the story, glimpses of grace - it would be sad if there weren't. Like trying to find something shiny and colorful while gazing through the windswept dust of a hardscrabble deserted street. I'll be on the lookout for them, Kim, when I take the inviting insights of your review as a nudge to give this film another chance. Also to see some up and coming stars in their pre-whisker days! Thanks also for the link to your review of "A Face in the Crowd" - terrific review of a wonderful film! Chuck J.


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