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One of the finest achievements in all of the cinema
on October 26, 2004
There are a handful of movies in history that can be summed up by the look in a character's eyes (Renee Falconetti's horrified stare in The Passion of Joan of Arc, Al Pacino's steely gaze in The Godfather Part II), and within five minutes of Peter Bogdonavich's controversial 1971...yes...masterpiece, I knew I'd have another one to add to the list. The Last Picture Show is wickedly funny, raunchy, and razor-sharp precise in capturing that post-Senior-year-summer state of mind, but the heartbreaking, jaded look on Timothy Bottoms' face hit me like a ton of bricks, and I'm still somewhat recovering from it.
Show takes place between World War II and the Korean Conflict in the sleepy, dying town of Anarene, Texas. Robert Surtees' camera wisely captures the desolated-yet-beautiful aura of the place in an opening shot that glides down a dusty street, past the movie theater, and into the complex lives of a bunch of horny high school students, nosy townspeople, and Anarene's one pillar of nobility, Sam the Lion. It's really difficult to even believe that Show wasn't made in the 1950's, when the film takes place. The stark, black-and-white cinematography is far-removed from Willis' lush images in Manhattan, but it's not quite low-budget gritty, either. It's mostly owed to shooting on location in the town that inspired Larry McMurtry's source novel, but the authenticity of a now-notable cast's performances elevates this to a class all by itself.
Do Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn, and Randy Quaid ring a bell at all? In 1971, all were virtual unknowns, and - sadly enough - the giver of the greatest performance in the film, Timothy Bottoms as Sonny, remained virtually so. McMurtry and Bogdonavich's script takes these horny teens and jaded adults and creates a lurid entanglement of sexual liasons, secrets, and naked pool parties that would have Jerry Springer shaking his head. And this would all be patently ridiculous if it weren't for the fact that each and every character has a complexity that makes their actions completely plausible.
And that's the brilliant thing about Bogdonavich's film. He isn't exploiting the closed-door actions and flippant erotic gestures of these messed-up denizens of a rapidly dying town; he understands that everything they do, everything we did at that age, was all a result of the confusion, denial, and pure terror at the life that lies ahead for us all. There's a reason that the movie focuses on the adults in the town, as well: Jacy's mom, coach Popper's wife, Sam the Lion - these people used to be Sonny, Duane, and Jacy at one time, and their hopes and dreams were put on hold just to live comfortably and safely in Anarene.
Timothy Bottoms' Sonny is the guiding force of Picture Show; the character there from the first frame and at the cusp of true reality in its last. Sure, he has his share of American Pie-esque moments (an affair with his coach's wife rings a bell), but it's the bulk of the emotion of the film that falls on him. A deeply sad moment, in particular, lingered with me: a person in the town has just died, and he's riding along in a car, gazing out the window, looking at a distant Texas lake that means more to him than he knows. His eyes seem to take it all in until it's too much, and a tear falls from each cheek without the others even knowing.
A line that completely bowled me over is said to Sonny, as well, and it's proof of the screenplay's perfect hold on the language that we use. Who knows how to put a life-changing experience into the right words? Burstyn's Lois doesn't, and so we get this haunting gem of a line: "I guess if it wasn't for Sam, I'd have missed it, whatever it is."
The adult residents of Anarene did miss it, whatever it was. But this film holds on to a group of people we learn to love, struggle with hating, and eventually don't want to leave, all because we don't want to see them miss whatever it is. The Last Picture Show is one of the most deeply haunting, brutally funny, and real moviewatching experiences I've ever had. I'm glad I didn't miss it, whatever it is. A+