by Sam Juliano
Well, why don’t you love me like you used to do?
How come you treat me like a worn-out shoe?
My hair’s still curly and my eyes are still blue
Why don’t you love me like you used to do?
Well, why don’t you be just like you used to be?
How come you find so many faults with me?
Somebody’s changed so let me give you a clue
Why don’t you love me like you used to do?
– Hank Williams Sr.
“the most important work by a young American director since Citizen Kane.”
The above quote by Paul D. Zinnemann of Newsweek is one of the most famous examples of critical hyperbole ever recorded, yet, 44 years later it still underscores the reputation of a movie classic and the director who bettered a literary classic in making a film that is arguably the finest by an American in the 1970’s. I first discovered it as a budding movie fan in the magazine section of my hometown library a short time after I turned seventeen in a section of wildly favorable capsules that not only included The Last Picture Show, by also Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. All three films were released in the final third of the year. Peter Bogdonovich would go on to direct some other fine films like Paper Moon and What’s Up Doc? but he never again equaled the grand slam he achieved with his aching elegy of Anarene, Texas, a town doomed by technological advances. The 50’s were arguably the final decade where the movie theater held prominent sway in one’s social life, and in The Last Picture Show its importance is literal and thematic. Seventeen years later, the Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore would traverse the same territory with Cinema Paradiso, though the approach was unadulterated wallowing in nostalgia. Bogdonovich manages to derive the same level of emotion in one of the most deeply-felt of all American films, but he does it without the aid of sentimentality and the unbridled lyricism of Ennio Morricone. Mind you, this writer is a huge fan of Cinema Paradiso, but is still willing to note the vast difference between directorial approaches.
Bogdonovich underscores his intentions by filming in high school yearbook styled monochrome at the urging of his friend Orson Welles, enlisting the renowned Robert Surtees, whose work here is as accomplished as in any American film. The proper mood and deep focus possibilities could only reach fruition with the use of black and white. The Last Picture Show opens brilliantly as the camera pans across shabby Main Street and a decaying cluster of buildings, with a ferocious wind swept howl providing audio embellishment. The camera eventually settles on a beat up pick up truck that belongs to high school buddies, one that blares out the Williams standard posted here above while sputtering before it starts up. The theater -the Royal- stands next to a minimalist pool hall and a cafe that remains open all hours. These are the only places that provide a modicum of activity in a town rife with ennui and adolescent alienation from parents they are always escaping from. Quiet despondency seems to run over two generations in this one-horse town. Bogdonovich brings an extraordinary visual sense to the themes examined by his screenwriter Larry McMurtry, whose acclaimed novel is the source for this searing evocation of a place that offers no opportunity or sense of identity – only an unchanging mode of existence that centers around sex. The main characters include two young men, Sonny and Duane, who during the course of the film fall in love with the same girl – the school’s ravishing beauty Jacy, but there are other relationships they indulge in that complicate what is on one level a stylized soap opera. McMurtry makes it clear enough that there s very little to do in this stagnant whistle-stop, and the various pursuits are exclusively hedonistic. The fact that we learn virtually nothing about our central characters’ home lives makes them symbols of a marked transformation of a culture, though with magnifying glass intensity McMurtry and Bogdonovich draw full bodied characters with powerfully observed intimacy. Sonny’s father is seen once at a dance hall – it is clear enough he’s got a drinking problem, and Duane’s mother is seen briefly at the front door of their home near the end. (more…)