Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.
This week we continue our adventure in Criterion’s BBS Productions box set, which you can and should read the history of HERE before you dig into this movie. And be sure to check out the array of movies that came before now linked in the schedule below, since we’re rounding the last bend of this crazy trek through these films. Today’s movie represents in some ways the biggest, most famous entry in the entire box set, a movie that has since gone down as a classic divorced even from the history of the era. Which makes sense, given just how timeless it is.
The Last Picture Show (1971)
It’s obvious from the first frame that The Last Picture Show is a departure from the prior BBS films. A dusty Texas town in 1951, shot in crisp black and white, it instantly flies in the face of every film that has come before. It’s not just a stylistic choice, but a philosophical one. All of those movies were shot in varying degrees of ‘now’, both in terms of year and in cinematography, often going for a full verité sense of dropping the camera into the scene and just letting it roll while things happen. Not so with The Last Picture Show, which drifts into the dusty town with all the deliberation of old Hollywood, before settling into its story.
The story deal with two friends: Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges), two high school seniors and football stars in this small town. They know everyone, run around getting into good old 50s-style innocent fun, including dating. Duane especially has been dating the wealthy, popular Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd, in her debut) for some time, even against the obvious wishes of her mother Lois (Ellen Burstyn), who sees Duane as beneath Jacy’s status and generally too young and brash for her daughter.
It all seems like good fun, and it mostly is, the sort of low key teenaged drama that one might expect, until suddenly it grows into something else. Maybe it’s when Jacy leaves Duane at a dance to head out with some rich kids to go skinny dipping, lying about where she is and why. Maybe it’s Sonny, who dumps his girlfriend and ends up in a secret relationship with Ruth (Cloris Leachman), the wife of his coach who clings to him with a desperation of two people who know what they have is wrong but need it anyway. Maybe it’s Duane, who acts out and grows more aggressive, struggling with what becoming an adult might mean even as his mentor Sam (Ben Johnson), town paragon, tries to impart wisdom that just doesn’t seem to take.
There’s a real sense of elegy here, not quite nostalgia but a sense that there was something beautiful that existed or could have existed, but real life blew in and washed it all away with dust and suffering. Friendships fall apart, relationships get weird, death comes suddenly to just illness and bad luck to the wrong sorts of people, and the looming threat of the Korean war and the draft (treated with the same frustration as Vietnam was at the time) coming to render the whole town a picture of good times gone sour. It’s surprising how confidently The Last Picture Show abandons any sense of nostalgia by using 1970s emotions and concepts in the 1950s without blinking. It makes a time that media (particularly due to the studio code) painted mostly sanitized, suddenly rendered raw and real, and there’s a mountain of heartache behind it.
There’s a really beautiful scene halfway through the film where Sam takes the two boys, who he treats like surrogate sons, out to the river to fish. There he tells them about his own childhood, about a reckless time where he was in love with a woman and came down to this place to swim with her. It’s a speech that won Ben Johnson the Oscar that year and it remains a high point, a man reflecting back on life and revealing this sense of change as one that isn’t isolated to an era, but something that echos through the ages. The 50s were nostalgic for the 30s, the 70s were nostalgic for the 50s, and we’re nostalgic for eras of our own. The constant isn’t decay, but a very human feeling of loss. The world itself just moves on and doesn’t care. And that’s the bittersweetness of it all.
On a more personal note, I can’t say enough good things about Ellen Burstyn in this movie. She wafts in like a disapproving mother, only to reveal quickly enough that her problem is that her daughter seems too uptight. She was someone who lived free back in her day, and watching the propriety by which her daughter and that whole age carry on seems to bring out a sort of tough love sentiment in here, where she admonishes her daughter for waffling about romantic notions at the expense of life experiences. Where she looks upon the boys with something more like pity than anything else, knowing that they’re clueless and young and unprepared just like everyone else was for what was going to happen to them.
This is an actor’s movie, rich in emotions and low on much else, full of an array of people carrying on the complicated business of putting truth on the screen through fiction. And it carries it off amazingly well, if the way I’ve been talking wasn’t enough indication. This is a truly great movie, honest and heartfelt. I went in thinking that the black and white, the past setting, all of this were setting up something that would feel artificial, but in reality what it does is expose the universality of the themes.
One last anecdote to end with, then. in the commentary from director Peter Bodganovich, he talks about how he was planning the shooting by talking through it with Orson Welles, who was staying with him at the time. And Orson said that he needed to shoot in black and white, that it was the only way to achieve the sort of emotions that Bogdanovich wanted. He quoted Welles as stating, in his typical Wellesian flourish:
“Black and white is the actor’s friend. All performances are better in black and white. Name me a great performance in color.”
Which is more than a little silly now that we have decades of color film behind us, but looking at the results one might be inclined to agree with him.
A New Hollywood Summer — BBS Box Schedule
Head (1968) – 6/11
Easy Rider (1969) – 6/25
Five Easy Pieces (1970) – 7/9
Drive, He Said (1971) – 7/23
A Safe Place (1971) – 8/6
The Last Picture Show (1971) – 8/20 The penultimate article!
The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) – 9/3