Thursday, April 8, 2010

I lost it at The Last Picture Show

I remember it still. It was my 16th birthday, May 30, 1972. Although The Last Picture Show had opened the previous October, it had won some Academy Awards in April and went back into release, at least in little neighborhood houses like where I lived. And I was now old enough to attend an "R" film without a parental unit, so my steady girlfriend and I went to see what the hollering was about.

Up until then, my concept of "important" films was a literary one. A Man For All Seasons, To Sir With Love, Beckett--these were the important-type artistic films. They were about big things like Justice and Freedom and usually somewhere near the end, the hero had a long speech in which he explained his choices and defended his ideas as the camera slowly dollied in and we all knew that this was a Very Profound Movie.

This type of work is an aesthetic booby trap. Because, despite its pretensions otherwise, it is not challenging the beliefs and assumptions of its target audience: it is confirming them. It confirms to the audience that they are good and decent people and that they would Do The Right Thing if confronted with such an important moral dilemma.

But those are not the choices we have to make. We don't have to decide if our country is going to adhere to the pope's dictates, or if a generation will be saved or lost. We decide where to buy our houses, where to work, if we will stay true to our spouses, if we will raise our children well or abandon--physically or emotionally--when they need us. Real true, everyday life choices.

And as far as I can remember, The Last Picture Show was the first American film I could remember that seriously dealt with these issues, especially from my point of view as a teenager. (I probably hadn't seen Rebel Without A Cause and if I had, I would have seen it as a melodramatic hyperventilation of an earlier generation.) The film addresses that time in your life when you need to leave your hometown--if you can. (It would make an interesting companion piece to the lighthearted American Graffiti.) And what it says is quite ambiguous--which was new to me. And nobody made a speech to clarify the matter.

The people in The Last Picture Show were not given to speeches; when they spoke at length it was of memories. Most of the time, they said less than they thought, less than they felt. They spoke indirectly, obliquely. They communicated by looks, by looks away, by pauses and silences. Case in point: the final line in the film. Sonny has betrayed and hurt Ruth and she explodes with anger. Then she sees the hurt in his own eyes (he has undergone his own losses), weaves her hand in his and says, "Never you mind." Somehow, those three inarticulate words sum up the humanity of this film.

Another example, which illustrates both the use of subtext and the extraordinary quality of the acting. Ellen Burstyn's character is bored at home. She hears an engine, which has been established as the distinctive-sounding engine of her husband's right-hand man, with whom she has been having an affair. We see on her face--"Oh, good, he's coming to see me." She heads toward the door and sees her daughter, looking angry and disheveled. Clearly her daughter (Cybil Shepherd) has been with her boyfriend, they have had sex and the daughter is upset. Burstyn swallows her disappointment, passes quickly through anger (for the boyfriend standing her up, for him preferring her own daughter and for him treating her daughter like a two-dollar whore), realizing that the daughter needs to be talked through this. Burstyn begins prattling, suppressing all the emotions she is feeling, trying to soothe the daughter and dismiss the importance of what's happened. And under the chatter you see her forming the plan to get the girl out of town. Get her out because she doesn't want the girl near her boyfriend, get her out because there is nothing for her in this crummy little town and get her out because her daughter is both an innocent and a manipulative bitch and will have more scope for her talents in a larger town, where she can capture a rich man and make him miserable. None of this is in the dialogue--it's all in Burstyn's acting. It's another reason why one trip through this film will not be enough to see what's there.

While the subject matter was almost soap opera or turn-of-the-century Realism--the secret stories, rivalries, dreams and disappointments of a small town-- the pace and handling were like the French New Wave. Filmmaking of the classical era had never been as frank about sex, language and other private matters. Yet the visual style is quite classical. The film is famously black and white, which today makes it seem as true to 1951 as 1971, much the way Keaton's The General looks like a Matthew Brady photo. It was the first serious contemporary black-and-white film I had ever seen. (I was too young to have seen In Cold Blood--the last previous major B&W film.) The result was a story that seemed to come from a distance and yet have an immediacy, given the language and subject matter.

And the film follows the John Ford rule of camera placement and movement. First, the camera only moves if it moves with the characters and keeps them in a constant relationship with the frame. Otherwise, the camera is fixed and records events happening within the frame. Second, two-shots are preferred in dialogue scenes, because the physical and temporal space between the characters is important. Deep focus is used to make both foreground and background action visible and important. In addition to the beauty of this formality, it makes the film even more timeless. There are few things as dated-looking as the "up to date" camera styles of the 1970s--overuse of the zoom lens, super-shaky handheld work, washed-out color and endless camera flares. Many of the most highly regarded works of Picture Show's era looks like museum pieces. Picture Show still looks fresh as a daisy.

Of course, it's impossible to talk about the film without its extraordinary cast, few of whom were familiar to the film audience: Tim Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Randy Quaid as the kids, Ellen Burstyn, Eileen Brennan and Cloris Leachman, whose ability to move from plain to beautiful is brilliantly exploited here. Interestingly, the major male actors bring some film history: Clu Galager and the incomparable Ben Johnson of She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Wagon Master and so many other Ford films, who you can see earning an Academy Award at the top of this post. (Leachman also won, probably for that brilliant final scene. Oh, what the heck, let me put it in here:)

I watched the film again the other night, and then watched it yet again to hear Bogdanovich's commentary, which is very straightforward and honest. I cannot be objective or analytic about this movie. It is too beautiful, heartbreaking and true. It is all about the sweet pain of growing up, of hurting people you love and learning to ask their forgiveness, of the fusion of past and present, how everything you love will leave sooner or later--unless you leave them, and unfortunately, that very fact will not kill you. If you can watch this film dry-eyed, I wonder if you really remember being young.

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