The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971)

08Jul11

Cybil Shepherd (Jacy Farrow), Jeff Bridges (Duane Jackson), Timothy Bottoms (Sonny Crawford), Ellen Burstyn (Lois Farrow). Screenplay by Peter Bogdanovich et al. Directed by Peter Bogdanovich. Rating: 15. Running time: 119 minutes.

If you remember from No Direction Home where Dylan was from – a minuscule, totally forgettable town called Duluth in Minnesota – and if you remember the grainy footage of it from the beginning of the documentary, then you’ll have some idea of the nature of the town that’s home to The Last Picture Show. It’s boringly small and simple. You watch convinced that the people living there must lack a lust for life, almost as if they’re waiting to die. Then the scene-setters stop and the story starts, and you realise a more appropriate comparison might be to Springsteen’s Spirit in the Night. In that song and in this film, the characters are young and do little but drive around a lot, only stopping for sex. The difference is that Springsteen makes it sound joyful, energetic, life-affirming, poetic. Bogdanovich has made it feel as sad and dull as it probably is.

If you know of the film and its reputation among critics, you’ll probably be apprehensive of what I’m suggesting. The Last Picture Show is supposed to be the ultimate coming-of-age story. And perhaps if I hadn’t already seen a dozen films of this nature I would be more appreciative of its content, but I’m seriously unsure whether that’s true. This is the reality: the film is a two hour recording of sexed-up teenagers screwing prostitutes, middle-aged married women, middle-aged married men and naturally each other, occasionally squeezing in time for a naked pool party or a fight about who’s screwing who, and often these relationships (or ‘arrangements’) are transpiring concurrently.

What’s the implication supposed to be? I assure you I’m right to assume there is one, for the alternative is that this is meant to be worthwhile viewing in its own right, and that’s hard to believe. I’ve seen things written that suggest some people view the film this way, describing debutante Cybil Shepherd’s Jacy as ‘intriguing’ in a way that misleadingly suggests you’ll spend the film desperately trying to figure this desirous animal out. Shepherd herself took the character because of the alleged ‘complexity’ she perceived in the script. If by these descriptions it is meant that Jacy is nigh-incomprehensible, then that’s fine. What I can’t accept is what they seem to think follows: that she’s a fascinating riddle. If you want to claim a girl having sex with almost every boy she meets, without once revealing her psychology, is constitutive of character ‘depth,’ then be my guest, but you need to redefine that term in the meantime. Since when did we accept ill-thought out, unintelligible characters as ingenious filmmaking because they make no sense? The Last Picture Show makes you wonder if ‘intrigue’ is just a cover-word for ‘bullshit.’

So what’s the point? To imply in small-town America there’s nothing for communities to do but shag each other? To suggest teenagers are so confused about their own identities that they resort to constant sex? Wow. I thought I had a relatively normal childhood, but apparently not then. Four or five sexual partners by the time you’re 20 is the norm, and that was in the 70s! I’m really trying here, honestly. I’m looking for meaning in the constant reminders that we’re being shown a poor, nobody’s town, but nothing is readily forthcoming that isn’t meaningless. I hope it’s a contextual thing – that if I were a teen in the 70s, I would be getting this. But given the film survives to this day, reputation intact, suggests it’s more likely that I’m out of touch with everyone else. But before prejudging, please remember how much it would take to screw up footage of the gorgeous Cybil Shepherd and delightfully young-looking Jeff Bridges. Recall how this was one of the first films to use modern chart music as a soundtrack. Yet the film still comes across as angst-inducingly pointless. I apologise, Peter Bogdanovich, but I need some clues. You left me with a blank face and a worry that the world is insane.

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