Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Nine

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#9 — The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971)
There’s a beautiful desolation at the heart of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, a echoing ache that’s given physical form by the scorched, dusty streets of the dying nineteen-fifties Texas town in which the film is set. Adapted from Larry McMurtry’s semi-autobiographical novel from five years earlier by both the author and Bogdanovich, the film captures a sense of welling desperation that suited the times, rocked by protest, distrust in authority and a grinding, seemingly ceaseless war that completely upended the national sense of imperviousness. By reaching back a generation to a point when the country was being radically remade in a mindset that was both post-war and helplessly edging into permanent militarism and conflict, Bogdanovich found a existential state that was apt for the then-current era and, in turn, remarkably timeless. The film is populated by people who can’t exactly name the sorrow they feel and try to fill the void with anything they can think of, anything at their immediate disposal.

This was Bogdanovich’s third feature film, but he was a passionate and well-regarded scholar of cinema by this point in time. He’d programmed films for New York’s Museum of Modern Art, written extensively for publications such as Esquire and directed a retrospective documentary celebrating the career of director John Ford for the American Film Institute. Like Martin Scorsese and many of the other directors emerging at approximately the same time, Bogdanovich knew film because he’d gorged on it in his youth, absorbing every bit of it he could until it virtually saturated his psyche as if by osmosis. What’s most remarkable about Last Picture Show, given that context, is the way it feels like an utterly original work. It can maybe be superficially tied to something like Martin Ritt’s Hud or one of the other films from the nineteen-sixties that offered a disdainful modernist take on the distinct brand of Western film masculinity built on stoicism and gutty charm. But Last Picture Show is more complicated than that, more than a glib thesis statement refuting the fictional comforts of the past. It quietly, wisely considers the way a fracturing self-image can encroach upon an entire community, drawing everyone into a gloom that offers no apparent escape.

Across the next few years, Bogdanovich would essentially pastiche himself into insignificance, but here he was drawing on the colossal library of film history he housed in his brain to create his own astute cinematic language, one of understatement and emotional piquancy. This included a generosity with his actors, giving them the room to develop their characters into moving whole people. Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman both won richly deserved Oscars for their performances and Jeff Bridges and Ellen Burstyn well equally worthy nominees. There are also exceptional turns from Cybill Shepherd, Timothy Bottoms and really everyone in the cast, large and small roles. It’s truly one one of those films that has a documentary-like authenticity, largely because the history of these individuals’ shared, intersecting lives feels settled upon them like a heavy haze. Their stories are long and destined to collide. The film is never predictable, but it sometimes feels properly inevitable.

Bogdanovich chose to make the film in black-and-white, reportedly to accentuate the bleakness of the town. It also manages to both place it in the past and further solidify that sense of timelessness. The starkly lovely cinematography by the masterful Robert Surtees (a ten-time Oscar nominee and two-time winner before his similarly lauded work on this film) gives the film the deceptive authenticity of a old snapshot. What can be seen may be crisp, clear and well-defined, but there’s a ghostly certainty that there’s more outside the frame, extra tales that defied attempts to capture them. It’s perfect for The Last Picture Show, which offers so much, including the promises untold and unfulfilled.

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