Monday, February 1, 2010

The Last Picture Show (1971)

Textbook hickin' and awkward sex.

Coming of age movies come in two flavors. While nearly all of them address the awkwardness and uncertainty of this time of life, many use comedy as the vehicle for this exploration. The Last Picture show takes the other approach. Forsaking comedy for bleak drama, the film captures these feelings by being visually striking and desolate, matching the style of the film to the emotions of the characters in a really impressive way. Even though it suffers from some flimsy character progression in the script, the film works because of it's style, sentiment and some excellent performances.

The Last Picture show is the story of Anarene, Texas and the people who grow up and live there. It focuses on two friends who are graduating high school together, Sonny and Duane. When Sam, their mentor and the pillar of the community, dies, the boys are left direction less when they are faced with tough choices. As the town slowly dies around them, their lives spiral out of control. Featuring an all-star ensemble cast, including Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepard, Ben Johnson Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn and Randy Quaid, the film is the only one in history to be nominated for four Academy Awards for acting in only supporting catagories; Leachman and Johnson both won for their performances. The movie also picked up nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Directed by Peter Bodganovich, it's been a critical darling for nearly 40 years, but the movie has flown surprisingly under the radar with the movie watching public.

Even with all the solid performances, The Last Picture really earns it's stripes stylistically. Bodganovich masterfully matches the emotional tone of the characters to the film-making. This creates a totally immersive film environment that supports and enhances the character's evolutions rather than simply serving as a backdrop for the movie. Anarene is a desolate, barren wasteland, but this is wonderfully echoed in the personality of the people who call it home. On top of that, the movie lacks a score, other than the music that plays on radios and jukeboxes, which further enforces the emptiness of the world that Bodganovich creates. His grasp on the desperation of small town life is remarkable. Think of The Last Picture Show as the anti-It's a Wonderful Life. Rather than coming to terms with living in a small town, the characters here are crushed by their miserable, dying town until their only real choice is to flee or be destroyed. It's this sense of hopeless desperation that keeps things moving in The Last Picture Show, even if the film struggles to really define who it's characters are.

With a lot of room for interpretation and fancy character work, it's no surprise that The Last Picture Show is an acting showcase. That said, the film actually struggles a little bit because of the lack of solid character details in the screenplay. Characters seem to switch goals, objectives and personalities from scene to scene and this leads to some of the characters being a lot less compelling. What the film really needed to do was to focus a little more on a fewer number of characters. Each character had a laundry list of exciting things to explore, but we never really spent enough time with them to get to the really interesting stuff. While this is a problem, it didn't effect the movie too negatively. The lack of firm character details does quite a bit to enhance the atmosphere of the film, but I still feel that the movie would be improved with a tighter focus.

The Last Picture Show succeeds because it feels honest. It doesn't skimp or cut corners, it just lays it all out there for you to see. It's a bleak and depressing film, but it didn't once strike me as forced. This honesty, coupled with the movie's stunning visual style truly sets it apart. While The Last Picture Show is certainly not a uplifting or inspiring look at coming of age, it might be one of the most compelling. If you're like me, and you like depressing movies, this one will probably be just right.


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