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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

AFI/BFI #208: The Last Picture Show (1971)

Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Writer: Larry McMurty, Peter Bogdanovich
Composer: Various Artists
AFI Rank:  - (1998) 95 (2007)
BFI Rank: -


Imagine if Orson Welles had made Porky's and you have an idea of what The Last Picture Show is going to deliver. There is undoubtably a touch of Welles in The Last Picture Show. There are a couple of scenes where you feel it more than others, especially a beautiful slow zoom low angle shot in the cafe capturing all the peeling and decay that the whole town is undergoing. Cinematographer Robert Surtees started out in hollywood as an assistance to Gregg Toland. Surtees incredible body of work speaks for itself: Ben Hur, The Graduate, the Sting, Oklahoma!, Lost Horizon, Mutiny on the Bounty, the list goes on. Peter Bogdanovich was a film journalist turned director and had developed a close relationship with Orson Welles. The use of black and white not only helps with the stuck in time feeling of Anarene but also avoids the need to try and capture that uniformly and convincingly in color, something Bogdanovich had struggled with. Both Surtees and Bogdanovich received oscar nominations.

Bogdanovich cast the 19 year old unknown and model Cybil Shepherd and was so enamored with her that they had an affair and Peter eventually divorced his long time wife and set designer on the film Polly Platt. His ill advised use of Cybil in three more projects virtually destroyed her career and made them the laughing stock of hollywood. It was only her move to TV that would revive her flagging career. Randy Quaid and Timothy Bottoms both had their debuts here too and while Jeff Bridges had already made a name for himself on TV this was effectively his first major picture. Add to this a seasoned and stellar cast including Ellen Burstyn, Eileen Brennan, Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson it is no wonder it is the only film to date to be nominated for four acting Oscars exclusively for supporting performances. Leachman and Johnson both took home best actor oscars for their performances. Johnson's monologue at the fishing hole is a truly standout scene and it is ironic that Johnson turned down the part of Sam several times as it was "too wordy".

1972 was a tough year at the oscars and the competition was strong. The French Connection took best picture over The Last Picture Show and A Clockwork Orange. It is hard to imagine two more different but related movies than The Last Picture Show and Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and even harder to imagine them as contemporaries. That year also saw Fiddler on the Roof, Klute, McCabe & Mrs Miller, The Go-Between (a BFI top 100 film), Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, The Andromeda Strain, Shaft, Straw Dogs and Diamonds Are Forever. An eclectic bag and a fitting start to the decade.

A stand out low angle shot in an otherwise eye level picture
The pace of The Last Picture Show is fittingly slow and at times painfully so. Although the dialogue is first class it is the cinematography that demands your attention. This is not a movie to watch while you are playing angry birds on your iPad or farming on your laptop. It requires a respectful viewing to fully appreciate and I actually watched it twice myself in the space of two days, having seen it for the first time only a year or so ago. 

The soundtrack is all contemporary music, always in the background, playing on radios or tv.   It adds a difficult to achieve realism to the scenes it accompanies and a palpable silence to does it doesn't. It is as much as part of the film as any one of the actors.

Without giving too much away the title refers to the closing of the movie house and the film captures the slow death of a small american town through the eyes of its youngest inhabitants. It is a transitional point for the town and the kids and is a heart a coming of age story. It is television that is blamed for bringing this decline on. People stay at home, they don't go out anymore, and the businesses suffer as a result. There was a sequel Texasville in 1990 and rumors of a third installment in the next year or so. Maybe we can bring the story right up to the modern day with rampant consumerism and mindless reality television. Todays equivalent decay and decline.

I watched the 1991 Directors Cut on DVD which adds back 8 minutes of footage and treats us to a beautiful transfer. The blu ray is only available as part of the criterion box set America Lost and Found: The BBS Story and by all accounts is a great transfer. If you have never seen it then the box set is great value and also includes The Monkees Head, Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces and a couple of more forgettable films.

The Last Picture Show is unquestionably crucial cinema and if you haven't seen it then make sure you carve out enough quality time to fully take in all it has to offer, sit back and travel to Anarene, Texas 1951 and a small towns last hurrah.