The death of small town America, and thus the death of our favorite national imaginary, is by now so done as a topic that I wonder if it even registers anymore. (The Internet has faked us into thinking that geography is irrelevant and that we can all participate in that big whatsit from wherever). Such death is ostensibly the topic of The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich’s well-known and respected first “real” feature from his trio of successes in the early 1970s. Although I’ve seen the other two (What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon), and enjoyed them, The Last Picture Show remained elusive – which is to say, I never sought it out, so it is no surprise it did not seek me out either. It happened to be playing as a Sunday matinee at one of the many lovely restored theaters around here, in a small town that, while neither as forlorn nor as inward as Anarene, Texas, did resonate upon greeting me, leaving the film, with empty streets and a hard wind blowing.
If The Last Picture Show was simply about the death of small town America, as it has been often mourned, through the teary and false eye of a simple nostalgia, I can bet I wouldn’t have been terribly affected. Thankfully, the film is really about small towns and death, with America being a happenstance, the far-flung relation calling long distance; we see this America in the movies playing at the picture show, in Duane’s new/used automobile, and in the fissures that provide passage out of or toward it (Mexico, military service, the Korean war). Yes, the film is about the death of a kind of community, but the relationship that community bears to the American “community” is unclear, obscured by the vastness of the land and the pressure that lives lived elsewhere provide, slowly compressing this small pebble of a place from afar. What the film really deals with is community as such – how it is formed, almost ad hoc, and how it goes on, simply because it has to for those that remain. We are given entree to this place through the eyes of Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), a quiet, unsure, and ambivalent witness who is unable to tackle life in this small place in any way that produces a satisfying outcome. He is in his last year of high school, and so his fate – what will become of his life? – becomes, in many ways, the fate of the place. The film moves back and forth between a set of teenagers, trying to make their first life decisions (taking guidance from a well-worn and small playbook), and the adults who have to live with their own decisions (and who are also trying to reinvent themselves, although perhaps in small measures, along the way).
The usual cliches about small town existence are avoided. This town is painfully small, and yes, everybody knows everybody else’s business. Whereas in the stereotype of such a community this type of knowledge would lead to ostracism or at least judgmental rumor mongering, Anarene hews closer to the lived reality of such places, where although everyone might know everything that’s happening, judgement recedes and a kind of discretion reigns. Partly this is common sense, the old “don’t shit where you eat” line, but it is also partly compassion of the “we’ve all been there” kind and partly the reality of a forced tribalism, a “we’re all in this together,” even if they’d rather not be. The adults are refreshingly free of bitterness and closed-mindedness, instead trying to impart some wisdom of lived experience while at the same time not discounting their own demanding inner voice, their own desire to feel young or renewed. The teens likewise escape the broad brush, with Jeff Bridge’s semi-dim Duane and Cybill Shepherd’s Jacy being the closest to types we encounter. Jacy in particular could have fallen into the usual mold of the icy, controlling prom queen, but Shephard, particularly in the first half of the movie, portrays her as wistful, unsure, and naive while also craving validation in the usual ways a too-attractive girl might. (It is only after she sets her sights on Sonny that she becomes more craven and hence less sympathetic).
The engine of the drama, if dramatic these events be, is sex. Sex in this community, and this film, is not the hidden aspect of Janus-faced love, ready to tear all stability asunder with the primal forces of desire; rather, love is herein paired with familiarity, and sex provides one of the few forces of novelty in an environment rather devoid of possible permutations. Sex is the force that can and does cut across the static lines of this world (static not because conservative, but simply because this world is small): class, age, power, intellect and experience. What is wonderful about the film is that sex and love are not a simple dichotomy, and that the sex, rather than having unpleasant noir-style implications or “thrills,” instead serves as a way for the characters to generate new alliances, experiences, and (perhaps aborted or sham) voyages of self-discovery. It is a place to pose questions, such as, “How do we live here? What can be done?” and “What does life mean when it has to be small?” Answers are harder to come by. The most resonant of the relationships, and the one that endures in some way, is between Sonny and middle-aged Ruth (Cloris Leachman). Bogdanovich captures the above dynamic perfectly in his portrayal of Ruth’s “seduction” of Sonny. During their first afternoon tryst, the bed springs squeaking perfectly mimic the squalling springs on a screen door as it opens and closes (as they do often in this film, grabbed and flung by the unrelenting winds). Ruth sheds tears, but they are not of remorse, seemingly – perhaps ennui, perhaps confusion. This sound, of the new and the possible, figured as sexual desire and the young lover, and of the return of the old and familiar, figured as monogamous love and the return of the husband, match. There is no escaping the twinning, hence the tears, but neither is this recognition relentless or shattering; indeed, it is, in a way, comforting. Not the terror of being caught, but the reassurance of being caught – the comfort inherent in being held close and accepted, regardless. Her tears and confusion are not those of the trapped, but those of the seeking. As she looks into the middle distance during the proceedings, Ruth seems to be gazing into the human condition as horizon, that flat line also familiar, homely, comforting yet devoid of meaningful marker or measure.
The film ends, as you might guess from the title, with a shot of the movie house, now shuttered and empty. Set in the 1950s (as is George Lucas’s superficially similar but inversely worthy American Graffiti), the film’s main argument is about the death of a kind of community, represented by movie-going, rapidly being replaced by television and the atomization of life (now, in 2015, already in its baroque phase). This is a familiar (and nonetheless true) observation at this point in history, but Bogdanovich’s vision has not dated, as, for one, the film is set in the historic period of this change, and two, his film is an inquiry into a type of community, not an attempt to diagnose a larger (perhaps national) malady. If it is mourning, the film is mourning the death of the human animal; what better place to observe this animal than in its natural habitat which also happens to be, perforce, an enclosure? Movie-going becomes the metaphor for this animal community: it is a semi-random assortment of folk who meet in the dark to alleviate boredom, to canoodle, to forget themselves, and also to gaze on one another, in an attempt to make meanings that are individually elusive. Thus the death of the picture show is much darker than the film portrays, as it implies a coming reality where individuals are deemed sufficient to figure it out on their own, always already outside the nest. Yet Bogdanovich (and Larry McMurtry, who likely deserves equal credit) is not simply practicing an admittedly higher form of nostalgia here, as he also questions what the nature of this “human animal” really is. Near the end of the film, simple Billy (Sam Bottoms), at his Sisyphean task of sweeping out the road, is struck in the middle of the street and killed by a passing truck. The sheriff and his old cronies stand about, tut-tutting and confirming for themselves Billy’s stupidity, his uselessness. Perhaps this is simply a performance, salve to the man who hit him, or perhaps a way of denying their own sadness. But it is coldness and distance nonetheless, and leads to Sonny’s flight out of town, then back into town, and, eventually, to Ruth, both to make amends (we assume) and for comfort. This leads to the perfect, heartbreaking final scenes, where Ruth and Sonny try to speak, but cannot find words. Instead, the purely animal, the comfort and touch of another sympathetic body, presents the only bulwark, if not solution. At the same time, the ending is tragic, as it represents Sonny’s (and our) realization that perhaps this community of human animals was and is a sham, a self-satisfied delusion – that individual meanness and might-makes-right is the way of the human animal, in or outside of a community. Thus the figure of Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) as singular. Not, as we first think, as the last of the old-timers, but as their exception: an animal of power, but also of kindness and help. The question that torments Sonny is, perhaps, does the exception prove the rule? And is he capable of inheriting such a mantle?