Our reviews of America Lost and Found: The BBS Story (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection (published December 20th, 2010) and Nickelodeon / The Last Picture Show (published April 21st, 2009) are also available.
A classic '70s airing of the '50's dirty laundry.
Have you ever been to the American badlands? I haven't either, but I've seen it about a million times on the many dinosaur documentaries I've watched. It's as bleak a landscape as you could imagine. But the lives and places that inhabit this film are so desolate as to make the badlands look like a trip to Mardi Gras on mescaline. Not that I would know anything about that myself of course.
This film is now a classic, much loved and lauded. It got eight Oscar nominations and won two (best supporting actor and best supporting actress). It has recently been reissued on DVD, in a special director's cut that puts back about eight minutes of footage originally cut to meet arbitrary studio time limits.
Based on the novel by Larry McMurty (who also helped on the screen play), The Last Picture Show chronicles a year in the life of a small Texas town in the late '50s, from one football season to the next. Written about his own youth in that very same town, the original novel is a basically factual retelling of real events. The film actually ended up being filmed in his hometown, and many of the original characters still lived there. They reportedly weren't terribly thrilled to have their lives and loves splashed on the silver screen, in a often not very flattering way.
There isn't a lot of plot really. The story has more of an episodic nature, portraying the small bumps, which seem bigger against the otherwise very flat lives of the characters, which make up the very small town's life. There are three main characters in the film, all high school seniors. Sonny Crawford, played by Timothy Bottoms (Man in the Iron Mask, The Waterfront, Absolute Force) and Duane Jackson, played by Jeff Bridges (The Big Lebowski, The Fisher King, Tron), are childhood friends on the football team. Jacy Farrow, played by Cybill Shepherd (Taxi Driver, Alice, Chances Are), is Duane's girlfriend, and the prettiest and richest girl in town. The main thread of the story is that of these characters' coming of age, discovering their sexuality, and facing the realities of growing up in a remote dirt bowl in the '50s.
Sonny and Duane, even being players on the losingest team in the town's history, are still at the peak of their lives, low as that peak may be. They have few options and even less motivation to exercise them. Sonny is a decent and laid back guy at heart, who just wants to meet a girl and settle down. Duane is a little more of a playboy, dating the best looking girl in town and thinking a lot of himself. They haven't yet made the connection between the grizzled and burned out old men around them, and their own futures. They pretty much just hang out at the local pool hall and movie house, engage in limited exploratory sexual experiences, drink a bit, or eat burgers at the grill.
Jacy lives with her father and mother, Lois Farrow, played by Ellen Burstyn (The Spitfire Grill, How to Make an American Quilt, The Exorcist), who are the rich folks in town due to an oil strike. Lois is a jaded alcoholic who might as well be a widow given the barrenness of her marriage. She plays the town, looking for a man to replace the lost love of her life, but just finds temporary and meaningless physical satisfaction. She doesn't like Jacy's relationship with Duane, who is a good enough guy, but who is looking at a future only somewhat more productive than a Chia pet. She wants Jacy to go to a boarding school and marry a rich guy. She encourages her daughter to sleep with Duane and see what a loser he really is.
Sam, played by Ben Johnson (Radio Flyer, Red Dawn, Rio Grande), owns the pool hall, theater, and grill. Everyone refers to him as Sam the Lion, and he is the worn down but decent guy who everyone in town looks up to. You can see in his eyes the pain of lost youth, as his body begins to give up on him. He was a version of Sonny and Duane in his time, and also had a fling with the prettiest girl in the town. Though no one knows it, that girl was Lois Farrow, and they've both carried a secret flame for each other every since. Ben Johnson gives some of the most poignant moments of the film, doing some world class subtle emoting.
Ruth Popper, played by Cloris Leachman (Young Frankenstein, The Beverly Hillbillies) is in a loveless marriage with the high school coach. Though most of the clues got cut out for time, the coach is in fact diddling some of his charges, which explains the coolness at home. He asks Sonny to drive his wife to the clinic, and this kicks off an affair between Sonny and Ruth, which brings her back to life. But, after Jacy dumps Duane, she takes Sonny as her next victim. Sonny is unable to resist this advance that he'd dreamed about all his life, and though guilt ridden, dumps Ruth and avoids her. Being married, there isn't much she can do.
The rest of the film plays around these core scenarios. From the above description, this might sound like the most flaccid film ever made, but the whole point of the film is the emptiness of their lives and the oppressive dullness of where they live. Everything takes place against a background of quiet desperation. The script is that you are born, you breed, love a little if you are lucky, you work a little bit, then you die, not necessarily in that order. The angst, though almost completely unexamined by the characters themselves, is palpable.
Though made in 1971, the director chose to use black and white to emphasis the period it is supposed to represent and the bleakness of the landscape. This choice was very effective in my opinion. The video quality of the DVD release is very high, with very little of the crawling noise that can often be seen in black and white transfers. On my system at least, it looked very sharp and clean with no hints of colored halos or color shading. Compared to a modern day, all digital black and white DVD like Pleasantville, it doesn't quite match up, but there are certainly no technical visual distractions.
The sound, I guess also as a gesture to the '50s, is mono. The original sound recording, to me, seemed to have been a bit primitive. It is occasionally a little hard to hear the characters speak if you don't have the sound level up a bit. If your processor or receiver supports some sort of mono enhancement modes, you might want to play when them to get a better sound. But, overall, considering the nature of the film, it's not a major problem.
This DVD supports more subtitle languages that any I've ever seen, with a leaning towards Asian langauges. It also includes a pretty extensive "making of" documentary, plus a smaller one from the '70s for the original release. Unlike many such documentaries, these are anamorphic in this DVD. In many cases, the film is anamorphic but the special feature stuff isn't, which is a pain for those of us who have to adjust viewing modes for the two styles.
By the way, this film was the first, or effectively first, film for Timothy Bottoms, Cybill Shepherd, and Randy Quaid. If you are a Cybill Shepherd fan, you'd want to see this film just for that reason. She never looked better, and you've never seen more of her that I know of.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As mentioned above, the sound track is in mono and not too great. If that's a big turn off for you, you might have a problem with it. Also, though it claims to be a special edition, it isn't really heavy on the extras. There is no commentary track at all, which I would have very much liked to hear. It just has the making of documentary effectively, plus the extra restored eight minutes. That's not terribly special by recent standards.
Finally, this kind of film is not for everyone. It's more of a film lover's film, and would serve as a powerful sleep aid for some people. It's quiet, slow, and deals with small lives. If that doesn't appeal to you, it might not be your kind o' flick.
Though it's not perfect, and not for everyone, this film really is a classic. It was made at a time when film was not so formulaic, and so is quite different from almost anything you see today outside of low budget independent films. I consider that a good thing. It contains early or first performances from people who are household names today. And it's stuffed full of pathos. If you cry over Bruce Springsteen's early music, so full of broken lives and lost dreams, you'll love this film.
Acquitted, though with an admonition about truth in advertising. If ya call it special, it oughta be really special, dang it.
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Scales of Justice
• "The Last Picture Show: A Look Back" Documentary
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