I am not sure how to begin this review for The Last Picture Show because I see too much of myself in Anarene, Texas. I see my life reflected back to me. My life before and after high school graduation and the terrible feeling of not knowing what to do next. But I do know how it all feels. Some people live their entire lives within a few miles of Texas, some people disappear after graduation and never return. If they were ever to return, then I imagine they must feel like ghosts. I must remind you that life does not change much in small Texas towns. And for a ghost, it would seem as if it were a return to memory itself.
All of these feelings ran through my head when I first watched The Last Picture Show last Christmas. It sort of confirmed my belief that all great existential crises begin and end in small Texas towns. You would not think it possible for small towns to have big feelings, but with great stretches of emptiness all around you, how could it be possible not to? Not even the comfort of a lifestyle built around expectations can save you from the doldrums. We can fall in love, we can drive to Mexico, we can play pool. All consequences of boredom, of escaping from ourselves for a few moments when emptiness can be filled with something.
Sonny, a high school senior, is looking for an escape too. He goes to dances, watches movies, plays football. At first glance, he might even look happy. Most people usually look happy if you ask them about it. But under director Peter Bogdanovich’s direction, we see that Sonny is stricken with “the ache of modernism”. He lives in a ghost town of dying virtues, sensibilities, and manners of living. Everything around him has been abandoned. Deserted. Left for the dust to smother everything whole. The only connection he has to a simpler past is found in his friend and mentor, Sam the Lion. An older man that embodies a love of life so real that you could drown in it. And if it was not for Sam, then Anarene would be nothing but a vestige of the living.
The only other person worth anyone’s time and day in Anarene is Jacy, the pretty senior dating Sonny’s best friend Duane. This lovesickness, coupled with the restlessness of making do in a small town, leaves Sonny with the impulse to throw himself at anything and everything. He wants so desperately to find peace, to search for whatever modernity has destroyed, that he will risk it all among the ruins of the past, even if it means an affair with an older woman named Ruth. He searches for a remembrance. A remembrance of simple Southern living, and the legendary status of the west with movies featured in The Last Picture Show like Red River and Wagon Master, all of which live and breathe in Sam’s character.
Ben Johnson’s performance as Sam took my breath away. For those unfamiliar with his work, Johnson made a career as a world champion rodeo cowboy and stuntman. And he even broke out into acting with John Ford’s (the director of Wagon Master) guidance. In some ways, Johnson represents everything that Sam stands for as a man that has figured out life for himself. He has this weathered look of a man that has seen everything, and yet he does not resent his past or resent younger generations for needing his instruction. Instead, Sam the Lion represents the father figure that we should all feel entitled to have in our lives.
My favorite scene of The Last Picture Show proves my point about Sam when Sonny and a child named Billy go fishing one afternoon. It all takes place beside the quiet rippling waters of a pond. The scraggly branches of Mesquite trees and prickly pears line the horizon. And beyond those trees, the country looks as flat and as barren as ever. But just for a moment, we forget about that when Sam starts talking. He begins one of the most moving monologues about life’s meaning, and the camera does the simplest thing in the world. We move towards him. We connect with Sam in such a real way that the glory days of the past seem in reach. The flat landscape loses focus, and the value of life crystallizes itself right in front of your eyes.
Thomas Hardy may have coined “the ache of modernism”, but for less than a minute, it seems as though he coined a falsehood. A blatant lie about humanity. We feel at peace in knowing that an ol’ country feller was right. It is only when Sonny calls Sam back into focus of the world around him that the camera pulls back too. It’s as if all the magic of living rests in our ability to be close to one another. Nothing more, nothing less. It is that simple.
However, I would not go so far as to say that The Last Picture Show is about Sonny. This movie belongs to Jacy just as much as him. She faces high expectations from her mother, and struggles with her complacency of loving, of living, of desiring when there is no love, life, or desire to be found in Anarene, Texas. For one, her relationship with Duane is not going anywhere. He may be nice, but nice boys cannot save girls from monotony. And let’s not even talk about sex or elopes. In total, nothing seems to give Jacy her sense of fulfillment, and Cybill Shepherd understands this perfectly well. I understand this feeling perfectly well.
The Last Picture Show is one of the most honest portrayals of the supposedly “best years of our life”. I have always wondered why older generations call those years the best. Do they forget what it means to lose all of your friends at once? Do they forget the loneliness? The absence felt as strongly as a sad memory. Our inability to reconnect once more with our own hometown, so we carry our lives so blithely elsewhere like phantoms in the night. Because Bogdanovich hasn’t. – Daniel Hrncir
The film stars Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Ellen Burstyn, Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman, and Cybill Shepherd.
The Last Picture Show is available on Digital HD and Blu-ray.