The Last Picture Show (1971)

Directed by Peter Bogdanovich

Screenplay by Larry McMurty and Peter Bogdanovich

Cinematography by Robert Surtees

Starring Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Cloris Leachman, and Randy Quaid.

The Last Picture Show opens with a slow pan across a desolate town, symbolically juxtaposed with the sound of a dying car. The associative sound design gains its motivating source when we finally see the car, and our protagonist Sonny inside it as he struggles to start it, eventually succeeds, and turns on a country radio station. The country radio provides the only soundtrack for the film, all of it motivated from within the diegesis. The heavy focus on the setting of the film and the large ensemble cast of interconnected characters call to mind similar tales of bored and angst-ridden youth that came later. American Graffiti probably drew some inspiration from Bogdanovich, as Linklater’s work might have done in a later decade through films such as Slacker and Suburbia. Nevertheless, it’s a style of filmmaking and storytelling that has yet to be mined for all its worth despite its obvious potency.

One likely reason why The Last Picture Show‘s style has yet to be explored by a many contemporary directors is that the film is so quiet; this, however, is also one of its great strengths. Not only is the use of music relegated to sparse interludes of country radio, but several scenes are performed brilliantly with absolutely no dialogue. Bogdanovich infuses every look and glance with such explicit meaning that I found myself wondering if the screenplay could possibly convey the emotions as clearly as the performances. In the climactic scene between Sonny and Ruth, their clasping hands become an intricate dance, with each retreat and caress replacing what might have been a line of trite and disposable dialogue. When “Sam the Lion” dies, Sonny utters no words of grief until his car rides past the lake where Sam told his story of former youth and vibrancy. The cutaway shot to that lake carries so much meaning that when Bogdonavich gives us a reverse angle back on Sonny, all we need to see is a brief tear running down his cheek. Earlier, when Sonny first hears the news, a cut from his placid expression to a traffic light turning in the distance serves as another brilliant use of intellectual montage, creating a visual link between Sonny’s grief and the town’s gradual halt.

Some scenes are so quiet that they become almost deafening, as when Sonny and Ruth make love on a horrendously creaky bed or when a train rattles by throughout the entire duration of Jacy’s sex scene with an older man, while the characters themselves maintain an awkward silence. At times when dialogue is abundant,  Bogdanovich’s sparse aesthetic is evoked through a lack of intercutting between actors. During Sam the Lion’s long monologue about his life, a tracking shot slowly moves in on the actor’s face throughout the entire duration of the speech, whereas most modern films would feature a number of reaction shots from Sonny. The minimalism is beautiful in itself, but it also carries a sense of emptiness that enhances the meaning of the story. Bogdanovich’s style is unintrusive and even a lesser director could have succeeded with such great material, but The Last Picture Show is nevertheless a case study in how elegant directing and a few raw performances can eclipse our expectations of a hero-driven narrative.

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~ by Daniel N. Goldberg on June 6, 2011.

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