Download as PDF Download PDF

The Last Picture Show

Little Objects of Loss


Not all the films of New Hollywood were so ‘new’. If Easy Rider in 1969 was a film that seemed of its time in both form and feeling, however roughly made, The Last Picture Show, released by the same production team PBS, slightly altered, two years later, is a film haunted by nostalgia for the past. It isn’t only that the film is set at the beginning of the fifties, that the title of the film is a nod to the elegiac, and the movie that is shown on the final day before the local cinema closes is Howard Hawks’ Red River, nor even that it constantly references the past lives of the older characters. It is there in director Peter Bogdanovich’s aesthetic, in a cinematographic style that seems part Hawks, part Ford and part Eisenstein.

Bogdanovich was always going to a be a director wearing his love of Hollywood on his sleeve, the various interviews he had conducted with major filmmakers worn like cub badges. He also made the documentary Directed by John Ford the same year he made The Last Picture Show, and most of his films of the seventies (including What’s Up Doc?, Paper Moon, At Long Last Love, Nickelodeon) were homages to classic Hollywood. It is a yearning that stretches to production practises. “I think that why so many of the older directors were good was because they had discipline that was imposed from outside. I think there’s nothing better than being told…” (Directing the Film) Where Coppola, Scorsese and Altman wanted a new production base and new forms, Bogdanovich was someone for whom the new always appeared a threat. Even the notion of final cut that many filmmakers would love to have, and very few filmmakers of the past possessed, was for Bogdanovich a bittersweet thing. “Since Paper Moon, and including Paper Moon, I’ve had final cut, but the problem with getting a certain amount of power is that people are afraid to tell you what they think.” If The Last Picture Show is the director’s finest film, it lies partly in the anxiety of influence creating a surety of control. The low-angled shots of the town creating space for the sky, gives the film a feel of barren lives, but also invokes the tradition of Ford, Hawks and many another Western filmmaker who knew that what numerous cities in the twentieth century had lost was the expanse of blue. There might not have been much going on in small towns like the one in which The Last Picture Show is set, but that is partly because it remains frontier minimalist: the sort of place people stop off at on their way to somewhere else, or get trapped in and never leave.

Bogdanovich’s achievement is to give credence to lives so small that condescension could always threaten. When near the end of the film the coach’s wife who’s been having an affair with central character Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) harangues him for leaving her for the stunning young Jacy (Cybill Shepherd), we might be tempted to wonder what leg she has to stand on: isn’t she a married woman, the wife of Sonny’s football coach, a marriage that, however dead, continues during their affair? One can see here that the self-pitying, constantly self-apologizing Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman) can’t see beyond the narrow confines of her life, and that she falls in love with Sonny from a place of bored emptiness. When she answers the door to him and apologises for being in her dressing gown, Ruth then angrily insists she is in it because she has barely got out of bed since he left her. As she yells at him for leaving her without so much as an explanation or a farewell, Ruth has a point, but it is potentially muted by her own infidelity. She may say earlier in the film that she was part of a generation brought up not to leave her husband, but wouldn’t she also be part of a generation not to have affairs behind the husband’s back also? Yet that isn’t quite how Bogdanovich couches it, as if to concentrate on the moral double-standard would work against the comprehension of loss. What matters isn’t an ironic take on Ruth, but a meaningful thrust on the film’s theme. After all, Sonny visits her looking to be consoled; his friend, the mentally disabled Billy, has been run over and is dead. He is dealing with his own loss, and hopes to find in Ruth some sympathy, as if regretting how he treated Billy (at one moment in the film Sonny and best friend Duane (Jeff Bridges) play a cruel trick on him), and possibly hoping to make amends with Ruth. Any ironic tone would undermine the feelings of loss the director has been accumulating throughout the film.

Indeed if the local belle Jacy comes out of the film the worst, it is because she seems the character least capable of feeling loss in any form:  she is a figure of magnetic beauty who need never for a moment feel alone, as she always finds a man who will keep her company. Initially it is Duane, then she fancies a rich young playboy Bobby Sheen who wants her to lose her virginity first, and after doing so with Duane finds that Bobby has swiftly gotten married. A momentary fling with her mother’s lover helps her get over her irritated feelings towards Bobby, and this is followed by the affair with Sonny. She is the film’s object of beauty but finally the figure of contempt: the one character who does not allow time at all to sit inside her. Where her mother Lois (Ellen Burstyn) is someone who for all her cynicism once loved deeply, and loved deeply at Jacy’s age as we find out later in the film, Jacy appears neither to love nor feel, and other characters are whims for her egocentricity. Yet it isn’t so much that the film judges her harshly, as finds inevitably within its thematic search through the problems of loss, no empathic space for a character like Jacy. Where even the young Duane admits at the end of the film that he still hasn’t got Jacy out of his system, and seems chiefly to be going off to Korea to try and do so, Jacy has nothing to work through, no memories tenderly tugging her into the past.

The figure for whom the past sits most strongly is surely Sam (Ben Johnson), a character who dies half way through the film but who haunts it with his own hauntedness. Not long before his death, he talks to Sonny and Duane about a young woman whom he loved twenty years before, and how they would swim in the river whose banks he is sitting on as he talks to the boys. He speaks as if his body is back there, and he speaks knowing they will not understand both in detail and feeling what he is telling them, but that they might do so later on. He does not say for example that this young woman was Lois, and at this stage we are unlikely to guess either. But later at his funeral Lois’s response makes it clear to the viewer that there was something between them, and later when talking to Sonny, Lois gives Sonny the details at the moment he might even begin to understand the feelings behind the facts. Time passes and love is rare, Lois seems to be saying, and these two elements help explain why she is a woman of forty with a casual lover, as she cheats on her husband, and a taste for drink. She is a woman of substance alright: someone who lost a great love to marry a man capable of making great wealth, and allows alcohol abuse to pickle the memory.

Of course all we have offered so far is an analysis of the characters, and vital to the film’s sense of loss is the filmic form in which they are contained. Bogdanovich chose black and white at a time when almost all films were made in colour. As Robert Barry says, when reviewing Richard Misek’s book Chromatic Cinema, “after 1965 in American films -and by the end of the seventies throughout the world- it is black and white and not colour, which requires special justification.” (Film Philosophy) A decade earlier this would have been a pragmatic decision, but in 1971 it had become an unequivocal aesthetic choice, a cinematographic option that manages both to allude to the past and avoid retro recognition. Perhaps one of the problems with films set in the past is the desire on the filmmaker’s part to re-enact it, giving vivid detail to a period of time that is irretrievable in time but decidedly retrievable in content. There are objects readily available to the filmmaker with a budget at their disposal and antiques shops and vintage stores aplenty. However, this often arrives at retro clutter, and can give the film less time regained than the past appropriated. In films from A Room with a View to Boogie Nights, from Elizabeth to A Single Man, from costume drama to retro chic, the past isn’t returned to us, it lies ontologically dormant in the present: Jean Baudrillard’s commodity fetishism meets Scott Foundas’ detail fetishism. In each case what matters is the fetishising of the object: the costumes, the hairstyles, the soft furnishings.  When Baudrillard talks in The Consumer  Society of the various means of recycling he says, “in fact the term ‘recycling’ prompts a number of thoughts: it inevitably brings to mind the cycle of fashion: in that field, too, everyone must be ‘with it’, and must recycle themselves – their clothes, their belongings, their cars – on a yearly, monthly or seasonal basis. If they do not, they are not true citizens of the consumer society.” In retro films and the costume drama we’re placed in this consumer society also, only a different one from our own, and it is as if we aren’t caught in the past, but the past is delivered to us. The attention to detail is astonishing, but the object reenactment so complete that the past becomes refamiliarized by the quantity of detail. When L. A. Weekly critic Foundas used the term detail fetishist in a review of Napoleon Dynamite he was doing so chiefly to comment on loosely contemporary films that create a frisson in the attention to mise-en-scene, in films like Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Garden State and so on. But detail fetishism is equally at work in many a period and retro film too.

Bogdanovich escapes this fetishism in a number of ways. Firstly of course by setting his film in a small town where Duane’s haircut is the most fashionable thing and about the only aspect of style commented upon: Sonny’s girlfriend at the beginning of the film talks about Sonny not even having a ducktail. Fashion here is the exception rather than the rule, and the film is more interested in problems of time over problems of fashion, of the problem of the intangibility of time passing rather than time being evoked. Where Boogie Nights chooses trendy LA in the late seventies, and would have struggled to escape the fashionable, The Last Picture Show alludes to a cyclical notion of time which small towns are often much better at capturing. For example, when Sam tells his story about swimming with a young woman we later discover to be Lois, we might also recall Jacy’s skinny-dipping with Bobby Sheen and his friends at the swim party: a reversal and an echo, as the daughter swims with the wealthy where Lois swam with the relatively poor Sam, but in each instance reflecting the sense that those with money and ambition will gravitate towards each other, and those without will be left behind. When Lois can’t control her tears at Sam’s funeral, when Ruth alludes to her years with a neglectful husband, when the local cafe owner talks of how Lois’s husband made her money and how her own never dared take any risks, time isn’t brought to life by the fullness of mise-en-scene, but instead by shards of memory.

Consequently moments that might have led to flashbacks are left in the present, so that though there are numerous moments that are temporally invitational, moments that could lead the film to go back in time – like Sam’s reminiscence, Lois talking to her daughter about her marriage to Jacy’s father and how she helped him succeed by being the strong woman behind him – the film remains in the present even as the characters are preoccupied by the past. It allows time to feel indeterminate, passing through feelings more than material objects, and subsequently allows the film to escape from commodity and detail fetishism. Bogdanovoch’s wife at the time, Polly Platt, would become one of the best known and most respected production designers of the decade, but her work here is significant mainly because of its discretion: it doesn’t intrude on the problem of time with the suffocating detail of the modish.

If Bogdanovich forgoes flashback, the film very purposefully uses transitional ellipses so that a detail informs us that months have passed. When there is a Christmas party and Sonny tells Ruth he’s split-up with his girlfriend a couple of months earlier, we retrospectively realise that the transition shot from her face to a Santa on a door has shown a lengthy passage of time. Equally, after Sam talks of his affair twenty years earlier, it is just before the boys go off to Mexico, and when they return Sam is dead. In terms of screen time only a couple of minutes have passed, with the boys’ Mexican trip elided, but a lengthy period has gone by.

It is another area in which the film’s strength lies in eschewal, with Bogdanovich avoiding the devices of time passing, just as he refuses the fetishization of the material past and flashback. He could have offered both the transition from Sonny and Ruth talking to the Christmas social in a montage sequence, and the same with the Mexican scenes, offering what numerous films find in a literary device given film form: the frequentative. Where a writer can list a series of actions over a period of time within a paragraph, the filmmaker usually does so by a montage sequence that makes it clear days, months, even years have passed. Yet it is as if modern cinema has been suspicious of such a device, mockingly evident in different forms in anything from Naked Gun to Team America: as if montage too clumsily and literally shows time passing. Bogdanovich’s approach manages to surprise us with time’s force. In the first example we might be confounded by the length of time that has passed; in the second shocked by what we will take to be the suddenness of Sam’s death because the film form hasn’t signalled time passing, and the length of film time has been so brief. It wouldn’t only be that by the beginning of the seventies frequentative montage had become obvious; it is also that its use here would have robbed the film of the full impact of Sam’s absence.

At the beginning of the piece we mentioned the influence of Ford, Hawks and Eisenstein. Sometimes in relation to Ford and Hawks it will be in no more than the tumbleweed passing across the frame that might remind us of Grapes of Wrath, or the expanse of sky in the low angled shots that will bring to mind Red River and The Big Sky. But Eisenstein’s presence is more pronounced, and is especially evident in the abruptness to some of the film’s close-ups. At one moment Duane and Jacy come into the cinema and Bogdanovich holds the medium shot of the pair of them as Duane moves out of the frame and Jacy moves towards the lens. It gives her a looming, intrusive presence entirely apt since it is clear that Sonny whose point of view it more or less is, would rather be with Jacy than his own girlfriend. Though wide-angled close-ups with clear yet weak backgrounds were popular in forties and fifties cinema, the forcefulness of such close-ups seem more indebted to Eisenstein’s exclamatory filmmaking. Usually the wide-angled shots would be smoothly incorporated into the image in the forties and fifties films, and David Bordwell writes well on this in Figures Traced in Light, indeed even sees the influence of Eisenstein on other filmmakers of this period. But often Eisenstein’s bold close-ups were so abrupt that they undermined the surrounding screen space, seemed isolated from the space out of which they came. So much so that in scenes from Battleship Potemkin a reaction-shot close-up of a woman looking horrifically on at her baby being trampled is hard to place spatially within the sequence. Nothing so radical is at work in The Last Picture Show, but it still seems to be a film where some of the close-ups are more direct than we would expect from a Ford or Hawks film. When Jacy moves towards the lens, we might expect the camera to retreat a little as she moves forward. Equally, after Sonny and Duane hear that Sam has died, the film cuts from a slightly low-angled shot on the person telling them, to Sonny and Duane, with Sonny larger in the frame. Again we might assume the camera would retreat a little to even out the perspective so that Sonny and Duane are the same size in the shot, and the same size as the teller in the previous one.

One wouldn’t want to exaggerate this, but it helps give the film an epic dimension to the characters’ lives. But where Eisenstein wanted to give the people an epic political dimension; Bogdanovich searches out an epic temporal one. The aesthetic serves a tug towards the past not towards the future. Where Eisenstein set Battleship Potemkin in the historical past of 1905 all the better to suggest the triumphal and revolutionary (the film was made eight years after the Russian Revolution), Bogdanovich sets his in the past as if searching out a quiet timelessness; the opposite of the revolutionary. Even the historical markers like the Korean War that Duane will go off and fight in has the feel of being any war – an event that will remove him from this place that time forgot and take him to a far away land. Mexico and Korea in The Last Picture Show are not geographical places – they are themselves ellipses: places to which people disappear.

At the beginning of a book of portraits and conversations with various classic actors including Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and Cary Grant, Who the Hell’s in It?, Bogdanovich recalls a conversation with Orson Welles, where Bogdanovich mentioned a certain film he thought was well-directed but not well-acted. Welles said he couldn’t separate one from the other. Yet interestingly Bogdanovich in The Last Picture Show shares with Welles an interest in wide-angling a performance into border-line melodrama.  Some of the close-ups here could have endangered the performances, could have made the actions seem broader than they are in moments where the characters move close to the lens.  But what works is that the performances are generally understated enough for Bogdanovich to give an epic feel to people’s lives, without the actors themselves given to melodramatizing that epic quality. Casting Ben Johnson, Ellen Burstyn, Cloris Leachman, Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd and Eileen Brennan he can afford a degree of emphasis in the form. Actors like Kirk Douglas, Rod Steiger and Elizabeth Taylor would be too broad, and some of Bogdanovich’s close-ups wouldn’t have thus given the film the feel of the epic but moved towards the overcooked. Welles is right that performances can’t be separated from the film, but equally Bogdanovich is right in knowing that  you can have a film that might be well directed but acted badly if the casting is wrong for the type of style one wants to adopt.

It is as though Bogdanovich cast with the emphasis on mature actors who were not quite stars, and young actors who were unknown. It creates a nice balance between actors whose time looked like it was passing, and youngsters who did not know what was in front of them. Even though Burstyn would go on to become a major actor in the early seventies in The Exorcist and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, while Ben Johnson had recently played a key role in The Wild Bunch, and Eileen Brennan would go on to play Paul Newman’s love interest in The Sting, these are all character actors rather than stars, actors as if used to receding from the lens rather than hogging the frame. The director can go in a little closer it seems without arriving at the overwrought. Equally, as none of the younger actors were stars, there is no sense in the performances that the actors are in anything but an ensemble. While it might seem a stretch to assume the acting contains within it a modesty of ambition that is ideal for Bogdanovich’s style, imagine the film with Taylor in the Burtsyn role, Douglas in Johnson’s, and, say, Shelley Winters in the Leachman part. Imagine also Dustin Hoffman in Bottoms’ place, and Richard Gere in the Bridges role. As director Robert Wise once announced: “preproduction is so important. When you cast the actors, you’ve done much of the work. Now, you may need to guide them a little, take it up or down, have them go faster or slower, but the casting process is crucial.”

The casting somehow suggest absence more than presence, and this links us to the very point and purpose behind this piece, and that is loss in all its manifestations, and yet loss contained by the possibilities in time. This is why it is too easy to call the film a nostalgia piece, since nostalgia merely means that we have lost and cannot regain what has gone. But The Last Picture Show alludes to feelings that can never quite be realised, never quite be found, and captures something of what Jacques Lacan would call petit objet a: the thing which is beyond signification, and seems especially pronounced in a small town where one often feels life is passing one by, but where in Lacan’s formulation life is inevitably lacking. After all the petit objet a is, as Malcolm Bowie defines it in Lacan, “anything at all, but is none the less governed by rules of exclusion.”

It is from this point of view The Last Picture Show is a film about loss within the context of the impossibility of gain. When Duane finally gets Jacy into bed he finds himself impotent, when Bobby Sheen desires Jacy he nevertheless expects her to lose her virginity first, when Sam explains his past love for Lois the boys ask why he didn’t marry her after his own wife died: he replies that it was too late, she was already married. The film’s retreat from condescension doesn’t only lie in the form through the retiring nature of the performances; it also exists at the core of the film’s theme. The film is permeated with loss that could never quite be a gain, and this sense of loss is exemplified by the film’s small town setting. The patronising is avoided by the film’s awareness that the smallness of a life isn’t geographical but ontological: it is at the basis of life, not simply on its peripheral geographic edges. But perhaps these peripheral places capture it with especial astuteness.

Equally, just as the film avoids condescension so also does it manage to escape homage. Hawks did say that Bogdanovich “sat on my set for two and a half years and on Ford’s for two and a half years, so he learned a few things,” but what he learned wasn’t to copy the masters, but to absorb them within the new context, as if determined to escape the dangers of contemporary form that would be unsuited to classical material. When Bogdanovich says that “I think most novelists begin by consciously imitating others to get a certain effect, not as parody or homage, but because the other writers “do it good” (Directing the Film), it is a comment that suggests the debt to others protected himself from the aesthetics of the present. Where numerous filmmakers were deploying the zoom lens and split-screen in the late sixties and early seventies, Bogdanovich was aware such devices would ruin his film. Hawks and Ford allowed him to find his form rather than go with the zeitgeist. Indeed it was Orson Welles who recommended he choose Robert Surtees to photograph the film, a cinematographer who worked as Welles’ cameraman Gregg Toland’s assistant on occasion. There were great cameramen coming in from Europe in the late sixties and creating new possibilities like Laszlo (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces) Kovacs and Vilmos (McCabe and Mrs Miller, The Long Goodbye) Zsigmond, and Kovacs was the director of photography for Bogdanovich’s previous film Targets, and for several after The Last Picture Show – including What’s Up Doc? and Paper Moon.   Perhaps consequently though one may note that the close-ups are sometimes surprisingly abrupt, they do not have the abruptness of a zoom or the self-reflexivity of split-screen. They are obtrusive in an old-fashioned rather than modish way. This isn’t to defend one over the other (Altman’s films are brilliantly modern partly due to the zoom lens he used so enquiringly); just to say that Bogdanovich found the appropriate means with which to tell this small town story, set in the recent past and where time sits heavily in some of the characters, awaits others, and permeates a place that has gone on to prove as filmically memorable as it might have seemed socially irrelevant.


©Tony McKibbin