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The Last Picture Show (1971)

9 Aug

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Anarene, Texas. Fall 1951. The weather is either too windy or too humid. The wind blows down the empty main street in the morning, and from looking at it, you’d think it was a ghost town. Even a few tumbleweeds can be seen whisking down the street. There’s nothing special to look at, but for the locals, the three key places to go to are the pool hall, the diner, and the Royal movie theater. All three are run by Sam the Lion, though he sometimes prefers to enjoy time away from town, at a pond called “the tank,” where he takes two local boys fishing (even though there are turtles instead of fish)—he enjoys the setting and always recalls fondly a moment from his past. (He doesn’t like fish, anyway.)

This small Texas town of Anarene is presented as a backdrop for a character study—Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 film “The Last Picture Show,” a classic that shows the certain death of a small community in a narrative that presents the town’s inhabitants as real people having true-to-life experiences. Taking place in the early-1950s, the film is pure nostalgia for anyone who grew up in that era. But this is an effective film for members of any generation (I was born in the early-1990s) because this is one of those “nostalgic” films that feel nostalgic because even though most of you weren’t raised or coming of age around the time the film was set, you still feel like the situations that occur are real or even had some of them happen to you in one way or another.

The character study that is “The Last Picture Show” follows three important characters—three young people; graduating high school seniors who live in Anarene and are about to step into the realities of…reality. They are naïve Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms), smooth, distracted Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges), and sexy, rich, manipulative Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd). Sonny doesn’t have much ambition in life and mostly tends to getting himself in situations he can’t out on top of; Duane is his friend who is slick and handsome but is unfocused and mostly tends to ask too much of a girl he’s in a relationship with; and the sexually inquisitive Jacy uses her good looks and wealth is influence any boy she wants into having sex with her…and then dump him. It’s quite easy to label Jacy as a “bitch.” And she is a real bag of tricks in how she cunningly seduces these boys in order to increase her sexual interest and thus, have her continue to do so, which results in her not only dumping Duane, but also going after Sonny, even when he is in somewhat of a relationship. But the thing is, Sonny’s relationship is an adulterous one.

Presented in glorious black-and-white (which I know was chosen due to technical problems and aesthetic reasons; I don’t care either way because it looks great), “The Last Picture Show” shows a year in the lives of these young people, from November 1951 to October 1952. Sonny and Duane are best buddies and co-captains of the local high school football team, which the locals constantly mock in how inept they are at the fundamentals. Jacy is Duane’s girlfriend, which gives another reason for Sonny to envy Duane, aside from the fact that he’s handsome, popular, and amusing. Sonny is nicer and more sensitive, but his girlfriend is an unpleasant one, so they break up…after more-or-less a year of being together.

At Christmastime, something unusual and fascinating happens to Sonny. He finds himself in an affair with Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), a depressed 40-year-old woman who is married to Sonny and Duane’s football coach. Sonny doesn’t know everything about her marriage, but he does understand that Ruth is not happy, and she sees what a kind, loving young man he is and invites him into bed. Of course, this affair is doomed and anyone could tell you that, but in the moment, no one could convince you at all. Not even those who know about the affair (it’s a small town where most people seem to know everything that goes on). And this goes on for quite a long time, until about summertime.

Meanwhile, Jacy has her eyes set on wealthy Bobby Sheen (Gary Brockette), whom she meets at a naked indoor-pool party. The only problem is, as long as Jacy is a virgin, he’s not interested. And this is where she shows her true colors in the film, as she toys with Duane for him to have sex with her and then dump him for selfish reasons. Where are her parents, you may ask. Well, her father practically lives on the living-room couch in front of the TV while her mother, Lois (Ellen Burstyn), (get this) advises Jacy to sleep with Duane so that she’ll know that sex isn’t all that it’s built up to be. (Though, Lois will sometimes sleep with one of her husband’s co-workers.) She does understand what Jacy’s rebellion is about, and she knows it won’t end well.

(And by the way, Jacy’s parents are the only parents we see in this film. Sonny and Duane’s parents are hardly ever seen at all. And we don’t see their home life either. Just an observation—not a judgment.)

As you guessed from the descriptions I’ve already given for the story (or stories, if you will), “The Last Picture Show” features more sex in manipulation or adultery than in tenderness or warmth. Well, there is the latter in the relationship between Sonny and Ruth. It’s a need to connect with someone that makes it special in comparison to what Duane and Ruth continue to go through. But reality eventually (and unfortunately) will take its toll, leading to the “stuff-happens” effect that seems to be apparent throughout this film.

I almost forgot where I was going with that last paragraph, and that’s what this film can do to you, I guess. A lot happens in the two-hour-six-minute running-time of “The Last Picture Show,” a good deal of it having to do with the sexual encounters these kids face. This all happens mainly because when these kids don’t have the diner, the pool hall, or the theater to go to, the next place they can think of, aside from home, is the bed (or, in the case of one particular scene, a pool table—don’t ask). And midway through the film, that does seem to be the main place to go, especially after the aforementioned Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), the soul of Anarene, is put out of the picture, leaving Sonny the pool hall and the theater in danger of closing down. Without the soul of Anarene comes the certain death of the town itself, with less ambitions for the people still living here and the human condition only decreasing with each passing week. No wonder the sex in this movie is mostly out of lust rather than love.

“The Last Picture Show” was filmed in 1971, but is set in the early-1950s, and the odd thing is that it’s easy to forget that. That’s because the feel of this setting in the film is exactly right. It really looks like a small town in the ‘50s, and we as an audience are taken there. Credit for that not only goes to the director Peter Bogdanovich, but also to cinematographer Robert L. Surtees, and the set design deserves a lot of credit as well. (Though, I’m not sure the explicit nudity in the film would have been allowed in a drama back in 1951.) Shooting it in black-and-white helps as well, strangely. And you really get a feel for this small rural town in Texas; you really feel the environment that these people live in.

And you also get a good sense of who these characters are, and what sort of people they will become, and despite some of their deeds, you do sort of hope for them to do better than they do now in life. Duane may smarten up now that he’s joined the US Army (and gone off to fight in Korea), Jacy may learn a bit about what her mother has been trying to tell her, and Sonny may be stuck in town, but may make the best of what he has, though it may be difficult (especially in a few crucial moments in the final act, each having to do with grief, regret, and resentment). The characters’ stories are rich and with many levels to them that you want to imagine what their lives will be like.

Timothy Bottoms is solid as Sonny; Jeff Bridges brings a rugged appeal to Duane; and Cybill Shepherd wonderfully brings her role of Jacy to where it can be seen as a three-dimensional dream-girl (she’s not invulnerable and only uses her moxie and body as a way to make things exciting in this town). Of the supporting cast, Ben Johnson is excellent as Sam the Lion; you really feel that he truly is the “soul of Anarene” and without him, there’s hardly a way for the town to be cured of the illness that’s killing it. The scene in which he tells Sonny and a mentally-disabled boy, Billy (Sam Bottoms, Timothy’s brother), about a time he cherished back when he was younger is just wonderful. His presence is an important one, and even though he disappears from the film midway through, it doesn’t make us forget him. Cloris Leachman is equally great as Ruth, capturing the character’s warmth, loneliness, and pain. Also good are Ellen Burstyn as Lois and Eileen Brennan as Genevieve, a waitress at the diner.

Anarene, Texas is dying. By this time, many decades later, it may already be dead. The title of the film is symbolic for meaning the closure of the movie theater and thus the loss of a place where teenagers can meet, hang out, make out, etc. Once that’s gone, there isn’t much else, except for loneliness and harshness. That’s what I got from the meaning of the title “The Last Picture Show,” even though the theater has no key role in the film. In the end, when the theater closes, there is that sense that the people in this town have lost something special. They may not know it until later on, but there is something disappearing there. Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show” is a highly accomplished slice-of-life drama with a feel for its setting and strong characterization. It’s a thoughtful, well-put-together nostalgia-trip that is powerful no matter what generation you belong to.

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Duel (1971)

13 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

You know that tense feeling you get when you’re driving on an interstate highway and a big truck (or any vehicle, for that matter) passes you, meaning the driver must be going about 85 or 90? How about when you pass someone, who in turn speeds up and passes you (and then does it again)? Of course, it mostly doesn’t mean anything (and if it does, it’s just a little joke for entertainment that isn’t pushed any further). But what happens when the situation pushes itself way over the edge—meaning, what if you were suddenly chased by an oncoming vehicle (say a semi-truck) that continued to follow you everywhere you go, and just wouldn’t stop?

“Duel” is practically the ultimate chase movie—one big highway pursuit; a cat-and-mouse game in which the driver of a giant oil tanker truck wants nothing more than to hunt down a traveling salesman (played by Dennis Weaver) in his red Plymouth, and kill him. The whole movie, written by Richard Matheson (based on his short story), plays that idea throughout the running time of nearly 90 minutes. It’s as simple as this—the man passes the truck on a two-lane highway in the California desert, only to have it roar past him and then slow down, as if toying with him. Only, it turns out that it’s more deadly than that, as the truck continues to block the man’s path every time he attempts to pass, and then when the trucker signals for him to pass, he nearly hits an oncoming vehicle. Things are more dangerous now, as when the man finally is able to pass the truck, only to nearly be run down at about 90mph.

The driver of this large, imposing truck is never seen or heard. The truck is like a gigantic force that has a mind of its own and just keeps coming. There is no motive, no backstory, nothing—it’s just a simple concept of a man in a nice car being hunted by a big, looming truck, not knowing why, how far the situation is going to go, or when/how this chase is going to end.

To have this fairly simple idea made into such an effective, entertaining road thriller such as this is a tribute to the filmmaking of director Steven Spielberg. “Duel” was the movie that made the name of Spielberg famous—he made his mark with this film, taking advantage of the thinness of the premise by building tension and excitement from simple situations and easy factors. Spielberg clearly loves films and filmmaking, and it’s visible that “Duel” is the work of a remarkably talented young director. The action is delivered in uniquely great detail, from the camera angles of the threatening truck, to the long shots of a desert canyon while the road rage is occurring, to the closeups of anxiety on actor Dennis Weaver’s face as he tries to outsmart his enemy. And there also little eerily effective touches added to the film, such as a railroad track that can be seen on the front bumper of the truck. What that represents, I’m not quite sure. But you can tell it represents something ominous.

This film originally aired on TV; it gained a theatrical release years later when Spielberg became better known for films such as “Jaws” and “E.T.” Either way, “Duel” is very exciting.