Rated R for intense sexuality and some pretty messed up gore at one point. There's language, but basically this is a movie about people treating each other like dirt in a place in America that is reminiscent of a Fallout video game. There is nudity throughout, so not much is left to the imagination. Just because it's monochromatic doesn't mean it can't have intense content. R.
DIRECTOR: Peter Bogdonovich
I owned this on DVD for a long time and I watched it the first time I got it. I'm burning through the BBS Criterion box, and guess what is in that collection? So now I've watched The Last Picture Show twice in my life, both times watching a copy that will only be watched once. I'm putting it out there, I get why people like The Last Picture Show. I just don't love it. The Last Picture Show is entering the specific subcategory of film that both waxes nostalgic and comments on the problems of its era. I'm looking at movies like Dazed and Confused and American Graffiti. Bogdonovich seems to set this movie in an era that seems to evoke his own dark adolescence, which is troubling the more you think about it.
The world of The Last Picture Show is one fundamentally built on selfishness. I can't give this an absolute characteristic. After all, this is a world where Sam the Lion exists and he seems to be a pretty good dude. But ultimately, most of these characters seem to be focused on the self. Bogdonovich, like Lucas in American Graffiti, focuses his camera on teenagers. Perhaps a lot of their selfishness derives from the fact that they are teenagers in a state of arrested development. These are teenagers right out of high school. The setting of Picture Show is a town that expects high school graduation and then immediate work in the mines. There's not really this attitude of success. There is no real growth for everyone and the entire town is a stark and physical reminder of how the cycle keeps repeating.
I can't help but think that the sexuality in this movie is almost animalistic. Bogdonovich uses sexuality as both primal and as currency. Sonny is rejected at the beginning of the film because he wants to have sex before marriage. His girlfriend, on the other end, doesn't really understand the intrinsic value of marriage. Sex is what traps men in a marriage and there is no value to a marriage otherwise. While this is an overly simplified idea of what sex and marriage are, Jacy and her more updated concepts on sex is also ultimately silly. Jacy, on one hand, says that she would never repeat the mistakes that her mother made. She echoes the sentiments on marriage from the beginning of the film, but is entering this period of self-discovery which she, at first, finds liberating. That exploration, however, quickly becomes toxic. Jacy's first moment of vulnerability is one where she is being used and nothing is reciprocal. She starts the film in a place of confusion and frustration about what is expected of her. All of these moments will lead to Jacy's being used by her mother's boyfriend.
Jacy perhaps has the clearest throughline, but the movie is fundamentally about Sonny. I know that Jacy gets mixed up in that narrative, which leads to Sonny almost losing an eye. Sonny is such a bleak commentary. He's the hero of the story. He actually seems to care about people around him, unlike Jacy or Duane. But Sonny is still pulled by his own selfishness. He gets entwined with Ruth not because she's that sexually attractive. The leading drive to be in a relationship with Ruth is pity. He sees this woman who is neglected and abused by her husband in a small town that couldn't give a fig about its inhabitants. He seems to actually be the best version of himself when he's sleeping with another man's wife. That level of irony is telling. He's actually the bad guy when he stops Ruth from cheating on her husband. But that's because of motivation. He's with Ruth because he sees her humanity and, subsequently, that humanity being stripped from her. But he doesn't leave Ruth because he realizes that Ruth shouldn't be cheating on her husband. Rather, he trades Ruth for the younger model.
On a conscious level, Sonny is with Ruth because he senses her humanity. But on an unconscious level, he's with her because she's absolutely forbidden. Ruth is not only another man's wife, but she's also taboo because of the age difference. When his relationship with Ruth becomes acceptable, he then shifts his relationship to Jacy. While age wise, Jacy is perfect for Sonny, it's her status as Duane's ex-girlfriend and town harlot that attracts him. It's the idea that he's hurting Ruth with this choice to choose the younger model that pushes him towards her. Sonny never really views himself as the bad guy. But he's also a guy who is lost to his baser instincts. It's why he never really understands his marriage with Jacy. Jacy, compared to Sonny, is more in tune with what she's actually looking for. When Sonny is forbidden, the idea to get married is sexy and exciting. When Sonny counters with vulnerability, she's mortified by her actions. When there is a scenario where people might accept their decision, the marriage is a dumb idea. I love how that marriage never really comes into play.
Listen, I write a film blog. I talk about movies every day. I know that if I was directing a movie, I would tie cinema into my own movie. It's tempting as heck. But centering the film around something that is clearly at least parallel to Bogdanovich's sense of nostalgia is a bit forced. The cinema is the last thing in the town to really go. It is near Billy's death. It's this whole idea that the era of The Last Picture Show is the last generation to survive in this small little town. But the cinema, as much as I emotionally understand that decision, is an odd commentary on the death of the town. Listen, the cinema represents the only arts hub in this town that is only known for a pool hall and a diner. But is The Last Picture Show a really call to the rise of the arts to free the soul? It's an idea that could really resonate in this story. But the movie theater was a place to meet with your girl and get a thing of popcorn. It's not like Sonny found something inside himself to become a better person because of his experience with the picture show. Really, the biggest thing that the picture show does for the movie is establish a time period and a sense of nostalgia for Bogdonovich himself. It just wants to have this deeper connection to the film that really isn't there. Honestly, I'm more moved by Sam the Lion.
The death of Billy might be the actual climax of the film. As much as I want the close of the picture show to be the emotionally important climax of the film, it's the death of Billy that wakes Sonny to his disgusting behavior. Billy is the one good thing in their group of friends. When they try to force Billy into a sexual act, Sonny feels genuine guilt, which is why he's forgiven by Sam. The image of him sweeping dirt during a sandstorm might be the most on-the-nose metaphor ever. I won't lie. I stare at the setting of The Last Picture Show and I just want to clean and fix everything. But that's what Billy is doing in the street is what I want to do to the pool hall. Billy is trying, possibly by the fact that he's considered simple by the town, to fix what can't be fixed. But that's why Billy's death is the most important thing that wakes up Sonny. Billy was never going to fix the town. But he enjoyed trying. Sonny sees the personification of goodness die and then he sees his own selfishness because of it.
It's a heavy movie, but it also is remarkably bleak. I don't really ever want to watch The Last Picture Show. It is long. It makes sexuality remarkably uncomfortable. There's nothing fun about The Last Picture Show. It's just bleak misery for long periods of time.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.