The Last Picture Show (1971)


Directed by Peter Bogdanovich

The Last Picture Show is about beginnings and endings, but by the end, even the beginnings feel like endings.  The story follows Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) as well as his friend Duane (Jeff Bridges) and a girl named Jacy (Cybill Shepard).  Sonny breaks up with his girlfriend, and he tells a friend that the girl he really wants to be with is Jacy, Duane’s girlfriend, but he knows that’s not realistic.  He’s fed up with the small town, and when Jacy breaks up with Duane, he too gets fed up with their small town of Anarene, Texas.

After Duane’s and Jacy’s breakup, all three characters are on a path of self-discovery.  Sonny begins an affair with Ruth Popper, the wife of his football coach.  Duane joins the army, eventually shipped out to Korea, and Jacy begins a series of relationships, none of which last.

I know I’m going to get tired of recapping the melodramatic high school relationship love triangles really quickly, so I’ll focus on the development within each character.  First of all, every intimate moment in this film is uneven and awkward.  There is no love, just an inability to connect.  I’m thinking of the sexual encounters between the two couples: Sonny and his girlfriend, and Duane and Jacy.  In both cases it’s not about love or even affection but rather a sense of duty.  Duane plans to marry Jacy because that’s just what you do.  The same goes for Sonny and his girlfriend, but he has the sense to break up with her when it appears like she doesn’t even want to be with him.

Once single, Jacy quickly tries to find another man, and each conquest somehow fails worse than the last.

So at a certain point in the film, every character seems equally lost.  Like the town, quickly becoming a ghost town, they’re both immobile and running for their lives.

Duane and Sonny have a mentor in a man named Ben the Lion.  He runs the local pool hall, and he’s a stabilizing force in their lives.  When Ben unexpectedly dies, the boys are forced to become men.  This happens partially because there are roles that need to be filled.  Ben leaves the pool hall to Sonny, so then he simply picks up where Ben left off.  He’s an adult, filling a void in the small town where every person matters despite none of it really mattering.  No one needs to play pool, but they do.  It’s a routine, and now Sonny is a part of the routine.

I’m only now realizing that we never see Sonny’s parents.  Ben is the clearest father figure in his life, and he himself is a sort of paternal figure to Ben’s son, Sam, a kid with a learning disorder that makes him feel even younger than his really is.  So these extremes put Sonny in the middle, as if he could fall more to the child side or more to the adult side. When Ben dies, he has to lean towards the adult side, dutifully taking over the pool hall.  Despite graduating high school, Sonny never considers college.  It’s never an option for him or for Duane who does eventually enlist in the army.

College is an option for Jacy, though she doesn’t seem eager to go down that path.  Her seemingly endless pursuit of a husband is a poor imitation of her own parents.  Actually, it’s a pretty good imitation.  Her mother, Lois (Ellen Burstyn), is the smartest character in the film.  She seems to see everything from above, mostly because of her own mistakes and not wanting her daughter to repeat them.  Lois tries to encourage Jacy not to marry Duane, but she does encourage her to sleep with him.  She believes that sleeping with Duane will help shatter her daughter’s idyllic image of adulthood.  And that’s what happens, eventually.  Jacy and Duane sleep together, but it’s forced, awkward and as uneven as every moment of physical intimacy between the characters.

These moments, often hard to watch (in one sex scene all you hear are the grinding squeaks of the mattress) reflect an inability of the characters to communicate with each other and with themselves.  No one knows what they want, and they spend the film trying to figure it out.  When Duane left for Korea, I never got the sense that he thought it was a good idea.  He just did it because he didn’t know what else to do.  He tried a weekend in Mexico, hitting the road by himself, and when Jacy refused to take him back he decided to enlist.

Jacy doesn’t listen to her mother, despite breaking up with Duane, and she ends up with Sonny, in a car on the way to be married.  Jacy’s parents stop them, however, with Jacy’s father angrily telling her that she will definitely be going to college.  It’s not the future she wanted, but it’s clearly the best option.  Lois remains with Sonny, and she tells him he’s better off without Jacy.  Lois is just the best.  She’s so supportive and kind and wise.

So Sonny says farewell to Duane, and he’s back to his sleepy town which somehow feels even more deserted than it did before.  There’s a commotion outside, and Sonny sees that Sam, Ben’s son, has been hit by a car and killed.  Suddenly both spikes that once kept him grounded (Ben and Sam) have been stripped away.  Sonny begins to spiral, and he leaves town, angry and despondent.  It’s a triumphant moment, but then he turns the car around and comes back home, defeated.

He returns to the home of Ruth Popper.  Now, I haven’t said much about her, but there’s not a whole lot to say about Ruth’s and Sonny’s relationship.  She’s a complex character, medicating for something, and her relationship with Sonny is more maternal than sexual (despite the fact that almost all they do is sleep together).  In one scene she combs his hair, like a parental figure, after they’ve slept together.  But Sonny only returns to her because he has no one else to go to.  He doesn’t quite know what she means to him (mother, lover, friend, etc.), but she’s the only thing left that reminds him he’s alive.

When Sonny briefly began dating Jacy, he ignored Ruth, making it clear that she doesn’t mean a whole lot to him.  Instead, he’s trying things out like Jacy and Duane, seeing what sticks.  Ruth only remains because she hasn’t gone anywhere, and it seems like Sonny will toil away in the small town too, for the rest of his life.  So within the film he experiences a sort of rebirth (sexually and as a high school graduate), but his adulthood feels incredibly short lived before the film leaves him silent and still in a sterile house, looking more like a grave than a home.

The film is about growing up, but the end leaves you with a sense that people never grow up, they just get old.  Others might grow up and become wise (Ben and Lois), but their wisdom is born from their own mistakes.  Ben and Lois, once young lovers, live in relative isolation but recall fondly their past relationship.  In separate monologues, the camera slowly pushes in on each of them, reliving the happy memories.  Then the camera pulls back just as slowly, and they return to the dusty, dirty dying world they live in.  The scenes introduce hope, but then just as quickly take it away.  You’re left with the impression that the good times (of which there weren’t that many) are in the past.

So maybe that’s more of a reflection of how we perceive life, and the role of nostalgia in our life as well.  Ben even mentions being nostalgic, and how that mindset is constant, no matter where or when you live.  The last shot of the film shows the empty, dusty town and the movie theater, where Duane and Sonny and Sam used to go to pictures together.  It’s clear that the life they once had is effectively dead.  Other films might try to suggest that death/rebirth is a necessary process to someone’s growth.  Like Boyhood, for example.  It’s important to persist, endure and grow, but The Last Picture Show seems to say that there really is no growth.  It’s just over.

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