by Brad Nelson
The buzz on this that I’ve read is that this movie helped usher in the era of “realism.” I’m going to place an asterisk on that notion because “realism” too often means, in today’s postmodern parlance, simply showing America and Americans in as poor a light as possible. I think it’s quite possible (correct me if I’m wrong) that in America, everyone isn’t sleeping with everyone, they aren’t bashing each other over the head with beer bottles, they aren’t re-enacting The Graduate at every turn, they aren’t busy making fun of the handicapped, and they’ve been known to actually fix or repair something that needs fixing or repairing.
Still, stuff like that does occur. There are decaying places in the world and in America. It’s just that one should be a little suspicious whenever anyone in and around Hollywood hails a movie for its supposed “realism.” You can usually be sure that means “our dour deconstructionist fantasy of what America really is.”
The Last Picture Show is also known for launching the career of Jeff Bridges. I like Jeff Bridges, but this film belongs to Timothy Bottoms who is the better talent by far, at least in this picture. Cloris Leachman also shows a side of herself that we don’t often see in her other movies. She’s known as a wonderful comedic talent, and rightfully so. But she can also do drama. She’s a fine actress. Eileen Brennan shines as well in her relatively small part. (There are no small parts, only small actors. Okay, I get it.)
In fact, this is a very fine movie, grit and all. It’s ready-made for the bleak-o-phile because there is death, deception, dust, and dirt at every turn. But to help perk things up there is the perky Cybill Shepherd who is beyond gorgeous and, along with the rest of the cast, gives an outstanding performance, and I’m not even talking about the swimming pool scene.
Perhaps the best performance — and the most coherent and well-written character — is Ben Johnson’s portrayal of “Sam the Lion.” Sam is an honest man, worn down by life, but still decent and honest. Without this character the movie would have devolved into typical Hollywood nihilism. But as it is, he (and the retarded kid, “Billy,” played by Sam Bottoms) add soul and depth to this film.
The Last Picture Show is the story of average people in a dilapidated and dying town who are caught in their era, their surroundings, and their own passions as they try to keep ahead of the spreading malaise (and this movie, appropriately, came out at about the time of Jimmy Carter’s malaise).
We don’t know why things are as they are, but it seems acceptable to merely peer into the lives of these people and watch where they go. The message is one of the pointlessness of it all. There are few, if any, people trying to do something better than just follow their basest instincts. As you watch this film, you just want to get a little plaster and drywall and fix some of those walls and sweep some of those floors. And, dammit, comb your hair! (A great bit of symbolism is used regarding just this in the movie.)
And such places do exist, for sure. And this movie was interesting to watch, start to finish. And yet I can’t help feeling a little cheated by yet another postmodernistic, slightly nihilistic, view of life. I don’t necessarily need a happy ending, but a little balance to the bleakness would have been nice.
And yet maybe that’s the point. Sometimes we watch movies to be uplifted. And sometimes we watch them just to reinforce our world view of things or to feel better about our own station in life. And a negative view has become a typical view of America. The “Leave it to Beaver” image is considered just a facade. What is real are supposedly the lies, the grit, the death, and the hopelessness. As an artistic effort, I applaud this movie. But be careful about what you consider “real.” Still, I give it 3.2 nude-swimming-scenes-with-Cybill out of 5. • (825 views)