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THE LAST PICTURE SHOW
By Vincent Canby
Peter Bogdanovich's fine second film, The Last Picture Show, adapted from Larry McMurtry's novel by McMurtry and Bogdanovich, has the effect of a lovely, leisurely, horizontal pan-shot across the life of Anarene, Texas, a small, shabby town on a plain so flat that to raise the eye even ten degrees would be to see only an endless sky.
In an unbroken arc of narrative, beautifully photographed (by Robert Surtees) in the blunt, black-and-white tones I associate with pictures in a high school yearbook, the film tells a series of interlocking stories of love and loss that are on the sentimental edge of Winesburg, Ohio, but that illuminate a good deal more of one segment of the American experience than any other American film in recent memory.
It is 1951, the time of Truman, of Korea, of Jo Stafford, of I, the Jury as a best-selling paperback, when tank-town movie houses like the Royal Theater had to close because the citizens of Anarene, like most other Americans, were discovering, in television, a more convenient dream machine that brought with it further isolation from community—a phenomenon analyzed by Philip Slater, the sociologist, as America's pursuit of loneliness.
The Last Picture Show is not sociology, even though it is sociologically true, nor is it another exercise in romantic nostalgia on the order of Robert Mulligan's Summer of '42. It is filled with carefully researched details of time and place, but although these details are the essential decor of the film, they are not the essence. It is a movie that doesn't look back; rather, it starts off and ends in its own time, as much as does such a completely dissimilar, contemporary story as that of Sunday, Bloody Sunday.
The Last Picture Show is about both Anarene and Sonny Crawford, the high school senior and football cocaptain (with his best friend, Duane Jackson, of the always defeated Anarene team), through whose sensibilities the film is felt. As Bogdanovich seldom takes his story very far from Anarene, he sees The Last Picture Show entirely in terms of the maturation of Sonny, in the course of the emotional crises and confrontations that have become the staples of all sorts of American coming-of-age literature, from Penrod to Peyton Place and Portnoy's Complaint.
They are familiar staples, but they are treated with such humor, such sympathy, and, with the exception of a few overwrought scenes, reticence that The Last Picture Show becomes an adventure in rediscovery—of a very decent, straightforward kind of movie, as well as of—and I rather hesitate to use such a square phrase—human values.
Timothy Bottoms, who gave most of his performance in Johnny Got His Gun as a voice on the soundtrack for the mummy-wrapped, quadruple-amputee hero, is fine as Sonny Crawford, but then I liked just about everyone in the huge cast.
This includes Jeff Bridges (son to Lloyd, younger brother to Beau), as Duane; Cybill Shepherd, as the prettiest, richest girl in town, who is almost too bad to be true; Cloris Leachman, as the coach's wife, who gives Sonny some idea of what love might be; Ellen Burstyn (who was so good in Alex in Wonderland), as a tough, Dorothy Malone type of middle-aged beauty (middle-aged? she's all of forty!) who is one of the few people in Anarene to have recognized what life is and come to terms with it; and Ben Johnson, as the old man who most influences Sonny's life.
I do have some small quibbles about the film. Bogdanovich and McMurtry have done everything possible to get the entire novel on screen, yet they have mysteriously omitted certain elements, such as Sonny's family life—if any—and the reasons why the coach's wife is such a pushover for a teenage lover. The movie is, perhaps, too horizontal, too objective.
I didn't see Bogdanovich's first film, Targets, but The Last Picture Show indicates that Bogdanovich, the movie critic, had already taken Jack Valenti's advice when, last winter, the film industry spokesman described critics as physicians who should heal themselves—by making movies—if they wanted to be taken seriously as critics. Bogdanovich has.
The Last Picture Show was screened at the New York Film Festival Saturday and opened yesterday at the new Columbia I Theater. My only fear is that some unfortunates are going to confuse it with Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie, to which The Last Picture Show is kin only by title.
THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (MOVIE)
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich; written by Mr. Bogdanovich and Larry McMurtry, based on the novel by Mr. McMurtry; director of photography, Robert Surtees; edited by Donn Cambern; production designer, Polly Platt; produced by Stephen J. Friedman; released by Columbia Pictures. Black and white. Running time: 118 minutes.