So grand and so sprawling is the history of the United States of America that to pin down, encapsulate and define its evolution through time is a mammoth task. Much like the ever-changing tides of individual change, cultural transformations are so gradual that the individuals in front of such evolution are not even aware of it, they simply surrender to its impending ebb and flow. To capture such a sentiment is a tricky task, aiming to seize a melancholy feeling so vague and so faint that it almost ceases to exist at all.
It is between the myth of the old American west and the uncertainty of a technological future that The Last Picture Show, directed by Peter Bogdanovich, occupies with such haunting efficacy. Situating itself in the deep heart of Texas, Bogdanovich’s film is an evocation of a time long lost, depicting a dusty, once flourishing town, with little reason to exist inhabiting individuals with little reason to live there.
As if they were tumbleweed floating around a lost town, the inhabitants of Anarene, Texas are phantoms at their own imminent funerals, losing time before their eyes as they focus on the ruminations of the past. Mournful and nuanced, Bogdanovich floats around this lost town, capturing the moods of the inhabitants as if unfolding vignettes. With an ensemble cast that includes Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Ellen Burstyn, Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman, the story itself is a wistful coming of age tale following two high-school graduates and long-time friends Sonny Crawford (Bottoms) and Duane Jackson (Bridges).
Shot in crackled monochrome despite its 1971 release date, The Last Picture Show evokes a deep nostalgia for an ebbing national identity, with the choice itself coming as a result of a conversation with Orson Welles who lived with Bogdanovich at the time. Such wasn’t the only creative decision inspired by Welles either, with a similar sense of wistful longing as the titular Citizen Kane coming from The Last Picture Show’s Sam the Lion in one particularly memorable scene.
“You wouldn’t believe how this country’s changed,” Ben Johnson’s Sam utters to the two lead characters at a pond named ‘the tank’, appearing like a blooming oasis in the Texas dust bowl. Here, Sam reminisces in an emotional monologue about a time 20 years ago when he brought a girl to the same spot where they basked in each other’s love. A mighty figure of the town, Sam (known as ‘The Lion’) is a mythic totem of old America who is also guilty of stagnating in the blissful memories of youthful beauty.
As the town around the characters crumbles into disrepair, it seems as though the only cherished feature of this town is the memory of what it used to be. So lost is this identity that the population becomes lost in blinding reverie. For the hopeful children of this town, the only way to escape the same fate is to leave it.
A rumination of the lost American west and a fearful vision into what its future might suggest, The Last Picture Show is a slow and thoughtful reflection on the beauty and dangers of nostalgia. With the demise of the town’s last picture house comes curtains for the promise of a return to such American fantasies.