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Criterion Files #549: “The Last Picture Show” Takes the Butter Off Small Town American Popcorn

By  · Published on August 4th, 2011

To this point in our subjection of the films of BBS Productions we’ve been privy to a handful of boundary-pushing films that we now recognize today as landmark pictures in the furthering progress of New Hollywood from the late 1960s onward. They were films dealing with contemporary cultural changes and a youthful revolutionary attitude toward not necessarily showing things as we dream them to be, but more as they are. Life isn’t like the movies, so maybe some movies should be reflections of life. Life is imperfect, rough around the edges and occasionally a little disorienting. Thus far, the films in the BBS library discussed these past four weeks have shown us just how the mindset of the transitioning American lifestyle and interest was during that time period with timely and current stories.

Then, in 1971 came Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show which takes many of the revolutionary signatures of New Hollywood in terms of challenging the past taboos of the mainstream film industry (nudity, language and even pre-adolescent sex crimes) and uses them to unmask the facade of proper small town America. Infidelity, homosexuality, teenage sexual exploration, even saying “sons o’ bitches”…none of these were discovered in the 1960s; they were just discovered in American cinema in the 1960s and one of the first things we like to do with new tools is see how we can use them to our advantage for things we already have.

1950 ‘American Beauty’-fied

There’s little question that looking back at pictures from the 1930s in the United States through much of the 1950s and 60s that films took some liberties with their portrayal of the typical American household. Not necessarily that things weren’t so gosh-golly hunky-dory with married couples sleeping in separate twin beds and their children going off to college and marrying their high school sweetheart as perceived virgins; it just may not have been quite as common as we would believe based on film representation. Toss in the classic All-American personalities of a small-town populace and we rarely equate classic Hollywood cinema’s depictions of such a community as that of, say a 1940s crime thriller. People in small towns, as represented in cinema, just seemed to have their grasp on sin and just didn’t succumb to it so often. Certainly not the big sins. Definitely not the naughty ones.

This, of course, was not absolutely true. People in small towns most certainly had to have had their fair share of regretful stories and activities. They just didn’t speak of them. Then, along comes a book by Larry McMurtry that exposes his small Texas hometown’s common doings during his teenage years. The story itself isn’t exactly autobiographical, but like many great stories it was an accurate reflection of his experiences growing up in this small Texas town in the 1950s. Then, in 1971 when the film adaptation of The Last Picture Show comes out and amplifies the exposé to a worldwide audience the hush-hush secrets of the accepted peaceful society stormed out of the closet. Not to say that the depiction of so much sinful activity occurring as frequently and openly as shown in The Last Picture Show was commonplace in other small towns, but the fact that it showed it occurring at all was like coming to terms with the knowledge that your dream girl also, occasionally, has to go “number 2.” You’re either shocked that she isn’t perfect, or you’ll have a sigh of relief that you can actually acknowledge her as human; and therefore real.

Though, like many of those pictures of the time period representing their own time period one element did cross over into the portrayal decades later; the wise, compassionate town elder. While a young teenage Timothy Bottoms, Cybill Shepherd and Jeff Bridges (each either appearing in front of the camera for the first time, or just recently breaking in the year before) are parading around town having affairs with a coach’s wife, buying their mentally slow friend a prostitute, or attending private skinny-dipping parties. Ben Johnson is there as Sam the Lion keeping the boys in check when he can while acting as the only real male role model to be found, presumably, anywhere nearby. While the other male adults are too busy committing adultery, or focusing way too much on high school football ineptitude Sam is keeping the town’s only forms of entertainment going by offering up game at the pool hall, food at the diner, and running the town’s single-screen picture house. He’s not only the only man there capable of managing all three, he’s the only one who seems to care about the well-being and health of the people he serves. So much so that even in his own time of weakness of having deep affection for a married woman (spoken of in a poignant monologue of his great love), he accepted his pain with the knowledge that not pursuing was the right thing to do.

While the idea of a loving little town in mid-twentieth century America may have been defaced not all dreams are shattered at the close of The Last Picture Show

Admiration replaced by Affection

Certainly, with the existence of films like The Last Picture Show (and certainly others that followed, and admittedly a rare few prior to it) leaving their imprint upon a young viewer the perception of the life of their, probably now, grandparents whom they possibly don’t know very well has probably been skewed towards a more recognizable reality. Most people probably don’t associate classic Hollywood storytelling with realism, but the films of the past certainly affect our imaginations just as much as being constantly reminded of simpler times, higher morals, better parenting, nicer neighbors and less tolerance. We only hear about the good attributes and the things we now consider exceptional to once have been the norm.

It’s certainly not bad to hear about such things, because they probably are not completely false. However, every now and then, it’s refreshing to see that past generations struggled just as much we do with the same exact things in almost exactly the same ways. Maybe the movie playing in the theater had less sexual content, softer language and a lack of harsh violence – but don’t tell me that the teenagers in the back of the auditorium weren’t preoccupied with other things and just ignored the picture anyway.

Find out the truth about your grandmother and read more Criterion Files

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