There’s something so modern about being so retro.
It’s funny to think that a movie could look like it was filmed in 1950, was actually made in 1971, and feels like it could have been created today. So timeless and time-conscious at once.
Like with Unforgiven last week, this was my first experience with this film, and I had no idea what to expect--and the trend continued as the film kept me surprised. Since I’m, apropos to the theme, popping my cherry with this movie, I’m going to give my first impressions of what I think it’s saying and what I take away from it as a filmmaker.
Like always, I’m following along the AFI top 100 list with the order of the 2 cool for words podcast Unspooled.
We’ve arrived at 1971’s The Last Picture Show, directed by Peter Bogdanovich and written by him and Larry McMurtry.
A coming of corruption story
As a kid, being an adult can seem like it’s a world of maturity.
And then at some point you come to realize that adult films aren’t movies about paying taxes or throwing dinner parties, they usually contain sex and violence. A gentlemen’s club isn’t full of top hats and monocles, it’s filled with some adults getting naked, while other adults throw dollars and hope someone naked sits on their laps. “Adultery” has the word right in it!
Growing-up is about a loss of innocence, and I think this movie captures it perfectly with its theme: “becoming an adult is corruptive.” This is a coming of age story for Sonny, Duane, and Jacy, and this particular one is all about making that discovery.
Sonny goes into this head first, by doing one of the most adult-sounding things there is: having an affair with an older woman. At first he just wants to push things forward with his own girlfriend, but once he has this affair with Ruth, it opens him up to a less innocent world, including one where he’d hookup with his best friend’s ex.
Duane’s corruption comes in the form of violence. After Jacy breaks up with him, he goes into a violent rage. He later temporarily destroys Sonny’s eye in a fight, and then he joins the armed forces, albeit it’s a much more structured outlet for his violence.
Jacy gets seduced by the actual idea of being corrupted. Falling for Bobby, since he and his naked parties are a representation of being as adult as possible (even more so than dinner parties); buuuuut HE doesn’t want to do the actual corrupting, telling Jacy to come back once she’s lost her virginity. He wants someone he already views as a full adult.
The idea, emphasized by the title, of the last film screened in the theater demonstrates one of the saddest parts of adulthood: losing the things we have nostalgia for.
The last scene with Sonny and Ruth felt very sweet to me though. It shows that no matter how adult we are, no matter how corrupted we get, there’s a scared child in the middle of all of us. Sonny thinks that getting married means he’s now an adult, but after losing Sam and Billy, he sees the cost that it brings. Ruth seems to see this in him at the end and chooses to empathize with him rather than be angry at him.
What can be taken away
This idea runs extreme in the movie, and there’s so many ways that Bogdanovich and McMurtry make us feel this rather than just telling it.
Going old school
Not even the elephant but the blue whale in the room, the way The Last Picture Show is shot, its whole 40’s-50’s aesthetic, lends heavily to the point that the movie is making. As I mentioned, this aspect of going back in time actually makes it seem so modern in retrospect.
Since movies in this time period were much more restricted with censorship, they have a quality of innocence to them (something Pleasantville explores many years later). Shooting the movie in this style is a pretty brilliant choice because not only does it fit the setting of the film, but it allows it to have that same child-like innocence.
When we see things in it, like the nudity and violence, it seems like the whole cinematic innocence of the time period is also being corrupted.
If the movie were filmed in color with the whole 1970s aesthetic, A LOT would be lost. We’d still see the characters get corrupted, but we probably just see it and not feel it. It’s the difference between seeing a normal sex scene and a sex scene between Mickey Mouse and Daisy Duck.
It forces one of our own associations of innocence to be corrupted.
Shades of grey
Another choice this movie makes that also plays against the aesthetic of the film, is it has nuanced characters, neither good nor bad. This creates a very real feeling.
The leads, though we might be rooting for them, all have flaws. Ruth may be cheating on her husband, but we can probably sympathize with where she’s coming from. Sonny, Duane, and Jaci all do some bad things, but they’re also learning to navigate their new world, and they have likeable qualities too.
The characters we might not like as much, like Bobby, are at the very least interesting.
The most most purely good character, Sam the Lion, and naive character, Billy, both die before the end. This furthers the whole theme of the death of the innocent.
The coolest thing about The Last Picture Show is that it could exist at anytime.
For one, the aesthetic makes it so the film isn’t dated. I’ve tried to figure out why this is the case, why leaning into a dated look after the date somehow magically makes it timeless. I think it’s because when we take things from the past, we can cherry pick the elements that are already seen as timeless; 80’s themed parties have people dressed like The Cure but not so many dressed like Starship. The specific leanings of the early 50’s that this movie borrows are ones that survived the test of time.
It’s also not dated because this is a universal and timeless theme. Coming of age into corruption is as true now as it was for the ancient Romans.It’s something the movie can tell to anyone at anytime and that person can relate.
It’s cool when movies do this because they let us know we’re not alone in the way we feel. We all know the adult world can be scary, and somewhere inside of us all still is that innocent person that just needs to be told “never you mind.”
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