Movies in Movies
by Pauline Kael
A lot of people put the blame for the recent rotten pictures on the directors’ having too much creative freedom, but what’s probably closer to the truth is that the worst pictures have come about because they represent what the movie businessmen think the young audience wants. In the movie-factory days, the studio heads understood how to make acceptable trash; now the businessmen try to imitate the modern and free and avant-garde. They get hacks to imitate artists, and creative freedom is blamed for the results. I stress this point now because I want to praise a movie that is in some ways, and good ways, very old-fashioned — Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, from the Larry McMurtry novel — and I want to make sure that this praise for what will probably turn out to be a huge success with both critics and audiences isn’t interpreted as a put-down of the talented people whose movies have been chaotic disasters.
The Last Picture Show arrives just when it seemed time to announce that movies as pop culture were dead. The few movies for the mass audience that succeeded were — artistically speaking — so macabre that it was best to forget about them, and the new, smaller movie audience was becoming used to looking for sparks of talent and was learning to reconcile itself to messy, semi-boring, promising failures. I think that maybe everyone who has kept going to the movies has understood that the explosion of forms is messy, and has felt the excitement of what was happening. The old commercial crust was being cleaned away. Fiascos like Drive, He Said weren’t dead, in the way that fiascos like The Last Run were. And now Bogdanovich has made a film for everybody — not just the Airport audience but the youth audience and the educated older audience, too. The danger is that The Last Picture Show, which is a story about growing up in a small town in Texas in the early fifties — the kind of straightforward, involving, narrative picture that doesn’t often get produced anymore — will turn into a bludgeon to beat other filmmakers with.
What makes Bogdanovich’s movie about small-town life different from earlier films of the genre, such as Kings Row and Peyton Place, is an unexpectedly cool naïveté that carries conviction, so that the movie has the effect not of a slick, worked-up, raunchy melodrama about tangled lives but, rather, of something closer to common experience. Even Kings Row had the quality of a shocking exposé, though far less than Peyton Place; their selling point was that they showed you what was hidden under the surface of a nice clean town. The Last Picture Show presents almost as much of the material of standard melodrama, but simply, indicating that in this town it’s all visible on the surface. The movie isn’t exploitative of human passions or miseries; it doesn’t work them up. Bogdanovich is so plain and uncondescending in his re-creation of what it means to be a high-school athlete, of what a country dance hall is like, of the necking in cars and movie houses, and of the desolation that follows high-school graduation that the movie becomes a lovingly exact history of American small-town life. It’s a town that could never be mistaken for a wholesome place to grow up in. It’s the smallest, bleakest, boringest kind of flatlands town — the kind that has only one street with businesses on it. McMurtry also wrote Horseman, Pass By, on which the movie Hud was based, and this new movie is set in the same dust-and-oil Texas. But Hud was written by Hollywood pros, cast with star personalities, and directed for “meaning” and charge. This time, the author did the script together with the director, and McMurtry’s storytelling sense and his feeling for authenticity have been retained. The dialogue is so natural an emanation of the characters that you’re hardly aware of it as dialogue. Our recent fiction films — especially those dealing with an earlier America — have become so full of self-hatred that, ironically, it has been only in documentaries, such as Fred Wiseman’s, that one could see occasional decent and noble human gestures. This picture doesn’t use the past merely to project current attitudes on it. McMurtry’s truth is a small one, but Bogdanovich has been faithful to it: the nostalgia of The Last Picture Show reflects the need to come to terms with one’s own past.
The movie is concerned with adolescent experience seen in terms of flatlands anomie: loneliness, ignorance about sex, confusion about one s aims in life. Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges) grow into manhood without much in the way of models. The one person they look up to is Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), a somewhat romanticized father figure, whose three businesses — the all-night café and the pool hall and the movie house — are the source of the only fun in town, and Sam dies just when Sonny needs him most. The Last Picture Show has a basic decency of feeling, with people relating to each other, sometimes on very simple levels, and becoming miserable when they can’t relate. This is difficult to do now without seeming square or foolishly naïve. It’s wonderful to see a movie that is unsophisticated in this sense; Bogdanovich isn’t afraid of sentiment, and this lack of fear results in the finest moment in the movie — at the end, a long look at Sonny’s suffering face. Though the older women in the town are dealt with sympathetically, the young girls are not; I hope no one tries to make a Women’s Lib hanging case out of this. The girls are seen only from the boys’ point of view; this is perhaps an indication of McMurtry’s and Bogdanovich’s limited understanding rather than a deliberately chosen perspective, but truth to ones experience is far more important in a writer and a director than a hollow “fairness” doctrine.
The Last Picture Show is in black-and-white, startlingly eloquent in the exterior views of the town; the black-and-white silhouetting — so that we seem to be looking at a map of life as it was — helps to clarify and stylize the subject matter. It badly needs this stylization, because, of course, this kind of subject matter — a shallow overview of town life — is dangerously close to TV, and especially to the Peyton Place TV series. The proximity is emphasized by the fact that Timothy Bottoms often suggests Ryan O’Neal, but Bottoms is not so self-aware an actor, not so knowing about the effects he’s producing; he gives himself over to the role with a beautiful unself-conscious openness. And so, just as most of the material in the movie escapes being cliché, Bottoms escapes being a standard sensitive juvenile. There are other resemblances and reminiscences: Ellen Burstyn, as the town bitch’s mother, seems to be playing the Dorothy Malone role; the slutty girl (Cybill Shepherd, a familiar face from magazine covers and commercials) belongs to the world of Gloria Grahame movies; Eileen Brennan, as Genevieve, the waitress, has echoes of many an old-movie good broad. Bogdanovich is effective in using a variety of performers without milking their differences, though I have reservations about the casting of Cloris Leachman as the sex-starved woman — not because she doesn’t play it well but because it’s such a Cloris Leachman role. The movie is perhaps what TV soap opera would be if it were more honest — if it looked at ordinary experience in a non-exploitative way, if it had observation and humor. It is perhaps an ideal TV show.
There is one change in emphasis from novel to movie that fails, maybe because the director was overreaching a bit. In McMurtry’s novel, the closing down of the movie theatre represented the end of a way of life. It marked the transition from the few hours at the movies that kids daydreamed on all week to the age of television. (I think one could say it was a transition from — mostly — tinny dreams to no dreams. TV watchers keep it going; there’s no interlude for dreaming. And so TV watchers are not romantics.) Part of the authenticity of McMurtry’s vision was that the kids lived on whatever movies came to town, because if you spent your youth in a remote small town in a huge, sprawling country the local picture show was all there was. In the novel, when the boys and girls went to the theatre to neck, the picture on the screen was Storm Warning, with Doris Day, Ronald Reagan, Steve Cochran, and Ginger Rogers, and Sonny’s date fantasized about Sonny’s looking like Cochran while Sonny waited for Ginger Rogers to take off her dress, because outside the theatre there was a still of her in her slip. When the movie house closed down, the last picture that was run was an Audie Murphy job called The Kid from Texas, with Gale Storm; it was a dog, and the boys — restless because Duane was leaving for Korea — walked out on it. In the film, however, the dating picture is Father of the Bride, with Elizabeth Taylor, and there’s a coming-attraction poster for John Ford’s Wagonmaster (with Ben Johnson). And when the theatre closes down, the final picture, from which we see a stirringly heroic clip, is Howard Hawks’ Red River. This clip is only a small part of The Last Picture Show, but it has a lot of metaphorical weight to it. Sam the Lion, who seems to belong to the stalwart world of movie epics, has already delivered one portentous line that sticks out: “You wouldn’t believe how this land has changed.’’ The effect is to suggest a big ironic contrast between the heroism in the movie clip — which appears to stand for an earlier, epic America — and the shoddy, meagre possibilities in the lives of the characters.
But movies don’t have this resonance in the lives of the characters. The movies they grew up on were an escape from boredom; even the boring movies were an escape. Looking at Elizabeth Taylor might well make anyone dissatisfied with his lot — she really was the most beautiful girl in the world. But to be disconsolate when you’re watching Storm Warning and waiting for a forty-year-old actress to get down to her slip — well, maybe you have to have seen Storm Warning to realize the poignancy of that level of dissatisfaction with your life, and that level is part of the truth of American experience. For several decades, the generally tawdry films we saw week after week contributed to our national identity — such as it was. Now only the counter-culture uses movies (and only a few, key movies) this way — for new heroes, new styles, new attitudes. The Last Picture Show is set in the right period; the early fifties marked the beginning of the change. But to use old movies as great heroic myths contrasting with drab lives is to simplify the nature of our moviegoing past.
New Yorker, October 9, 1971