I have a friend that once described New Hollywood movies this way: “They’re long, they’re depressing, and nothing ever happens in them.” Though I bristle at the suggestion that nothing happens in them, it’s kind of hard to argue with his point. New Hollywood films are by design a rejection of the standard modes of filmmaking and that certainly included typical plotting and pacing in many instances. Where (as we’ve already discussed) Casablanca is a well-oiled machine, the action moving along at a clip, something like Two-Lane Blacktop is more of a slowly meandering and melancholy waltz.
It’s also by design that the young filmmakers of the post–baby boom, Vietnam, and recession era were by and large understandably disinterested in pat Hollywood happy endings. I’m thinking specifically of films like Chinatown, Taxi Driver, even Nashville.
But that’s what’s so endlessly fascinating about New Hollywood films. It was still the early days of cinema, the medium hadn’t even existed for a century yet, and for the first time, Hollywood was throwing away everything it had ever known or been to make way for something wholly different. These films cared more about character than plot, more about emotion than pacing. They were getting the same attention as blockbusters while being as experimental as the foreign arthouse fare they so desperately wanted to imitate.
Put simply, everything my friend hates about these movies is exactly what I love about them, and 1971’s The Last Picture Show is no different. It’s scope, in its smallness, feels all encompassing.
The Last Picture Show is small-town, 1950s Texas on radiant display. We follow Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), Duane (Jeff Bridges), and Jacy (Cybill Shepherd) through their senior year of high school as they date and break up and work part-time jobs and hang out late on Saturday nights and try desperately to figure out what they want out of life. It’s all incredibly striking in its ordinariness.
Shot in black and white with a soundtrack seemingly comprised entirely of Hank Williams, it feels like a true precursor to the Friday Night Lights series. That everyone knows everyone is a blessing and a curse, and the kids’ desperation to find a place for themselves is every bit as palpable as the adults’ desperation to prevent the kids from being anything like them. It’s a world where everyone wants more and no one knows how to get it.
It’s also reminiscent of westerns that portray the death of the Wild West, another genre I hold near and dear, but I’ll get into that more later this week. For now, I’ll simply say that The Last Picture Show shows a significant amount of empathy in its depiction of the end of an era without ever romanticizing it.
Director and writer Peter Bogdanovich is masterful in bringing this gaggle of wayward teens to life. We’re privy to some of the most intimate moments of their lives, whether it’s an unexpected death or a fight with a pal over a girl. These moments share equal weight through Bogdanovich’s lens. And they should; they affect the kids just as much. But even amid all the darkness and the sadness, it’s the humor of The Last Picture Show that makes it feel so real and that keeps me coming back time and again.