Visions of the End

by David Denby
directed by Peter Bogdanovich
Columbia Pictures
directed by Dennis Hopper
Just when I’ve been despairing in print over the rottenness of the American cinema, a fine American movie has been released, and it’s the most pleasurable rebuke a man can receive. The Last Picture Show lacks the magical beauty and stylistic audacity of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, but it’s the only American movie of the year that comes close to McCabe in quality. Many people found Robert Altman’s film rather elusive, but no one could have a similar problem with this portrait of adolescent life in a small Texas town of 1951. The Last Picture Show is clear, perfectly controlled, and beautifully wrought; it doesn’t dazzle or surprise us, but our respect for it grows from scene to scene. The director, thirty-one-yearold Peter Bogdanovich, an ex-critic in love with the American commercial cinema of the forties and early fifties, has used a straightforward, realistic style with taste and precision. The Last Picture Show reverses many of the sentimental assumptions about small towns that were prevalent in the movies of the forties, but it never becomes a cynical exposé. It’s a tough-minded, humorous, and delicate film—a rare combination in an American movie.
Larry McMurtry, the Texas novelist whose earlier book Horseman, Pass By provided the material for Hud, collaborated with Bogdanovich on the adaptation of The Last Picture Show (McMurtry’s third novel), and the movie was shot in McMurtry’s hometown of Archer City, Texas. By 1951 this desolate little place (called Anarene in the movie) was in the midst of a depression from which it has never recovered—the oil wells have dried up, and most of the cattle business has moved to the Midwest. Anarene at times appears uninhabited, like one of those towns in an after-the-bomb movie. But The Last Picture Show is not science fiction, and it’s not an exercise in symbolic desolation aà la Antonioni; the condition of emptiness is literal, not metaphoric. The teen-agers stranded there try to generate some excitement with what they’ve got—mainly their cars; but when they climb into the old pickups or the rich girl’s Ford convertible and charge out of town for a little relief, they encounter a natural environment that is just as featureless as the town—a flat, mediocre expanse of plains, prickly pear, and mesquite.
Anarene represents American life at its most obscure and unformed: none of the kids take high school very seriously, there is no particular “culture” for them to be formed by, and the principal teen-age boys in the movie don’t even have much to do with their parents. They are truly alone. Except for the one movie house (which closes for lack of customers), the new television sets, and the incessant, hopeless twanging of the Country Western music on the radio, there is nothing to connect the town with the larger world of experience or pleasure. To summon up the emotions we associate with American deprivation, cinematographer Robert Surtees, working in black and white, has photographed the wooden frame buildings in a style reminiscent of Walker Evans’ famous Depression photographs for the Farm Security Administration—we see the same head-on camera positioning, harsh front-lighting, and absence of shadows or texture.
Like a number of other recent American movies, The Last Picture Show allows us to spend a period of time with a small society of people, without welding every movement to an ironclad plot. Time passes, and some of these people have new experiences, get bored, leave town, or die. At the center of the film are three teen-agers: Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), a sensitive, good-looking, rather passive boy, who comes to experience isolation as the dominant emotional and spiritual condition of his life; his amiable and stupid friend Duane (Jeff Bridges); and Jacy (Cybill Shepherd), with whom they both fall in love, a fearsome and pitiable young beauty who becomes a predatory bitch of the worst sort.
Teasing all the men in town at least provides Jacy with something to do; for the teen-agers, and the adults too, sex is the only significant thing that can happen (the town is a true democracy—everyone is equally bored); sex is action, self-expression, identity. Bogdanovich is particularly successful with teen-age sexuality, treating it as a farce of inexperience and disillusion, with kids acting out grand emotions they don’t actually feel while other emotions no one told them about come stealing along in the dark. The groping in cars, the nude swimming parties, the seductions and humiliations are similar to what other kids experience, but in Anarene they take on a special pathos: they are not a prelude to something else, but the best that there is. After a flurry of late-adolescent excitement, almost everyone settles into early marriage (“Eighty percent of them are miserable,” says an old man). Sonny has an affair with the football coach’s wife (Cloris Leachman), a woman twice his age, and life in Anarene begins to make a little sense; but then we see that the affair is a dreadful compromise and a trial for both of them, so even sex has its very definite limits.
As the movie rolls on, it concentrates more and more on Sonny. He is the one young person who is not going to leave Anarene, and who is also capable of feeling the significance of living there. The principal adult characters silently recognize his intelligence and his fate; in a series of wistful monologues they tell him of their own past in the town, of their brief happiness and long suffering. One of these characters represents a larger experience—Sam the Lion, an elderly man whose youth was passed in the heroic style of the old West and who owns the town’s movie theater, the place of variety and fantasy and escape. By a rather cruel irony, this generous, expansive man wills to Sonny the dingy little pool hall which becomes a virtual prison for the boy. During the months that Sonny listens to the monologues, one after another of his friends are taken from him— they either leave or die—and we realize, with indescribable sadness, that he also has passed through the most significant years of his life, the period of relative happiness and hope, and that all the rest is just a dull, painful echo.
The acting is superb. Bogdanovich has assembled an extraordinary collection of little-known actors and integrated the performances beautifully. The complex sexual rivalry between Jacy and her mother, for instance, is achieved without an explicit word, through inflections and small gestures; every scene is resonant with the atmosphere of long familiarity. The actors are fresh, they look right, and they speak McMurtry’s blunt Southwestern idiom with verve and obvious joy. Although the movie chronicles the lives of “little people,” it isn’t dowdy or semidocumentary in style or afflicted with mousiness like a Czech movie; the performances are large-scale and confident, and they make a sad story exhilarating to watch. Besides the three teen-agers, who are all first-rate, there are two wonderful actresses going at full tilt: Ellen Burstyn, who was also excellent in Alex in Wonderland earlier in the year, plays Jacy’s booze-ridden mother with baleful authority; and Cloris Leachman, as a plain, long-neglected woman, becomes radiantly beautiful as she responds to a young man’s attentions. These roles have been handled before by many actresses, but rarely with so little self-pity.
From his idol Howard Hawks, Bogdanovich has learned the value of a plain style; like Hawks, he keeps the camera at eye level and allows the scenes to play in medium depth. The movie unfolds slowly, steadily, with extraordinary confidence in itself: at times we know in advance what is going to happen, but the predictability is not really a weakness—it reflects the closing off of options, the small compass of available actions. Besides, the event never disappoints; when Sonny returns to the coach’s wife after neglecting her for months, we know that she is going to look old and haggard, but it’s still shocking and sad to see; and then Miss Leachman caps the scene with an astonishing tirade reminiscent of Agnes Moorehead in The Magnificent Ambersons.
From his other god, John Ford, Bogdanovich has derived a tone of slightly overripe elegiacism, and that is the movie’s single weakness. Sam the Lion, as conceived by McMurtry and Bogdanovich and played by Ben Johnson, a veteran of several Ford Westerns, is a bit too sententious and piously full-of-life for my taste. Bogdanovich has also enlarged and emphasized the role of Billy, the retarded boy, making him the test of everyone’s sensitivity—a tiresome idea; Sonny and Duane keep pulling off Billy’s baseball cap and turning it around on his head, a trashy little “bit” that is jarringly out of place. Sam the Lion and Billy are static, and in the use that is made of them, rhetorical and sentimental, whereas everyone else is fully dramatic in function. But these are insignificant weaknesses in a fine piece of work.

Lest anyone mistake The Last Movie for The Last Picture Show, let me say a few words about Dennis Hopper’s movie and make the distinction clear. Dennis Hopper, who was the director and co-star of Easy Rider, is the type of figure who gained a certain prominence and even authority in our culture during the sixties—the holy fool, both victim and provocateur, who descends into madness through drugs and returns to taunt us with his ecstatic visions. A few years ago, when lots of people were taking acid trips, friends coming down would try to describe what it was like, but they soon gave it up as impossible; truly to understand, you had to be there, and when I said I didn’t want to go, that was that. But now Hopper is trying to take us there by means of film, and the result is an endless, chaotic, suffocating, acidsoaked movie with moments of clarity and coherence that don’t connect with each other or with what goes on in the visionary sections. I don’t imagine that a conventional audience will have much fun with The Last Movie, and as for the “heads,” most of the movies that have especially appealed to them (such as Juliet of the Spirits, 2001, and the Disney cartoons in revival) have had linear plots to organize the pretty pictures and music. The narrative instinct dies hard.

The Last Movie is practically impossible to summarize. A “synopsis” provided by Universal turns out to be a hilarious document in Al Kelly prose, with sentences like “The naïve dreams involved are the agents of death when sophisticated games become more absurd than the mind can tolerate, ‘and then morality can be born again.’ ” Hopper shot the movie in a small town in the mountains of Peru. Within the movie we see two other movies being made: a Hollywood-based shoot-’em-up with lots of stunt men flying through the air, and a strange local production in which the Peruvian director is crazy, the actors really hit each other, and the crew carries around cameras and microphones mâdé out of wicker and papier-mache. Hopper is saying something about the relations of illusion and reality, only what can it be? With a great deal of tedious effort something coherent might be made out of The Last Movie, but I didn’t enjoy the picture enough to make the effort, and anyway, such interpretations would certainly give a false impression of the miserable experience of seeing the movie. Hopper, who is also the star, works as a cowboy-stuntman in the Hollywood film, and in the Peruvian mime he is somehow transformed into a wounded Christ figure who must die for the sins of the movies—their distortions of realiy, their disruption of primitive cultures. For what seems like nearly half the movie, he staggers through the town with an anguished and bewildered expression on his face; indeed, The Last Movie resembles one of those voluptuously paranoid underground films in which the hero is pursued through endless corridors by unspecified hidden forces and finally collapses in a heap.
My friends would talk of the different “levels” of perception they experienced on their trips, and that’s the experience Hopper seems to be aiming at. At a screening I attended at the Museum of Modern Art, Hopper claimed he was “trying to tear down the Victorian concept of reality.” I don’t know what “Victorian” signifies in that context (perhaps it’s just something he’s sure he can be against), but I guess he means to undermine the authority of the unitary, single-dimensioned flow of narrative that he imagines rules the screen. He may want to establish layers of reality, as Resnais did in Last Year at Marienbad, but he doesn’t have Resnais’ talent for composition and formal rhythm, and he fatally underestimates the complexity of representation produced by ordinary narrative techniques (as in Carné’s Children of Paradise) or by partially exposing the mechanics of filmmaking during the middle of a narrative film (as in Bergman’s Persona or practically anything by Godard).
Hopper thinks we all believe in the “reality” of what we see on the screen, but by this time most people consciously understand that a movie is always a construction, always something made. All movies are illusion—we know that. What counts is the quality of the illusion, its coherence as art, the richness of its associations with life.
If we forget all the pretentious talk that surrounds the movie and assume that Hopper was simply trying to do something new, how can we explain the scenes of the director and his Peruvian girl friend romping in the yellow flowers, or the scene in which they make love under a waterfall, or the cameo appearances of Hollywood buddies like Peter Fonda and John Philip Law? There are long stretches in this aggressively avant-garde movie that are too old-fashioned and silly to appear even in a TV cosmetic commercial. No matter how we take The Last Movie, it’s an embarrassment.