“THE LAST PICTURE SHOW” IDENTIFIES THE TRUE COST OF BOREDOM
The Last Picture Show is a very difficult film to sink into because of its draining slow pace.
Nobody really likes change. It’s a sentiment that’s palpable in The Last Picture Show. A nostalgic American 70s film, reserved as a momentum of a very specific American experience which is so renowned, it’s considered a classic by the American Film Institute . It’s filled with nostalgic references of a dying western lifestyle, particular to the setting of Larry McMurtry’s novel from which the film is based. Brimming with contradictions, the film ultimately accounts the study and slow insurgence of misdemeanours which are entirely glossed over in a small Texas town in the 50s.
We see this change predominately through Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms), a popular high school football athlete and senior in Anarene, Texas who is in transition as he reaches the end of his high school experience. And like his life, so much of the film feels mundane. We watch as Sonny goes to a local hang out with his friends and interacts with different figures within his small community, but most of the activity in the film follows a monolithic colourless order which is true to the often persistent boredom of life. Initially, it’s comforting to have a peaceful and familiar reference to the lulls of routine but this shifts early on in the film.
Things take a turn when Sonny, presumably still underage, forms a clandestine relationship with an older married woman but even that event is awash with apathy. Everybody in town seems to be swept up in the freedom of idleness so they push the edges of their comforts to feel a semblance of the excitement that comes from uncertainty. The hunger for excitement is so prevailing, Sonny’s relationship is discussed and then ignored. In fact, his classmate and crush Jacy (Cybill Shepherd), is a perfect symbol of this phenomenon especially when her mother Lois (Ellen Burstyn) nurtures a risk seeking appetite within her so that she could experience something more beyond the banal aspects of their small town living.
There are so many significant themes that seem to be overpowered in The Last Picture Show partly due to failed attempts at artistry and an overwhelming use of symbolism which does the film a disservice. For one, Lois’ initial advice to Jacy about men is very feminist and liberal but it’s quickly overshadowed by the much more insipid storyline of Sonny as he is continuously met with important revelations, but in the end, they are swiftly bypassed by very vapid events. And yet, as with other issues in the film, there seems to be underlining notes of sadness or perhaps, darkness within the disorder of the town. For instance, Sonny’s affair (and later Jacy’s awful encounter) is incredibly inappropriate and representative of a culture of grooming and pedophilia but it’s eclipsed by the humdrum of the every day nothingness of their western lifestyle. It’s utopic, cult like even how no issue is every awarded the serious attention it deserves; everybody looks at troubling events as a well needed interruption to the everyday boredom of their lives so later when Sonny loses his friend, no one seems to bat an eye to the seriousness of the situation. It’s seen as just another event to gossip about.
In any case, The Last Picture Show is a very difficult film to sink into because of its draining slow pace. Just when it feels like something interesting will happen, nothing of interest occurs and worse, it drags and then drags some more. The aesthetic choice to make the film in black and white when featured films of that era were largely produced in colour, adds further to the narrative dread in the story. It’s even more disheartening to consider the fact the there are no minorities presented in the film even when Sonny takes a journey to Mexico with his friend. More, the fact that Anarene has historical ties to the American Confederacy makes the chaotic and frankly, sinister energy of the film, much more intelligible.
Every part of The Last Picture Show feels like a yearning for this old way of life, when the worries of small town white Texans were limited to flirting, finding a partner and finding something to keep busy. In Sonny’s world, no one seems to worry about money, there is no reference to racism or minorities, and despite the fact that almost everyone hides their true identities, the community is affixed on the idea that everything is fine. In reality though, the film is an amalgamation of a white washed view of the American experience that has no space for the minority perspective and so its plot is thin and it has very little substance or calls to reflection.
The Last Picture Show is really about the trouble with complacency and worse, inertia. Although boredom can inspire creativity, in this case, it spawns indecency. No one in Anarene has anything to offer except trouble and despite their aversion to sameness, there is no willingness to accept change. So it’s natural, that the existence of real issues within the community is deliberately circumvented. Instead, the true story of the indiscretions and chaos within the Anarene community is scorned for a more simple and affable camouflage about a life with little to no responsibilities—one with no meaning. The film is unsettling and just like it persistent theme, unbelievably boring.