The Last Picture Show (1971): Peter Bogdanovich and Timeless Cinema

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“People can’t sneeze in this town without someone offering him a handkerchief” – Eileen Brennan as Genevieve

Always the compelling raconteur, among his plethora of yarns, Peter Bogdanovich can be heard telling the one about how he was first introduced to his source material. If the legend holds, he found Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show browsing through the paperbacks in a drugstore. Later, his buddy Sal Mineo coincidentally suggested he should make it into a movie, and there you have the auspicious beginnings of his landmark film.

It seems almost prescient he would pick the book up in a drugstore — maybe this scene was far more common in the 60s and 70s — but for perceptive viewers, Brandon de Wilde does the very same thing in Hud. And if there was ever a film or a world that The Last Picture Show shares it would be Paul Newman’s from 1963.  In such a podunk town in rural Texas, you get the sense that the West lives on. The twanging country tunes are ubiquitous and Hank Williams is still on the top of the charts.

Of course, with such an environment on hand, you have a bevy of small-town dynamics, all the familiar trademarks. The local high school football team is about all the entertainment there is on a Friday evening, and they are derided by the whole town for their lack of tackling prowess.

The boys themselves don’t seem to take it too badly. Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges), in particular, are best buddies and with families all but fractured, having one another is all they really care about; that and girls.

Another typical form of entertainment is at the movie house. One such evening Sonny can be found there with his girlfriend, watching the immaculate Elizabeth Taylor in Father of The Bride,  as they pull out their chewing gum to do some necking in the dark. All the locals agree, however, Duane has the real catch in Jacy (Cybil Shepherd), the prettiest girl in town.

What becomes instantly apparent about Anarene, Texas is the prevailing plain, ordinary ugliness of the place. It’s a run-of-the-mill doldrums of a town where there isn’t much to do but feel sorry for oneself and gossip about everyone else’s indiscretions. One character notes “everything’s flat and empty.” They’re not wrong. However, it goes beyond basic monotony. The slumbering rancor stirred up in the town is this unacknowledged undercurrent of callousness. No sympathy or authentic community of any kind is available.

Instead, people go on living lies or make every attempt to cover up the blemishes they know full-well everyone is talking about behind their backs. One primary example is Ellen Burstyn, Jacy’s attractive mother, who’s had more than a few flings with guys, including a local Hud-like rascal (Clu Gulager). One looks at Jacy’s own forays in love and you realize just how innocent she is. Her mother feels like a hero, but Mrs. Farrow has lived long enough to understand what regrets are.

Meanwhile, Cloris Leachman is the coach’s wife trapped in a loveless marriage of perpetual loneliness. When Sonny comes by as a favor to his coach, to take Mrs. Popper to a doctor’s appointment, she reaches out to the only person who pays her any heed. Otherwise, she’ll all but suffocate.

With the older generation of women, although they are now set in their ways, there is this hint of was is not there and what might have been there before.  For instance, friendships might have existed in a different time before life got in the way. Eileen Brennan as the seasoned waitress at the burger joint admits these facts even as she dotes over Sonny a bit like a surrogate mother. She knows what happens to people as they slowly drift apart.

Though not necessarily miscreants, you have a town full of maladjusted lonely people, rogues, meretricious sex fiends, and brusque masculinity. Plenty of fodder for a cottage industry of rural scandal and public recreation.

The younger generations are trying to grow up in such a toxic environment, no wonder they have their own set of issues, all but inherited from their elders. On one occasion Jacy finds herself at a swim party in the nude, and there’s further trashy behavior and indecency on any given evening. One is reminded of the idle antics that boys get up to with nothing to do. It’s either girls or messing with the uncle’s heifer.

In the end, they prey on the local mute Billy (Sam Bottoms) who would never hurt a fly. He becomes a symbol of how simple goodness is all but trampled in such a town. It cannot survive in such a pernicious environment. More on that later.

However, if there was one character who reflects a stalwart strength of character it would be Sam The Lion. And his name precedes him just as the man who plays him is the epitome of such a role. Ben Johnson though hesitant about such a “wordy” part, nevertheless brings so much candor and an uncoached authenticity to the man. He even gets a nod to his starring turn in John Ford’s Wagon Train, seen on a theater placard.

Sam is the owner of the local pool hall and the picture show. More than that, he is the one true strain of straight, unadulterated decency in an otherwise miserable town. He is the only word of conscience imparted on these boys for their apathy. His abrupt departure is yet another blow.

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As high school rolls on, Jacy keeps Duane jealous flaunting her sexuality and then retreating, coaxing him and then trying to push him away. It’s true she doesn’t know what she wants or who she wants for that matter. On the whole, she’s totally manipulative and yet it’s hard to hold it against her. She’s as lost as all of her peers (and their parents).

Like all the preeminent coming of age tales that have been canonized forevermore, The Last Picture Show simultaneously captures its setting so impeccably while denoting the inevitable passage of time. It’s not so much a nostalgic tale as it is one that carves out a certain time and place. Replicating both the unadorned dusty sensibilities in black and white, through the Hank Williams dominated soundtrack, and certainly the characterizations.

Robert Surtees is certainly the MVP because he really does create an extension of James Wong Howe’s world in Hud where you have these stark totally horizontal visuals that do so much to evoke a very specific environment — to the point it is becoming its own entity — another character that remains a part of this broader narrative.

As they sit in the movies watching Red River (1948), there is this sense of the end of something, even as it is the beginning of something else. The town as an environ might look the same but our sense of the place is different. People are gone now. Some by choice, others were killed or closer still ground down by the town itself. Life marches onward. It’s the reality.

Duane takes what might have been the same bus in Hud out of town so he can ship off to Korea. Jacy has gone away to Dallas. Maybe to college or because of another eligible suitor. We don’t know exactly. Still, the wheels keep on turning. To come to terms with it can be painful and yet we must. Wounds heal eventually.

Jeff Bridges has his soon-to-be typical grinning charisma augmented by a ducktail and a strong personality making his character overwhelmingly likable to the very last iota. Jacy, as portrayed so essentially by Shepherd, is the belle of the ball — the girl who wreaks havoc on all the boys — and never really knows what she wants with life. There’s nothing dedicated about any of her whims; it keeps her constantly changing her fancies superficially. We both envy and pity her.

Timothy Bottoms’ performance, in particular, is quietly powerful because so much of it is reactionary. He is our everyman who reflects this town back to us. We see through his pained expression and in his helplessness or through his increasing despondency at what goes on. Even the mundane, everyday behaviors he commits to, provide a sense of what life here is like. He makes it real and palpable for us, supplementing all the performances around him.

For all his personal hangups, Peter Bogdanovich as a nascent director proved himself among many of his compatriots of the New Hollywood generation. He handles the material assuredly and balances a certain sense of recognizable realism that we can relate to on a universal level with this still overtly cinematic quality. He had a major hand in opting for diegetic sound emanating from the world as opposed to a score, and he also cut with the camera like his revered forefathers such as John Ford had done.

One perfect summation of this sense of heightened reality comes in the climactic scuffle between Sonny and Duane. We know the image is being manipulated but far from breaking the illusion, it reinforces the experience by grabbing hold of all the emotion within the frames.

There are smutty scenes captured with the insinuation of Hitchcock and tragic ones not allowed to grow stale with overacting. In fact, one of the director’s finest decisions is to leave room for magic, oftentimes staying with the first take whether it is Leachman’s heartbreaking dissolution or Bottom’s own tearful confrontation of the hard-hearted old boys around him.

These are the moment that hit deep and hard with core resonance. We go to movies for such lightning strikes of humanity fortuitously captured on celluloid. There’s little contesting the fact The Last Picture Show is timeless cinema. It comes bearing deep reservoirs of truth, and truth doesn’t have an expiration date.

4.5/5 Stars

The Heartbreak Kid (1972): Elaine May’s Graduate

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I was aware that this was an Elaine May film and for a brief moment I saw Jeannie Berlin and mistakenly believed our director was making an appearance. Berlin is, of course, May’s daughter, and she’s the spitting image of her mother. The same look. The same lilt in her voice. The same comic timing.

In a sense, we have this weird frame of reference now. I’m not saying Lila (Jeannie Berlin) is a stand-in for her mother per se, but we nevertheless have a curious dynamic to cull through. If we didn’t know any better, we would say this is a typical Hollywood film told from the male perspective.

Charles Grodin is an attractive young man and a newlywed who has just married a nice Jewish girl. They’re headed out on their honeymoon in Virginia Beach. What happens next is not the honeymoon phase at all. It’s the sinking feeling he’s made a mistake. Can he really spend the next 40 or 50 years of his life with this woman?

At first, they’re having a grand ol’ time singing “Close to You” on the freeway, and I couldn’t help but thinking of the inro to The Mary Tyler Moore Show or closer yet The Crocker Bank commercial that spawned another Carpenters’ hit. Here we are headed for new beginnings — a life together — and it’s only just begun.

However, normal rhythms must be interrupted. It starts when Lila starts getting too lovey-dovey in the car. Then, she’s eating Milky Ways after they sleep together or she’s taking eons getting ready to go down to the pool deck. You get the sense her husband is just getting to know her for the first time. It’s really disconcerting if the moments weren’t equally hilarious

He’s already hustled and harried. For the most part, Grodin must push through the picture in deadpan because the film is much more a tempered affair (with a few piercing outbursts).  He responds to his romantic counterparts impeccably, first the unacknowledged goofiness of Lila and the cool flirtation of blonde, collegiate siren, Kelly (Cybil Shepherd). There’s both a rhythm to his diction and a gigglyness that overcomes him — like a little schoolboy — completely selling his double life and the comedic situation.

It’s paritally the fact the scenario gets so outrageous. Because from her first toying with him on the beach, Kelly won’t stop ribbing him to death. First, it’s her “spot” on the beach then it’s her “seat” at the bar, and she’s got him playing along. He doesn’t mind getting trifled with. In fact, he instantly goes fawning over her, despite being very truly married.

Of course, that sets up the blackness of this comedy given the situation. There’s not any kind of spouse murdering or anything grotesque, just infidelity… And I say this facetiously because obviously a situation like The Heartbreak Kid played real and straight would be devastating. In real life, such scenarios don’t come with laughs.

However, Elaine May observes it beautifully and while Neil Simon’s script is mostly spot-on, it feels not so much uncharacteristic of his work as it does a creative departure. The collaboration is as much May’s as it is his, and she puts her unmistakable imprint on the material.

Soon Lenny is already planning his second life and, he hasn’t even gotten finished with his first, married to his current wife a whopping 5 days. His arguments and excuses in keeping Lila bedridden and out of the know are so fluid and self-assured it’s astounding. It’s easy enough to do with Lila.

Still, Kelly’s father (a supremely obstinate Eddie Albert) is another matter, a domineering paternal figure who’s made his position on Lenny’s pursuit of his daughter quite clear. He vehemently opposes any such actions with every fiber of his being. Over his dead body as it were.

Lenny, however, is all in. He makes the trek out to Minnesota, of all places, where the Corcoran’s reside and where Kelly currently attends university. When they get a moment alone together, he pleads with her, “Don’t play games with my life.” It’s pitiful really. A comedy such as this must continually tread the lines of tragedy as much as humor. He’s certainly a real shmuck.

They each treat their romantic partners horribly and yet by the end, it’s easy to find the story weirdly sincere. Amid all the zaniness, Lenny somehow manages to get what he was searching after — the dream girl — to right the supposed mistakes of his life.

In one sense, I cannot help but use the same lens as The Graduate. The scenarios are in some ways strikingly analogous. However, The Heartbreak Kid also owes a greater debt to the remarriage comedies of old, albeit without the imposition of the production code.

The Graduate dynamic might be partially coincidental and yet we have directors in Mike Nichols and Elaine May who famously came into the public eye as a comedic duo.  The creative realizations of the two films make sense because their type of specific, deeply insightful humor can rarely help but enter satirical territory. It comes with the intelligence and perceptiveness they bring to everything whether stand-up, directing, what have you.

The Graduate, of course, has this chaotic crescendo where Benjamin storms the church and runs off with the girl. The Heartbreak Kid is arguably even more devastating and yet it manages it through subtlety. In the lingering moments, Lenny is sitting on a couch in his second wedding reception. He’s gotten his prize — the girl he gave up everything for — but it’s strangely unsatisfying or at least when we look at him and the expression on his face, he seems unfulfilled.

Why is that? Maybe it’s some unnameable force, but I saw it to a greater extent at the end of The Graduate as well. Benjamin Braddock went through hell and back again to get a girl. Lenny’s journey was bumpy, but it also felt lighter, even low-key. Still, it goes out with a pop song too; again, more subdued and still, there’s a concerted effort to lead us obliquely into the unknown future.

The Graduate rode the pensive waves of Simon & Garfunkel while The Heartbreak Kid is provided a through-line by a cover version of The Carpenters’ “Close to You.” Although there is no comparison, we have a similar connection to a cultural touchstone. May’s film couldn’t find a more straight-laced song to keep on calling on only succeeding further in contributing to the unsettling dissonance.

I’m no authority, to cover this topic in-depth, but I recall reading something to the effect that Nichols was very cognizant in casting someone very un-WASP-like in Dustin Hoffman. We could say the same of Lenny with all the locales he finds himself in, especially Minnesota. Whether merely implied or not, he is the outsider, both physically and culturally, in a similar manner.

May does well to take the dippy setup that feels very Neil Simon and pushing it deeper still. How a film about such a topic can be genuinely funny and somehow still manages slivers of warmth is beyond me. It’s a screwy feat of acuity, a true testament to the minds behind its creation.

4/5 Stars

Review: Taxi Driver (1976)

taxidriver1Well. Whatever it is, you should clean up this city here, because this city here is like an open sewer you know. It’s full of filth and scum. And sometimes I can hardly take it. ~ Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle

Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle is an American icon representing anyone and everyone who has ever felt like an outcast, outsider, or misfit. He’s the perfect embodiment of any of the angst or disgust that might surge through our veins at any given time. Except before I ever saw Martin Scorsese’s film, I always assumed him to be a thuggish villain. But his character is more complex than that. He’s far more relatable than I would have initially given him credit for.

The film actually opens feeling like the pilot of the Sitcom Taxi or something. There’s Bernard Hermann’s beautifully cool jazz-infused score and then the illuminating lights of an average New York evening. It feels strangely peaceful in spite of all that is going to go down.

Travis is an ex-Vietnam vet who takes a taxi driving job for the strangest of reasons. He just wants something that will have him working long hours and he isn’t too particular about what part of town he ends up in. From the get-go, he strikes the audience as a quiet almost silent observer of all that takes place around him on the streets every night. He’ll sit around with a couple cabbies as they chew the fat, but he’s essentially isolated — a repressed young man who doesn’t really express himself. His existence feels tragic and lonely, certainly not deadly.

taxidriver2There is a small beacon of hope when a pretty campaign volunteer named Betsy (Cybil Sheppard) catches his eye, and he has an extremely awkward interaction with her but it lands him a date. But Travis just doesn’t quite know how to act, he hasn’t learned what it means to be in a relationship and he has an error in judgment while they are out. However, he doesn’t see it that way. He feels his attempts at kindness were completely rejected.

Then, he also begins to notice a young hooker out on the streets and his next mission is to get her away from there back home. He thinks it’s the right thing to do and he means well but young streetwise Iris (Jodie Foster) doesn’t seem to want his charity. So once again Travis seems unwanted and not needed when he is trying to do something nice.

Travis even acknowledges to his colleague Wizard that he’s getting all twisted up inside and confused. He’s distraught and he has no way to deal with it so his outlet includes a heavy strength regimen and loading up on a ton of guns. Never a good sign, but it his mind’s eye it’s all to clean up the streets of the scum of the earth.

However, first he attends a rally for a presidential candidate that Betsy will be at and he has intent to cause harm, but he backs out at the last minute and goes to Plan B confronting Iris’s pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel) and shooting him. The inner demons of Travis are unleashed as he goes off, but his delusions of grandeur reassure him that this is all for Iris. This is for her good. All this bloodshed.

taxidriver4The final moments after his rampage have Travis receiving a letter from Irises parents who are grateful for his actions to save their daughter from corruption. Then, a fully recuperated Travis finds Cybil sitting in the back seat of his taxi cab in all her glory. It’s beyond his wildest dreams, which begs the question is this reality, or is this just a clever construction of his own brain? Another delusion of grandeur. It’s a wonderful open-ended finale.

Paul Schrader’s script is a wonderful character study giving introspection into one troubled man’s psyche. However, there is controversy on two fronts. It’s rumored that John Hinckley Jr. who tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan was influenced by this film and also the finale seems to reflect many people who commit mass shootings. Oftentimes they are people who are deeply troubled and are looking for some type of attention. But with that desire comes often deadly consequences.

taxidriver3Martin Scorsese’s film has also received pointed criticism for its violence which is hard to downplay. However, Taxi Driver remains interesting because it is not bloated with killing (in fact only one scene is actually bloody). Most of the film has to do with relationships or lack thereof because a lot of what Travis does is watch and listen. It might be Martin Scorsese in a cameo as a jealous husband or a presidential candidate asking Bickle’s opinion from the back seat. Furthermore, like any warm-blooded boy, he knows that Cybil Sheppard is a dream girl. And he has enough compassion to want Iris to have a normal childhood. It’s just that his conscientiousness is misdirected and subverted.

The film resigns itself to following this one man in the wasteland that is New York. It’s starkly beautiful and thought-provoking placing a troubled anti-hero in front a canvas of urban realism. I could never condone his behavior, but then again I could never be completely against him either.

4.5/5 Stars

Taxi Driver (1976)

d184d-taxi_driver_posterDirected by Martin Scorsese, the film stars Robert De Niro with Jodie Foster and Cybil Sheppard. The story opens with a Vietnam vet, Travis Bickle (De Niro) who takes a job as a taxi driver. Travis is a quiet and lonely man who is turned off by the scum and filth he sees on the streets of New York. He becomes enthralled with a beautiful campaign worker who eventually turns him off. Then he also comes in contact with a young girl who makes her living working the streets. His frustration deepens and he begins to work out and collect weapons. It becomes obvious he is about to explode and after an initial failed attempt he does  just that. However, ironically the aftermath leaves him as a hero. Travis is an interesting character because you feel sorry for him and yet he does things that are truly wrong. I found Bernard Hermann’s score, the voice-over narration, and the cryptic ending all to be interesting parts of this film.

4.5/5 Stars

The Last Picture Show (1971)

df52d-the_last_picture_show_28movie_poster29Starring Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybil Sheppard, and Ben Johnson, with director Peter Bogdanovich, the film revolves around young people in a small Texas town during the early 1950s. Although at first glance it seems simple and innocent, there is another side to the town, full of romantic entanglements, fights, and even deaths. Sonny (Bottoms) and Duane (Bridges) are best friends without any real parents, only each other and some of the town folk. They have a falling out over a girl (Sheppard) and then Sonny sees the girl go off to college while Duane returns shortly only to ship out to Korea. However, Sonny is able to make amends with his friend and they see the last picture show. In the absence of his friends, Sonny is left in need of someone to fill the void. This film is interesting because it is shot with black and white cinematography and it only uses period music. This effectively creates a setting that appears to be very realistic.

4.5/5 Stars