The Last Picture Show (1971)
In the early 1970s a clutch of films came out that used mythical American themes of pop culture to ask: where is America at now?
Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show (1971; 1992 Director's Cut) takes place in small-town Texas in 1951. Shot in black and white, the immediate effect is that this is a lost classic contemporary to the period, in a similar line to British films such as Billy Liar or The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner that dwell on similar aspects of developing sexuality, alienation, and conflict. The black and white renders obsolete a staple of films set in the American West: the blue skies and ochre deserts are dulled into sharp but flat landscapes. Unlike films were the landscape of the West are used to suggest vast open spaces and heights of unclaimed space, the town of the Last Picture Show is pointy and restricting. Filming in this way also calls back to the “classic” era of American films, but that isn't quite right as the films that became most associated with black and white were noirish, stylish films, fast, hot and fluid. The Last Picture Show is a slow paceful film, with no flights into fancy nor stylish editing choices. If an era is being called back to it is an earlier era of films, of nitrate-silver and rough-looking films like The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance, High Noon, or Red River (a film explicitly acknowledged and shown in the town's cinema, the last Show of the title).
The Westerns that are an undercurrent to The Last Picture Show are a part of how the film draws on American pop culture to show the decline setting into the lives of the characters and the town.
(Arguably although cowboys are pre-pop culture as it is normally understood, the explosion of youth-related consumption just after the Second World War, the mythology of the West was founded on an impressive distribution of products: news articles about the cowboy lifestyle, theatre productions of the exploits of the likes of George Custer, arguably one of the first celebrities in terms understood today, recollections of battles from those involved, books, song-sheets, and so on.)
There are several apparent call-outs to Westerns, such as the already mentioned Red River, and scenes such as the one in the diner where Sonny confronts Sam the Lion: pure-Liberty Vallance. Key differences are in the ambiguities the film takes with this heritage. A film like George Lucas's American Graffiti (1973) deals in similar territory in use of film motifs and soundtrack, but is much more straightforward, shifting into referencing and sentimentalism. For all that they were part of the same wave of New Hollywood film-makers Lucas's characters not much more developed that those of the era being referenced, whereas Bogdanovich's in their uncertainty and indecision transcend the pulp stock characters of most Westerns. The decision to set American Graffiti over the course of one night also distinguishes its fantastical elements, the fetish for resolving all problems in a neatly packaged slot of time (the Ferris Bueller/24 plot-line); The Last Picture Show spreads out over an uncertain number of months mostly in daylight, so that unlike the deeply-shadowed and neon-drenched roads of Lucas's California, Bogdanovich's Texas is never allowed to appear as anything but a clear, stark, moonscape where everything is as it appears.
Further comparisons between the best critically received films of either director are apparent in the choices made over the uses of music. Lucas constructed a soundscape of rock n roll hits that obliterated a large chunk the film's budget: the sales of the soundtrack proved very lucrative, also likely being one of first big compilations of that era of music to provided a model for others to follow. The soundtrack of Bogdanovich's film is made up chiefly of country and western songs of the period 1951-52. It feels accurately true to life to how the changes and survival of certain chart songs mark the different periods of the year. Heavily featured is the music of Hank Williams, who would die from an excess of drugs and alcohol just after the banded time period when Last Picture Show was set. A remarkable voice, with a Dennis Potter 'cheap disposable pop can summon up powerfully resonant meaning, his revolution was in the deeply emphatic tone of voice and musical accompaniment, a divergence from the bluff and mediocre country songs drifting into pop once the dirt had been scrubbed off (Frankie Laine, Johnnie Ray, also present on the soundtrack). Williams also wrote an impressive library of mournful songs: even the cheery-sounding 'Jambalaya' has its pitying line “Are you cooking something up for me?” Williams' music meshes well with Bogdanovich's film: it suggests the melancholy of the declining west without indulging in cliches of riding them doggies round slow and such-like. The music is also all used diagetically, that is it is an actual presence in the real world of the film, pouring out of jukeboxes or car radios. The music also suggests one of the only links between the Old West and the New. The New West is a world where losing a football match is enough to earn the enmity of a whole town, there is no such thing as job security as characters drift from place to place, and the outdoors lifestyle has become compartmentalized into the non-places of the oilfields (despite many of the characters working there the fields themselves never feature, only as a place someone has come from or is going to). Though the characters dress like cowboys and listen to cowboy music, they are many decades distant from the lifestyle; Sam the Lion laments the loss of the empty open spaces of his youth when he came to the country: “I used to own this land” he declares to Sonny.
There is much that can be said about the characters in this film, but chiefly the theme of willingness to perform is emphasised, as a member of society and principally sexually, as unthinkably for films a few years later this is a film about impotence. Duane is unable the first-time around to have sex with Jacy; Jacy's mother Lois and Mrs Popper haunt their family homes, husbands absent; Mrs Popper's husband the Coach is implied to be impotent, or infertile; the preacher's son is unable to do anything more than ask the young girl he has kidnapped to remove her underwear. The stress and boredom of life in a country without a purpose drives people to empty frustrating acts. Forcing young people into prescribed sexual roles leads to destruction. The monogamous relationships embarked on by Duane and Sonny with Jacy don't work out, confounded by the pressure on Duane to perform sexually as an American cowboy (virility, freedom, forceful, phallic in many ways, such as hat or gun) and Lois's gender and class pressures to negotiate herself into a secure but maddeningly-dull housewife existence. Sonny is a different aspect of the cowboy image, a wanderer on the plains who is forced to turn back home by the police when he tries to start a new life with Jacy away from Texas in Oklahoma. Duane and Sonny do make a Western-style trek, but it is a highly commodified and controlled one, focused on getting tanked up in Mexico, now standard spring break fare. Duane joins the army and leaves for the war in Korea. Sonny tries to wander but decides that the past can't be put back together again, his friend Sam dead, the pool hall and cinema closed, the disabled Billy thoughtlessly killed on the road through town by a cattle truck. This realisation comes with the cowboy-attired townsfolk gathered around Billy's body discussing his death as if he were a dog. A cattle-truck full of braying cows summons up images of Red River (also done via a tune at the Christmas dance) and the callous killing of the mutineering cattle-herders by John Wayne's Donson. Also a film about disillusionment, Dunson is twisted to cruelty by the unrequited death of his beloved in the indifferent cosmic West: Sonny realises this is what has killed Billy and will kill him to. Seeing that the best he can do is live a good and meaningful life in the present and not become trapped in the past, he goes to Mrs Popper's house to make up for his earlier abandonment of her for Jacy.
By 1971 the Western would be in terminal decline, to revive at various points, but never again be a meaningful force in cinema in its own right, closing with 1976's finality-overtoned The Shootist and continuing in a slightly zombified manner through the films of Clint Eastwood into the 1980s and beyond. Uses of the West and the Western would be in evidence in a few places: outlaw country harking back to the chaotic outlaw demise of the likes of Hank Williams; country rock becoming the basis for easy listening mid 70s fare like the Eagles; the brutalist western-themed stories of Cormac McCarthy; several waves of alternative rock drawing on country stylings; and the somewhat moribund Americana of the 1990s and 2000s which is unable to escape a certain feeling of stilted properness. Country and Western the music genre, in the splitting off of “hillbilly” music in the early 20th century by the recording industry, has always been deeply commercialized and inorganic: modern country is now mostly gestures (hats, beards, denims), cliches, and a formalist approach to pop indifferent to greater meaning.
Not a coming of age story, much less a film where people “grow up” like American Graffiti, The Last Picture Show is a film where, in a word, Shit Happens. This feels much more natural and true to life and is a worthy monument to the (largely flam) revitalized New Hollywood. The film offers a route out of he traps of declining America and small-town life, in refocusing from rebuilding the failed cultural myths, and failed personal relationships, of the past, to reaching acceptance not with the present with its stultifying gender and class roles, like American Graffiti, but finding acceptance and solidarity with each other.