Isaac D. Davidson

Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 film The Last Picture Show opens with a slow panning shot of the desolate main street of Anarene, Texas as a howling wind scatters leaves, dust, and other minor detritus through the air. After a brief, spartan title card, the film fades-in from black to reveal, in a stark black-and-white cinematography, the titular picture show, with its particular architecture of vertical “Royal” sign, marquee announcing the showing of Spencer Tracy in Father of the Bride, twin poster displays, box office, and white paint signifying it as a singular landmark. The uniqueness of the picture show within the town is furthered as the camera pans left to reveal it as the endcap to a series of nondescript storefronts with darkened or boarded windows, the only other signified building being the Texas Moon Cafe at the far end of the chain. Despite its architectural distinctiveness, however, within the context of the shot it appears nearly as forgotten as the other buildings; a hollow indicator of life within the otherwise decrepit town.

The picture show, along with the cafe and nearby pool hall, is owned by the weathered patriarch Sam the Lion (played by Ben Johnson, whose casting intentionally evokes the cowboy persona of his earlier career), and serves as a vital social gathering place for the wayward inhabitants of this 1951 Texas town, including high school teammates Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges). The two live in a boarding house together despite each having a living parent and share a friendship close to brotherhood. Among the many relationships explored in the film, theirs holds a certain significance in the way it transforms explicitly against the backdrop of the picture show. Initially, they use the show as a pretext to be intimate with their girlfriends, in an early sequence that introduces the film’s crucial themes of sexuality and jealousy. But by the film’s denouement, jealousy over Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd) has destroyed their friendship. When an Army-enlisted Duane returns to Anarene on the eve of his departure for Korea the disconsolate Sonny suggests they visit the picture show one final time before it closes down, where they see Howard Hawks’ 1948 film Red River.

This pivotal sequence is introduced with a long shot of the theater interior, the screen dominant in the top middle of the frame. On screen, Red River plays as Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) rides his horse into the foreground to speak with protégé Matt (Montgomery Clift) and hired hand Cherry (John Ireland). Bogdanovich then cuts to a medium two-shot of Sonny and Duane sitting in the dark, chewing gum, their eyes fixed on the screen. Another cut shows a medium shot of Billy (Sam Bottoms), the mentally challenged friend of Sonny, sitting in his usual balcony perch near the projector, broom habitually at his side, eyes fixated on the screen. It then cuts to a closer shot of the screen, still bordered by the interior of the theater, but centered in the frame as Red River plays on: a leftward pan on the dawn-lit, unmoving covered wagons, massive herds of cattle, and expectant mounted cowboys that finally lingers on a medium long shot of a surveying Dunson. The cattle softly moo and the underscoring remains subtle, anticipating but not yet fulfilling a potential crescendo. Dunson looks off the left of the screen and his gaze is answered with a cut to a medium long shot of Matt backgrounded by two cowboys and the herd of cattle behind them. Following this is a return to the shot of Dunson, who smiles before saying, “Take ‘em to Missouri, Matt.” There is a cut back to Matt as he discards his chewing tobacco before standing in his stirrups and bellowing a high pitched “Yee-hah!” Matt’s call to action is followed by a long shot of three cowboys, backgrounded by a wagon and the herd, returning the holler and rearing their horses. In a crucial shift in film rhetoric, Hawks follows this sequence with a rapid procession of two medium long shots, one medium shot, three medium close-ups, and eleven close-ups, each of a single cowboy framed without relation to his surroundings meeting the cheer with his own. Variances in the direction the cowboys face and the timing of each shot work alongside the layered, repetitive shouts and rapid, crescendoing underscoring to create a swell of anticipation. The last close-up is then matched by a cut to a long shot of the same cowboy, who directs his horse toward the cattle and begins the drive, followed by two similar shots that depict the movement of the cattle onward, accompanied by a now bombastic score. Finally, Bogdanovich cuts back to Sonny and Duane, still watching the western, with Duane apparently lost in thought, his eyes briefly wandering toward Sonny, then back again toward the screen. View the sequence at: https://tinyurl.com/jwpz24m.

Within the continuity of Red River, this sequence holds significance as the beginning of the primary thrust of its plot: the attempt to drive over ten thousand cattle from Texas to Missouri, where Dunson will be able to sell them for a better price than he could in the depressed post-Civil War South. Though much of the film depicts a move away from Texas, the first act of the film establishes it as a seminal location. In the initial sequences Dunson crosses the Red River and founds his ranch optimistically in South Texas, despite tragedy and poor fortune leaving him only with his friend Groot (Walter Brennan), a young Matt (Mickey Kuhn), and a single bull and cow. A fourteen year ellipses reveals the ranch’s enormous success and it is the outside forces of the war, not Texas itself, that necessitates the cattle drive. After a period of preparation in which Dunson relates to his volunteers the enormity and danger of their mission, the essential early morning sequence begins, which simultaneously marks their leave of Texas but emphasizes its spirit that will accompany them.

The use of montage within the context of Red River stands out as an anomalous formal strategy in a film that largely abides by the tenants of continuity editing. These principles of editing typically and intentionally remain invisible to the viewer as they construct a coherent space in which the characters are able to perform their actions. This is generally achieved by establishing the space with long shots and by using close-ups to signify individuals or important elements within that space, while simultaneously retaining the integrity of the space in the viewer’s mind by adhering to the axis of action and utilizing eyeline matches. Indeed, these conventions are used by Hawks for the majority of the film, including the first several shots of the sequence employed by Bogdanovich. From the establishing panning shot of the wagons, cattle, and cowboys, through the shot reverse shot pattern of Dunson and Matt, to the long shot of the three cowboys responding to the call, these are expressly linked through the conventions of continuity editing. It is when the first shot of a lone cowboy appears that the convention is broken and the strongly emotive power of montage takes over. The seventeen shots that complete the chain serve primarily to signify the mounting emotion of the moment; the only information these shots provide is the action of cheering, of removing hats, of raising fists in the air. No attempt is made to relate each shot to the space established by the pan, both by refusing spatial context within the mise-en-scène and by the rapidity with which each cut occurs. As such, the sequence transcends the spatial continuity of the film to accentuate the emotion of this particular moment, which ultimately imbues it with a place-making energy. Though they are leaving Texas for a turbulent journey, the moment is underlined by their optimistic spirit, which is to say the Spirit of Texas.

It is that very spirit that Sonny and Duane encounter as they sit in the picture show during its final showing, its optimism a stark contrast to the Texas they know. On their way out they encounter the theater’s current owner, Miss Mosey (Jessie Lee Fulton), who laments the lack of patronage due to summer baseball and the constant presence of television. She then contends that if Sam the Lion, the old cowboy, was still alive they could have kept it afloat, but the picture show has become obsolete in Anarene. Sonny spends the rest of the evening drinking beer with Duane and at dawn his friend boards the bus out of Texas. In the following moments Billy is hit and killed by a cattle truck – the 1951 degradation of Red River’s triumphant drive – unable to see him sweeping in the road though the blowing dust and cold dawn light. A stunned Sonny observes the aloof witnesses of the accident, the men of Anarene who are oblivious to the state of the town, its energies of indifference already having taken their toll on them. They exonerate the truck driver of guilt while remaining incredulous that the dead boy at their feet would be in the middle of the road at that time of day. Sonny finally snaps; admonishing them (“He was sweeping, you sons of bitches! He was sweepin’!”) as he drags the body through the street and lays him to rest at the front steps of the picture show.

These two sequences work as a thematic call and response. The mythological view of the dawn cattle drive has been updated to the early 1950s, where the malaise hanging over the town has reduced the moment to pointless death and callous ignorance. The montage sequence serves as a juxtaposition of both mood and style, counterpointing the decay of Anarene with a particularly optimistic vision of the Texan past. The Texas of The Last Picture Show is scarcely similar to the frontier depicted in Hawks’ film; instead of an open country ready to be transformed into a profitable cattle ranch, it is a desolate husk whose inhabitants have fallen prey to sexual jealousy and simmering depression. Furthermore, the bombastic visual rhetoric of the Red River sequence works to underscore its difference, its foregrounded technique in stark contrast to the realist mode employed by Bogdanovich’s film. Undeniably, Bogdanovich’s employment of Hawks’ montage creates a vital statement, as he ironically invokes cinema’s place-making power to examine its plasticity. He demonstrates how a film contemporary to his diegesis aspires to a mythological and idealistic vision of Texas, while he simultaneously holds it at a distance, counterpointing its statement with his own dreary vision.

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