Sunday, March 22, 2009

A short meditation on Bogdanovich's "The Last Picture Show"

It is interesting how much we are defined, whether we like it or not, by where we are from. Not necessarily in terms of culture or tradition, but with regards to our worldview, our perspective. We change and grow and shed our skin many times over a lifetime yet we are always influenced by that special someplace where we grew up, where life began to take on that elusive form called "meaning." Most often this influence is not something we can discursively analyze or even put into words, but it's there, beneath the surface, working in the unconscious, imprinted in our genes, passed down to us by parents and nature, given to us by - as Saint-Exupéry put it - "wind and sand and moon and stars."

In the 20th century, this influence has itself been shaped by the presence of the motion picture. Films touch us in deep and powerful ways. But the way we see films is itself influenced by the place we are from, by the context in which we see these films. Someone living in a small town in England will experience Friedkin's The French Connection in a different way from, say, a New Yorker. The art and beauty of a film is to speak universal truths through a particular language, yet our interpretation and understanding of those truths ultimately comes from our time and place. To consider the way we see films and understand them tells us something important and meaningful about who we are, how we have changed, and how we may continue to grow and prosper as human beings. It tells us about not only where we are from but also where we are going.

Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show is a film that is a kind of poem about exactly such things, about a time and a place and the films the people in it used to watch. It takes place in a tiny little Texas town in the 50's. A town hard and cold and desperate where people cling to sex simply to feel, having given up on that other mirage of comfort, money, a long time ago. But in this town there is a movie theater and in that theater another time and another place is revealed. A new way of seeing is offered. For the young men who frequent this theater an opportunity is presented. An opportunity to understand who they are and the town they live in in a light both frightening and hopeful. The theater is run by an old cowboy named Sam the Lion, played with grace and sadness by the old Western star Ben Johnson. Sam is a symbol of something more and something deeper than the meaningless sex and the empty work that awaits most of the men in this town. He is an icon of things great and wondrous, of adventure, virtue and valor. With a name out of Lancelot and a face deep with meaning he represents many things true and good but most of all he represents the power of the motion picture, the promise of a darkened movie theater, the spiritual power of expanding one's mind and seeing the world anew.

People live and people die, seemingly without any meaning. The wind blows through the town and people keep looking for happiness in places wrong and pathetic, or they give up on it altogether. Yet the movies play on. They are an opportunity, an offering, a place important and good. Perhaps some people find it ridiculous to speak in such lofty terms about movies, especially films like Hawks' Red River, featured so prominently in the world Bogdanovich portrays here. But to young men growing up in a desolate town in Texas films such as these are as transcendent and powerful as any art ever produced. They are a lifeline to who we we might be, or perhaps more importantly, who we truly are.

But what if the movies stop playing? What would be lost after the last picture show? Something great and something important. This is what Bogdanovich's film is about. It is about movies. About how wonderful and important they are and how they speak to us in ways we should never underestimate, lest we find ourselves bereft of beauty and dreams.

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