Last Saturday was the graduation for my old high school’s class of 2011. My graduation was three years ago, and I can’t help but think a little bit about what senior year was like. In many ways, it was just business as usual; finishing my studies, writing for the school newspaper and acting in school plays took up most of my time. However, there was a certain trepidation that came and went in my free time. I asked myself whether I could handle living alone and would my attractive metropolitan destination be anything like the cozy home and people I had taken for granted. I’d bet every impending graduate feels that way, though I’m equally sure not many of them would care to admit it.

Similar emotions are on display in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971). Though the film’s setting of Amarene, Texas, is smaller than my own hometown, there are plenty of elements in this community I can recognize. The local businesses are ancient and on the brink of closing; the town is so centralized that football captains Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges) can’t go anywhere without hearing complaints about the team’s tackling; and the high school seniors are bored with their surroundings and are dying to find new things to do. The town is a sorry little strip, one that would make outsiders wonder how anyone could live there.

Bogdanovich and cinematographer Robert Surtees filmed The Last Picture Show in black and white, which has a double-edged effect on the film’s depiction of small-town America. Amarene looks more dry and arid than it would appear in color. (Blue skies and yellow sand may work for deserts, but a small Texas town looks horribly parched when dressed in whites, grays and blacks.) On the other hand, the black and white makes Amarene look strangely dignified. Color would draw attention to sorrowful details like cracks and peeling paint on the buildings, but the uniformity of black and white makes the buildings seem more solid than they probably are. These conflicting appearances make Amarene seem like a terrible place to live that nevertheless becomes sturdier as it becomes familiar. It’s not heaven, but you can’t complain about it too much because it’s home.

Amarene is the movie’s only developed location. Sonny and Duane take an offscreen trip to Mexico at one point, the senior students have a picnic in another town and two kids try to elope to Oklahoma, but none of these diversions are seen in detail if at all. Furthermore, none of these trips are as fulfilling as the characters hope they will be. The hometown is the film’s only concern. Though Amarene houses plenty of sadness, monotony and heartbreak, it still offers the kids more decency and comfort than the outside world. It has the places and people they have known their whole lives, and it lets them recover after their plans and wishes go awry. (Indeed, Sonny and Duane sheepish return from Mexico after their boastful departure is one of the film’s funnier moments.)

The kids show almost no consideration for the town or for their own futures. They are predominately distracted by sex, and their attitude towards it shows their characters. Sonny has been doing it for a while and now seems to use it just to kill time. Duane takes it as a show of commitment to his girl, Jacy (Cybill Shepherd), and as a physical detriment when he can’t perform. Jacy is an incorrigible flirt who thinks she knows all about love but finds it near impossible to undress in front of anyone, especially if it is a pool full of classmates. That realization happens multiple times throughout the film. These teens think that mere knowledge of adult matters makes them ready to utilize it, but their actions prove otherwise.

A particularly cruel example happens with Billy (Sam Bottoms), a runt who is the object of the bigger kids’ jests. (Whenever somebody flips Billy’s baseball cap around, it looks like a demonstration of power instead of an affectionate gesture.) In the kids’ drunken stupor one night, they force him to make love to a heavyset girl, believing they are doing him a favor by getting him some action. The boys initially think they are being men, but all they are doing is applying new techniques to the base schoolyard practice of humiliating weaklings. We look at their apologetic faces and realize they are not mature enough for the adult world.

(I know just how that feels. Though I may sometimes seem cool as a cucumber, I can still be intimidated by any social squalor I encounter in New York.)

The voices of reason in Amarene are the sages and eccentrics, played by Academy Award-winners Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman and by Oscar nominee Ellen Burstyn. They earn our sympathy more than the young characters, for they have never left this town and seem to have nothing left aside from offering support or amusement. Each actor has their own wonderful moment, whether it’s Johnson reminiscing or Leachman’s transfixing face as she makes love for the first time in ages. The kids certainly like these people, but they do not show them enough respect until it is too late. The town becomes bleaker when one of these characters passes away. The old-timers make Amarene feel warm yet poignant. Take friends like these away and any town becomes just a morose line of buildings.

The Last Picture Show ends with the main characters going in different directions. One goes to college and stays away; another ships off to the Korean War without realizing the danger of it; and one stays in town and takes over an old business. He wants to go anywhere else, but he has nowhere to go. Considering that the town sages stayed home as well, I hope his imprisonment makes him as interesting as they.

I expect some of my classmates have stayed home after high school, but I have not kept in touch enough to know how many have. My hometown can make some folks content and can make others yearn for anything new. The Last Picture Show does not fully emulate that feeling (Amarene looks like a death trap), but it does allude to my senior-year dilemma. Anyone can say they are ready to leave, but actually doing it is a completely different ordeal. Congratulations to those who do depart, and may those who have to stay find their own form of happiness.


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