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What I Watched Last Night: The Last Picture Show

By Scott Buckner

When you've made a choice to live your life without cable TV, finding something interesting enough to write about is often a dismal challenge. This is why I was was glad - and completely surprised - to see Chicago's very own MeToo (digital 26.3) airing 1971's critically-acclaimed The Last Picture Show at 3 a.m. last Sunday.

I was even more surprised to notice there were only one or two very short interruptions during the entire two-hour block, most notably by a flashback of the classic Keep America Beautiful "Crying Indian" commercial, which looked like it could have been filmed yesterday along the Grand Calumet River and the Borman Expressway near the Indiana-Illinois border.

The Last Picture Show takes place in the fictional rural Texas town of Anarene, whose commercial district is so utterly deserted and boarded-up that it's not fit for tumbleweeds or an echo, even in broad daylight.

I was curious to know whether director Peter Bogdanovich just couldn't afford any extras to mill about or whether the real-life Anarene was truly that desolate, so I consulted Wikipedia long enough to find out that the film was shot in Archer City, Texas, where Larry McMurtry - the author of the book behind the movie - grew up.

Besides mentioning that the town's visitor center "is currently closed until further notice," Archer City's official website proclaims "There's no place like Archer City" - although I'm willing to bet there are plenty of economically-bereft hamlets in this country willing to debate the point. But yeah, the place does appear to have wasted perfectly good money on buying a stoplight. It could use a good tuckpointer, too.

On top of that, Bogdanovich filmed The Last Picture Show in a way that makes you think a huge swarm of locusts must have descended upon Anarene the week before and stripped the place of every inch of paint, greenery, and hope, leaving behind little more than a crummy high school football team and a dark abyss of simmering desperation that could make the Joad family feel downright fortunate. Christ, even the town's make-out lake is a desolate mud flat.

As such, the only cultural and recreational opportunities in Anarene are the diner, the pool hall, the no-tell motel, the Oklahoma border, and seeing who can bang emerging town slut Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd). Adding to the long-gone-lonesome-blue atmosphere is the fact that the only music in existence are songs by Hank Williams, Sr. You'd think a halfway-decent dive bar or a liquor store would make a killing in Anarene, but nobody in town is that bright.

Anarene's commercial future becomes even more precarious when the town's sole entrepreneur, Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), dies and inexplicably wills his deserted cafe to its only waitress (Eileen Brennan); his deserted pool hall to the Andrew McCarthy clone; and his deserted movie theater (the Royal, still standing today in downtown Archer City) to the woman who runs the popcorn machine.

Otherwise, The Last Picture Show concerns itself with the buddy relationship between Sonny and Duane (Jeff Bridges, looking rather Val Kilmer-ish), and the budding relationship between Sonny and Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), the middle-aged wife of the high school's quite-possibly homosexual basketball coach.

The Sonny/Duane relationship becomes strained when Duane stabs Sonny's eye out with a broken beer bottle during an argument involving Jacy, but the two manage to smooth things over long enough to attend the last picture show at the Royal before it closes for good - an event so heart-wrenchingly important that Sonny and Duane are the only two people in the whole town who bother to show up for the 1948 John Wayne film Red River. Particularly unsettling is the segment where Wayne's command of "Take 'em to Missouri, men!" is followed by a long montage of a dozen crazed-looking cowpokes enthusiastically yooping it up because they're all glad as hell The Duke didn't order them to drive the cattle to Anarene.

Even if he did though, it's unlikely his cowhands would have managed to accomplish a feat pretty amazing even by Anarene standards by running their loaded cattle truck over the only thing on the street for miles around: a slow-on-the-uptake kid who was sweeping the middle of the street with an old-fashioned kitchen corn broom. "There's some crazy kids in this town if you ask me," observes one of the cattle-truck yokels as he and a bunch of his cohorts stand casually over the kid's body like it was a squished armadillo, perhaps discussing the dismal response time of Anarene's paramedics or the intelligence of its streets and sanitation department employees.

In such instances most of us would do something good-citizenlike, such as calling the cops, or at the very least an ambulance. Instead, Sonny screams, "He was sweeping, you sons of bitches!," collects the kid's body, sets it down on the sidewalk, and starts driving toward the town border. It takes Sonny a few moments to figure out that skipping town would be kind of pointless since he wasn't the one who mowed a kid down with a cattle truck - or that fleeing town without as much as a suitcase with a change of underwear might be a little foolhardy - so he turns the car around and heads straight to the home of Ruth, who answers the door looking like she ran out of Prozac halfway through a three-day hangover.

The film ends with Ruth and Sonny realizing they both have some deep, twisted flame that only love and sex between a lonely, depressed middle-aged woman and a teenager can quench. They didn't mention how they planned to explain their relationship to the town - much less Ruth's husband - but I was left with the impression that when you live in a town whose streets are as deserted as Anarene's, not many people are going to notice anyway.

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Visit the What I Watched Last Night archives and see what else we've been watching. Submissions welcome.



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Posted on December 17, 2009


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PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - Baxter's IV Bag Shortages.


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