Saturday, 11 July 2015



Although this was Bogdanovich's second film after TARGETS, it was actually his first real picture show. As the cinema of the title closes it doors for the last time in the tiny hick town of Archer City Texas in 1952, the 31-year old director was just beginning his golden time as an enfant terrible director with a run of three smash-hit critically acclaimed films.

This adaptation of Larry McMurtry's first autobiographical novel about small-town lives didn't interest him at first. He dismissed it as a story about Texan teenagers whom he couldn't relate to, but when his actor friend Sal Mineo recommended it, he and his then-wife Polly Platt found it a challenge to translate to the big screen, which thus appealed to Bogdanovich's need to stretch himself.
It's no coincidence that such a single-minded artist found a home for filming this at BBS, the studio behind EASY RIDER and FIVE EASY PIECES. His uncompromising style and choices matched their equally perverse desire to produce experimental, risky films. Bogdanovich had a very exact sense of what he wanted from the start. His opening problem was how to gain a depth of field in the shots  - which his friend Orson Welles counselled could only work by shooting in black and white. The director nixed the idea before even asking the studio, assuming their refusal. Welles suggested he at least ask, and studio head Bert Schneider surprised Bogdanovich by agreeing relatively easily. This is a huge plus in the look and feel of the film as the period detail is utterly convincing and somehow adds to the sensitivity and mood in the performances.

The director's evident talent and confidence in his vision is such that Bogdanovich shot very economically, 'cutting in camera', that is to say only filming set-ups from the angles and close-ups he needed. At this stage in his career, he horrified his crew by not even knowing what a 'master shot' was. yet to him the movie was already storyboarded in his head so why bother getting more coverage of a scene? (Later, he honed his technique to such a point that he was able to show the studio a finished edit of WHAT'S UP DOC? a mere three weeks after filming wrapped and with music added!

His relationship with his crew on this film though suffered greatly. Bogdanovich was so keen on the precious performances of his actors being the sole reason for the film working that he spent all his time with them, allowing no-one else but him to fraternise with them at meal-times for example . In the excellent Laurent Bouzreau documentary 'Look Back' (1999) he is very candid about his error here and his virtual dismissal of his technical crew, causing them understandable enmity toward him.

The young director devoted himself to choosing a cast of very young actors by instinct, almost none of whom had done more than one film. The male cast is led by Timothy Bottoms as the awkward, drifting Sonny and Jeff Bridges as the likeable rogue greaser Duane. They are wonderful vivid rivals in love, backed by a silent but sweet turn by Timothy's younger brother Sam, a non-actor in real-life whose pleasant open charm makes his later demise all the more harrowing. Timothy excels in the scene where he discovers the young boy's body dead in the dusty street. By now Bogdanovich had already developed a resistance to allowing actors in major emotional scenes to rehearse, so Bottoms' raw grief is all the more profound to witness.

Supporting them is a taciturn and dignified performance by Ben Johnson as Sam the Lion, the cinema owner and elder statesman of the town. Johnson turned down the film repeatedly but the director used his signature tenaciousness to call in a favour from John Ford to convince him, adding that he would surely win the Academy Award if he agreed to do it - and was proved correct.

Elsewhere in support is a brief but amusing turn from a gauche Randy Quaid also at the start of a later-troubled career.

I feel it's the female performances though that strike the deepest resonance in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, dominated by the young model-turned-actor Cybil Shepherd. Spotted on the front cover of a glamour magazine by the director while shopping, he was captivated by her self-possessed sardonic smile. He knew instinctively he had to meet her for the hard-to-cast role of Jacey, the town beauty who thrives on male attention, and manipulates men young and old to serve here simply because she can. Shepherd needed plenty of convincing but her unimpressed manner and lack of typical Hollywood ambition suited the character perfectly. She is remarkably self-assured in the role for such an innocent to the profession and subtly uses her looks and wiles to lead the menfolk into fighting and cheating to be with her. Unsurprisingly, in real life she and Bogdanovich began a relationship during filming which lasted for several years.

Cloris Leachman, later infamous as the deliciously overblown, ghoulish Frau Blucher in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, gives a very different, poignant portrait of loneliness as Ruth Popper, whose neglectful (possibly homosexual) husband causes her to throw herself at Sonny,  a doomed fling that renders her humiliated and bitter at the double rejection when he goes off with Jacey. Leachman touchingly conveys the conscience and cost of unrequited love felt by those left in the wake of the young and thoughtless's rampaging hormones. A more positive spin on unsuccessful love is in the hands of Ellen Burstyn, whose career took off in the 70s with ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANY MORE and THE EXORCIST. She also makes her mark here, imbuing Jacey's mother Lois with a hard-won dignity and coping with romance's disappointments with resolve and practicality. She plays the cards she is dealt and handles the results with a survivor's spirit as well as elegant beauty.

There's a poetic texture in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW in the way the characters' lives are drenched with loss and nostalgia even while the present they will mourn still unfolds. Archer City here is a ghost-town where the spirits haunting it are the living who simply haven't got around to dying just yet.The movie house, symbolic of small-town business, seems about to close even at the beginning of the film. The elder men are hollow men, almost ready to blow away with the tumbleweed, their meaning and promise long gone. The younger male figures already feel like they're rehearsing for later regrets, simply killing time until they pass on.  Bridges' Duane goes off to Korea on the bus, casually fixing to see Sonny in a year or two. providing: "I don't get shot first." he grins.

The wind blows up the dust in the street. Life goes on  - even in a museum. A simple and marvellous masterpiece and a deserved cult classic.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

UNLIKELY ICONS. (To be completed)

One of the most exciting developments in Hollywood cinema in the late sixties to early seventies was the emergence of a new breed of leading man: the character actor. Previously regarded as supporting players essentially giving colour enrichment to conventionally- handsome matinee idols like Tyrone Power, actors whose looks, ethnicity and lack of height suddenly found they were no longer m

Wednesday, 8 July 2015



This is a classic example of what the 67-74 years had to offer: a film that doesn’t try to ingratiate itself about a difficult, uncompromising man, made by a director who also does not take the easy path in winning an audience’s sympathy.
Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson) is a blue-collar oil worker with a warm-hearted redneck girlfriend he has no respect for (Karen Black), a friend he has little in common with and a soulless job he junks in a fit of pique. In a telling scene at a traffic jam, he reveals an unexpected past as a pianist of some education, transported a little from his blues while the piano he plays literally transports him up a side-road and away from it all.  Dupea is self-involved and inner-directed, always compelled to leave any situation before he can become settled. To him, staying still is death and so is commitment to any job, idea or person.
As the story develops, we realise Dupea’s family background is an upper middle-class world, with siblings who surround themselves with the elite of the arts and have no conception of the grind of the workaday world. Theirs is a mindscape of concertos not bowling. It’s a vicarious pleasure to see the excellent Karen Black puncture their pretentious bubble asking innocently for ketchup and a TV set. (Director Rafelson was initially sceptical about casting her as he felt she was too intelligent to portray such a simple soul. In the Criterion documentary Black winningly recalled assuring him ‘Once the camera is rolling, I’ll stop thinking’).
His father, rendered uncommunicative by a stroke, is the catalyst for Dupea’s visit, merely staring at him in a way that hardly denotes an improvement on their mismatched chemistry in his upbringing.  Clearly for Bobby, ‘You can’t go home again’. This is his eternal problem though. No matter where he is, he longs to be somewhere else. He’s no dewey-eyed placid dreamer though. The restlessness he can’t articulate keeps exploding into sudden outward rage rather than introspective examination for life clues. The famous diner scene when he berates the waitress for her inflexibility results in his razing the table’s contents. He abuses his best friend before quitting his job, and he attacks his car’s steering wheel when his conscience about leaving his girlfriend behind temporarily binds him.
If there is a catharsis, (and Rafelson commendably insisted on Nicholson crying at some point in the remaining plot in a truthful sequence that he's never bettered as an actor), it is the hugely touching scene where Dupea talks to his impassive father about the difficulties of their relationship. The father-to-son dynamic has always been a rich seam to mine in drama and one which I always find enormously affecting, whether it be Willy and Biff unable to achieve closeness in DEATH OF A SALESMAN, or Conrad and Calvin hiding their vulnerabilities in ORDINARY PEOPLE. Here though, Bobby’s apologetic monologue reveals him but does nothing to cure him.
In the end we’re left with a relatively young man, perhaps some small consolation, who can stare at his face in the mirror but still hasn’t learned to really look unflinchingly within at his self-sabotaging motivation, to understand what drives him to always run away. Instead he flees his situation once again. It’s to Rafelson’s credit and consistent with his own artistic instinct that we are left with a locked-off camera view that poignantly leaves Black perplexed at his disappearance and us to ponder the truth that there aren’t necessarily neat easy endings for everyone in their journey.

This is a film that could never have been made until this period, because only in the years from the late 60s were people questioning the idyllic futures we were told to work toward and beginning to examine people who couldn’t be summed up in facile ways.

Monday, 6 July 2015

~1967 - 1974~

A modern Golden Age of ground-breaking cinema. For my money, it's the most fertile, exciting and challenging period in film-making since the medium began and all took place within a mere eight years. My aim with this blog is to write in celebration about many of the seminal movies of that era: the masterpieces, the guilty pleasures and to shine a fatal ray of sunlight on a few of the undead stinkers that should never have seen the light of day. It's an actor's unashamed appreciation rather than an academic's drier approach. There'll be no footnotes or appendices here, but sometimes some geek trivia for those of us who enjoy that sort of thing, capping mini-essays written with a critical bent and some amusement but no less love for all that. Along the way, it's also my attempt to learn about the themes and examine connections between them.

 If you examine the breadth of amazing work done in this brief era, it's mind-blowing how many great actors, directors and writers arguably did their best work in these few brief years or at least began their careers with often their bravest or most distinctive early films, Rock concerts became cinema in their own right with WOOSTOCK and GIMME SHELTER amongst others. Pop and drug culture's colours and counter-culture ideas filled the screen courtesy of young film-makers such as Dennis Hopper and Bob Rafelson who were allowed to helm their own unique vision to the perplexity of studio heads but the ringing endorsement of a new young audience hungry for change. Clint Eastwood's directorial debut PLAY MISTY FOR ME opened in 1971, not to mention the most enjoyable first two of his DIRTY HARRY films between 71-74). (The huge popularity of his right-wing Angel of Death amidst the leftist vibrations of these years is just one of many pleasing paradoxes of the time) In 1974, David Cronenberg opened his account with his first body-horror feature SHIVERS, beginning his left-wing horror theme that evil is not just outside us but within us - the body revolts internally as well as on the streets. In that same year Mel Brooks produced the sublime satirical double whammy of BLAZING SADDLES and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN ( His own writing/director debut, the classic THE PRODUCERS, came at the beginning of this period in 1968). William Friedkin scored his greatest successes with the 'Frog-chasing', child-possessing duo of THE FRENCH CONNECTION and THE EXORCIST in 1971 and 1973 respectively. Peter Bogdanovich gave us his nostalgic best in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, WHAT'S UP DOC and PAPER MOON between 1971-73, the latter two of those early 70s projects also providing Ryan O'Neal with his best showcases. Equally, Coppola both created and cemented his reputation with the first two monumental parts of the GODFATHER trilogy in this period., Meanwhile in Britain, despite paralysing economic austerity in the early Seventies we somehow found the means to produce almost an industry in itself of (albeit not all welcome) sitcom translations to the big screen from an ON THE BUSES trilogy through STEPTOE, BLESS THIS HOUSE and many more.

One could drown in waves of persuasive statistics that I feel back up my case, yet that does a disservice to what these eight years represent in content. They embody a real spirit in film-making where suddenly in student campuses and out of film-schools, young  people and artists specifically were no longer so accepting of their 'elders and betters' and the establishment they represented. The war in Vietnam for example produced dissent and cynicism in an American generation that previously supported authority more or less unquestioningly -  while in England, the confidence inspired by the satire boom of the early 60s through the growing trade union unrest in the early 70s attacked the institutions that had been thought to render its citizens compliant and docile. Reactions to the old guard were acted out in the introspective escapism of psychedelia on screen, and the outer manifestation of exposing corruption, vulnerability and failure in all the not-so infallible elements of the state. Crooked cops were exposed in SERPICO; manipulated, outwitted cops were burning alive in THE WICKER MAN and burning with obsessive frustration in THE FRENCH CONNECTION. In two seminal films of this era, vigilantes within and outside the law took matters into their own hands in DEATH WISH and DIRTY HARRY. A new pessimism was rife in the clandestine political puppetry shown in THE GODFATHER films, THE PARALLAX VIEW and THE CANDIDATE. Even the safe haven of the family was no longer safe when THE EXORCIST was called to free cosy domesticity from the devil's invasion. It was also a time of great experimentation with the freedom of the BBS studio and it's respect for a director's vision, the emergence of the 'movie-brats', a reductive label attributed to film-school graduates De Palma, Spielberg, Milius, Scorsese and Lucas as they took over the system from the aging movie moguls. Each was to produce raw thrilling signature work in the years before JAWS changed the landscape in 1975, inventing the summer studio blockbuster and gradually causing the industry to lose it's nerve once again...

I don't claim that the films made between 1967-1974 had all the answers, but they asked some vital questions of our society and allowed huge creative expression and risk - two qualities sorely lacking today.

~ Ian ~