Landscape as Loneliness in The Last Picture Show

The Last Picture Show (Bogdonavich, 1971)

The Last Picture Show (Bogdonavich, 1971) begins and ends with the same shot: a pan across a vacant Texas town that seems all but forgotten, its main street marked only with a single  trafficlight that sways from a flimsy wire between aged, empty storefronts. The only sound is that of high winds as particles of dust blow by. In the opening shot, the town’s modest Royal Theater’s marquee shows its feature screening, Father of the Bride (Minnelli, 1950)By the end of the film, one year later, the theater has permanently closed and its marquee is empty, one last casualty in a dying town. The town is called Anarene, a fictional approximation of Archer City, Texas. Archer City is the hometown of Larry McMurtry, author of the 1966 semi-autobiographical novel that the film closely adapts. The movie was filmed onsite in Archer City, lending to its drably realist depiction of a place where empty landscapes breed alienation amongst small-town Texas youth. 

Bogdonavich filmed in black and white stock for its high depth of field, the better with which to see all that is lacking in the town’s surrounding landscapes. This close attention to the physicality of landscape is one register through which the film depicts the town as a place devoid of meaningful experience. The film follows several lonely and disaffected teenagers for one year between 1951 and 1952. Enveloped by dust, small brush and tumbleweeds, some seek connection while others seek attention and none find fulfillment. A sense of stagnation is emphasized through the use of ambient sound and a diegetic soundtrack of mournful country music crooning that often reverberates delicately from jukeboxes and car radios. The film follows high school senior Sonny and his best friend Duane, co-captains of the town’s perpetually failing football team. The town’s class lines are divided by oil. Duane works long hours as an oil rig roughneck and Sonny delivers propane in his sputtering truck on the weekends, both earning just enough money to pay rent in their shared boarding house and take dates to the picture show on Saturday nights for fifty cents a ticket. 

The film unfolds as a series of subdued tragedies and disaffected sexual encounters. The teenagers are discontent but seemingly too apathetic to rebel. Sonny drifts into an affair with an older woman, the depressed wife of their football coach, Ruth Potter, but both Sonny and Duane pine over their oil-rich and beautiful classmate Jacy Farrow. Sonny sleeps with Ruth for the first time engulfed in awkward silence. In Ruth’s bed, Sonny is inexperienced and his movements are stilted. The bed creaks loudly and unrelentingly as Ruth begins to quietly cry. Despite this cumbersome engagement, the two exchange an intimate conversation afterwards. Sonny’s relationship with Ruth seems to be the only meaningful intimacy he finds in the town. In a later scene, they sit half-dressed on a quilt on the floor, apparently having decided to forego the bed altogether. Ruth brushes Sonny’s hair affectionately as he asks her why she doesn’t leave her husband, the coach, given she doesn’t like him much. “Well, I wasn’t brought up to leave a husband,” she muses, or maybe she’s just scared to. Sonny asks what the coach would do if he found them. “Shoot us, probably,” she answers, and both laugh, apparently content with their brief moments of intimacy despite their unsustainable situation. 

Sonny drives through the town at night, surveying it through his car windows as Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues” plays on the radio. He passes the pool hall, the diner, and the picture show, before stopping atop a hill on the outskirts of town to pensively observe its sparse lights. In Anarene, the teenage protagonists’ often navigate its dusty topography by automobile, from pool hall to party to picture show. Their disaffection is matched by Williams’ melancholy singing along the way. His sorrowful lyrics are voiced in plaintive tones and what ethnomusicologist Aaron Fox calls “crying breaks” typical to country music: moments when the voice fractures and cracks, indicating that the singer is overwhelmed with sorrow “to the point of encroaching inarticulateness.”1Fox, Aaron A. Real Country : Music and Language in Working-Class Culture, Duke University Press, 2004. 281. The music reverberates out of their car, echoing through the decayed townscape that it drives through. Hank Williams’ evocations of melancholy seem indelibly connected to the space and place of the film.

In his ethnography of working class culture in rural Texas, Fox describes an affect of “sadness running just below the surface of everyday life,” swirling in a landscape that is less pastoral than postindustrial.2Fox, 80. Fox argues that country music’s “sonic and textual evocations of loss, of place, of memories that refuse to recede into the past, and of broken hearts” fulfill “a particular class-positioned way of being white” in this space.3Feld, Steven, A. Fox, T. Porcello, D. Samuels “Vocal Anthropology,” in A. Duranti, ed., A Companion to Linguistic Anthropology, Blackwell, pp. 321-345. 339. Anarene is a desolate place dense with nostalgia. Sam “the Lion,” who owns the pool hall and the picture show, and Genevieve, the waitress at the diner, parental stand-ins for Sonny and Duane, wax poetic about times passed and missed opportunities. Genevieve tells Sonny that her own family turned down the same oil drilling opportunity that made Jacy Farrow’s family rich. She now works long hours waiting tables to pay off her husband’s insurmountable medical debt.

Bonnie Honig attributes the collapse of U.S. democracy to the gradual dismantling of “public things,” a capacious and hard to define category that includes bridges, parks, libraries, and power systems.4Honig, Bonnie. Public Things: Democracy in Disrepair, Fordham University Press, 2017. This dismantling of public things coincides with an infiltration of neoliberal rationalities into everyday life, as people guide themselves and their relationships by logics of profit. Relationships, indeed, to the stunningly beautiful Jacy Farrow and her mother Lois, are treated as private things themselves, guided by logics of exchange and accumulation. Jacy sleeps with Duane before swiftly dumping him because a wealthier, more desirable boy refuses her due to her virginity. Later, when she learns of Sonny and Ruth’s relationship, she chases after Sonny, who is quickly charmed by her apparent affection for him. Sonny and Duane fight in a violent brawl over their shared love for Jacy that puts Sonny in the hospital with an injured eye. As Sonny lays in a hospital bed, Ruth attempts to visit him but Sonny denies her entry. Hank Williams’ voice emits from the radio in his hospital room, singing mournfully, “Tonight my head is bowed in sorrow / I can’t keep the tears from my eyes.” 

Jacy’s mother, Lois, encourages Jacy to attend college elsewhere, explaining, “everything is flat and empty here. Ain’t nothing to do.” Lois is emotionally unfulfilled and unabashedly unfaithful, engaged in an extramarital affair with the slick oil-driller Abilene. Midway through the film, Abilene comes around looking for Lois but takes Jacy to the pool hall instead where they have sex atop a table. The scene lingers on Jacy’s nervous anticipation and Abilene’s cold silence afterwards when he drops her off at home. Jacy’s mother hears Abilene’s car in the driveway but her expression turns from excitement to subdued despair when she sees her daughter walk through the front door rather than her lover. Their love triangle is a consequence of living in a place where the fluidity of market logics have infiltrated life but there is little around to exchange.

The film pits the lavish life afforded by oil, and its requisite degradation of morals, against the simpler and more respectable ranching lifestyle, similar to the ethical model framed in George Stevens 1956 epic Texas Western Giant. Unlike Giant, however, Anarene offers no easy resolution. Sam the Lion, the figure who “best exemplifies the masculine ideal of the Old West,” dies of a stroke in the middle of the film.5Grayson Holmes, Leo Zonn, and Altha J. Cravey, “Placing man in the New West: Masculinities of The Last Picture Show,“ GeoJournal 59: 277–288, 2004. 279. With him dies the picture show. Duane has enlisted in the army and is being shipped off to Korea. Sonny and Duane see one last film at the Royal Theater, Howard Hawks’ canonical western Red River(1956)The teenagers stare up at the screen as John Wayne majestically begins his epic cattle drive to Missouri. The film’s grand landscapes are accompanied by a swelling soundtrack. This is, Vivian Sobchack argues, “an encounter with the West as it should have been, the grandeur, the space, the largeness of life, the background music.”6Sobchack, Vivian, “Tradition and Cinematic Allusion,” Literature/Film Quarterly; Winter 1974; 64. Red River sets the stage for the racial geography of The Last Picture Show, a cinematic Texas owned and controlled by its white residents, although one that is by now far less hopeful.

Honig recalls French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1840 observations of a strange melancholy following white settlers in the New World, apparently “incapable of proper attachment to land they have claimed as theirs.”7Honig, 9. White Americans, he observed, on a quest for equality but living in a world of object impermanence, have an obsession with owning land and owning things yet fail to find satisfaction in either. Honig wonders if the settler’s inability to attach stems from the land’s own earthly rejection of foreign inhabitants: “perhaps the land regurgitated the whites whose leaders had thought they could swallow it, once it was emptied of its prior inhabitants.”8Honig, 9.

Before white settlement of what is now Archer County, the land was inhabited by Apaches, Wichitas, Tawakonis, Kichais, Caddoes, Comanches, and Kiowas. Indigenous communities defended their lands against the forced intrusion of white settlers. Some tribes fought and won battles against Texas Rangers and U.S. cavalrymen as these forces attempted to cleanse the region in the mid-nineteenth century. By 1875, however, all indigenous communities had been either killed or driven from North and West Texas. 

About a century later, in the town of Anarene, the settlers have remained but their project appears to be floundering. Agriculture has ceased, its storefronts are empty, and as its inhabitants leave for work in the oilfields, its interior feels increasingly lonely. The film heralds the end of the West as a functional ideological location. Its vast and empty landscapes, once framed as expanses awaiting inevitable white expansion, seem to have become increasingly inhospitable to their white inhabitants. These characters’ inability to create meaningful connections appears tied to their inability to connect to a dying and desolate West Texas landscape. Their inability to attach is better understood, however, in the context of colonial histories that frame the town’s empty landscapes as stolen land. 

Notes   [ + ]

1. Fox, Aaron A. Real Country : Music and Language in Working-Class Culture, Duke University Press, 2004. 281.
2. Fox, 80.
3. Feld, Steven, A. Fox, T. Porcello, D. Samuels “Vocal Anthropology,” in A. Duranti, ed., A Companion to Linguistic Anthropology, Blackwell, pp. 321-345. 339.
4. Honig, Bonnie. Public Things: Democracy in Disrepair, Fordham University Press, 2017.
5. Grayson Holmes, Leo Zonn, and Altha J. Cravey, “Placing man in the New West: Masculinities of The Last Picture Show,“ GeoJournal 59: 277–288, 2004. 279.
6. Sobchack, Vivian, “Tradition and Cinematic Allusion,” Literature/Film Quarterly; Winter 1974; 64.
7, 8. Honig, 9.

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