95. The Last Picture Show (1971) - Peter Bogdanovich
If you can’t tell - the threat of being shot by Ruth’s husband looms over their heads.
What’s it all about?
At the heart of The Last Picture Show lies the age old question - should I stay or should I go? Sonny has to deal with this choice, while the townsfolk that surround him exemplify the choice they have made to stay or leave. These supporting characters, who largely remain in town, complicate Sonny’s struggle by portraying various mentalities toward the town, what once was, and what has become of their lives.
Changing the Meaning
Throughout the film, Sonny has a joke with Billy (the mentally challenged boy) in where he flips Billy’s ball cap backwards. The first several times, the gag is used lightheartedly as a simple way to show the playful relationship between Sonny and Billy. Later on at the funeral, Billy insists Sonny flip his cap. The gag is now used to strengthen Billy’s inability to comprehend serious situations and showcase his childlike mind. Ultimately, when Billy dies, Sonny flips his cap one more time in respect. This plays incredibly heartbreaking and alludes to Sonny’s appreciation for Billy’s carefree way of life - something Sonny probably wishes he could have.
Another example of the same technique is the reuse/reversal of the intro for the ending shot. They are the same shot of the exact same buildings, but the story has shaped our perception, and we gain appreciation and perspective for what we recently passed over. Again, this could allude to Sonny’s change of character.
Externalizing the Conflict
The major conflict in the film is stay or leave (as well as the complications both will bring) - Sonny is about to graduate high school and must navigate his future. The way this conflict is externalized is the battle between young and old, and primarily through the two romantic interests Sonny encounters. Sonny mainly moves through the story dazed, unaffected and disinterested in the on goings that surround him. The two love interests, Ruth and Jacy, are really all that he is excited about in the entire film.
Ruth represents the choice to accept what life gives you - to essentially remain at an emotional standstill and yearn for missed opportunity. Conversely, Jacy represents fleeting youth and ever-changing desire for excitement. As with any difficult decision, both come with pros and cons: safe and boring or dangerous and exciting. What’s important about these relationships is that they are a direct extension Sonny’s struggle.
The Plant (AKA Chekhov’s Gun)
At the beginning of the film when Sonny first enters Sam’s Pool Hall, he uneventfully grabs a pizza bagel (or a biscuit?) and puts it in his coat pocket. We think nothing of the action and barely justify his action because, well, it’s doesn’t mean anything. However! Later on, after the death of Sam and much tribulation, Sonny parks on the street and, while reflecting upon the town, removes the snack from his pocket and eats it. There’s much to be said about this simple and significant action - it’s a brilliant way to symbolize and visualize Sonny’s attitude of ‘moving on’. What he once took for granted, he must now digest (literally), appreciate, and move on.
Editing - Juxtaposition
More than a handful of times, Bogdanovich chose to immediately ‘cut to’ a resultant story point or punchline. Nowadays, this technique is often used for comedic effect (ex. when we cut to a hungover Sonny and Duane returning from Mexico, immediately after they drive away), but there are several occasions during The Last Picture show when it is used dramatically and to much effect.
The strongest example, to me, was when Sonny disregarded his plans with Ruth and, instead, drove with Jacy to the creek (upon her advances). Immediately after we Sonny and Jacy get intimate, we cut to Ruth sitting patiently on her bed, waiting for Sonny. We are ultimately supposed to feel like Sonny is being taken advantage of by Jacy’s frantic, underhanded seduction, and the cutting to Ruth reinforces this notion. If there are any viewers who feel like Sonny is catching a romantic break, we are quickly reminded of the effects of his behaviour. As a result, both scenarios/shots are strengthened.