Few movies capture the ambivalence of small-town life as well as Peter Bogdanovich's 1971 heartbreaker The Last Picture Show, adapted from Larry McMurtry's evocative coming-of-age novel and playing at The Belcourt this weekend in a new 35mm print. It's sometimes seen as an anomaly in the artistic upheaval of 1970s Hollywood, a blip of nostalgia for classical moviemaking as doomed as the single-screen movie theater that provides its title; ironically enough, that's one reason it has aged so much better than many hipper, flashier films of the counterculture era. But it's more like something warped in from an alternate-universe 1949, saddened and wised-up, frank where movies of the time were coy, watched as if by its own stars from a wistful vantage point decades later.
The movie's a black-and-white elegy for a dust-blown Texas burgh's slow fade into oblivion, as its young folk move on and its storefronts close. It's a yearbook of pool parties, fumbling sexual encounters and bleating high-school football bands, regarded with the despondent awareness that for these kids, these lives, this town, this is as good as it gets. The movie doesn't mourn the end of innocence so much as the lack of anything better to replace it — except maybe the sorrowful understanding exchanged between Cloris Leachman's neglected housewife and Timothy Bottoms' unwittingly cruel youth in that heartrending finale.
Perhaps most keenly, the movie laments the passing of Hollywood's golden-age auteurs — directors like Bogdanovich's heroes Howard Hawks and John Ford, whose films play the modest Royal Theater that serves as the town's supplier of dreams and glamour. With his wife, the late Polly Platt, as yeoman production designer, Bogdanovich shot the movie with Hitchcock's frequent cinematographer Robert Surtees, and the spacious, monumental images, composed and cut with a master's precision, seem to impart something new in the style of something old: a chill of self-awareness about what is being lost. All these strains of regret meet in Western star Ben Johnson's iconic performance as the stern, upright father figure who runs the cinema and remains the local boys' one strong adult role model — until he too is gone.
Bogdanovich overdoes the dry wind and backlot-barren streets sometimes, but the starkness is leavened by McMurtry's rowdy humor, a vital soundtrack of Hank Williams and honky-tonk oldies, and a wonderful cast. There's Jeff Bridges, looking fresh-faced and unformed but there, so there, as Bottoms' roughneck football buddy; there's Cybill Shepherd in her first movie, breaking hearts onscreen and off as the rich tease who comes between them; there's Ellen Burstyn as her hardened mother, and Eileen Brennan as the tough-talking waitress and confidante, and Joe Heathcock, the distilled essence of character actor, playing that sawed-off squawkbox sheriff just nine years before he died in Nashville. To see them today in this black-and-white ghost world, even (or especially) for teenage viewers who know Bridges as the paunchy, dissolute Dude — or as Tron: Legacy's frozen-in-time CGI avatar — is to sense that time has passed, time is passing, time will keep on passing by. To get the full impact, you have to see it in an honest-to-God movie theater, projected from celluloid. The way things are going, it may very well be the last picture show.