Some time in late 1965, I was crossing the Golden Gate Bridge by car when the driver (one of the new Talmudists of rock music, into whose hands I had commended my education after returning from a year in England and finding the music I’d spent all that year avoiding was the new intellectual rage) turned to me and remarked of the record being played on the radio (the Rolling Stones’s “Under My Thumb”) that it was the greatest song of its genre. What was its genre?, I earnestly inquired, to which he solemnly replied, “Music to listen to while driving in a car.” In a sense, Two-Lane Blacktop is a movie to watch while driving in a car, and not just because it happens to be about being in cars and driving. Like a certain kind of good pop music, it has the qualities of being both easily and immediately enjoyable and utterly expendable: an object to be consumed. In a way that I don’t find contemptible, it is thoroughly mindless, and, in a way that I rather admire, it never loses its cool.
The characters in the film are a pair of longhair street racers, a driver and a mechanic, in their ’55 Chevy, a straight who is baited into competing with them in his GTO, and an aimless girl hitchhiker who drifts from one car to the other. The director of the film is Monte Hellman, who has a reputation of a sort I’m suspicious of for having directed (in association with Jack Nicholson before Nicholson’s fame) two Westerns (The Shooting and Ride the Whirlwind), as yet un-released here but highly regarded in Europe. My suspicion, based on talk of Hellman’s films as “existential” Westerns, was of pretentiousness, and it in no way prepared me for the clean, uncluttered style of Two-Lane Blacktop, or its deliberate avoidance of any inflation of its subject. In fact, the film goes so far in eschewing the inflationary histrionic conventions of its genre, almost ritualistically turning aside from all conventional dramatic excitements whatsoever, that not a single race is shown to its completion, and, near the end, the main, cross-country race between the longhairs and the straight (with the loser’s car to go to the winner) which gives the film its semblance of plot and destination is casually and unemphatically abandoned. Essentially, the film just starts, covers some ground, and stops. The final, inconclusive image of the longhair driver at the wheel simply grinds down slowly, freezes, and self-destructs, as if burned through by the bulb of the projector.
Of course, it is true that the long-hairs and the hitchhiker are totally affectless and the straight a manic liar (about whom, characteristically, the film tells us nothing beyond the several identities he invents for himself), but the characters are seen so unjudgmentally as to make of these traits merely neutral description, as lacking in “significance” as the changes in the landscape. The longhairs’ conversation is almost exclusively in the nature of “I got to check the valves,” which is probably just as well given the occasional interjection of things like, “You can never go fast enough,” or, “The thing is you got to keep moving”—yet these infrequent lapses have the effect not of overreaching but of being just perfunctory sops to critics, tossed in and immediately passed over. In the role of the longhair driver, folk-rock star James Taylor offers an utterly toneless reading that probably owes less to interpretation than to incompetence—a scene in which he and the girl sit on a fence and fumblingly attempt to speak to each other has the effect less of people striving inarticulately to communicate than of amateurs blowing their lines—yet Taylor has a face (he looks at times like a gaunt Christopher Plummer), and, for whatever it may say about the medium, he is able to hold the screen by virtue of this alone. As the straight, Warren Oates delivers the film’s one really professional performance, and an excellent one, yet it would be false to suggest, as have some reviews, that his performance stands apart from the film as a virtuoso piece like Jack Nicholson’s in Easy Rider; rather it is assimilated as completely as the others’ amateurishness to the film’s seamless style. This unifying style of the film is ultimately as much moral as aesthetic, and is the source of Two-Lane Blacktop’s cool and its coolness—by which I mean nothing McLuhanite or mediumistic, but have in mind rather the film’s consistent refusal to explain itself or satisfy conventional expectations, and its rigorous unsentimentality. I’m aware that praising a film like Two-Lane Blacktop in COMMENTARY is probably an exercise in futility, especially given that the film has now, following its flop with the youth market, reportedly been withdrawn from circulation to be re-released on bills geared to the motorcycle and hot-rod freaks, but, for what its’s worth, I enjoyed it considerably more than I did such prestige-laden works as The Go-Between and Sunday, Bloody Sunday. Yet I wouldn’t want to make exaggerated claims for it either. Essentially, the film just washes over one: one’s experience of it that of a series of images and imperfectly grasped events speeding interestingly but uninflectedly past one’s line of vision—like driving along in a car, to nowhere in particular.
In one of the publicity articles following in the wake of the critical smash of The Last Picture Show, critic-turned-director Peter Bogdanovich was reported to have said that criticism was only something he did while really wanting to become a director. As someone wanting to become a critic, I read this with relief, since Bogdanovich’s “criticism” always seemed to me an egregious mixture of director-struck fandom and semi-literacy (the critic-turned-director bit makes good reading only to the extent that one is unfamiliar with Bogdanovich’s writing). Actually, most of Bogdanovich’s output as a critic derives chiefly from his prowess with a tape recorder, and, more than anyone else, he is responsible for shaking my once firmly held belief that the interest of almost any interview exceeds that of almost any piece of film criticism; but then, never before Bogdanovich has an interviewer’s sycophancy run so rampant (interviewer to director: “Well, how do you feel about Gun Crazy? Forget about superlatives,” etc.).
Bogdanovich’s gee-whiz critical style extends itself faithfully into his first film, Targets, in which Boris Karloff, playing an aging horror-film star, and Bogdanovich, playing a fledgling director, sit around watching a young Boris Karloff in scenes from Howard Hawks’s 1931 The Criminal Code on television and saying things like, “He sure knows how to tell a story.” Apart from such homages, Targets is about a crew-cut, all-American boy gone berserk as a sniper whose story is intercut with that of Karloff, making a film within the film and troubled about his movies’ relation to actual violence, the two stories converging in a mass-slaying at a drive-in movie where Karloff’s new film is being previewed—all of which sounds ingenious in paraphrase, especially insofar as paraphrase omits mention of its punch-telegraphing tendentiousness and technical gaucherie. The technical problems may stem in part from poverty; the film’s interiors all seem to be lit by a few 25-watt bulbs, and the exterior scenes are markedly better. The signaling of points (about guns breeding violence, etc.) seems more a case of imaginative poverty, and found, I thought, an apposite response in a voice raised from the back of the 42nd Street fleapit where I saw the film to exclaim in mock surprise (after the gun-collecting, father-sirring young man shoots his first victim): “And he always seemed like such a nice boy!”
Bogdanovich the tape-recordist is more extensively represented in Directed by John Ford, his feature-length tribute to the veteran director. Now, as it happens, I share Bogdanovich’s admiration for Ford (as it happens, I even share his admiration for the aforementioned Gun Crazy); if I didn’t admire Ford as much as I do, I might object to Bogdanovich’s film less. For though it is bad enough to see poor films gushed over with good ones, and to have the clips from Ford’s films presented chronologically according to the periods in which they were set, as though they constituted a documentary record of American history, it seems to me that when one has to project clips from silent films at sound-film speed (presumably though not justifiably because of insuperable technical problems) and to reproduce clips from black-and-white films so crudely that virtually every value between black and white is eliminated (presumably though not justifiably because of the problems of printing black-and-white films in a color process) and reproduce even clips from color films so that the color is a gross travesty of the original (presumably though not justifiably because of the problems of reproducing films of one color process in a film shot in another)—when, in short, one presents a series of excerpts from Ford’s films that does not even barely suggest the visual style of his work (which is the least one might expect of such a compilation), then I think the entire justification of such a “tribute” has been legitimately called into question. I suppose it could be argued that the Bogdanovich film might have some value in stimulating beginner’s curiosity about Ford on the high-school assembly level, but even there it would run, I think, a very poor second to the recent television program, The American West of John Ford. So, then, when I read, in advance of my seeing The Last Picture Show, Andrew Sarris saying it is a film that elicits praise even from detractors of Bogdanovich’s previous work, I wonder what is there in Bogdanovich’s previous work to detract from.
Such, in any case, was the burden of prejudice under which I staggered to The Last Picture Show, and I detail it as qualification to the facts both of my liking the film more than I would have thought possible and to my thinking it something less than that “masterpiece” and “most impressive work by a young director since Citizen Kane” it’s cracked up to be. The Last Picture Show is about the coming-of-age from adolescence to bleak manhood in a barren Texas town in the early 50’s. The protagonist, Sonny, estranged from his own father and finding a father figure in the last-cowboy-style owner of the local café, poolroom, and movie theater, drifts from a passionless relation with one of the local girls into an affair with the wife of his high-school football coach, abandons her for the school beauty who only uses him for her own ends and drops him, and then, the café-owner having died, one friend in the army and off to Korea and another killed in an accident, finally attempts to leave town but returns instead to the coach’s wife and a prospect of life in the town even less hopeful than that on which the film began. At almost every moment, one’s impression of all this is of truthfulness and conviction, and yet one’s ultimate complaint against it is the familiar one—Sonny remaining a blank, the brief appearance of his father only emphasizing the lack of information about his family life—of how little we are given to know. This is a problem in The Last Picture Show in a way it is not in Two-Lane Blacktop, because The Last Picture Show asks us to be moved by its characters and their drama as Two-Lane Blacktop doesn’t. Nor is what we are given to know always plausible or convincing. The unlikely scene in which the high-school beauty has a tryst in a motel while an invited audience of fellow students waits in cars to certify the affair’s consummation seems scarcely a cut above the coarse laugh-jerking of similar stuff in Summer of ’42, and her motives in first inveigling Sonny into marrying her and then contriving to have her wealthy parents obtain an immediate annulment are at best opaque—presumably she uses Sonny as a way of proving herself capable of marrying after all other eligible prospects have been eliminated (though her triumph in this seems nonexistent) and of getting away from the town (though her mother has been willing and able to help her do this from the start). And Sonny’s inability to leave town, though conveniently serving the mood of hopelessness, is in no way made compelling. These flaws may inhere in the novel by Larry McMurtry from which the film was adapted, and which I haven’t read, but they remain flaws in the film nonetheless.
What is of more relevance to The Last Picture Show strictly as a film, however, is how little it is like the sort of film one might have expected Bogdanovich to make. Reviewers mentioning similarities to Huston or Stevens seem unaware that it is just such critically respectable, Establishment directors that Bogdanovich was rejecting as a critic in his advocacy of the popular cinema of Ford, Hawks, and Hitchcock. And yet Bogdanovich has made a “good old-fashioned picture” (the characterization is his) and a 50’s film in only the most self-conscious and artificial sense: a film that opens at film festivals and plays at art houses to reviews which declare: “in the end, The Last Picture Show stands as both an elegy to the American dream and its epitaph.” (I don’t say this with any insinuations of reverse snobbery: some of my favorite films open at film festivals and play nowhere else.) The Last Picture Show may not be a “masterpiece” and “the most impressive work by a young director since Citizen Kane,” but it is the kind of film that gets called such things in Newsweek: a work every moment of which has been painstakingly calculated for artistic effect. This is not to say it is anything like Citizen Kane, which is no less calculated but which flaunts its calculation, and much of the pleasure of which lies in one’s being aware of its stylistic flamboyance in a way that is clearly invited. Rather, The Last Picture Show is like the films of Stevens and Huston—or at least such films of theirs as A Place in the Sun and The Asphalt Jungle—in the way one’s apprehension of the meaning of everything has been so carefully planned for. This doesn’t bother one in the Huston film (it does more in the Stevens) since The Asphalt Jungle is no more than brilliant melodrama whose enjoyment is increased by one’s consciousness of the mastery of its manipulation of conventions and stereotypes; but The Last Picture Show strives to evoke emotions more profound, and here its calculation works against it. Sam. the cowboy, reminisces about how things were, then dies, and one thinks to oneself, “A way of life has vanished.” Sonny and his friend watch John Wayne lead a cattle drive in Hawks’s Red River the night before the friend is to leave for Korea and the movie theater to be permanently shut down, and one thinks, “A stark contrast between Western myth and reality.” Soon after, Sonny’s other friend, a mute, retarded boy, is run over in the early morning by a truck transporting cattle, and one thinks, “An ironic counterpoint between the old West and the new,” though at this point I also began thinking that there was perhaps an author’s hand meddling a bit too gratuitously in Sonny’s fate. Everything is so artfully drab, that the artfulness throws the drabness into question. Even the decision to photograph in black-and-white, however justifiable aesthetically (and Robert Surtees’s photography is very fine and extremely effective), can’t wholly escape the sense of being, now that all major American films (and even films as down-beat as Wanda) have for years been in color, something of an affectation. Once, it is true, the convention of black-and-white photography was so firmly established as to make it more “realistic” than color (especially when color processes were less good), but that time has passed, probably irrevocably. And one can’t help feeling that the drab little Texas town might be just a bit less felicitously drab in color.
Yet, having said this, I do want to reiterate that The Last Picture Show is a good movie; a considerably better one, I think, than, say, Five Easy Pieces, to recall last year’s instant classic. If Harold Clurman’s comparison of it with the work of Sherwood Anderson aptly suggests the film’s limitations, it suggests also how creditable is its achievement. Being familiar with Bogdanovich’s previous work, I’m inclined to regard The Last Picture Show as an achievement of collaborators; the achievement of its director, to be sure, but also of a highly skilled and well-established photographer, of a novelist who also co-authored the screenplay, and a cast of accomplished actors; anyone, for instance, suggesting that veteran character actor Ben Johnson comes into his own here for the first time under Bogdanovich’s direction simply cannot know his work in several John Ford films, Shane, One-Eyed Jacks, etc., as I’m sure Bogdanovich would be among the first to agree. As a one-time Bogdanovich-detractor, I’m willing to entertain the possibility that The Last Picture Show represents the director’s maturity as an artist, and his leaving of the mediocrity of his previous work far behind—but only if the Bogdanovich-boosters entertain the possibility that The Last Picture Show indicates how little in the way of imagination and critical intelligence might, in favorable circumstances, be needed to direct a good movie.
The Last Picture Show is Citizen Kane next to Desperate Characters, which is like a solemn, middle-aged, upper-middle-class version of Little Murders. New York’s upper-middle class seems to have been brushing up on its (ersatz) Antonioni to judge from the way its members stand or sit around staring vacantly away from each other into space, while saying things like (wife to husband, approximately): “I saw Tanya today”; (husband to wife, expressionlessly): “I hate Tanya.” Some desperate critics have been saying this is the film in which Shirley MacLaine, sleepwalking among somnambulists, gives the performance of her career. Before you believe it, see Some Came Running on television.