The Negative Capability of the Last Picture Show
Updated: May 26, 2022
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,- that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
- John Keats
Unused things make me sad. I can’t escape this feeling of burning melancholy when I encounter something, anything- an object, a place, a feeling, a memory- that looks or seems like it hasn’t been used in a very long time. I see it in magazines sitting on waiting tables in the doctor’s office, none of them are really page-turners to begin with, but how often are they picked up in this epoch of scrolling through our phones? I see it in phone booths still standing but long forgotten. I see it in newspapers held only in the hands of reflective baby boomers. I see it in old abandoned cars, buildings, and moribund roads that no longer go anywhere. I see it in open fields where wildlife used to roam (though I’m glad these fields avoid human interference). I see it in outdoor basketball courts in the winter, waiting for the warm months to bring back the squeaking feet and dribbling. I see it in places- towns, restaurants, houses- that I no longer visit but hold memories of firsts, lasts, and good times. When I see tall mountains and skyscrapers I am always in awe of their majesty, but that peak is attainable only by the occasional daredevil and its isolation makes me turn away with an odd sadness. When I walk by closed storefronts on early weekend mornings (and during the peak covid) and quickly glimpse through the window, I see it in the light fading into the dark corners, enduring those empty, lonely hours until the store is later opened and used again. I see it in my childhood memories, happiness that I will only ever hope to achieve from now on and innocence I could only ever dream to have once again. I’m aware of it in feelings I had, now lying dormant somewhere inside of me and wishing to be resurrected. I see it in many things I’ve lost and many things that have changed, no longer used but still crossing my mind, inducing a feeling of gloom, nostalgia, and hopelessness.
The characters of the elegiac The Last Picture Show see it in their dying small town: Anarene, Texas. It’s 1951 in the decrepit town just south of Wichita Falls, where teenagers play sports and dream about having sex while the sad adults work and deride the teenagers for not being good at playing sports (“You ever heard of tackling?”). Based on Larry McMurtry’s (RIP to one of the greatest Texas writers, who died earlier this year in March) 1966 novel of the same name (I will mainly be going by the film here as it stands alone as its own great story when not diluted by the book and in my opinion holds up better when distanced from McMurtry’s wonderful words), Peter Bogdonavich’s 1971 film is one of my favorites and one of the greatest films to ever come out of America. The semi-autobiographical novel is great too, a dedication and semi-mockery of McMurty’s real-life hometown Archer City, Texas which is equivalent geographically to the fictional Anarene (McMurtry renamed it Thalia in the novel but Bogdanovich, according to Graham Fuller in his Criterion essay on the film, was heavily influenced by legendary director Howard Hawks, giving the town a moniker that rhymed with Abilene from Hawks’ classic 1948 western, Red River). There’s nothing to do in the entropic Anarene but visit the pool hall, eat one of Genevieve’s cheeseburgers at the cafe, or go see a picture show at the lone movie theater, the Royal. All three of these lugubrious locations- the pool hall, cafe, and theater- belong to the venerable and perceptive Sam the Lion (western legend Ben Johnson in an Oscar-winning role); ostensibly the only noble and proper man of Anarene, and if the town had a more virtuous soul, Sam would be its ambassador. Then there’s Sonny, who has something of a heart himself, (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (young Jeff Bridges); they’re seniors at Anarene High School, co-captains of the football team, and best buddies. They are also both in love with Duane's girlfriend, the manipulative but naive Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd before Travis Bickle was pining for her in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver), always conniving for popularity and mischievously galvanizing men with her beauty.
The wind howls as the film opens on the Royal, the marquee displays “Spencer Tracy” above the 1950 film “Father of the Bride” (while out on a Saturday night showing with Jacy and Duane, Sonny eyes the much prettier Elizabeth Taylor onscreen as he kisses his ephemeral girlfriend at the beginning of the film, Charlene Duggs). The camera pans from the Royal to the pool hall to the cafe- the only places that ever seem to have life in Anarene- as debris and dust fly through the streets, a hopeless town doomed to desertion by modernity.
Shot in black-and-white (an insightful suggestion by Orson Welles to Bogdanovich due to the film’s 1950s setting) by the Academy Award-winning cinematographer Robert Surtees, there’s more in establishing shot and opening pan than half the films made today. Bogdonavich’s direction and Surtees’s camera is never overbearing or flashy; they’re efficient, subtle in their wit, and empathetic with their isolated subjects (unlike McMurtry’s honest writing, which is dependent on character when it comes to sympathy and compassion and the film can be much more appreciated when you see what was omitted) while somehow finding the light in a leaden town and the beauty in a barren Texas landscape.
Like the novel, Bogdonavich’s picture covers the course of almost a year but with fluid pacing. It never meanders, it’s a deep experience, easy to absorb and endure along with the characters as they wander through their hopeless small-town lives, their simple story that yet carries so much poignancy and profundity. It’s one of those pictures where many say “nothing much happens'' but in actuality, everything happens. Straightforward but dense. Loss of innocence, loss of love, unbearable loneliness and longing, the exigent burgeoning sexuality of adolescence, the frustration of getting old and growing up, and the anguish of heartache to name a few of the significant explorations. Thanks to the fall of the studio system and the rise of the New Hollywood movement of the late sixties and seventies, these themes were a little more explicable. In fact, The Last Picture Show could be seen as the poster child for Hollywood’s plunge into realism and moral ambiguity.
Every character is a complete person, even with the main point of view from Sonny, Duane, and Jacy. To make it even more beguiling, Hank Williams is on the closest radio in the background of nearly every scene.
There’s a classroom scene early in the picture that not only deftly introduces characters and shifting dynamics, but already captures the essence of desolate small-town life, or perhaps McMurtry’s exact experience of it. But something tells me his depiction isn’t a far cry from other real small towns. In this scene, we see Joe Bob Blanton brushing his hair until a letter-jacket jock in front of him turns around and casually rumples his hair before stealing his comb. Then there’s Sonny and Duane rough-housing like the young boys they are (this playful wrestling will soon turn into real fighting for these boys growing into men, facing the harshness of growing up) as Jacy sits behind Duane, admiring herself as she applies makeup.
The teacher begins. “Well, I wonder what my chances are of interesting you kids in John Keats?”
To which Duane replies, “None at all,” laughing along with the class and looking back at Jacy for approval, who is working on her lips, unamused.
Then Joe Bob Blanton raises his hand, “Well I read that poem of his about the nightingale, and I didn’t think it was so good… sounded like he wanted to be a nightingale.”
The teacher replies, “I don’t think he wanted to be a nightingale Joe Bob, maybe he just wanted to be immortal.”
“All you have to do to be immortal is lead a good Christian life. Anyone can do it if they love the Lord,” Joe Bob argues.
The scene intercuts between Jacy, Duane, and Sonny as Joe Bob and the teacher speak; Jacy still makes sure she looks pristine, Duane puts his head down on the table to sleep, while Sonny gazes out the window, watching two dogs wrestle outside. Then the teacher reads the last five lines of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” as the students listen indifferently. Keats is ostensibly a random mention in The Last Picture Show, but his subtle name drop is an ideal fit for the film and a reference for the meaning of it. He was the founder of Negative Capability, a theory he posited as finding truth only through the acceptance of the uncertainty, questions, doubts, and complexities of the world. A Romantic Poet from the early 19th Century, Keats was focused on his love for beauty, finding beauty in all things, and discovering truth through beauty and only beauty. An artist suffers, but he need not contemplate the reason for his suffering. Truth is in the perceiving without questioning, the creating without searching. Beauty is found in all experiences. The Last Picture Show seems to embody this perfectly. It is an honest, poetic film, not didactic in its approach but simply observant, finding beauty and truth in its presentation of suffering. A place like Anarene, Texas is not romantic, beautiful, or even hopeful like Keats’s words, and its denizens are suffering from many things, especially desire. Desire for times past, for more in life, for sex, for truth, and for love. But this exploration of such a simple, unremarkable place is full of truth and beauty. There are no answers, only questions. Only life.
When watching these poor characters search for beauty and truth, one realizes the beauty and truth have already been found in them. The film itself is an acceptance of life’s many difficulties rather than a search for clarity. Most of the time an experience, rather than a lecture, is all one needs to learn.
Besides the three main youngsters, there are other repressed characters living in the limited Anarene. There’s the lonely Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), who is the wife of Sonny and Duane’s rough but possibly closeted (more implied in the book than the film) football/basketball coach; Genevieve (Eileen Brennan), the attractive waitress who works at the cafe; Lois Farrow (Ellen Burstyn) Jacy’s mother and rich wife to the Anarene oil baron. Lois is having an affair with the roughnecking, pool-playing son-of-a-bitch Abilene. There’s Billy (Sam Bottoms), who doesn’t speak or do anything but watch movies and sweep the streets with his broom; then there’s Sam the Lion who, besides being a proprietor of three different businesses, takes care of Billy and watches over Sonny and Duane.
While Duane and Jacy go off and on, Sonny gets himself embroiled in an affair with Ruth Popper. When Duane finally gets fed up with Jacy’s bag of tricks for popularity (ditching Duane for a ride to a party with the goofy Lester Marlow, swimming naked with all the rich kids in Wichita Falls, letting Duane finally have sex with her so she can finally lose her virginity for the more popular and sexually experienced Bobby Sheen), he does what any young Texas boy would do at that time: go to West Texas for the oil fields; Odessa to be exact. When Duane leaves, Jacy opts for a night with Abilene and after the deed is done on the pool table, she immediately feels shame and regret after he drops her off without a word. Lois hears his car and readies her hair for his entrance but it’s Jacy who comes in. Lois isn’t disappointed but sad, she knows Jacy’s feelings all too well.
“Oh, momma, why do you fool with him? He’s awful!”
It’s the first tender moment in the film between these two. Lois then tells Jacy about Sonny and Ruth’s affair which apparently the whole town knew about except Jacy. At this news, Jacy’s ego alarm rings loud in her head.
“But Sonny’s always wanted to go with me.”
Jacy greets Sonny just as he’s about to go to Ruth’s house and Jacy’s beauty and seductiveness is too much for him. It was always too much for him. He joins Jacy and leaves Ruth sitting in her bedroom, alone again and heartbroken by her swain. Duane returns to Anarene for a visit and when he confronts Sonny about Jacy, their fists inevitably come out. Duane breaks a beer bottle over Sonny’s eye, putting him in the hospital where he refuses a visit from Ruth. After that, Jacy convinces eye-patch Sonny to elope. He is completely hypnotized by Jacy at this point and of course, things don’t go well. Jacy’s parents track them down in Oklahoma and Lois lectures Sonny about her ruthless daughter.
“You would’ve been a lot better off with Ruth Popper.”
Lois gives Sonny a ride back home and it’s when they stop that one of the top three scenes of the picture takes place. Sonny talks about how nothing is the same now, how nothing has been right since Sam the Lion died. The camera revolves around Lois as she starts to tear up from the mention of Sam’s name.
Sam the Lion’s death is undoubtedly where everything changes. He was the town’s patriarch and one of its most genuine residents. He watched over the boys, ran the cafe with Genevieve, screened movies at the picture show, and took care of Billy. Sam the Lion loved Sonny and Duane, so when they and a bored group of boys venture out with Billy to see about getting him an experience with the town’s overweight prostitute, Sam is not enthused by Sonny’s excuse when Billy runs inside crying.
“We was just foolin’ around.”
Sam bans the boys from the cafe, pool hall, and picture show for a spell. But old Sam can’t stay mad for too long. Eventually, he accepts Sonny again and they take Billy to the fishing tank outside of town. Thus, the second-best scene of the film. Ben Johnson’s Oscar, or Sam’s monologue as it’s rightfully known. Sam admits he brings the boys out there for sentimental reasons, for scenery and reminiscence. Beauty in the suffering of longing. He used to own this country that has changed so much, now covered in mesquite. But it’s when Sam starts talking about the woman he loved that the camera starts pushing in on him as he looks out at the land, reflecting on the affair, the ache for that love lost and time spent aging him even more. They used to go skinny dipping at that very tank. They rode horseback into the tank and bet a silver dollar on who could make it across first. Sonny asks what happened to her. Sam says she was married, she was young and eventually, she grew up. The camera dollies back, bringing Sonny back into the frame. He presses Sam about her and the truth of marriage. As miserable as she was with her husband, she never left him. Beauty in the truth of acceptance.
“If she was here I’d probably be just as crazy now as I was then in about five minutes. Ain’t that ridiculous? Nah, it ain’t really. Because being crazy about a woman like her is always the right thing to do. Being a decrepit old bag of bones, that’s what’s ridiculous. Gettin’ old.”
That woman Sam’s talking about, as we come to find out, is Lois Farrow. That’s why at the mention of his name in the car with Sonny, she cries. She agrees with Sonny that nothing has been the same since Sam died. Another powerhouse performance in a movie full of them, Ellen Burstyn as Lois Farrow is heartbreaking. She loved Sam and Sam loved her, Lois says. She’s the one Sam took swimming in the tank. Thanks to Sam, she at least got a taste of good living, a life untethered from the mundane. She felt a fleeting love. She was alive and happy with Sam the Lion. No one knows how he got that name but her, she gave it to him. It just came to her, like any ridiculous idea that comes to a 22-year old. Sam liked it.
“I tell you Sonny… it’s terrible to only meet one man in your whole life who knows what you’re worth. Just terrible. I’ve looked too. You wouldn’t believe how I’ve looked.”
Sonny and Duane saw Sam for the last time as they left Anarene for a quick getaway to Mexico. Sam gave them $10 for the trip. When they got back, the cafe was closed. Andy, a town resident, breaks the awful news to them very matter-of-factly. Sam had a stroke. Sonny sits down on the street, incredulous and broken. He looks around the town, its deference to Sam now shattered and its soul is now gone. He looks up at a street light flickering between red and green, still functioning but mostly useless in the defunct, empty town. That existential despair we’ll all feel occasionally, stop or go. Now that Sam’s gone, the list of unused things in Anarene is bound to extend beyond that street light. How will it go on? Sam bequeathed the pool hall to Sonny; the cafe to Genevieve; the picture show to the old lady who works at the snack bar, Miss Mosey; and a thousand dollars to Joe Bob Blanton, the preacher’s boy. No one knows why he did the latter.
Later on in the picture, Joe Bob takes a little girl for a ride in his father's car. The sheriff and a group of men track them down, finding Joe Bob sitting in the car with the little girl in what looks like a mostly harmless scene. No one knows if he did anything with the poor little girl. It turns into another topic of gossip in the town and apparently another ambiguous statement in the film regarding Joe Bob Blanton. Somehow only Sam knew the boy needed help. Another hopeless cause in a hopeless story.
Sonny hears that Duane has returned to Anarene and is enlisting in the Army to go to Korea. Miss Mosey can’t run the picture show without Sam so with it closing down, they decide to go see one last film. It’s screening Red River, Bogdanovich’s nod to Howard Hawks. The panoramic pan of the cattle in the country before John Wayne famously says, “Take ‘em to Missouri, Matt!” is redolent of the pan at the very beginning of The Last Picture Show. After a night of drinking in Wichita Falls, Duane and Sonny wait for the bus the next morning. Duane finally asks Sonny about Jacy as he’s about to get on. She’s in Dallas now and Duane “ain’t over her yet.” Duane leaves, unsure about his future in Korea and unsure about the state of Anarene.
After Duane’s departure, Sonny’s sorrow boils over into an impending rage after a truck runs over Billy, killing him. A group of men huddles around the dead boy on the street, unfazed and impudent, talking about it like it was Billy’s fault. It’s a tragic, haunting scene.
“He was sweeping you sons of bitches!”
Sonny can’t take it anymore. The wind howls, taking with it that fragile, final piece of innocence in Anarene. With tears streaming down his face, he looks at the old pool hall, dirty and decaying. He drives out of town, foot on the gas, hell-bent on getting out of there for good before ultimately turning around towards Ruth’s house. It’s the final and best scene of the movie. According to Bogdonavich, it was shot in only one take. Ruth berates Sonny for leaving her for Jacy and abandoning her.
“You shouldn’t have come here. I’m around that corner now. It’s lost. You’ve ruined it. Completely. Just you needing me won’t make it come back.”
Sonny is wordless, despondent. He takes her hand, she puts it to her face as she cries. She reaches across to fix his collar. He’s just a damn kid.
Keats himself would have been proud of the final line of the film and had he been from Texas, might’ve uttered it the same way: “Never you mind honey... never you mind.”
It fades back to the film's opening shot, the camera pans back to the picture show. The posters are gone and the marquee is blank. The wind is howling. Hopeless but powerful, the reel of The Last Picture show stays running in your head long after you watch it.
A friend of mine in college was assigned this prompt for an OpEd essay: What does your hometown tell us about America and the American dream? Does your hometown reflect a positive view of the American Dream or a negative view of that dream? With The Last Picture Show fresh on my mind for this piece I immediately thought of Sonny and Duane. What would they say about Anarene, the town they so desperately want to escape? They wouldn’t even have a chance to answer a question like this with the lack of college in their future. With little to no parental support, a high school diploma each, and some roughnecking money, only the false liberation of adulthood awaits them, a life they learn a little about from Sam the Lion. As Duane departs for the Army and Sonny’s future remains uncertain by the end of the film (I like to believe he finds a way out of Anarene), what will these two remember about Anarene when they come back years later to find it in eternal repose, forgotten and unused? For them, the American Dream may only be found in their future, in the coming economic boom and nuclear family of the 50s (hopefully they find another theater and get some escapism in a great decade of cinema), leaving Anarene a dream that never was, a past begging to be forgotten, and a place wishing to be used again. A hopeless home.
I pass through a lot of small towns in Texas all the time, even Archer City, where Bogdanovich actually shot the film. My personal favorite is Dickens, with its small jailhouse built in 1909 still functioning with a sheriff's office and 8 cells. On my way to my grandfather’s house in Texas, I pass through a town called Mineral Wells. There’s a 14-story resort hotel standing tall among the town of 15,000 people. The Baker Hotel. It’s shuttered and rundown (soon to be restored) but still extravagant in that small town. It’s fun to gawk at as you drive by, overlooking small-town Texas with its grandiose structure and antiquated promise of luxury. It’s been there since 1929, prospered in the 30s and 40s before declining until it closed its doors in 1972, sitting vacant ever since. Notable guests included Judy Garland, President Lyndon B. Johnson, and was also the host of my grandfather’s prom in 1955.
Every time I drive through Mineral Wells and pass the Baker Hotel, I think of The Last Picture Show. I’m not really sure why. Something about that grand abandoned building still functioning in the 1950s. It’s not too far south from Archer City (Anarene) but it would probably be too expensive for Sonny and Duane anyway. Jacy might find her way there with some rich Dallas man. A marvel in an unlikely place, it sits there empty but unencumbered. The town of Mineral Wells isn’t much now, but it’s easy to imagine it was bustling and lively in the hotel’s glory days. Maybe I correlate The Last Picture Show with the Baker Hotel because of the hopelessness of small towns. Unused things make me sad. The stories of small towns are always tragic. They have one inexorable end. Lost and forgotten, hopeless and unused. They all have that last thing keeping them somewhat relevant, a picture show or a big hotel, keeping their doors open for as long as they can until the last guest leaves and the last film is projected. The beautiful truth is, they were alluring once and still are in their own tragic, useless way. The truth of life is that beauty is found in even the most useless of things and it is important to remember this truth when life itself feels like a useless thing. We are always capable of continuing. Never you mind and carry on.