By daring to return to the scene of his breakthrough movie, The Last Picture Show, director Peter Bogdanovich put his faltering career on the line; he almost begged for comparisons. Yet the movie Bogdanovich made defies comparisons. Texasville is so defiantly off-the-wall that it didn’t merely fail in the movie houses — it was shunned by critics and audiences alike as a thing unclean.
The sense of betrayal may have come from the nostalgia many moviegoers feel for The Last Picture Show, until recently one of the few great films of the 1970s still unavailable on video (music-rights problems held up the release). Now that it can be easily screened again, though, Picture Show is clearly as sequel-proof as they come. There’s no place to go from the complete alienation of its final moments, and Bogdanovich doesn’t try. Texasville is less a follow-up than a comic, modern-day remake. But because the bleak pessimism of the one is answered by the shaggy-dog optimism of the other, these two movies make an odd, remarkably complementary video double bill. They deserve to be seen together, even if that doesn’t reflect well on Texasville.
The surprise of revisiting The Last Picture Show is that it holds up as every bit the masterpiece it was in 1971. The story, set in 1951, focuses on Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms), an inarticulate kid watching his hometown blow away in the Texas wind. He’s surrounded by an indelible portrait gallery: dim pal Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges); shallow high school beauty Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd); Lois Farrow (Ellen Burstyn), smarter, sadder, and sexier than her daughter; Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), embodiment of an older, more gallant West that may never have existed; geeky Lester Marlow (Randy Quaid, looking like a refugee from a Diane Arbus photo); Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), the meek housewife who finds bliss through her affair with Sonny.
It would all be simply art-house Peyton Place if the direction weren’t touched with genius. The Last Picture Show was initially acclaimed as a burst of near-documentary realism, but in retrospect Bogdanovich’s approach evokes an encyclopedia of movie styles, a former critic’s tribute to his favorite films. The scenes with sexpot Lois could be outtakes from another Texas melodrama, Douglas Sirk’s 1956 Written on the Wind, and when Sam the Lion reminisces about the ”wild, deep” woman he once loved, the sunlight breaking on his face recalls the prairie vistas of Howard Hawks’ Red River — fittingly, the last picture show of the title.
The Last Picture Show was a story about defeat, centering on Sonny. Texasville, set 33 years later in 1984, is about resilience in the face of life’s absurdity, and it’s Duane’s story. Picture Show gave us an eerily monochrome town of empty streets; Texasville shows us that same town in color and packed with oddballs. Picture Show’s characters can barely talk to each other; Texasville is full of people shouting, chatting, barking, shooting guns, and making love — constant skirmishes in the battle of the sexes.
Having grown rich from oil, Duane (Bridges, jowly and thoughtful) is now $12 million in debt. His feisty wife, Karla (the ever-underrated Annie Potts), is fed up with his mid-life crisis, and most of his many mistresses have taken up with his teenage son (William McNamara). Suddenly, Jacy Farrow (Shepherd) is back from Hollywood semi-fame, and the whole town holds its breath to see if she and Duane will turn up that old high school flame.
Having set up that situation, Texasville proceeds to fritter away the suspense on the sort of weird tangents that can drive you crazy. It’s in the character of Sonny Crawford that you can see where Bogdanovich was trying to go. As played by Timothy Bottoms, Sonny is still the sensitive soul of the first movie — and it’s making him lose his mind. He’s the town’s mayor now, but he mostly sits in the shell of the Royal theater and watches movies that aren’t there. He’s the one character who’s stuck in the past, but the past doesn’t matter to Texasville’s chaotic present.
That’s the key to unlocking what Bogdanovich is after: Almost in spite of itself, this movie catches the reckless whiff of life as it’s lived. Texasville is a mess, all right, but it’s the kind of mess where a husband and wife will drive to the swimming hole in the middle of the day and talk lazily about nothing at all. It’s the kind of mess you watch all the way through, simultaneously tickled and fed up because, like life, it never seems to get to the point.
Maybe the point lies in the background, like a bemused subliminal grin. Or maybe the message lies between The Last Picture Show and Texasville; that’s why you need to see them both in one sitting. The first movie’s motto, spoken by Ellen Burstyn’s Lois Farrow, is a spiritually depleted ”Everything is flat and empty here.” To which Texasville replies, in Duane’s offhanded remark, ”Nothin’s hopeless till you’re dead.” The Last Picture Show gave us Peter Bogdanovich at the height of his young talent, but Texasville, unsuccessful as it is, has a maturity worthy of an older, wiser director. In a sense, it may actually be the braver movie. The Last Picture Show: A+ Texasville: C