Coming of Age, or, the Inversion of Expectations in The Last Picture Show

Life is not a stroll across a field – Boris Pasternak

Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971) reveals, in a poignant and compassionate tenor, the evolution of youthful expectations as they are molded, corrupted, and realigned by the passage of time.

When youthful ambitions are seen through the prism of adulthood they refract strange new tangents, and reveal troubling insights about the difficulty of holding onto untroubled innocence. The passage of time is an indifferent sculptor, rendering the material of youthful ambitions moot. It casts quiet dreams aside, reawakening dormant fears and stoking the discontents of one’s inner world.

The Last Picture Show treats its subjects with a tender hand, illuminating their heartsick trajectory as they come of age in the sleepy West Texas tumbleweed-town of Anarene. They chart well trod ground but it’s all terra nullius to them: the rules, missteps, and lessons must be learned firsthand, as if for the first time. We come to know them intimately, even as they make alien choices and bleed the nectar out of their carefree adolescence.

The cast consists of school friends Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges), the town sweetheart Jacy (Cybill Shepherd), and the friends, lovers, family, and mentors that come to mold their paths and guide their transitions. We encounter adults who live in a liminal space between quiet aspiration and reluctant stasis. The adults have experienced, and moved beyond, their own coming of age, and the highway view of their youth has taken a detour and come to rest in a darkened cul-de-sac.

Throughout the film friendships reach catalytic crossroads, affection blooms and then withers, and dust rolls across the face of dreams. When Sam the Lion passes away, the emotional landscape of the town lays in a flux state, with tension and antagonism breaching the ramparts of the everyday. The town of Anarene is an ecosystem of ambivalence, host to a dwelling space of tarnish and rust, but also flowers and afternoon solitude.

To experience a coming of age is to witness and come to a head with the inversion of expectations. We begin encountering the world as it is, rather than the world of our imaginations. Where there was once a bright, open future dense with hope, there is now just an eternal present – the cause, effect, and consequences condensed into a harried and relentless lived experience. Wistful daydreams lose their intoxicating and believable lustre, and become an empty refuge, the last ditch provenance of the desperate.

We can’t discuss the bittersweet heart of The Last Picture Show without a nod to its melancholic, twangy track listing, which heavily features the soulful sounds of Hank Williams Sr. The sonic flavour of the film readies the palette for the dark nostalgia and good-ol-growing-pains that the film so beautifully surveys and bears witness to.

By Emma Kansiz

Emma Kansiz tries to live her life in the spirit of the mystical child warrior Atreyu from the Neverending Story. She loves learning about the intersection between geography, landscape, and cinema. She loves experimental films, campy horror, and Americana infused road movies. Her favorite pastimes are taking photographs of small towns at sunset and sitting around a campfire in the middle of the forest. She enjoys writing about visual culture and album covers at her website The Wonder List and hopes to one day meet Jay & Silent Bob.

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