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It’s Hard To Stay Exciting For A Whole Lifetime

From The Last Picture Show to Texasville

Texasville (1990) | MGM
MGM

The night that Sonny Crawford loses his virginity to his basketball coach’s wife Ruth, he drives to the outskirts of his hometown of Anarene, Texas. Pulling over to the side of the road, he stares at the vast expanse of darkness and the few specks of light that represent the few specks of life in this ghost town he’s forced to haunt. As Hank Thompson sings on the radio about moving on to the wild side of life, Sonny puts a contemplative hand on his face, clearly reckoning with what we the audience already know pretty much for sure: Anarene is about as wild as life is ever going to get for Sonny Crawford.

From the first frame of The Last Picture Show—Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s semi-autobiographical novel—Anarene seems like a town perched on the end of oblivion. The setting is 1951, but in the opening moments, the wind whipping heavy on the long, desolate main street, you could be forgiven for assuming this is a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

For our teenage protagonists—Sonny; his best friend, “roughneck” Duane; and Duane’s girlfriend, daughter of wealth and privilege, Jacy—Anarene is defined by adult hostility. As Sonny and Duane attempt to traverse the main street in the film’s opening sequence, tossing a football back and forth and bullshitting their way from the pool hall to the diner, they’re surrounded by jeering town elders who demand apologies—for losing the previous night’s football game, for horsing around, for generally being their young, carefree selves. Bogdanovich1populates the frame with some of the most outrageously craggy faces you’ll ever see on film, sun-battered Texans bitter over their own ruined lives and intent on spending what little time they have left punishing these beautiful young people whose only sin is having a future.

The Last Picture Show is the story of that future being whittled away, the prospects for Sonny and his friends narrowing until all Duane can think to do is join the Army, all Jacy can think to do is impulsively elope with Sonny, and all Sonny—separated at the film’s close from everyone he loves whether by distance or death—can think to do is stagger back to the only person left who ever showed him kindness: Ruth, who becomes the last one to lash out at him for the transgressions of youth—“You’re the one oughtta be sorry!” she howls. “I wouldn’t treat a dog [like you treated me]!”

It’s a film with the heft of myth, one less concerned with adolescence than with how adolescence feels. Shot and directed in the style of the classic movies Sonny adores—rarely do we see a kiss that isn’t highlighted by a splash of light in the dark, rarely do we hear a line reading that isn’t pitched at least one degree past naturalism—it’s hard not to interpret the aching melancholy permeating each line and gesture as being filtered through Sonny’s own achingly melancholy worldview. It’s a film painted in the epic strokes in which you long for the world to be painted when you’re young. When Jacy stares off into the middle distance and muses, “I’ll always be a little bit in love with Duane. We just had too much against us,” the beautiful sorrow in her voice is performative. Jacy—and Sonny to a lesser extent, and Duane to the least extent of all—is defined by the classically adolescent urge to imbue her every gesture with the maximum possible density of drama, because it soothes the fear that one’s life may never amount to anything much. When you’re young, it seems better that life be a glorious tragedy than a collection of insignificant days lived in the same insignificant town.

The Last Picture Show (1971) | Sony Pictures

It’s not hard to see where these teenagers get their models of lovesick sorrow. There are precious few healthy romances in The Last Picture Show—diner owner Genevieve seems satisfied with her marriage, and so all she has to mourn are the twists of fortune that prevented her husband from achieving the success of Jacy’s father. Otherwise, the marriages on offer run the spectrum from disinterest to hostility, with passion lying only in extramarital affairs and remembrances of loves past.

In one of the few moments of adult wistfulness that doesn’t feel somehow self-aggrandizing, Sam the Lion—owner of the majority of Anarene’s storefronts, including Sonny’s beloved Royal movie house—takes Sonny fishing at the local manmade lake. Reminiscing about his long-ago affair with Jacy’s mother, Sam ponders whether it’s ridiculous that he still nurses a decades-old infatuation. “No,” he decides. “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.”

The Last Picture Show is a story about the agony of having no future beyond becoming that bag of bones. By the final shots, it feels like Sonny, and the whole town, are on the verge of crumbling to dust and blowing away. Everything that gave him life is gone; even The Royal has been shuttered following Sam the Lion’s death. We fade to black with the theater looming above us, a bittersweet monument to the faded glory and bygone dreams.

*

The Royal is still standing in 1990’s Texasville. We glimpse it as Duane cruises by in his truck, and seen now from eye-level, it’s surprising how small it looks. Despite the apocalyptic last glance we took all those years ago2, it hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s just gotten older, and a whole lot less beautiful.

Texasville is a unique beast in American cinema, one of the few times a director has reunited virtually an entire cast to pick up a story they left off decades earlier, and watching it feels disconcertingly like spying on a high school reunion. Absolutely everyone is here—not just Sonny, Duane, and Jacy, but minor characters like Ruth and Genevieve; even characters you might have forgotten in the intervening years, like Sonny’s ex-girlfriend Charlene, putter around the edges of the frame, creating an unusually vivid sense that this story really has carried on away from our watchful eyes.

Texasville (1990) | MGM

And what’s most remarkable at the outset is that for all that has and hasn’t changed, everyone seems basically fine. Despite all the unbearable drama of the previous film, all the implication that staying in Anarene would be a fate worse than death, these characters have carved out relatively stable lives for themselves. Sonny’s eye never healed after Duane smashed a bottle over his head at the end of The Last Picture Show, and Genevieve’s leg now troubles her, but otherwise, time has only softened the sharp edges of the first story. Where once Duane and Sonny were tempestuous blood brothers, here they’re pals; where once Duane and Lester Marlow were bitter rivals, here they’re reluctant professional allies. When we’re young, we expect our relationships will grow in intensity, our hatreds become more entrenched. It’s not until we’ve packed on another decade or two that we recognize the truth scoffed in Duane’s direction early on by Ruth (now his office assistant): it’s hard to hold a grudge for 30 years.

If The Last Picture Show is a movie about savoring your precious misery, Texasville is a movie about having a bad case of the blues. It’s tough to say definitively which affliction is preferable—there’s little pleasure to be taken in having the blues, but maintaining a fever pitch of emotional intensity is unsustainably exhausting. In short, as Duane remarks to Lester, “It’s hard to stay exciting for a whole lifetime.” Where once these people longed for lives of passion and adventure, by middle age, all Duane wants—as he’ll grouse to anyone in earshot—is for people to be nice to him.

Where The Last Picture Show rarely deviates from its tone of melodramatic angst, Texasville is a comedy, and often a pretty broad one3. The characters’ behavior tends to approach either sitcom japery (Duane’s young twins are essentially three-dimensional Bart Simpsons, banished from their summer camp for outrageous antics like destroying a toilet with a poorly-aimed brick) or camp hysteria (it seems Duane can’t walk into his house without finding at least one woman, and more often a pack of them, howling with sobs), and that tonal shift can easily induce whiplash. But if there’s any governing idea to be found in Texasville, it’s that aging from adolescence to adulthood means watching your life go from aching melodrama to bittersweet comedy. As far as lessons go, that doesn’t feel half bad.

In growing up, our characters have lost surprisingly little and gained quite a lot, with Duane having become fabulously wealthy in the Texan oil boom, Jacy having gone on to a thriving acting career, and Sonny having taken Sam the Lion’s role as baron of Anarene’s small businesses. If there’s anything to be mourned, it’s not their future, as we might have predicted at the close of the first film, but the past they were then so eager to leave behind. When Jacy, who’s found her way back to Anarene in the wake of family tragedy, is reunited with Duane, she struggles to remember whether it was with him or with Lester that she attended the transgressive pool party on which the entire first story, and the fate of her relationship with Duane, hinged.

It’s easy to feel shocked when Jacy’s is slow to recognize Duane, heartbroken as a viewer that something so cherished has gathered a layer of dust for the characters. On consideration, though, if moments that once burned so bright and hot in their lives have faded into half-remembered anecdotes, it seems like a fair trade for the realization that there was such a thing as a future after all. While The Last Picture Show ends on a note of cataclysm, Texasville dares to acknowledge the unglamorous truth: with one major exception, life has no true endings, just a long series of tomorrows, yesterdays, and the transition points in between.

*

The Last Picture Show (1971) | Sony Pictures

Anarene is evidently stuck in a pattern of endlessly repeating cycles—like Sonny with Ruth, Duane’s son Dickie engages in clandestine romances with older married women; like Jacy with Sonny, Duane’s daughter Nellie rushes headlong into an ill-fated engagement. These echoes can be easy to miss at first due to the reorientation from the adolescent perspective to the adult, but from time to time the two collide enough for the viewer to recognize the disconnect—when Duane assaults Dickie in the backyard, you can see on Dickie’s face the Last Picture Show version of the story, the one in which a ridiculous oaf of a father abuses his blameless son. But by now Bogdanovich’s camera is shooting Duane’s interpretation of events, the one in which a man driven to the brink of collapse by the inanity around him finally has no choice but to punish his ridiculous fool of a son.

In the film’s other essential perspective shift, Sonny is moved to the periphery of the story and Duane to the center. In The Last Picture Show, Duane’s inner life lacks the depth and emotion of Sonny’s4, so if Texasville is a story that’s more disgruntled than anguished, the difference in central character5 may be a factor just as crucial as stage of life.

But the hand that fate has dealt Sonny makes him an unviable protagonist. He seems to be slipping into dementia (when Duane’s youngest daughter, Julie, asks what’s wrong with Sonny, Duane explains he’s “just a little tired in his mind,” a description that could just as easily apply to any of these world-weary characters), and is now subject to fugues that draw him back to the important locations of his youth, from crashing his car into Ruth’s house in an attempt to retrace the beats of their bygone trysts to climbing through the dilapidated remains of The Royal to watch spectral movies.

Texasville (1990) | MGM

Texasville is undeniably a less stylish film than The Last Picture Show, but its movement away from pastiche to neutral early ‘90s cinematography underscores the dangers of Sonny’s obsession with the past. The climax of Texasville finds the ensemble rushing to Sonny’s aid as he balances atop a perilously tall bleacher, immersed in an invisible movie that might finally allow him to save the day even as the illusion puts him at risk of breaking his neck.

It’s dangerous to live anywhere but in the moment, Texasville warns both Sonny and the viewer, even if the music’s worse and the cinematography’s gone flat.

*

When I first watched Texasville in my mid-20s, the film’s very existence felt like a betrayal. I regretted ever putting the DVD in the player and forcing myself to admit that the characters hadn’t stayed frozen in amber as eternal avatars for the aching wistfulness of youth. Now, though, having crossed the Rubicon that brings me closer to my own middle age than my adolescence, I realize that to resent Texasville is to resent life.

As an adolescent, the tendency is to see your life as binary—caught in the throes of teenage love, the only two conceivable outcomes are that you’ll end up with the object of your affection and be blissfully in love forever, or that you won’t, and you’ll be damned to a lifetime of misery. It’s impossible to envision the detail and texture that life accumulates as it goes on, and if that means giving up the monochrome stylization of The Last Picture Show, at least you get to see your Texasville years in full color.

It may be that the best way to make peace with Texasville—a film that’s always garnered, to put it gently, a mixed reception—is to stop thinking of it as The Last Picture Show’s sequel. Would it be appropriate to call anyone’s middle age a sequel to their adolescence? As much as one might envision that to be life’s trajectory at 16, it would be dreadful to find yourself in your 50s still defining your existence in relation to its earliest, most passionate era.

And for as often as I’ve used terms like wistful, and aching to describe The Last Picture Show, there are scenes in the antic Texasville that embody them more sincerely than any movie about characters less than two decades into their lives possibly could. The bittersweetness of Duane and Jacy sitting under the bleachers, looking back on the circuitous routes that brought them through three decades of life before coming back into one another’s orbit6, is visceral enough to provoke a feeling I like to call emotional vertigo—it’s that moment you feel when, say, you get back together over the holidays with all your old friends at your old haunt and the past and present collide at such an unexpected angle that you feel lightheaded, struggling to reconcile two timelines that moments ago felt independent. It’s a shocking enough feeling to encounter in real life, and opportunities to authentically evoke it onscreen are few and far between.

Texasville (1990) | MGM

As tender and gently swooning as the moment shared by Jacy and Duane under the bleachers may be, though, the moment that fills me with the greatest warmth is a town council meeting co-chaired by Duane and Sonny. As they sit before a small crowd of squabbling Anarenians, the two men exchange a brief glance of commiserative exhaustion. It’s an unremarkable gesture that seems representative of decades of unremarkable gestures, each one a link in the chain of a relationship that’s unremarkably turned into a constant. Their lives may not have taken them far afield, but when so many of us feel lucky to see our oldest friends even once in a year, Texasville asks whether it’s really such a terrible fate to spend your life with your high school buddies. It may not be a non-stop thrill, but it’s an enduring comfort, and plenty of people don’t get either.

Maybe my initial dissatisfaction with Texasville comes down to the fault Jacy accuses Duane of nursing: an attachment to “the linear principle.” Two movies in a series can be just that—two stories singing in harmony rather than unison, creating a richer sound for it.

*

The Last Picture Show is a film about standing at the beginning of your life and worrying that you’re at the end. Texasville, meanwhile, is one about being in the long middle, and if the defining symbol of the former is the shuttering of a beloved monument, then the correlative in the latter is the time capsule that Anarene buries as part of its centennial celebration. The characters ponder what life was like one hundred years ago, and they ponder what life might be like another 100 years hence, but they spare little grand consideration for the moment they’re living in now.

It’s hard to have that much perspective on your own life when you’re straddling its prime meridian, the moment when you can be called neither young nor old. But there’s a solidity to it, as well. Youth is all about uncertainty, and if in middle age you still can’t be sure where you’re going, then at least you can be certain of where you’ve been and make some more educated predictions of the direction you might like to aim.

In the end, Duane, Jacy, Sonny, and all the rest decide that for now, they’re aiming for another long stretch in Anarene, and this time, they seem serene about it. The film closes with an echo of its predecessor’s ending: once again, the soundtrack is overtaken by a wild and intense wind. But where The Last Picture Show closed with a street-level look at a desolate town that might as well be the edge of existence, Texasville closes with a crane shot that pulls back high enough to show, for the first time, the world around Anarene. This little community is part of something after all—not a desolate wasteland but a full, vibrant, thriving world. And while the lives being lived there may look small in comparison, they’re grounded now by a full recognition of how far that horizon stretches, and in how many directions.

 


 

  1. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll use Bogdanovich’s name to represent the guiding force behind The Last Picture Show, but it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge the strong collaborative role played by his then-wife Polly Platt. By all accounts, Platt was all but co-director, which makes it seem all the crueler that Bogdanovich left his partner (not to mention the mother of his newborn daughter) in both art and life to begin an affair with Cybill Shepherd, then only about 20 years old to Bogdanovich’s 32, in the midst of production.
  2.  There’s a slight temporal strangeness to Texasville, so just to sort things out: The Last Picture Show takes place in 1951, and Texasville in 1984. The Last Picture Show was released in 1971, and Texasville in 1990. So while the characters had aged 33 years, the actors have aged 19, and are playing much deeper into middle age than they actually are.
  3.  Bogdanovich has expressed chagrin over the comic tone of Texasville, claiming that his preferred cut of the film was much closer in voice to The Last Picture Show before the studio cut nearly half an hour of footage. That director’s cut was released on laserdisc, but as it’s currently unavailable in any other home media format, it’s not an easy claim to verify. Still, given the tone of the extant 75 percent of Bogdanovich’s footage, and the available descriptions of the excised portions—for the most part a lot of minor embellishments such as (per IMDb), “longer shot of Duane passed out in the boat,” and “Duane witnesses a run at the bank”—it’s hard to put much stock in the idea that Bogdanovich’s vision for the film was substantially different from the studio’s.
  4.  While this difference can only be inferred onscreen, it’s far more explicit in McMurtry’s novel, where Duane’s perspective is rendered with a kind of vacant incredulity in opposition to Sonny’s more intensely wistful worldview. Chapters told from Sonny’s perspective are characterized by phrases like, “Sometimes Sonny felt like he was the only human creature in the town,” while in those told from Duane’s (which are few and far between), “Duane raged and stormed” is about as good as it gets for interiority.
  5.  McMurtry would add another three books to the series after Texasville, all of them focusing on Duane, which ultimately leaves The Last Picture Show something of an outlier. Across the three ensuing volumes, Duane is forced to endure as nearly everyone in his life dies—Jacy, we learn early in the third volume, Duane’s Depressed, was the victim of an arctic plane crash; at the midpoint of that book, Duane’s wife is killed in a highway wreck, and by the end Sonny has succumbed to blood poisoning. The following two volumes, When the Light Goes and Rhino Ranch, devolve into a McMurtryan twist on that trope most beloved of male American novelists of a certain generation: an aging man being inexplicably sexually bombarded by women out of his league. The women get progressively younger and more fantastical, with a septuagenarian Duane eventually married to a woman in her 20s who divorces him almost immediately (later dying in a car as well—Duane’s life is defined by repeating cycles to the end), upon which he’s aggressively pursued by a barely legal teenager in scenes that by now feel ripped straight from porn (“While I’ve been waiting to turn 18, you’ve kind of grown on me, Mr. Moore. That’s why I’m standing here naked feeling my pussy getting wet”). The post-Texasville triptych is catalyzed by one amusing conceit—that Duane’s community declares him clinically insane due to outrageous behaviors such as taking up bicycling, seeing a therapist, and reading Proust, all apparently hallmarks of madness by rural Texan standards—but by and large there’s little to recommend them.
  6.  If anything can be blamed for damning Texasville’s shot at success, it has to be the criminally misrepresentative key art that depicts Duane and Jacy passionately clutching one another. At no point do middle-aged Duane and Jacy make any particular moves towards sex and/or romance, a choice that makes the story eminently stronger and more interesting. If any secondary factor can be blamed, I’d point to the cringy tagline, “Hold on to your hat. And your spouse.”