The Loss of the Old West

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‘The Last Picture Show’ and ‘Hell or High Water’ delve into a changing of times

Small towns where everyone knows each other’s business. If you aren’t on the local football team, you had better be disabled. Nothing seems to matter much outside city lines. Director Peter Bogdanovich depicts a time “when men were men” and no secrets were kept with the classic feature, The Last Picture Show. More recently, director David Mackenzie drew inspiration from that story of changing times and mixed in its messaging with his hit, Hell or High Water. Both stories show time changing in Texas even if the people fail to move forward and connecting both of them is Jeff Bridges.

Bridges was only 21 years of age when he appeared in The Last Picture Show. In the feature, he plays Duane, a young man who seemingly has it all. He has a prominent position on the football team, he is dating the school beauty Jacy (Cybill Shepard) and he has his future all planned out. Unfortunately for him, there are forces at play that will turn his bright future quite dim. Jacy’s mother (Ellyn Burstyn) insists there are better men for her daughter and then coincidentally, Jacy starts distancing herself from her high-school sweetheart. What was once the “love of her life” has become an opportunity to lose her virginity and nothing more. Once she has what she wants, Duane becomes old news. Bridges shows how a boy on top of the world, can become a man drinking beer for breakfast and shipping off to Korea.

The Last Picture Show goes to great lengths to capture the essence of Texas during the 1950s. Bogdanovich deliberately filmed the feature in black-and white, insisting that the reason was, “Orson Welles was staying at my house, and I told him that I wanted to get the deep depth of focus that he had achieved on Citizen Kane. ‘Then film it in back-and-white,’ he growled. It’s an actor’s best friend.” Not only did the cinematography help actors Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman receive Oscars recognition for their work, it added to the timelessness of the movie. The town of Anarene, Texas has a beauty to it, even as the people living there have no hope for a future. Perhaps it is this beauty that Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) talks about when he takes a few local boys fishing. He isn’t much concerned about actually catching fish, just enjoying the scenery.

The protagonist, Sunny (Timothy Bottoms), is given the bleakest future of all. When his hero and father-like figure passes away, he is given the deed to the ol’ pool hall in town. The passage of time has done wicked things to his life. He has graduated school, but all of his friends have moved on from Anarene. Even the local movie theater is closing due to the advent of Television. No one goes to the picture show anymore and the lively town becomes a desolate ghost town where he will probably live out his days. He is stuck in the past with no hope of catching the future.

Hell or High Water had Jeff Bridges returning to aging towns with their own ‘code’ and lifestyle. Whereas The Last Picture Show dealt with changing times as the downfall of the small community, Hell or High Water depicts a Texas struggling after the 2008 financial crisis. Bridges plays a Texas Ranger who is on the hunt for some bank robbers. Every new town he visits, he is greeted with signs showing businesses that have foreclosed or that are struggling to stay open. Even the banks where the robberies have occurred are not adequately equipped for these times. The towns aren’t the only thing aging, also is Bridges’ Texas Ranger. He still makes racist jokes to his Native American partner, even though they both respect each other. Perhaps a even greater flaw, is that he believes this case will unfold as so many of his past affairs. As he is nearing his retirement, Bridges character can’t keep up with the times.

The Last Picture Show and Hell or High Water both depict a Texas that is evolving into something else. The Last Picture Show emphasized a hunger for a more “exciting” life outside of the small towns and approaching technological advances. Hell or High Water shows a Texas changing once again to reflect the times we currently live in. Jeff Bridges has become the guide reflecting the changing Texas landscape. In both cases Texas has lost some of its past, but it will transform into an exciting future.

News Writer/Columnist for Film School Rejects. It’s the Pictures Co-host. Bylines Playboy, ZAM, Paste Magazine and more.