Monday, November 28, 2011

The Last Picture Show

The Last Picture Show
seen online via Crackle

Earlier this month, members of the cast of The Last Picture Show, along with director Peter Bogdanovich, reunited for a 40th-anniversary screening hosted by AMPAS, along with a Q-and-A afterwards. Reading about it made me want to revisit the film myself, since I hadn't seen it in awhile. While it isn't as much of an explicit tribute to cinema as recent movies like Hugo and The Artist, a love of movies is certainly integral to its success as a movie, particularly in the influences it wears on its sleeve. I had never noticed it in previous viewings, but my knowledge of film history has expanded since then.

Though its subject matter is thoroughly American, Picture Show is filmed like a European film: black-and-white, no score (the only music comes from radios and jukeboxes), the casual, realistic approach to nudity and sex, all of it comes across as familiar to anyone who has seen enough Italian and French films of the 50s and 60s. At the same time, though, the wide open Texas spaces recall the work of John Ford easily enough.

Bogdanovich, of course, has always been a huge film nerd, so this comes as little surprise. He came up around the same time as the likes of Coppola, Scorsese, Ashby, Lucas, and Spielberg, and like them, brought a vastly different sensibility to moviemaking than the generation before him. A look at his wonderful blog will give you an idea of not only his influences, but his ideas about film history in general.

What is it about black-and-white? It's a question worth pondering again now that The Artist is poised to become a big success. Bogdanovich chose to film Picture Show in B&W partly as a tribute to those old picture shows he loves, foreign and domestic, but there's something else about it, too. It's the reason why I choose to do my variant banners in B&W, and I can even tell you the moment when I noticed it. 

When I did my New Year's Eve banner, I chose an image from a full-color movie, The Poseidon Adventure. It was a shot of Shelley Winters. Just for the heck of it, I removed the color from the image, something I did for the image for my Christmas variant - the leg lamp from A Christmas Story. I didn't notice the difference then because it was a single, isolated object with no background, but here something changed. Suddenly I didn't see Winters the actress so much as I saw... the emotion of fear on her face, as her character is about to be upended by the sinking ship. Something about that appealed to me, seemed purer in a way, and that's when I decided to make all my variant banners in B&W.

Not that I necessarily think Poseidon should've been shot in B&W, or movies in general, for that matter - Avatar would've been much poorer in B&W, for example - but perhaps directors like Bogdanovich use B&W in order to have less distractions. It's easy to focus on a color in a picture, but by paying too much attention to it, one can lose sight of the bigger picture. Sometimes focusing on color is a deliberate choice on the director's part, but I think using B&W in a film can sometimes free one to notice intangibles like emotion and mood, which Picture Show has plenty of.

Also, B&W can be used almost as a meta-textual element, to call attention to the movie-ness of a movie, to coin a phrase. Think about the first time Dorothy opens the door of her house when she lands in Oz in The Wizard of Oz - you can't help but notice the color before you notice anything else. That was a stylistic choice, not something one sees in real life, because one doesn't transition from B&W (or sepia tones) into full color just like that - but a trick meant to emphasize this brave new world that Dorothy has stepped into. Regardless, I can't imagine Picture Show being made any other way than in black and white.

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