A Real Gun Amongst the Water Pistols
The BBS story is largely about the arrival and life cycle of political and social revolution, but the best two films in the set seem to take place far away from those concerns. In a literal sense, Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971) and Rafelson’s The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) are traditional American stories. Each film revolves around men wanting to succeed within existing business and social structures, in towns where men before them have become kings and lions.
Conventional as they are on the surface, these films are actually in some ways more radical than the earlier BBS releases. Their sense of frustration is more deeply felt than that of Easy Rider and their alienation more consequential than that of Five Easy Pieces. What appear as king-making opportunities in Anarene, Texas and Atlantic City more often than not turn out to be ghosts or illusions.
The Last Picture Show, written by Larry McMurtry and Bogdanovich and based on McMurtry’s novel, is set in the early-‘50s. Anarene is already a small and sad Texas town when the film begins, but its young characters are hopeful. Timothy Bottoms is the well-intentioned Sonny, forever trying to meet expectations but constantly failing in the rituals of small town life. The old men in town wonder why Sonny and the other high school seniors don’t tackle in football anymore. This observation is one of many by the film’s older generation that the younger generation has somehow gone soft. Sonny falls short in football, makes the wrong moves on his date, doesn’t have enough money at the diner, and is late to the picture show. Although the film features an excellent ensemble cast, The Last Picture Show is primarily the story of Sonny’s maturation.
Like Easy Rider and other BBS productions, Sonny comes with a contrasting male character, in this case Jeff Bridges’ Duane. Their bond is that of brothers. Cybill Shepherd’s Jacy is an object of desire to every male in Anarene. Though we know she exists to break hearts, it’s particularly heartbreaking when she creates a rift between Sonny and Duane. Robert Surtees’ black and white cinematography becomes an analogue for the characters’ limited options and the impracticality of compromise.
Another aspect of The Last Picture Show that breaks with BBS Productions’ preoccupation with youth is the fully formed middle-aged and older characters that populate the physical and emotional landscape of the film. These include Ruth (Cloris Leachman), dissatisfied wife of the school coach, Lois (Ellen Burstyn), Jacy’s desperate mother, and most of all Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), Anarene’s heart and soul. The film develops along a series of complicated intersection points between the teenage and adult worlds.
The Last Picture Show
Sonny matures in his sexuality through his affair with Ruth, but he’s unprepared to deal with her sorrow. Jacy wants to live up to Lois’s standard for attracting and landing a man, but this precipitates a number of romantic crises. By the time Lois is revealed to have no faith or satisfaction in the very advice she dispenses, Jacy has forever transformed the bond between Sonny and Duane.
The most significant turning point in Sonny’s maturation is not the effect of sex or romance, but the death of Sam the Lion. Sam is the height of an old school of manhood that Sonny and Duane could only dream of living up to. He’s also this film’s surrogate for America. When Sam says, “You wouldn’t believe how this country’s changed,” his 1951 context might just as well be 1971, and his death within the film is another of the sort of symbolic losses and transformations that Rafelson, Hopper, Nicholson and Jaglom express in their works. Sonny inherits from Sam’s passing a mantle he is not ready to handle, and Anarene all but disappears in the dust.
The King of Marvin Gardens provides a final contrasting duo of male characters, played with gusto by Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern. Nicholson is David Staebler and Dern is his brother Jason. Jacob Brackman’s screenplay distinguishes “businessman” and “artist” as two distinct modes of operation, and the drama between these brothers grows from that divide. Jason is an artistic personality who desperately wants to succeed in business, and David is a stable business type who wants to be an artist.
Both brothers are fabulists. David tells stories on the radio, and his creative non-fiction keeps the audience in a state of uncertainty and uneasy belief. His storytelling is a game that plays upon the listener’s notion of the truth. Jason also tells stories, but his game – his hustle – is of a much more dicey variety. Jason lives in Atlantic City, where his pathway to fulfilling real estate dreams has landed him temporarily in jail. When David comes to Atlantic City to see Jason at jail, it is the beginning of what Jason calls their brotherly “renaissance” and later a “kingdom”.
Jason’s goal to open a casino in Hawaii is far-fetched, and David stays with him in Atlantic City to live out that fantasy for a little while in the company of two women: Sally (Burstyn) and her step-daughter/rival Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson). The endless role-playing between this foursome is entertaining, but there always seems to be some threat or danger around the corner: a real gun amongst the water pistols, a sharp pair of scissors in the cosmetic kit, and a couple of mysterious guys trailing the brothers’ every move.
It’s been said that The King of Marvin Gardens visually imagines Atlantic City as a Monopoly board game, and the script deals in risk-taking and rolls of the dice that propel some to success and others to failure. Distinguishing the film from others in the BBS set is its lack of faith in any traditional ideals that might remain. The realities of crime and business have extinguished the pursuit of an individual path. Youth is fleeting. The game is over.
The King of Marvin Gardens
The screenplay for The King of Marvin Gardens is not necessarily cinematic, and in fact the text would likely hold up very well as a stage play. Once again, however, Kovács’ work elevates a BBS production into cinematic art. His deep focus cinematography (essentially montage within the frame) enlivens the picture and turns the immobile camera into a virtue. This strategy is almost the exact opposite of Easy Rider’s freewheeling shooting technique, but it is the ideal choice for the film’s board game conceit. Exterior shots are filmed against the grey sky, and several interior shots use boldly colored hotel curtains as backdrops. Dern’s performance, in particular, benefits from the theatricality of such settings. Throughout, Rafelson and Kovács use creative geography to create convincing matches out of disparate locations – a technique Rafelson discusses in “Reflections of a Philosopher King”, a video interview included on the DVD.
America Lost and Found: The BBS Story could be called a time capsule, but that description seems restrictive. The social and artistic impulses that drive these films aren’t to be buried. More than four decades have passed since Head was released, yet the questions and expressions of these seven films share a lot with the existential and political issues of the present day. It would be overstating the films’ impact to suggest they contain all the answers for understanding America and its place in the world. Yet the act of taking in what they have to offer is a great way to reconnect to an ongoing conversation about the highs and lows of an exceptional country. America Lost and Found: The BBS Story makes a case for keeping the canvas wide and the road open.