12 September, 2011

The Last Picture Show as Reviewed By A Critic With an Axe To Grind Over This Gimmick of Black and White

Based on Larry McMurtry's semi-autobiographical novel, and featuring a talented ensemble of both promising unknown newcomers and stalwart character actors, this movie should have been a calling card for up and comer, actor/film critic turned director Peter Bogdonovich. However, all are ill served by the incomprehensible decision to release the film in black and white. This move can only have been driven by "the business", some accountant has worked out that the film can be distributed for less by releasing it on less expensive black and white stock. The cynical studios have the young director, whose career has consisted of Drive-In fodder thus far, naively claiming that the choice was aesthetic, not financial.

Set in a mid-western town during the early 1950's, a time of the birth of rock and roll and lurid red cars with tailfins, it depicts the slow disintegration of a community which abandons its public spaces, pool halls and movie houses, to live in tract house suburbia and watch TV. This was an opportunity to show how much more real, and the style is otherwise very realistic, the lives of genuine people are in natural colour, instead the gimmick of black and white makes the film look like television.

For many years Hollywood has fought a war of attrition with TV, and the popular conceit was that by offering bigger wider screens, better sound, and vivid colour, audiences could be tempted back into theatres. This has not worked, so the suits probably thought, "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em". Although colour TV is now available, more people own black and white than colour, making it the clear preference. The film even has a an aspect ratio half way between Cinemascope and TV. Hollywood's scientific wizards have found a way to port the black and white of television back onto film.

Having presented his television series, Hitchcock famously experimented with this technology, retrofitting Psycho into monochrome to tone down the gore of the shower scene (Michael Powell showed Hitchcock's timidity by releasing Peeping Tom, as it was meant to be, in colour). But Bogdonovich is no Hitchcock.

Bogdonovich claims that his "decision" to use grayscale was commended by his pal, himself once a wunderkind, Orson Welles. The now has-been cigar and cheap chablis shill sleeping on Bogdonovich's couch, whose own exercise in nostalgia, The Magnificent Ambersons, was taken away from him, too late to re-shoot in colour. The studio, concerned that without the period colour, fans of Booth Tarkington's blockbuster best seller, expecting another Gone With the Wind, might react with anger, and indeed the film flopped. Welles has perversely flown the flag for black and white since, and has clearly manipulated his disciple into the same artistic blind alley.

Underneath the dross of this gimmick, there may be a half decent film struggling to get out. The sad failed romance of Sam the Lion, the tragic trajectory of idiot child Billy, Sonny's coming of age reflected in his variable friendship with Duane, his longing for Jacy and his affair with Ruth, should all congeal to some kind of poignancy. But frankly I didn't notice, my eyes were struggling the whole time to try to reintegrate the colour that had been forcibly drained from the images. It is this problem, chromosthesia, that causes headaches in viewers. I may have been able to recommend this movie, if only some cinemas were brave enough to show it in its colour print.

There is a solution to this problem, you can construct your own "colourizing" spectacles. Merely purchase two pairs of sunglasses with polarizing lenses, some wire, a motorized toy car, and some sticky backed plastic. Break one of the sunglasses leaving the lenses separate. Attach the bisected toy car by the axels to the extra lenses, suspending them in front of those of the unbroken sunglasses, using the small motor to rotate them. Other viewers may object to the sound of the motor, but you can cover this up by buying more popcorn and nachos and chewing loudly with an open mouth. Granted, this will not give you true colour, you will see swirls of colour akin to Corman's The Trip, but you can enjoy these to fuller effect if you also smuggle in a cassette player with a tape of Atom Heart Mother, hitting "play" when Cybill Shepherd joins "the club". Finally, place the sticky backed plastic over your mouth to suppress any loud squeals of delight.

Despite the slight dimness caused by the reduction, up to 20%, of what I think they call footchromas, Bogdonovich is sticking to his guns, pledging to shoot Paper Moon in "genuine" monochrome, and rumour has it that Mel Brooks may follow suit with Young Frankenstein. Whatever its good intentions may be, I hope that The Last Picture Show fails to find an audience, as its success would be a prophetic death knell to the industry, making it "the Last", indeed. There is some hope on the horizon as avant garde film-maker George Lucas, who is remaking his enigmatic student film in glorious washed out colour, is considering a look at a similar period as this film, hopefully he'll put the pink Cadillacs and the yellow neon back where it belongs on our nation's screens.

[Author's Note: This is another piece that I wrote as a potential entry for the New Forest Film Critic of the Year 2011 Competition, but which I decided was too fanciful for the competition. It's really more like science fiction, the review is set in a slightly alternate universe. My short listed entry (Review: The Brothers Bloom: The Sum of Its Parts), and its other unsubmitted sibling "Mamma Mia! as directed by Michael Haneke" may be read following the links.]

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