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Not Always a Pretty 'Picture'

April 29, 1993|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lancer who regularly writes about film for The Times Orange County Edition.

There are few, if any, filmmakers who have taken a fall like Peter Bogdanovich.

When his first major feature, "The Last Picture Show," was released in 1971, many proclaimed Bogdanovich the real thing, a more than promising heir to all the truly great directors he admired.

Shortly after came the really bad movies, such as "At Long Last Love" and "Daisy Miller." Later, Bogdanovich's messy private life (his relationship with slain Playboy centerfold Dorothy Stratten and her teen-age sister were equal parts tragic and bizarre) kept intruding.

Even "The Last Picture Show" (screening tonight as part of Cal State Fullerton's "American Cinema in the 1970s" series) has suffered revisionist thinking. Once thought of as a finely pitched ode to small-town living, his adaptation of Larry McMurtry's novel has turned ponderous and self-conscious to some. A few critics have even called it a conceited rip-off of better men such as John Ford, Howard Hawks and Orson Welles.

That's harsh. It's not a masterful film, certainly not one to gush over the way it was gushed over, but the hindsight attacks also seem out-sized and inappropriate.

"The Last Picture Show" is a mild entertainment with patches of sensitivity, a deliberately mournful coming-of-age movie that revealed good cinematic instincts but often substituted craftsmanship for brilliance.

Bogdanovich wrote the screenplay with McMurtry's help, and the novelist always said he was pleased with the results, claiming it accurately re-created his elegiac description of the backwater Texas town and its dusty inhabitants. Like the book, the focus is on a few teen-agers, a few adults and a crumbling movie house on the brink of closing down.

The primary stories belong to Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and his best friend, Duane (Jeff Bridges), as they face some growing up, all the while beckoned by the pretty, shallow Jacy (Cybill Shepherd). Bogdanovich takes them here and there (Duane even gets taken into the bed of the middle-aged Ruth, played by Cloris Leachman, who won an Oscar for her performance) as they consider their place in a changing world they can't quite keep up with.

By using black-and-white photography, Bogdanovich and cinematographer Robert Surtees try to imbue events with a desiccated, emotionally cut-to-the-bone look. There is no fancy camera work, just straight-ahead angles. It's supposed to be realism with a dramatic veneer.

Much of the time it all works, and we stumble along with these remarkably unsophisticated folk, realizing that their tales aren't important but somehow authentic and worth watching. "The Last Picture Show" has the pull of bittersweet nostalgia.

Bogdanovich can't leave well enough alone, though, and film-class indulgences keep popping up. The picture is filled with too-obvious references to many of his favorite movies, a preoccupation that can be charming (especially for movie buffs) but eventually annoying. He evokes images and associations from Hawks' "Red River," several Ford Westerns and even Welles' "The Magnificent Ambersons."

Still, you have to admire Bogdanovich's technical expertise. His editing (although Donn Cambern is credited, Bogdanovich took a lead role) is economical and smart; he's able to weave the many stories into whole cloth, although the film's ending is more than a little ragged.

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