Monday, January 28, 2019

Before “The Last Picture Show” Was The “Last Picture Show” With The Larry McMurtry  Book In Mind

Book Review

By Jack Callahan

The Last Picture Show, by Larry Mc Murtry,  

It is time to rally around the troops. Time for me to put my two cents worth in defending my old-time friends who write for this blog (and the on-line editions of American Folk Gazette, American Film Gazette and Progressive Nation among others). Time to honor one old pal, Phil Larkin, known in the old days as Foul-mouth Phil who others have written about in this space and mainly have gotten right about the origin of the name. About the weird twist too of how the girls, including my wife of over forty years Chrissie McNamara, even good go to church, Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church, every Sunday and who had rosary beads always present in their hands and a Bible between their knees like her, secretly liked his constant swearing so that he among us all never lacked for dates, at least one date anyway with them. But that is not why I am honoring Phil today since I have much more important business to attend to before I get to a short review of this excellent book by Larry McMurtry, The Last Picture Show, which I saw as a movie (with Chrissie) long before I first read his book (and a number of other related one about the fictional town of Thalia back in the 1950s) which Seth Garth, a longtime writer for this blog mentioned to me has come out recently in a trilogy according to what he had read in the New York Review of Books).

That other fish to fry deals with Phil’s portentous statements which were taken by most of the older staff here, including me, as the usual rantings of Phil when he doesn’t get exactly what he wants, what he considers his due. This time it is centered on a number of statements which he has made as part of his film reviews about the older writers who had been close to the previous site manager being purged, a word at least one of the younger writers has used freely in his reviews so he, they, those now victorious younger writers, must be feeling the wind in their sails. I will not mention his name since the current site manager Greg Green well known for red-penciling, not blue like most editors, copy has “warned” people off doing so under the pretext that “we have to move on” from that pernicious influence) backed up by the newly installed Editorial Board ( a board handpicked by Green and loaded, overloaded, with younger writers who supported him in the internal struggle against that previous site manager and who are really nothing but toadies and rubber-stampers for him).  

Readers familiar with this site, and perhaps with the internal dispute which wound up with the departure and “exile” of that previous manager, know that I have been neither a leading contributor to the writings posted here although I have been the subject of many reminiscences by the older writers including the old gang famous, maybe infamous, one since more than one old fogy has gotten parts wrong, of how Chrissie and I met, nor very vocal in the fight between the younger and older writers which led to that previous manager’s “purge.” (Like I said previously I best put any possible controversial words in quotes to avoid that sweeping Green red pencil despite all the claptrap about the new regime being more democratic, more open to broadening the scope of what is being written about and by whom than previously.) The reason I grabbed this book assignment was that the older writers believed that I would be the only one who had “not burned his bridges” to the new regime which is the way one wag put the matter and could expect to get my piece posted.

Moreover they believed that it would “grease the rails” (I forgot who said that) if I as a big financial backer of the enterprise did the talking about what appears to be coming down the road for the older writers, and who knows maybe some younger recalcitrant writers too (remember the fraught with danger “p” word). That financial backing based on my very successful business as a Toyota car dealer, Mr. Toyota in Eastern Massachusetts with Chrissie as Ms. Toyota so I do not depend on paychecks and fears of lack of paychecks like the others who moreover are closing in on retirement. They don’t want to wind up following the example of the previous manager who with one exception, one important exception, Sam Lowell, who is the only one from the old gang who was placed on that suddenly emergent “democratic” Ed Board, supported him. Don’t want to wind up as the rumors have it hustling newspapers out in Utah for the Mormons with no retirement pension income (I don’t know about his Social Security status), no health plan (if he didn’t have adequate S.S. quarters), and no source for getting steady postings against the dark and wild savage nights going forward (not my expression but one of the older guy’s). I have committed to rallying around the troops and this is the first shot. But enough of this for now.        

As I mentioned in my defense declaration above my first connection with Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show was viewing the film adaptation by Peter Bogdanovich starring Jeff Bridges as Duane  the roughneck’s roughneck, Timothy Bottoms as the gentile roughneck, as Sonny, and Cybil Shepard as the alluring and sexually predatory poor little oil money boomtown rich girl Jacy who has Duane and all the boys in heat, especially Duane and in his dreams Sonny. I should also mentioned that I saw this one the first time at the Hingham, Massachusetts, Plaza Theater when it first opened (a nice counter-position to the “last” in the film title) with Chrissie. That was when we were first living together before we got did get married a couple of years later and well after she had abandoned those rosary bead hands and squeezed Bible knees. Needless to say coming up as an urban, maybe better, suburban roughneck from a hard-struck declining North Adamsville a town like Thalia, with a ton of roughneck friends some of who turned out okay and have written for a long time in places like this blog (although for how much longer is anybody’s guess) and some who didn’t fare so well the film struck a deep chord, “spoke” to me. Spoke to me as well since sports, football in particular, was a subtext for the friendship between Duane and Sonny just like it had been for me and guys like Phil Larkin. (I had been a star football player who led the Blue Warriors to two division state high school Super Bowls which had a lot to do with how Chrissie and I met initially although not how we have stayed together pretty happily for so long.)          

One thing that Seth Garth, a serious writer and a man who has written many well-received articles in this space, who was perhaps my closest friend in high school after we had a fight over Chrissie’s affections and reconciled, has always mentioned to me when writing about films based on novels is how closely they adhere to the storyline of the book. I remember once when we were having a couple of drinks at the old watering hole The Sagamore Grille in Hingham in the days when he could drink unlike now when he has sworn off the stuff we got to talking about fidelity to the book of certain films. This was when I was first interested in writing some reviews for posting here when the previous site manager was more than happy to have an old friend (and serious financial contributor I know helped as well) write up a little something. Seth mentioned that he was appalled when a film screenplay, script, was nothing like the plotline of the book and seemingly the only reason for keeping the title and author’s name was to draw the crowds in based on that cache.        

Seth always would bring up two classic cases both by Ernest Hemingway. One, To Have And Have Not, where in the book the Captain Harry Morgan is a rogue, has-been sea captain running crap to Cuba for the highest bidder with a wife who had seen better days and a parcel of kids. Against the film version where Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall sizzle up the screen with what Seth called some of the sexiest hottest scenes of two people with their clothes on he had ever seen while doing yeoman’s service to the French Resistance in the Caribbean during World War II. The other The Killers, a short story which starts and ends with two professional killers acting as hitmen for somebody who wanted an ex-pug out of the way and leaving the narrator wondering why he did not put up any resistance. Against the film starring Burt Lancaster as the ex-pug and fall guy and Ava Gardner as a femme fatale who has him going through the hoops for her as the reason that he went gentle into that good night. A dame in short like has happened to a million other guys except this time old Burt paid with his life for shacking up with her.

In Last Picture Show the film there is no such problem since the film adheres in the basic plotline and better in the spirit of two young roughneck Texas boys coming of age in the early 1950s. I first read the book in the 1990s I think when I was on a Larry McMurtry tear after viewing Texasville which is about this same grouping and town about twenty years later once they have gotten over their teenage angst and alienation. I was struck then as now by how closely the key episodes match up. The only added statement I would make at this time is that the book draws many more explicit sexual scenes, more graphically written than the shyer film does including references to homosexually, male and female orgasms, the sexual frustration aspect of the teen angst and alienation component, and the problems as well as good points of growing up in a small if declining town out in what was then considered the Texas countryside.  Finally, I have changed my opinion as I told Seth one of those nights when we were having those few permitted whiskeys at the Sagamore Grille I think everybody should read the classic book first and then the classic film. Now I wish I had done so.   

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