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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt Pratt@moviecitynews.com

Nickelodeon & The Last Picture Show

Peter Bogdanovich’s paean to the early days of moviemaking, Nickelodeon, has been released as a 2-Disc Double Feature Director’s Choice title by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, Nickelodeon / The Last Picture Show. Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show was available previously as a Special Edition. Each film is presented on a separate platter and is in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. Both presentations are ‘Director’s Cut’ versions, although Nickelodeon is presented in both its original theatrical format and Bogdanovich’s alternate format. The 1971 theatrical version of The Last Picture Show has never been released on DVD.

For the 1976 Nickelodeon, Bogdanovich has, with some care, removed the color from the image, to present it as a black-and-white film, presumably in honor of the era it is depicting (although he didn’t ‘square’ the image to 1.33:1, and the film was shot with modern wide angle lenses). The Director’s Cut runs 125 minutes while the theatrical version runs 122 minutes, adding more depth to the characters and expanding the clips from Birth of a Nation that appear in the movie’s climax.

Now, I gave Bogdanovich’s black-and-white version every chance to succeed. Having not seen the movie in three decades, I watched the black-and-white version first and then waited a full week before putting on the color version. It is clear that Bogdanovich hasn’t just hit a button on some video processor. The contrasts and shadows are often carefully graded. But it just doesn’t work. The best thing about the film is Laszlo Kovacs’ lovely, deliberately subdued color cinematography and the film’s equally beautiful production design. Without having that to soften the blow, the film’s glaring flaws and inconsistent tone are magnified all the more. It is telling that even the clips of Birth of a Nation have more of an impact in the color version, where they are tinted, than in the black-and-white version, where they are uniformly black-and-white. (One of the more clever inspirations in the script was to have Burt Reynolds’ character appear in a stage version of The Klansman at the movie’s beginning, so that Nation’s racism could be safely ignored at the end.)

Screenwriters Bogdanovich and W.D. Richter attempted to draw from all of the ‘good old days’ tales they had heard sitting at the knees of the great old time directors, and since the movie is a comedy, they also tried to incorporate classic slapstick gags. They forgot, however, to put in a story. Ryan O’Neal stars as a struggling lawyer who backs into the profession, and Reynolds is a roustabout that he turns into a star. Jane Hitchcock is an actress that they both fall for, although O’Neal’s character never really does much about it (his character is made a bit darker in the Director’s Cut, explaining some reactions from other characters that are mystifying if you don’t read between the lines in the theatrical version). John Ritter, Tatum O’Neal, Brian Keith, and Stella Stevens co-star. In 1976, without the ready availability of classic movies in every library, people didn’t know as much about the history of moviemaking as they do now, and it may have been that Bogdanovich simply thought he was doing enough by getting some of the basics down and making it entertaining, but the movie ought to have been jammed a great deal more with gags, history or what have you. The skills he had demonstrated in earlier films, both in efficient storytelling and in executing screwball comedy, completely desert him. There are a few cute moments, some haunting images (especially the final metaphor-for-movies-and-life shot of men dressed as soldiers marching in a circle so a camera can film them in an endless straight line), and attractive stars, but it can’t shake the appearance that it is a concoction dreamed up by enthusiastic movie geeks who had too much cash to burn.

The monophonic sound is okay. The theatrical version has an alternate French audio track and both versions have optional English and French subtitles. Bogdanovich supplies a commentary track over the Director’s Cut, identifying each allusion, discussing the compromises he had to make during the production, recalling what it was like to work with the cast and crew, and admitting that even with the Director’s Cut, which he thinks is better than the color film, there are still significant tonal problems and other flaws.

Occasional speckles that appear on the separate DVD release of The Last Picture Showhave been removed on the Double Feature presentation, but otherwise the black-and-white image transfer sill looks a little too soft and could use a full-fledged remastering. Even under those conditions, however, the 1971 film remains a highly compelling drama about a year in the lives of several teenagers and grownups living in a half-empty, flat Texas town. Timothy Bottoms stars as a graduating senior who ends up having an affair with his coach’s wife, played by Cloris Leachman (who won a Supporting Oscar). Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd play another couple, and Ben Johnson (who won the other Supporting Oscar) is the owner of the town’s pool hall. The 126-minute director’s cut brings back sequences that Bogdanovich was pressured to drop to keep the film’s running time under two hours, and enriches the story in a satisfying manner.

It was once something of a mystery as to why this film is so much better than any other Bogdanovich film, but listening to his commentary, which is new, and to the excellent 65-minute retrospective documentary, which also appeared on the earlier DVD release, it becomes much clearer. For one thing, he was working off of a Larry McMurtry novel instead of composing an original script, so the emotional wealth and backgrounds of the characters were already thoroughly established. But he was also chomping at the bit to make a major film. He’d done Targets, but that was a somewhat larkish project, based in part upon the limited availability of its star. For Last Picture Show, he went all out. He rehearsed extensively, had every shot and every scene visualized in his head, and it all came together just as he’d planned it. He describes these efforts in his commentary. “This next scene, which develops into a fight with Jeff and Tim, this was all shot in forty-five different set-ups, and they were planned rather carefully, and the actors and I rehearsed the scene quite a bit. I remember rehearsing that previous weekend, and I told them exactly where the cuts were going to be. I actually planned it while we were rehearsing it, so that they knew how far it would go without a cut and where the cuts would be. It was a complicated scene and we had to do it in one day, so we were very prepared. Every single shot, as you see it in the picture, is exactly the way it was shot. We did it in sequence, shot by shot.” He had a few more hits afterwards, but he probably never had the same ‘fire’ in his belly, and by Nickelodeon, it is obvious that to a certain extent, he’s winging it.

The monophonic sound is clear. There is an alternate French track and optional English and French subtitles. In addition to the documentary, the original DVD release has text profiles of Bogdanovich and the cast, a trailer, and a 6-minute promotional featurette created for the film’s first theatrical re-release. The Double Feature release includes all of those special features (except for the text profiles) and also has a 13-minute retrospective interview with Bogdanovich. The essential information is covered in the longer documentary, but the commentary and the interview add worthwhile details.

– by Douglas Pratt

Douglas Pratt’s DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter is published monthly.
For a free sample, call (516)594-9304 or go to his website at www.DVDLaser.com

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