Last Picture Shows: Essential Films About Vanishing Ways of Life
The best movies that bring special poignancy to lives no longer present.
Here on Keyframe, we’ve dedicated much of the past two weeks to spotlighting sleep furiously, Gideon Koppel’s acclaimed British documentary; it makes its exclusive 24 hour online premiere today on Fandor. Now that sleep furiously is available for you to watch, with a dozen or so articles, photo essays and videos offering additional insights on the film, we thought to take inspiration from the film to reflect on other great movies that also draw from its central theme: capturing a vanishing way of life. It’s a theme exceptionally well-suited to cinema, a medium that preserves life like none other, gratifying the human impulse to freeze each moment into an eternal present before they are lost or forgotten, what critic Andre Bazin called “the mummy complex.”
We asked several critics and filmmakers to share their own favorite film that attests to this special quality of the movies, and they came through beautifully. (A couple are particularly resonant to sleep furiously: the Wales-set How Green Was My Valley; the sheep-infested Sweetgrass) Their testimonials speak to the particular poignancy that the movies bring in bearing witness to lives no longer present.
When I think of my favorite film that portrays a vanishing way of life, three immediately spring to mind. Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, and John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley. All great films, to be sure, but How Green Was My Valley stands out to me not only as the best, but as by far the most unique. Whereas the Welles and the Visconti tackle dying majestic lifestyles of excess and riches, the Ford does the exact opposite: it shows disappearing modes of life for the common man. And it tackles all kinds of vanishings: the loss of family, health, faith, and much more. Most notably, it’s about the loss of innocence. So what Ford gets at in this film is this greater, universal theme about growing up and getting old, shedding our old skin and growing a new one.
This is not merely a film about losing something forever, it’s also about adapting. It’s about remembering what is lost, and how to hold onto it, and the value in that holding on. The valley represents all that is good, all that is worth living for and – if lost – all that is worth remembering, and no matter how sad the loss may be, there is something wonderful about that act of remembering. As older Huw states in the opening VO, “There is no fence nor hedge ‘round time that is gone. You can go back and have what you like of it, if you can remember.” So sure, this is a film about loss, but it is a decidedly optimistic film. Ford seems to be saying that we may lose everything we hold dear to our hearts, but that it’s okay, because if we have a strong foundation in our lives (or a strong family, a very common theme in almost all of Ford’s films, along with the importance of ritual and groups in general), we will not only make it through, we will persevere.
- Matt D’Elia wrote, directed, produced and starred in American Animal, which world premiered at SXSW this year and will be in theaters and on video in 2012.
Todd Haynes‘ Velvet Goldmine is a love letter to a rock n’ roll past that is often more fiction than fact, because the history of rock can’t simply be written. It’s told in tall tales exchanged in smoky bars where the drinks are poured generously and the music is so loud that you can’t hear what anyone is actually saying. Haynes knows this but he also wants us to believe that rock ‘n’ roll once had the power to change the world, or at the very least, it could transform the inner world of one teenage boy, Arthur (Christian Bale).
Through Arthur’s awkward gaze we’re offered a romanticized look at the glamorous world inhabited by pop idols in the early 1970s. These androgynous icons were forging progressive paths while deifying dated ideas about personal identity and exploring uncharted worlds submerged in sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. But the past that Arthur remembers and longs for is born from teenage daydreams and adolescent desires. It’s neither truth nor fiction but something else entirely.
Haynes’ film shows the modern world that Arthur currently inhabits, a suffocating barren place devoid of color and joy. It’s the early 1980s and the AIDS epidemic seems to have taken all the fun out of sex, while the ugly reality of addiction has lessened the appeal of drugs. The homeless now own the streets that pretty young things once strutted down and rock ‘n’ roll is slowly becoming corporatized. But Velvet Goldmine refuses to succumb to nostalgia. The film looks back while looking forward and hints at a brighter future to come, which is why I’m compelled to watch Haynes’ rock ‘n’ roll fantasy again and again.
- Kimberly Lindbergs blogs about film at Cinebeats and regularly writes for Turner Classic Movies.
How sadly fitting that a cinematic elegy to a vanished way of life would have vanished into the ether itself. Norman René’s 1989 Longtime Companion was not only made by a director who has since passed away, but it’s also a film about a period that most people would rather scoot out of their minds: the AIDS epidemic at its greatest crisis moment, the 1980s, and is therefore a film that is largely forgotten outside of queer-cinema circles. Most would probably think of René’s landmark work of remembrance (produced, ballsily, in the thick of the moment rather than erected as a monument years later) as an effective historical drama or perhaps merely (!) a devastating portrait of a disease. Yet what makes Longtime Companion truly valuable—and heartbreaking—is its dramatization of the waning days of a community. Beginning and ending on a once and forever paradise called Fire Island (admirers of The Tree of Life should recall this film’s beachside living-and-the-dead reconciliation as well), Longtime Companion is less an urgent call to action (as the straight-centric And the Band Played On and Philadelphia would be years later) than a critical act of mourning. For the countless men who died in New York City from 1981 to 1989, and those longtime companions—a term coined by the New York Times—they left behind, René’s film is a bruising yet regenerative celebration of a moment before the breaking of the seventh seal, and a keepsake of a protective, self-made time and a place where there was suddenly no shame in love or sex.
Many films which focus on passing eras and their vanishing ways of life often rely on nostalgia. But what raises The Last Picture Show is how it enhances the feelings of loss with a very live feeling of the loss of innocence. As we watch Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), Duane (Jeff Bridges), and Jacy (Cybil Shepherd) enter their last phase of adolescence, we witness how life disappoints them in their dying town of Anarene, Texas. Boredom causes sex to become a desperate act both for them and for their elders. The local father figure Sam (Ben Johnson) and his mentally ill son Billy (Sam Bottoms) serve as keepers of innocence. Both fade into oblivion, just like the widow Ruth (Cloris Leachman) who near the end tries to connect with the lost glories of her youth. The town’s movie theater, and its last picture show, has the power to bring up the past, but no longer the power to make things feel better.
LEARN MORE ABOUT THE LAST PICTURE SHOW IN THE BEHIND-THE-SCENES DOCUMENTARY PICTURE THIS
Metropolitan’s vanishing culture is the “urban haute bourgeoisie,” as one character puts it, and an impending downward social mobility spells its doom. The writer Ran Prieur summarized it well in noting that “the characters are introduced in formal dress at an elite party, and end the film hitch-hiking.” Yes, society folks end up hitch-hiking out of necessity. And so the rituals, the well-heeled assumptions, the decorum, all play out in an atmosphere of humorous cultural pessimism. Perhaps hard to fathom next to post-9/11 red state / blue state hysteria, Metropolitan expresses a viewpoint of both deep conservatism and – what’s more – politeness. (American politics are unthinkable without mass media, and were so even in 1990, which is why the relative absence of such features in Metropolitan marks it as an intentionally anachronistic expression of its time to begin with.)
Repeatedly the characters implore one another to imagine the viewpoint of people older, or dead, or simply elsewhere, whether it is their parents’ generation, society girls in need of escorts, or canonical writers. “Nearly everything Jane Austen wrote would look ridiculous from today’s perspective,” asserts pretentious but sympathetic interloper Tom Townsend. Audrey Rouget, one of indie cinema’s great heroines, replies, “Has it ever occurred to you that from Jane Austen’s perspective, today would look even worse?” It’s this constant, curious, imaginative faithfulness towards a particular, privileged WASP tradition that marks Metropolitan for its calmly reactionary views but also its veneer of supreme civility. The characters who most cling to some kind of outdated ideas are, more or less, the ones left in the dust. They are also the ones with whom we’re given the most reasons to sympathize (if not empathize) … and we probably hope they catch a ride home to the Upper East Side soon.
- Zach Campbell has written for Rouge, Mubi, and Framework, and blogs at Elusive Lucidity.
The title of Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality refers to an old-fashioned code of honor regarding the treatment of guests in one’s home. So, even when the menfolk in the Canfield clan discover that the new friend the girl of the family (Natalie Talmadge) has invited for dinner is Willie McCay (Buster Keaton), a man they’ve vowed to kill in accordance with an old feud, they can’ shoot him while he’s in their house. The moment he sets foot out the door, though… The movie is suffused with a nostalgia for early 19th century America (most of it takes place in 1830) that is tinged with affection and irony. The train trip — a replica of Stephenson’s Rocket, an early steam locomotive, pulling a rickety string of carriages along a set of lazily laid tracks (they go right over logs and boulders in their path) from New York to Appalachia — is an enchantingly funny journey through a halcyon landscape.
- Jim Emerson writes at Scanners.
“Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it.” Cate Blanchett utters those lines with perfunctory solemnity in the first leg of The Lord of the Rings behemoth, and her line reading pretty much underscores the strained seriousness and hocus-pocus tones of reverence found in Medieval-themed movies, Monty Python notwithstanding. But there is a bracing alternative to be found in Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac, a tautly rhythmic, furiously apocalyptic vision of the last days of the Arthurian Round Table. Instead of expensive, fanciful digitized spectacle, Bresson gets his special effects from the elements of pure cinema: rhythmically edited shots of limbs, bodies and horse’s legs, scored to clanging armor and frantic hoofbeats.
It’s as enthralling as any historical epic, yet without a hint of nostalgia. Quite the contrary, the Heroic Age of Knighthood is presented like a big social contraption in the throes of self-destruction. Proud Lancelot wanders through a kingdom of spiritual malaise like a short-circuiting robot operating on bug-ridden behavioral programming, Medieval Chivalry 1.0 (do I sleep with Guinivere because I deeply love her, or do I forsake her for upholding loyalty to Arthur?) The simple myth of Camelot becomes riddled with modern moral uncertainty leading to disastrous consequences: a heap of steel-encased bodies gushing blood.
- Kevin B. Lee is editor of Keyframe at Fandor.