12 February 2005

Only Tango

A friend of mine recently reported to me that she had just seen Last Tango in Paris, and was, of course, blown away. I first saw it five or six years ago, and while it is true in a sense that my contemporary eye did not see the same film that people saw thirty years ago, nonetheless it still astonishes. It is brilliant, and singular: seeing it, one is amazed that something so very different from any other film is possible.

Of course, the most famous comment about the film is Pauline Kael's

Brando cashes the check that Stanley Kowalski wrote 20 years earlier
and this is true. But she was wrong when she predicted that it would shock the world into changing the way it worked with its medium. No one else --- not even Bertolucci --- has been able to do anything like it since.

Vincent Canby at the New York Times was half right when he said

It's what in the 1960's (a decade not great for jargon) would have been called, lamely, a Now film. It's so Now, in fact, that you better see it quickly. I suspect that its ideas, as well as its ability to shock or, apparently, to arouse, will age quickly. This is not true, I think, of the superlative production by Bertolucci, nor of the extraordinary performance by Marlon Brando
He was right the Bertolucci's production and Brando's performance, but he was wrong about the film's ideas aging quickly. A different time reads it differently, to be sure, but it still shocks and arouses us as a film, and I think it will forever. It is so distinctive, so successful in the face of the opportunities for absurdity implicit in its audacity.

Which is why we often talk so much about Brando's performance --- at least we can attempt to describe that. I took a crack at it, describing my favorite scene while eulogizing Brando last year.

There's a scene in Last Tango in Paris where Brando is idly drumming his hands against the wall. That's all that's happening, and it lasts a couple of minutes. It's a scene of a man standing drumming his hands. It should be duller than a Jarmuch film and put you to sleep. But the scene is utterly hypnotic --- more movie than you get from most entire feature films.

Talent. Magic.

We talk about how cool Brando is because the film as a whole is a mystery --- something to ponder that one cannot explain. Roger Ebert has tried three times and still seems to think he's stumbling around the truth. In 1972 he said
Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris is one of the great emotional experiences of our time. It's a movie that exists so resolutely on the level of emotion, indeed, that possibly only Marlon Brando, of all living actors, could have played its lead. Who else can act so brutally and imply such vulnerability and need?

For the movie is about need; about the terrible hunger that its hero, Paul, feels for the touch of another human heart. He is a man whose whole existence has been reduced to a cry for help --- and who has been so damaged by life that he can only express that cry in acts of crude sexuality.

which says something true about the picture, but apparently didn't satisfy Ebert. In 1995 he talked a lot about how the film seemed at the time, and how his read had changed.
This movie was the banner for a revolution that never happened.

"The movie breakthrough has finally come," Pauline Kael wrote, in the most famous movie review ever published. "Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form." The date of the premiere, she said, would become a landmark in movie history comparable to the night in 1913 when Stravinsky's "Rites of Spring" was first performed, and ushered in modern music.

Last Tango premiered, in case you have forgotten, on Oct. 14, 1972. It did not quite become a landmark. It was not the beginning of something new, but the triumph of something old --- the "art film," which was soon to be replaced by the complete victory of mass-marketed "event films." The shocking sexual energy of Last Tango in Paris and the daring of Marlon Brando and the unknown Maria Schneider did not lead to an adult art cinema. The movie frightened off imitators, and instead of being the first of many X-rated films dealing honestly with sexuality, it became almost the last.

And still he wasn't happy with what he said there. Last year, he tried again, and said that half of his '95 review was hogwash.
I wrote in 1995, "but Brando knows Paul, while Schneider is only walking in Jeanne's shoes." Seeing the film again, I believe I was wrong. Schneider, who plays much of the film completely nude, who is held in closeup during long scenes of extraordinary complexity, who at 22 had hardly acted before, shares the film with Brando and meets him in the middle. What Hollywood actress of the time could have played Brando on his own field?

In 1995 I wrote: "He is in scenes as an actor, she is in scenes as a thing." Wrong again. They are both in scenes as actors, but I was seeing her as a thing, fascinated by the disconnect between her adolescent immaturity and voluptuous body. I objectified her, but Paul does not, and neither does the movie. That he keeps his secrets, refuses intimacy, treats her roughly, is explained by the scene with the body of his wife, and perhaps by his own experience of sex.

It is the only film of its kind. It dazzles us, and we struggle to describe any part of what it does. If that doesn't make a masterpiece, what could?


Anonymous said...

I wouldn't say I was "blown away". I said it was a very odd film. And affecting. And completely unusual. And Brando was great, indeed. I think you were blown away. ::grin::
- yezida

Jonathan Korman said...

I confess. My cinephilia is showing.