Friday, February 25, 2011

Last Tango in Paris (1972)

Death of a Ladies' Man

directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
starring Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider,
Jean-Pierre Léaud

Someone tell Clarence Worley in True Romance that he's got shit taste in men. Never mind that hick momma's boy Elvis — the cultural revolution credited to Presley's swiveling hips was kick-started at the dawn of the decade by Marlon Brando. Fuck screaming teenyboppers on Ed Sullivan — Brando was lit dynamite for adults; sweating and scratching his way through the black-and-white artifice of A Streetcar Named Desire, tossing your radio out the window and tearing your Scarlett O'Hara's playhouse down and making a catchphrase out of the name Stella, to boot. If Elvis, as Lester Bangs once said, "alerted America to the fact that it had a groin with imperatives," then Brando's very screen presence — its sheer primal charge — showed the whole world that it liked it up the ass, that sex was best when taken and not asked for, that borderline mental instability with a hint of violence was the fastest way to moisten a vulva.

And that's to say nothing of the revolution in acting that he fathered — the hyper-realism too real for real life, the mumbling, the soul-searching, the uncertainty, the self-indulgent but revealing improvs, the James Deans and Nicholsons and Pacinos and Hoffmans and De Niros and Sean Penns and Val Kilmers and Edward Nortons and James Gandolfinis that squirted out every time he squatted over a soundstage to let out a fart during rehearsal. In the wake of his Stanley Kowalski and his Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, and even his bad-ass biker in The Wild One, thirty-odd years of mannered acting before him suddenly seemed as authentic as Milli Vanilli limping onstage behind Curtis Mayfield. The silver screen was all the richer just for the fact of Brando's mother having ever met his father. Even in the years of his self-parodic decline, even while he pocketed million-dollar paychecks for crappy films and reduced his gift to whatever could fit inside an oddball, glorified cameo, Marlon Brando remained the father of modern screen acting — the finest goddamn thespian ever to tread God's salty green earth.

Exhibit A for the defense: Bernardo Bertolucci's masterpiece Last Tango in Paris. Students of "controversial cinema" already know the basics — Last Tango in Paris. Synonymous with erotic films. A dirty grandfather to fuck-fueled filmic descendants such as In the Realm of the Senses and 9 Songs. Slapped with an X rating in the era of Deep Throat. Censored or banned in various countries. The corner where porno chic slammed head-on into the European art film. Its scandalous effect on the 1972 New York Film Festival. Maria Schneider's ample tits and ampler bush. "Get the butter."

Maria Schneider is blithe Parisienne Jeanne, all of twenty years old and set to marry a young documentary filmmaker when she breezes into the vacant flat she's just rented and discovers Paul (Brando). Paul's an American expatriate, hiding in darkness from the fact that his French wife recently slit her wrists — and his remedy for the gaping black hole of emotional numbness inside him is to take this bourgeois little French girl by force, right up against the wall. Naturally, Paul's bestial-daddy schtick — no names, no details, only sex — is exactly the spanking that baby-girl Jeanne needs deep down inside. Naturally, Jeanne comes back for more, meeting Paul for afternoon trysts in the very abode she's soon to occupy with her hubby-to-be. Naturally, Paul's psycho-sexual violation leads to both mutual-obsession-as-personal-journey and escalating acts of sexual degradation that obviously impressed the makers of 9 1/2 Weeks. Naturally, what it all adds up to is Stanley Kowalski, still pulling Stella down off them columns, twenty years later.

I say "naturally" not in the peeved tones of some cobwebbed-cunt feminist who wonders why every time filmmakers purge their psyches, we get these vengeful-schoolboy fantasies of women panting under the boot of male domination — no. Rather, I say it from the standpoint of a man who knows all too well that Jeannes exist in multitudes. I say it with the personal knowledge that fucking with desperate abandon is a stronger emotional Band-Aid than even drugs or booze; that near-rape and a bit of expert subjugation can earn an angry, wounded gent the Daddy Substitute badge with just about any needy, emotionally unformed woman he chooses.

Though Schneider's double roll-away in the aftermath of that shocking first fuck is a bit stagy, every detail bears the sweat of authentic doings — the touch is sure. Watch the way she succumbs to Brando's gorilla embrace. Watch the debauched parody of her upcoming nuptials in the way that he scoops her up before crossing the threshold of acceptable behavior. Glory in the offhanded way that he fastens his coat and picks the for-rent sign off the wall, as they step out into daylight and stagger off in separate directions with nary a word — he, of course, reveling in the joy of having just shattered her porcelain dollhouse of a world.

And who wouldn't swing the mallet? Maria Schneider is the world's cutest little monkey here — a tousle-haired, beauty-marked little Monchhichi poking her head out from beneath ruffled layers of assumed propriety, just to stick her tongue out at you while her elders aren't watching. She's a naughty, precocious brat whose mangled English and pendulous cleavage and furry Gallic twat you'd like to nestle yourself in and build a home for the winter, but only after you've bent her over your knee and hiked up her skirt and given her bare ass a proper reddening.

Sure, Jeanne's fiancé — the callow young filmmaker who can only see the world through a camera's viewfinder, who needs the relative order that a film set imposes upon the messiness of real life — is a cliché so old its beard is graying. For all we know, it's Bertolucci's self-commentary as a filmmaker, his weird, masochistic fantasy of losing his woman to some much worldlier, older gent. But it works here. Clearly, Jeanne the bourgeois little French girl is straining for some sort of authenticity in her life; something real, something that hasn't been manufactured and scripted and shaped then re-shaped for a potential audience — and if it takes getting raped on the floor of a vacant apartment by a depressed middle-aged weirdo whose name she doesn't even know, then c'ést la vie. Neat trick, that: setting up extraordinarily scripted circumstances as the emotional prison from which Schneider flees into the unpredictable arms of Brando, the King of Sweaty Improv.

Here's the twist, though: as corruptible and pliable as she initially seems to Paul, with all his worldly wisdom and graying American alpha-maleness, it's Jeanne who's able to call it a day and move on, unscathed. An older, wiser woman would have continued succumbing to Paul, conceding her mind and her soul, possibly until there was very little of her left. It would have served her needs — penance for a normal human life full of messy little lies and casual deceptions. It would have put its buttery fingers up the ass of her soul and touched a pulse that no emissary from the straight world of missionary position and Sunday-service-with-the-kids would be able to find at that point. Here, though, Paul's effect is one of psychic bruises, not scars; ultimately, Jeanne's too young and too restless — too incapable of any kind of lasting bond — for his attempted emotional decay to take root. She's nowhere near as damaged as he is — not at her age, with its attendant lack of true soul-weariness.

The bulls-eye that this self-loathing wreck of a man is really aiming at is the one painted on his own chest. He becomes ensnared in his own web, he brings himself crashing down. It's suicide via futile emotional yearning, and suicide — resting, at last, beside his pigfucker cunt of a wife in whatever eternal flophouse passes for an afterlife — is what every ounce of him is crying out for, from the moment we meet him. Bertolucci shaped the role of Paul just for Brando and wooed him — then fought with him — just to seduce him into the performance we see before us. Brando seems very much to be Acting in certain scenes but that only adds to the intrigue and the tension for people waiting to see what the Great Improviser is going to come up with next. Tony Soprano once likened therapy to taking a shit, and that's exactly what it feels like here: we can feel Brando searching, straining — as in a long monologue about drunken parents and a farmer with a clay pipe that Paul remembers from his youth. It makes us feel like dirty little psychological voyeurs, privy to a famously guarded man prodded forward by his director, as he digs around in his guts and bares long-hidden psychological wounds. Half the time — despite Brando's disavowals (and, on occasion, flat-out dismissals) to the press — we don't know whether it's Paul coming unraveled before our very eyes or Marlon Brando himself. The fact that Brando cold-shouldered Bertolucci for almost fifteen years after Tango speaks obviously to the latter. 

Last Tango ends up going rather out of its way to make Paul's depressed visage a Mount Rushmore for modern male doubt and alienation. It's all in the way that Vittorio Storaro's ace cinematography positively caresses Brando's profile, rendering him a living statue before our very eyes. Iconographic images abound in Tango, swathing Brando in Paris-au-Printemps atmosphere and rotting, late-afternoon, autumnal colors — apparently, half the movie takes place between 4:30 and 5:30 in the evening. It's the loneliness, the isolation, the fundamental separation between characters that determines the visual design here. Shadows. Shadows. Darkness. Paul's late-night visit to the body of his wife is enough to make you forget about "I coulda been a contenda" and Don Corleone with Michael in the garden. Never before had an actor dug so deep on camera, teetered so wildly and fearlessly on the precipice over self-parody and ridiculousness, just to bring undiluted human pain to the screen.

Of course, to seen-it-all modern eyes, the much talked-about sexual content isn't much more extreme than what you'd find in a thousand unrated, straight-to-DVD productions — and if you're only tuning in because you heard about the film's X rating or the infamous scene in which Brando sodomizes Schneider with the aid of some handy butter, you're in for a serious disappointment. Something black and unknowable beats at the heart of Last Tango in Paris — that's what it's really about. It's like the time I was sick with the flu and scared to death about my impending move to L.A. and had Miles Davis' "He Loved Him Madly" on constant rotation, to the extent that I couldn't move, couldn't budge, couldn't respond to the unyielding whine of my phone, couldn't pull myself up out of the murk of why-bother-nothing-ever-works-out-the-way-you-want-it-to — to the extent that I seriously, if fleetingly, considered making a noose out of one of my neckties and pulling an Ian Curtis right there in my stuffy little suburban apartment, all alone. And I had no idea why. And still don't. It's like diving headlong into the endless air-raid siren that ends Portishead's Third, letting the blackness envelop you like a fluffy warm blanket, lulling you to sleep as you sink deeper and deeper.

Like Shampoo, Tango's an honest post-Sixties examination of just what the emotional costs of free love and no-strings sex really are — what an utter sham it is most of the time, despite the bald-faced assurances men and women lob at each other in the heat of the moment. Ultimately, all Paul wants to do is crawl back into the womb — his mother's, perhaps his dead wife's — signified by his overly Freudian love for the fetal position. Only when Paul is with Jeanne is there an emphasis on shared shots, togetherness — and even then, loneliness creeps in around the edges and dominates. Loneliness is each character's shadow at all times, even when — or especially when — naked with another human being. Paul confronts Jeanne with this, the essential loneliness of human existence — "you're all alone and you won't be able to face that until you look death right in the face." "Go right up into the ass of death," he tells her, an exhortation that could have come from his Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.

Brando comes off as half-insane here, as he likely was in real life. By the end, Paul's mutated into a stalker straight out of some taut psychological thriller — suicidal provocation as a way out of a world he no longer understands, a world he can no longer bear to slog his way through. Of course, the tragedy of the film is that, despite all his bullshit about not knowing each others' names and trying to keep things as detached as possible, Paul falls for Jeanne.

Finally, after his wife's suicide, after trying every thing possible to keep himself closed off to the possibility of love — to avoid pain — he finds a ray of sunshine in this soiled French pastry, he finds himself opening up to her, finds himself falling in love with her. His fate is sealed, the moment he tells her this. And why? Well, Jeanne does exactly as Paul suggests — she looks right up into the ass of death, sees the reflection of her own future loneliness in Paul — and she pulls back, she retreats, she flees back into the arms of her callow filmmaker fiancé. It's artifice over reality, manufactured image over edifying ugliness. It's marriage as the death of true passion, as it often is in life; marriage as the safe, well-heated, hundred-thousand-dollar, white-picket-fence womb of financial security and social respectability that Jeanne retreats to, as all women must. And Paul is left alone — truly, inconsolably alone; stuck deep up the cavernous, putrid ass of death with his own loneliness once again.

Of course, we never find out why Paul's wife committed suicide. Paul's tragedy is that he comes to understand why, only too well.

©2011 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Mandingo (1975)

21st Century Schizoid Man

directed by Richard Fleischer
starring James Mason, Susan George, Perry King,
Richard Ward, Brenda Sykes, Ken Norton

When it comes to defending the "indefensible," I'm like the crazy old cat lady at the dark end of Culture Street, taking stray bits of musical and cinematic refuse under my wing and nursing them into full-blown obsessions. Just ask anyone I've exposed to the "racist" country songs of David Allan Coe or the tragically uncool dork-rock of Rush or Yes — things invariably shat upon by hipsters nipping at the prune juice of assumed irrelevance, too safe inside their bubbles to actually expose themselves to what they're ridiculing. The biker-bar vernacular of those notorious Coe numbers is — like the slang of the projects or the Guido-ese spoken in Brooklyn or Jersey — a tradition-forged American tongue sanctioned neither by social propriety nor Strunk & White; a tribal self-portrait whose warts-and-all honesty one needn't embrace but which only a philistine would want silenced. Censorship via "political correctness" — say, the campaign to de-"nigger"-ize Huckleberry Finn — is one way to Windex the bum's fingerprints of a now-embarrassing past from our collective American windshield. Smugly relegating viable works of art to the trash heap of Bad B-Movie Night is another.

Such has been the fate of Richard Fleischer's ballsy 1975 slave epic Mandingo, a film that merits a place at the table with the Nashvilles and Barry Lyndons of its year, not shunted off to a crappy seat next to Dolemite over in the colored section. Set on Falconhurst, a slave-breeding plantation in 1840's Looziana, it ostensibly tells the story of rheumatic old slaver Warren Maxwell (James Mason) struggling to keep his business afloat when son Hammond (Perry King) buys Mede (boxer Ken Norton), a strapping Mandingo buck prized as the biggest and strongest around. Mede turns out to be a walking ATM for his new owners — whether ripping the Maxwells' stable of wenches in half with his Nubian man-snake and siring top-dollar babies in the process or decimating his fellow slaves in high-stakes death-matches. It’s odd — for a movie that’s been trying to scrape critical consensus off the bottom of its shoe for almost forty years — how restrained Fleischer’s direction actually is. He’s interested neither in preaching nor in soppy liberal hand-wringing — the moral rot of the characters’ milieu is already coded into the visual design, the tone, the pacing. Richard Kline's appropriately moody cinematography makes decrepit old Falconhurst the haunted house from a national nightmare, the stand-in for a barren way of life that's withering on the vine — its rooms and hallways cloaked in suffocating shadows, scarcely inhabited by people or with only the barest semblance of furnishings. This is no place to call home. Not even the midday Louisiana sun gives off any warmth here.

Look at the film through twenty-first century goggles, though, and the axis of tragedy becomes clearer. Forget about black folk in chains — Mandingo is the tragedy of a white man with a yen for dark meat, born in the wrong era. Hammond is introduced to us as a man utterly unmoved by sexy blonde prostitutes pawing at his crotch, a slaveowner for whom the right of Massa to deflower and impregnate his wenches is personal gospel. Papa Warren wants grandbabies more than three-fifths human, though, so he presses Hammond to take a white wife (Susan George) when Hammond's perfectly happy spilling the remainder of his fertile years inside Ellen (Brenda Sykes), the brown sugar he saves his sweetest nothings for — his real wife.

Of course, the antebellum South was a bit early for a white man with the predilections of Robert De Niro. Hammond calls up every excuse in the Good Book — white wimmens ain't s'posed to like sex, wifey Blanche lacked cherry on their wedding night — to explain away his lack of interest in his blushing bride, to justify the spot his beacon of Southern womanhood holds on the totem pole beneath Mede and Ellen. Compare each couple's consummation: the tenderness he shows Ellen (at least, she's a virgin) versus the way he cruelly rebuffs Blanche — clearly smoke and mirrors to hide the fact that Blanche's severe melanin deficiency has left him limper than a wet newspaper. Poor Blanche — even Daddy Maxwell (of all indignities) shows more excitement at the sight of Mede than he does at meeting his new daughter-in-law. Not even relieving Ellen of the burden of bearing Hammond's mulatto spawn can sew up that quivering gash in her pride. Booted from her perch of privilege and landing in the mud next to slave quarters, a seething Blanche finally demands a little sugar from new neighbor Mede — forcing Hubby to take up arms in defense of affronted white male supremacy and hastening, in one fell swoop, the very end to the Falconhurst empire that her presence was supposed to prevent. Hell hath no fury like a white woman scorned.

It's a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare — however overripe its Lady Macbeth — and what's obvious, once you hose off the shit-stew of derision and nervous titters that tastemakers have sprayed Mandingo with for over three decades, is what a powerful film it is. The American history book shows race relations as a bunch of disparate, and possibly incompatible, ingredients tossed willy-nilly into a pressure cooker, sealed tight, and cranked up to 165 degrees — thusly, so is Mandingo. Our enlightened, college-educated, post-Martin Luther King minds can't conceive of a society where the ability of li'l nigger boys to drain the rheumatism out of the feet of old white men was casual dinner-table conversation. Our enlightened, college-educated minds can't conceive of a world where the impossibility of blacks having souls was common knowledge.

And yet, there it is — the hairy brown maw of unsanitized history that Mandingo spreads wide and shoves in our faces, complete with its own set of rules: 1) never kiss a nigger wench on the mouth; 2) niggers never look a white person in the eye, or address one, unless given permission first; 3) blinding a nigger in one eye is the perfect punishment for said nigger having learned to read since it learns 'em real good and, with one eye left, they can still perform their duties; 4) breeding a nigger with his own relatives isn't incest any more than it is with farm animals; 5) it's not like niggers'd know their own family, anyway, since they were most likely sold off as babies; 6) if the progeny of a nigger fornicatin' with his own kin turns out some kinda retard, well, you just kill it.

We howl with our friends at Susan George's overwrought Southern-belle jive because we're dancing on strings held by thirty years of "it's a trashy B-movie!" orthodoxy. Certainly, it's easier than breaking from the pack of hipster hyenas. Certainly, it's easier than pausing to consider George's bug-eyed hyperventilating as a performance that Blanche herself would undoubtedly give in order to maintain the chaste-maiden-of-the-South image that antebellum society expected of its white women. When your rich new plantation-heir husband figures out that you've had cock before his and calls your purity into question, you pound your fist into the bed and take your umbrage in declamatory shrieks — it's the only way to convince.

We tell ourselves to laugh at the mondo bizarro world that Mandingo presents because if it ain't funny, then it's true — and if it's true that human beings actually lived and prospered and slept soundly in a world like this, then it's too fucking horrible to contemplate. It's horrible enough to make you forget that your own ancestors didn't arrive at these shores from Europe until the 1930's; horrible enough to make you offer up your own fat middle-aged wife as sexual reparations for boneheaded, irony-free Negroes who blissfully trumpet their own status as prized bucks for the gratification of flabby white suburbanites, and then slap high-fives with their homies and crow about how the times, they are a-changin'.

All the so-called "tawdry" elements of the film? Trashy interracial sex? Whites using blacks as disposable sexual objects? White women who feel unappreciated by white men and spitefully use black cock as a two-by-four with which to bludgeon the "straight" society that rejected them? Blacks basing their self-worth on Massa's approval? Blacks maiming and killing one another for white America's entertainment? Blacks happily assuming control of the whip that keeps their own people in line? Well, that, my friends, is nothing less than the whole sorry-ass Southern-fried Gothic melodrama that's written the script for our American theater right up to the present day — a text from which we have yet to deviate. It's a history of elbows chafed from rubbing — of attempted coexistence futile enough to make the Hatfields and McCoys look like Frisco bathhouse-buddies and volatile enough to make a veritable rainbow of weary Americans toast both pre-hajj Malcolm X and George Lincoln Rockwell. It's a nation of black men nodding out on the opiates of white club pussy and juvenile braggadocio, conjuring up images like the ones in Mandingo to justify sagging pants and grills and thug badges worn proudly to the Church of Blame Whitey, while the poise and dignity of the Civil Rights Era shrinks in our rear-view mirror like Wile E. Coyote gone off the cliff. It's the big black dick that put a drop of piss in David Allan Coe's glass of Jack Daniels. It's a white male ruling order that was destined, from day one, to push black males and white women together, rendering them strange bedfellows in the boudoir of mutual disenchantment. 

Mandingo doesn't call the collision of black and white on the minefield of capitalism "combustible," it sketches race in America as a fucking wad of nitroglycerin packed up the ass of a Parkinson's-afflicted mule that's trapped inside a rickety old truck speeding over a very bumpy road in the mountains — a bomb so potent, it's exploded again and again and again. 1863 New York, the summer of 1919, 1923 Rosewood, 1943 Detroit, Watts '65, Newark in '67, Memphis '68, L.A. '92, Cincinnati in '01, Emmett Till, O.J., hell, the election of Obama — Ken Norton's dong lit the fuse deep inside Susan George's disarranged guts, gracing each successive chapter of the American saga, both black and white, with ashes and rubble.

If you live on the South Side of Chicago, open your window — you can still smell smoke. If you're living near the burned-out shell of what used to be Detroit, or anywhere in L.A. where homeboys and cholos compete for demographic superiority and their every dialogue is a fatally serious version of the old Reese's Peanut Butter Cup commercial (one where Latino peanut butter and African-American chocolate don't seem to go so well together), then open your window — smell the smoke. If you're living in Oakland — smell the smoke. Baltimore — smell the smoke. St. Louis? Jackson, Mississippi? Birmingham, Alabama? Cleveland? N'awlins? The Bronx? Flint, Michigan? Camden, New Jersey? Gary, Indiana — or anywhere else in America where the few remaining whites endure tentatively in a growing sea of black like weather-beaten old statues commemorating the Dutch settlers who founded Harlem; where the "burn, baby, burn" of past riots can still be heard, carried on the wind like the klaxons sounded at the dawn of desegregation? Smell the smoke.

And a question lingers. As the voices of Medgar Evers and James Byrd, Jr., of Reginald Denny and the victims of the D.C. Sniper, of Nicole Brown Simpson plus whatever old lady just got her purse snatched this week, all rise from the smoke to offer a hearty "thanks, guys" to the Hammond Maxwells that struck the first match under America's racial cauldron way back when — a question lingers. That question: is all this smoke the remnant of the last dying fire or the beginnings of a new one?

©2011 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic
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