Last Tango In Paris (#110 of 5)

Sinful Cinema The Driver’s Seat

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Sinful Cinema: The Driver’s Seat
Sinful Cinema: The Driver’s Seat

It’s generally agreed that films fall into one of three categories: The Good, The Bad, and the So-Bad-It’s-Good. Still, there remain a few highly select examples of a fourth category: the What-in-Hell-Was-That? Michael Sarne’s star-laden evisceration of Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge is certainly one of these, as are such disparate disasters as The Lonely Lady (Pia Zadora’s last-ditch attempt at being taken seriously), the sub-Ed-Wood exercise in low-budget incomprehensibility Mesa of Lost Women (1953), and—when and if it finally gets released—Faye Dunaway’s vanity (and how!) rendition of Terence McNally’s Maria Callas play Master Class. Yet none of these acts of cinematic desperation are quite as outré as The Driver’s Seat.

Directed by Giuseppe Patroni-Griffi, this Italian-made English-language drama, adapted from Muriel Spark’s novella about a mentally unbalanced woman searching for someone to stab her to death, stars Elizabeth Taylor and features (as Neil Patrick Harris would say, “wait for it…”) Andy Warhol. Nothing in the good, bad or so-bad-it’s-good canon compares to it. And if you were among the semi-happy few who managed to see it back in 1974, when it was released (or, some might say, “escaped”) to select grindhouses before vanishing into the maw of home video, then you know what I’m talking about. For while Elizabeth Taylor certainly made her share of stinkers in a long and productive career (Cynthia, The Sandpiper, Young Toscanini), it’s hard to imagine another item so fit to leave moviegoers scratching their heads, wondering precisely why it was made.

The Conversations: Last Tango in Paris

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The Conversations: Last Tango in Paris
The Conversations: Last Tango in Paris

Ed Howard: The opening titles of Bernardo Bertolucci’s infamous 1972 film Last Tango in Paris lay out, in an especially naked way, the themes and aesthetics of the film to come. The titles sequence is backed by two paintings by Francis Bacon, whose work inspired Bertolucci during the filming of Last Tango in Paris: first, on the left half of the screen, an image of a man in a white t-shirt reclining on a red couch, his body contorted and grotesque in contrast to the seeming languor of his posture; then, on the right half of the screen, a woman sitting primly in a wooden chair, her legs awkwardly crossed and her face, like that of the man, a jumble of distorted features. Only at the end of the credits are the two images placed side by side, and the film’s whole story is encompassed by that single gesture: two tortured, haunted, isolated figures placed together as a study of separate lives, separate pains briefly united. The psychological torment suggested by Bacon’s figures—which seem to be writhing, contorting, straining at the stasis of the paintings, all of their internal ugliness written into their bodies and faces—carries over into the rest of the film.

The man in this diptych is Paul (Marlon Brando), an American abroad in Paris, dealing—rather badly—with the very recent suicide of his French wife. The woman in the diptych is Jeanne (Maria Schneider), a French girl who Paul meets in a rotting, trashed apartment where he pulls her into a violent sexual entanglement, an escalating game of debasement and sex-as-conflict. The simple device of preceding the film proper with Bacon’s ugly/provocative figures, with their fleshy pink tones and sprawling ruin, suggests how we should read these characters, and if it wasn’t clear enough already, the film opens with Paul practically in mid-scream, a howl of unrestrained anguish that’s hardly drowned out even by the roaring train passing overhead. It’s tempting to think that Last Tango in Paris is about sex, for obvious reasons, but it’s not really. It’s about pain. The characters—and Bertolucci—simply use sex as a tool to express things that actually have very little to do with sex itself.

Still, there’s no doubt that the sex got—and continues to get—most of the attention. Pauline Kael, in an ecstatic (I’m tempted to say orgasmic) review, praised Bertolucci for bringing eroticism to the movies. (She goes on to make more nuanced arguments, which I’m sure we’ll get to later; I can’t think of another movie that seems as linked to a single critic’s response as this film is with Kael.) Norman Mailer, responding to Kael, said the film would have been better if it’d been more extreme, more sexually explicit, more real: “Brando’s real cock up Schneider’s real vagina would have brought the history of film one huge march closer to the ultimate experience it has promised since its inception.” But that’s missing the point, no? Did Bertolucci bring sex to the cinema with Last Tango in Paris, or is all that sex just a red herring for the film’s real concerns?

Deadweek: Season 2, Episodes 13 & 14: "A Lie Agreed Upon, Parts 1 & 2."

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Deadweek: Season 2, Episodes 13 & 14: “A Lie Agreed Upon, Parts 1 & 2.”
Deadweek: Season 2, Episodes 13 & 14: “A Lie Agreed Upon, Parts 1 & 2.”

A preview of the first few episodes of Season 2. Originally published in the Star-Ledger March 6, 2005

HBO’s Deadwood, which begins its second season tonight, is the greatest dramatic series in the history of American television. It attains this distinction by doing so many difficult, contradictory things at once. It is, in no particular order, a western, a gangster picture, a political drama, a lewd farce and a comedy of manners; an operatic potboiler chock full of sex, violence and profanity; a sustained long-form narrative that interweaves parallel plots tighter than hangman’s rope; a satire on American hypocrisy and greed; a portrait of needy, ambitious people who see through other people’s illusions but cleave tight to their own; a revisionist look at frontier life; a case study of a civilization struggling to create itself, and a weekly showcase for characters and dialogue so rich in complexity and contradiction that they deserve to be called Shakespearean.

In comparison, even the most noteworthy television seems inadequate. HBO’s The Sopranos is a gangster potboiler, a social satire, a kitchen sink drama and a riff on psychology and dreams, but rarely all at once. NBC’s Hill Street Blues and ABC’s recently departed NYPD Blue were panoramic urban dramas, police procedurals, morality plays and character studies, but not simultaneously. Deadwood, in contrast, operates on multiple levels in every scene and sometimes every line.

The first four episodes of the second season showcase Deadwood at its most ambitious, imaginative and confident. Be warned, though; like other serial dramas, this one tosses newcomers into unfamiliar narrative waters and expects them to swim, and the water is deep and dark. Tonight’s premiere contains a nasty fistfight and an even nastier gunfight ending not in glory, but in embarrassment and painful injuries; the second episode includes a frank, protracted sex act and a bloody autopsy scene, and the third and fourth installments revolve around a singularly painful medical procedure performed without anesthetic. Ugly? Yes. Gratuitous? Rarely. Like the shooting of the police captain in The Godfather or the blinding in King Lear or the psychologically intense sex scenes in Last Tango in Paris, this western’s graphic content aims to shock audiences out of their complacency. The series earns its freedom by putting the nastiness in context: It was a hard time and place, inhabited by hard people.