A man curses god while he walks down Bir Hakeim bridge.
The photography is stunning. The camera work is stunning. The man is stunning. A young stunning woman will soon walk into the scene, check him out with a mix of consternation and disdain, then keep walking towards a very Parisian building, careless, hopping over leaves gathered by a street sweeper, while the camera returns to our man, tears in his eyes. Later the pair will cross paths again, in a unisex toilet in a very Parisian bar. And somehow they will end up viewing the same very Parisian apartment for rent. And like this, a season of very tormented sex will be born.
SPOILER 1: the most tormented party is the man. SPOILER 2: there is a famous scene of rape with butter. SPOILER 3: the season also involves some moments of masculine humiliation — e.g. the moment when she fingers him (at per his request, but he doesn’t seem to enjoy it). SPOILER 4: the season ends one hundred twenty fifty minutes later with the death of the man at the hands of the woman. Yes, she has enough and murders him — hurray for this moment of female empowerment in the finale. But it is mainly the trope of tortured male explores the dark corners of the soul with young female as vessel that drives the film forward. This is a trope that in 2019 feels tired. Not only because the trope has been done over and over, in film, literature, and the lyrics of many a neurotic troubadour. More importantly, times have changed and some tropes have been left in the nude, exposed beyond the formal preoccupations that once sheltered them.
I am of course writing of Last Tango in Paris, the 1972 film by Bernardo Bertolucci, starring Marlon Brando (as Paul) and Maria Schneider (as Jeanne). It is a film that unarguably fits into the category of “classic”. It caused and still causes shockwaves among audiences, in 2019 for different reasons than in the early 70s, when it was widely regarded as an erotic masterpiece. And for years it was one of my favourite movies.
I wasn’t attracted that much to the debasement and abuse — I wasn’t attracted by the sexual element at all, to be fair. I was attracted to Paul, decaying and vulnerable and dark, and Jeanne, beautiful and naive. I was attracted to these stereotypes, and a script full of existencial commonplaces. And to the soundtrack, which was composed and played by a fellow rosarino, Gato Barbieri. And to a fantastic use of colour — Vittorio Storaro was the director of photography after all. And I watched the film for the first time after having left Paris behind — I watched it longing for a city and a lover far away. You see, Paris is a heavyweight stereotype for Argentines of literary inclinations. (1) And being exactly of this demographic, I created a literary mini-tragedy in my mind and the film somehow resonated with me. I loved the film; I never questioned its politics.
I sound like I am making up excuses and perhaps I am. We live in times when excuses and public apologies are not only welcomed but necessary, if not compulsory, although not always sincere. Maybe now is my turn. But performative chest-banging aside, in reality it all boils down to the following: should we find some form of pleasure in things that are wrong according to our moral compass, or the prevalent moral compass of the times in which we live, or the moral compass we consider to be right, and we would like to adhere to?
If only it did boil down just to that.
Because the problem is not so much — to quote Laura Mulvey from her pivotal “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” — with film satisfying “a primordial wish for pleasurable looking” and with us feeling attracted these phantasms — the real problem is what this pleasurable looking naturalises. (2) It is never just images and how they might make us feel — it is actually about what lies behind and beyond them. In Mulvey’s words, it is about a film’s “formal preoccupations reflect[ing] the psychical obsessions of the society which produced it”. (3)
This is what it really boils down to. Psychical obsessions and ideology, if I may add. And this is the point where we need to question our own pleasure.
Spectatorship, from Duhamel to Debord and beyond, has always been suspected of being passive consumption. (4) But is the only possibility to gullibly devour images? Isn’t there a space for a critical engagement that allows not only for a critical reading but for a political reinvestment of this or that film, however problematic it might be?
This is a question that assaults me quite frequently, not only in relation to film but also literature, and not only around masculinity but around any contested territory. Because the much necessary critical appraisal of the oppressive bits of ideology that culture naturalises, together with even more pressing questions regarding the conditions of production of culture — and how these allow and foment all sorts of oppression (5) — has dragged in an infantilising literality into the debate.
This is a literality that suspects the viewer/reader of a stupidity so supine that any kind of reaction beyond mindless pleasure seems unthinkable. A literality that indirectly invites to play a text or a film by the rules said text or film sets out. It is a literality that in other words doesn’t trust our ability to deliver a critical reading, or to question our role as spectators. And that for this reason invites us to engage only with that with which we agree.
The alternative would be considering a film or a text as more than just form: a cultural artefact produced in a certain moment in time, a work of art but also an ideological machine, available for an attentive reader or viewer for unpacking, disassembling, and why not, destroying. (6)
Kill your darlings, they say. Perhaps that means killing other people’s darlings too. Perhaps you have to kill your passivity as spectator too.
But once the trickery has been revealed, once you can see behind just images, it is easy to avoid being charmed by them. It is also perhaps impossible to continue to find pleasure in them. No wonder we rather just let the charming take place. No one likes to part with a darling.
I haven’t watched Last Tango in Paris for quite a while. Contradictorily, being an attentive viewer for me has meant to stop watching this film, in order to listen to the background noises the film has made and makes. And in order to make my own background noise, writing about it, trying to understand myself against it, how for so many years I saw nothing wrong with it, why I took it at face value, why I calmly accepted in its own terms. What did the film say to me as a man? What does it say to me as a man in 2019, as I inexorably approach Paul’s age in the film, but without any wish to explore the dark corners of my soul through dairy or misogyny, nor to declare myself “woke” and clean of all fault or sin.
And I wonder what today’s “classic” films will look like fifty years from now, how many will withstand the test of time. We can only hope that as the moving image as a language continues to evolve so will our ability to challenge what we see, hopefully in sync with that which is produced at the time we live. It has been a while since someone exited a cinema panicking about a locomotive bursting from the screen. (7) Perhaps we have reasons for being hopeful.
About the Author:
Fernando Sdrigotti is an Argentine writer, translator, and cultural critic. He studied History of Art at Goldsmiths from 2004 to 2007 and received a Master in Latin American Cultural Studies from Birkbeck, in 2009. In 2014 he was awarded a PhD from the same institution, for his study of Buenos Aires in New Argentine Cinema during the neoliberal decade of 1990-2000.
His critical and creative work, in Spanish and English, has appeared widely online and in print in publications such as Journal of Urban Cultural Studies, Open Democracy, The Guardian, Gorse, 3:AM Magazine, Numéro Cinq, Berfrois, Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies, New Cinemas, and Open Pen among many others. As a fiction writer he is the author of Tríptico (Dunken, 2008), Shetlag, una novela acentuada (Araña Editorial, 2014), Dysfunctional Males (LCG Media 2017), Shitstorm (Open Pen, 2018), Grey Tropic (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, February 2019, co-authored with Martin Dean), and Departure Lounge Music (LCG Editores, forthcoming mid 2019).
(1) Cue Cortázar, Saer, Borges, Pizarnik, Silvina and Victoria Ocampo, etc.
(2) Mulvey 1999, 834.
(4) The reference is to Duhamel’s now famous impression, upon visiting a cinema in the 1920s, that his thoughts had been replaced by moving images, and that he was incapable of thinking when facing a screen (Duhamel 1930, p. 52). Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle proposes an equally dystopian scenario, where the Spectacle reigns supreme and the spectator can only but passively consume images – see particularly chapter 1, “The Culmination of Separation” (Debord 2009).
(5) Take the case of the “butter scene” in Last Tango in Paris. Although it became known in the Anglosphere round 2016, causing the expected outrage that Schneider hand’t been told about this scene, in order to get her surprised reaction, was vox populi in the Francophone public for several decades. In an interview in English in 2007, for the 35th anniversary of the film, Maria Schneider spoke about her experiences shooting Last Tango in Paris, and how Bertolucci’s approach — and the film as a whole — had been detrimental not only to her career but her personal life (see North 2018). It is never just images — there is also about how this images are achieved. One of the most extreme examples of this kind of sacrifice (of an actress) for the sake of art is arguably Alejandro Jodorowsky in El Topo. In an interview in 1972 Jodorowsky claimed that the rape scene in this film was actually a real rape (see O’Hara 2017). More recently, after finding himself in the centre of a shitstorm that saw a retrospective cancelled (see Weber 2019), the director would backtrack on this and claim that his comments in 1972 had been a “publicity stunt” (see Art Forum 2019). Whether real or staged, I find Jodorowsky’s and Bertolucci’s comments and the different reaction they elicited over time representative of the changes in gender politics in the past decades.
(6) I hijack here Laura Mulvey’s notion of “attentive viewer”, as developed in her Death 24x a Second (2006). Mulvey is particularly interested with the time of registration of film and how this can be revealed by an attentive viewer, by use of technology. Without the space for an exploration of the image as an index, I would argue that in the same way that an attentive viewer might “delay a fiction in full flow” (184) by the use of a remote control or pause button, in order to reveal the moment of its registration, an attentive viewer might delay a fiction in full flow by approaching it with a theoretical arsenal that might help him or her see beyond the flickering images, the spectacle.
(7) I am referring to the apocryphal anecdote of the audience panicking and leaving the cinema during the premiere of the Lumiere brothers’ L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat, in 1896. For an excellent article about this myth, and how it is frequently mobilised in order to highlight the moving image’s powers over the audiences see Loiperdinger and Elzer, 2004.
Art Forum. 2019. “Alejandro Jodorowsky Speaks Out After El Museo del Barrio Calls off Retrospective”. Art Forum, January. Accessed March 2019. Available: https://www.artforum.com/news/alejandro-jodorowsky-speaks-out-after-el-museo-del-barrio-calls-off-retrospective-78538
Bertolucci, Bernardo. 1972. Last Tango in Paris. Produzioni Europee Associati (PEA).
Debord, Guy. 2009. Society of the Spectacle. Eastbourne: Soul Bay Press Ltd.
Duhamel, Georges. 1930. Scènes de la vie future, Mercure de France: Paris.
Loiperdinger, Marting, & Elzer, Bernd. 2004. Lumiere’s Arrival of the Train: Cinema’s Founding Myth. The Moving Image, 4(1), 89–118.
Mulvey, Laura. 1999. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP: 833-44.
Mulvey, Laura. 2006. Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image. London: Reaktion Books.
North, Anna. 2018. “The disturbing story behind the rape scene in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, explained.” Vox, November 26. Accessed February 2019. Available: https://www.vox.com/2018/11/26/18112531/bernardo-bertolucci-maria-schneider-last-tango-in-paris.
O’Hara, Helen. 2017. “The director who took a rape scene too far: the shocking truth about the exploitation 'classic' El Topo.” The Telegraph, December. Accessed February 2019. Available: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/0/director-bragged-on-camera-rape-alejandro-jodorowskys-el-topo/
Weber, Jasmine. 2019. “El Museo del Barrio Cancels Alejandro Jodorowsky Retrospective In Light of 1970s Rape Admission.” Hyperallergic, January. Accessed February 2019. Available: https://hyperallergic.com/482070/el-museo-del-barrio-cancels-alejandro-jodorowsky-retrospective-in-light-of-1970s-rape-admission/