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'Last Tango in Paris' and trying to reconcile the past

It's one of the most famous things ever written by a movie critic in America.

Pauline Kael had just seen Marlon Brando in Bernardo Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris" at the New York Film Festival on Oct. 14, 1972: "That date should become a landmark in movie history comparable to May 29, 1913 -- the night (Stravinsky's) 'Le Sacre du Printemps' was first performed in music history ... The movie breakthrough has finally come ... This must be the most powerfully erotic film ever made and it may turn out to be the most liberating film ever made ... Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form. Who was prepared for that?"

Not me. I thought, after seeing the film, that Kael's review was complete hooey, another example of what I often thought about one of the greatest American critics of any subject whatsoever: that it was one of those occasional moments when "Aunt Pauline went off her head" and the ridiculous superlatives came out to play.

Such was Kael's influence, though, that the film's supposed eroticism was a subject you couldn't escape. In the world of late night talk shows, jokes about Brando using a stick of butter as a lubricant with actress Maria Schneider were commonplace.

Fast forward a half century and we know where such "liberation" actually went in the cultural world.

The resurfacing of a 2013 statement by Bertolucci revealed that he and Brando did not tell Schneider "what was going on because I wanted her reaction as a girl, not an actress. I wanted her to be humiliated."

On social media, there was a minor Hollywood explosion. A particularly acute story about it was written for the Washington Post by Elahe Isadi. Revulsion at Brando and Bertolucci was registered by Chris Evans, Anna Kendrick, Ava DuVernay and Rod Lurie among many others. People reported their intention to pitch DVD's of "Tango" into the garbage.

I won't do that for a simple reason: I never had a DVD of "Tango." I never wanted one. I never liked the film that much. I was, flabbergasted by Vittorio Storaro's cinematography and fascinated by the amount of raw horrific autobiography Brando allowed into his improvisations. But then I was also fascinated by the humor in the film that no one has ever talked about. Brando, the performing anarchist, had made a habit in his life of injecting disruptive charm into the weirdest movie moments. (See "The Missouri Breaks" and "The Nightcomers.")

The "eroticism" of "Last Tango" left me cold then. It offends me now, the way it does so many others. I'm probably not as revolted by it as current Hollywood performers and directors are. I'm still revolted by what the director and star did without telling the female co-star it was coming.

So many things at this stage must be said about Schneider. Most importantly: 1) Note that Bertolucci wanted her reaction as a "girl" not a "woman" or an actress. Admittedly, she was not yet 21 so he was technically accurate but it's more than a little revealing to read now. 2) Schneider, who died of cancer, told the Daily Mail in 2007 "though what Marlon was doing to me wasn't real, I was crying real tears. I felt humiliated to be honest. I felt a little raped by Marlon and Bertolucci."

And hurt by it for the rest of her life. That's what she often said. Earlier, she explained to Premiere Magazine "you have to understand what kind of world Bertolucci was in. He was in love with Marlon."

The very real and brutal mistreatment of a deceived actress in the name of art quite plainly looks abominable in our century. But that is the crux of another problem that we're having now and are going to continue to have for decades.

There is no way to reconcile the feelings of sexual "liberation" some felt in the '60's and '70's with the steadily-growing horrors of "rape culture" as we are increasingly coming to understand them in 2016. Society has come a very long way indeed.

One truly immense American career -- that of Bill Cosby -- is now in ashes because of what we now understand of his life. To even mention that he was once a very great comedian and racial influence is practically to say that the moon is made of Green Cheese. It's as difficult to talk about as O.J.'s rushing yardage. For understandable reasons, revulsion has triumphed.

The number that Bertolucci and Brando did on an unsuspecting Schneider is despicable now. As ridiculous as I thought Kael and others were being about the film, it still seems inaccurate to deny how many thought it "liberating" once.

That is our problem. Nobody ever said it was easy to reconcile past and present.

That "sexually liberated" era might as well be the 1860s and 1870s as we see them now with the post-feminist understanding of "rape culture."

That stick of butter might as well be a butter churn when we think of it now. It's that antique and irrelevant. Or worse.

But then the question is: If we lose all historical consciousness by adopting the righteous revulsions of the present, aren't we losing real understanding?

What began with the sexual "liberations" was the very thing that, in fact, led to our complete 21st century re-organization of how we now think about sex and gender.

It's amazing now that, in some ways, World War II movies now seem less ancient than "Last Tango In Paris." (Hence "Allied" at your local megaplex.)

Because it seems so old now, I just didn't think that the sensibility of 1972 needed to be murdered again in 2016. It seemed long dead already.

Truth to tell, it was, in its relentless hyperbole, barely alive in 1972.




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