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Jeff Simon: Bernardo Bertolucci -- a great filmmaker, an overrated one, or both?

Jeff Simon

Fasten your seat belts, as a famous actress once put it. This ride could get a little bumpy.

I've always been a bit of a dissenter on the subject of Bernardo Bertolucci, who died of cancer at the age of 77 this morning.

One of the great living filmmakers? Sure, sure, sure. No argument.

But also, in my opinion, one of the most greatly overrated ones, too. In fact, one of the more ridiculous critical overstatements in the entire history of movies was thrown by Pauline Kael at Bertolucci's "Last Tango In Paris" after its American premiere at a New York film festival. The 1972 film starred Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider and contained the most controversial sex scene of its era.

The scene became even more controversial as the decades rolled on.

According to Kael in the New Yorker, it was "the most powerfully erotic film ever made and it may turn out to be the most liberating. ... Brando and Bertolucci have altered the face of an art form."

Breathless superlatives have again been thrown at "Tango" on the occasion of Bertolucci's death.

Hooey, I wrote at the time. I wrote it much more politely and decorously for this publication, but in retrospect, that is certainly one way of translating the gist of what I wrote.

I just wasn't much impressed by "Last Tango in Paris." It was, as was always the case with Bertolucci, magnificently photographed. What initially registered most with me, oddly, is that fractious and anarchic sense of humor Brando so often brought to movies where it might otherwise seem entirely inappropriate (see, also, for example "The Nightcomers," "The Formula," and "The Missouri Breaks").

But you have to understand that Kael was, arguably, the most influential film critic who ever lived in America. It seemed to me then her estimates of "Tango's" "revolutionary" potential told us more about the critic herself than either the movie or the filmmaker.

Nor was she alone in doing so. What Norman Mailer wrote about the film at the time was also self-revelatory in ways that revealed little about the film.

Comics made jokes about the film's most famous scene on all the talk shows of the era, but decades later we found out from Brando's co-star Schneider that it wasn't funny in the slightest. She finally began to tell people before her early death the scene was a complete shock to her at the time and, in retrospect, she wasn't sure it couldn't be called anal rape. She wasn't told what Brando was going to do either by her co-star or her director.

In the #MeToo era of the 21st century, the film -- and Bertolucci -- simply have to be seen differently, no matter how extraordinarily gifted he was visually.

What I must confess overlooking somewhat at the time was the nakedness of Brando's revelatory improvised dialogue, in particular those passages about his alcoholic mother that clearly foreshadow, in cinematic fiction, what he wound up writing about her in his memoir "Songs My Mother Taught Me."

But from Gato Barbieri's overwrought music on down I just didn't think "Tango" came close to living up to the hype. Certainly, to me, it didn't come close to "The Conformist," which is now, I think, clearly the greatest Bertolucci film of them all.

He can't be dismissed, that's for sure. So many of his films are worth seeing for their ambition and visual grandeur alone (that latter brought to them, in most cases, by his cinematographer Vittorio Storaro): "The Last Emperor" (which won an Oscar in 1988 for Best Picture), "1900," "The Spider's Stragegem" and "Before the Revolution."

He made a startling confession at the time of "The Last Emperor" -- one that has proven to be extraordinary about movies in the 21st century: "I feel this very moment does not inspire me a lot. I admire directors who are able to do movies about the present, but all the ideas I have recently about movies are movies of the past, not today. So I have a problem with this moment.

"It's like the cinema is not the right instrument, the right language for this moment. I think every period has its language, its artistic expression. In the Renaissance, you have paintings ... then you have novels in the 19th century, then you have melodrama, then you have cinema in the 20th century. Every period decides what kind of language, what kind of expression to represent itself.

"I think this moment is more electronic than cinema. At this moment, electronics are so important they are almost creating reality. If I had an idea about a movie today, I think I would like to do it electronically."

Now that he's gone, it seems to me that Bernardo Bertolucci, 30 years ago, had an infinitely subtler grasp of what future movies would be than those who wrote about him ever did.

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