November 24, 2009

Justify My Netflix: Last Tango in Paris

(Like many Netflix customers, I too can get quite lax with the timely watching and returning of my movies, which of course defeats the entire purpose of having a flat-rate rental plan in the first place. To combat that, I am now writing standardized mini-reviews of each and every movie I end up watching through Netflix, both instantly and on DVD. Don't forget, all previous 'Justify My Netflix' reviews can be found on CCLaP's main movie page.)

Last Tango in Paris

Today's movie: Last Tango in Paris, 1972 (Amazon | IMDB | Netflix | Wikipedia)

Why I added it to my queue: because this early-'70s Marlon Brando/Bernardo Bertolucci character drama is hailed now as an erotic trailblazer, released back when the laws concerning this stuff were first being rewritten in the US, leading to decades now of this film being held up as a sexually charged classic but without anyone seemingly doing a modern new analysis of it in decades now either. And this was just enough justification for me to put it in my queue and finally watch it for the first time, and to see if its hippy-dippy countercultural sensibility still holds water in our bitter post-9/11 age.

The reality: This tries to get downplayed as much as possible these days, of course, but there was actually a weird little aspect of the countercultural movement that sounds at first like the antithesis of what those times were about -- and that was the rise again of the moody, violent, sexist, ultra-macho male artist, at a time in history when it was considered "uncool" among the hip to impose any kind of external moral judgment on anyone else at any time for any reason. This was part of what fueled so much feminist anger in the early '70s, in fact, and what led the women's movement to grow to such a place of power, not just the conservative Archie Bunker slobs out there but all the punch-throwing liberal Norman Mailers too, who argued through a bizarre loophole in the "Let It All Hang Out Theory" back then that they had as much a right to their behavior as anyone else. And in fact the height of the peace movement saw a ton of this machismo-laced literary misogyny and violence, as long as you knew where to look, from the abusive stylings of Robert Ludlum's heroes to the early works of Sam Shepard and David Mamet.

And now do I also know to add another title to this list, Last Tango in Paris to be exact, because instead of the timeless erotic classic I had been led to believe I'd find, I discovered a badly dated relic of the macho sexist days that the counterculture eventually left behind, I think right around the same time in fact that Reagan got voted into the White House. In fact, the more I'm finally getting to see of Brando's oeuvre, the more I'm starting to question what anyone ever saw in him in the first place, besides being the embodiment of this hulking, testosterone-dripping Byronic hero that suddenly flared into fashion among a certain section of intellectuals in the '60s and '70s. He's playing the just barely middle-aged version of that antihero here, grieving the recent suicide of his wife by essentially wandering the streets of Paris and pushing around every single woman he meets; one day he and a stranger, a flighty jailbait girlfriend of a pretentious young artist, are both let into an empty apartment at the same time to check into the idea of renting it, their passions randomly engulfing them in the heat of the moment which leads to a torrid anonymous tryst on the empty floor without either of them even getting the other's name. And this leads Brando to renting the place, specifically so they can keep up their thrilling nameless affair, where we basically watch two hours of the following kind of relationship (and note that I'm paraphrasing here):

FLABBY, HAIRY, ANGRY AND BIT DISGUSTING MIDDLE-AGED DUDE: You're a piece of sh-t and you mean nothing to me. Now come over here and have crazy, violent sex with me.

BUBBLY JAILBAIT WAIF WITH GRAVITY-DEFYING BREASTS: Okay!

Ugh. It's movies like these that make you think, "Sheesh, no wonder Roman Polanski felt perfectly justified in these same years with drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl -- Hollywood was handing out Oscar nominations to movies depicting the same things." It's pretty much the opposite of what I consider "erotic" -- and yes, by that I mean the experience of watching a sweaty, greasy-haired, paunchy middle-ager have desperate, angry sex with someone young enough to be his daughter's hot hippie Annie-Hall-dressing dorm roommate, something that looks more like a criminal violation than the act of lovemaking when actually being watched -- and it's no freaking wonder that Gloria Steinem and her friends were so indignant back in those years, when it was this kind of woman-hating bravado trash being held up as the high mark of erotic creativity. Worth watching just to see how far we've actually progressed as a society, but certainly nowhere even near approaching how we define anymore in the 2000s such terms as "sexy" or "challenging." Except for the purpose of ironic pleasure, it should be avoided altogether.

Strangest piece of trivia: Pauline Kael's raving review of this movie in the New York Times is considered one of the most influential of her career, and Roger Ebert has called it "the most famous movie review ever published."

Worth your time? For unintentional laughs, yes; otherwise no

Filed by Jason Pettus at 6:19 PM, November 24, 2009. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |