An appreciation — and a frank look — at two late, great Seventies arthouse giants who brought sex, death and madness to our screens
It’s always tough when giants shuffle off this mortal coil, but the twofer that hit film fans over the past few days has been a particularly hard blow. Early Saturday morning, word began to spread that Nicolas Roeg, the filmmaker behind The Man Who Fell to Earth, among others, had died at the age of 90. Then, just as folks were logging on to their computers today after a long holiday weekend, it was confirmed that Bernardo Bertolucci, the Oscar-winning director who helped channel what’s arguably Marlon Brando’s greatest performance in Last Tango in Paris, passed away. He was 77.
Prior to contributing to a collection of 60-second films for a 2014 project, Roeg had not made a feature since 2007’s Puffball: The Devil’s Eyeball, which … let’s say the title doesn’t exactly suggests high expectations. Bertolucci’s final movie was 2012’s Me and You, a teen-angst drama that has its fans and its detractors. Neither of these gents were in peak condition, artistically or otherwise, but the fact that there’s no chance of even seeing a lesser work from them again is a major loss. Cinephiles have not suffered a one-two punch like this since Ingmar Bergman and Michangelo Antonioni both ran their FIN intertitle on the same day in July of 2007.
And weirdly, it feels like there are odd parallels between these two twin passings. Both Bergman and Antonioni had established their reputations by the time that Roeg and Bertolucci had begun courting next-gen auteur status. The former helped pave the way for the latter. You don’t get Performance without Persona; as much as The Grim Reaper (1962) and Before the Revolution (1964) owe to Pasolini and Godard, you might not have got Bertolucci’s wonky, warped political-is-personal parables without the older Italian’s “modernity and its discontents” trilogy helping to nudge de facto neorealism aside. Mostly, however, there’s the dual sensation that these double exits represent something bigger than just two directors dying within hours or days of each other. You can’t shake the notion that a door has closed on particular eras of filmmaking and filmgoing.
For Roeg and Bertolucci, that meant the adventurous arthouse 1970s. Before becoming a director, the British part of that equation started out literally behind the camera, having the distinction of being the only cinematographer to shoot the dancing dead (1964’s The Masque of the Red Death) and the Grateful Dead (1968’s Petulia). Roeg would hone an eye for color and a love for fractured chronology in those years, which he’d put to good use after he signed on to help Donald Cammell finish Performance. The co-director credit kicks off his new career in style: an end-of-the-Sixties, end-of-the century freak scene in which a London gangster (James Fox) and a decadent dandy of a rock star — won’t you guess his name? — trade places and faces. You know the brown acid that the guy at Woodstock warned people about? This movie is liberally dosed in it. It ends in sex, drugs, transmogrification and a killer rendition of “Memo From Turner.” Roeg was ready to go solo now.
From there, we get a series of movies that are equal parts head-trip and body heat: Walkabout (1971), with its Western-vs.-native culture clashes, spiritual quests and Jenny Agutter au naturel; the little-seen Glastonbury Fayre (1972), his uncredited contribution to concert films that has more naked hippies per capita than its closest peers; Don’t Look Now (1973), a modern horror classic who’s flashback/forward copulation sequence has been copied ad inifinitum yet never been duplicated; and The Man Who Feel to Earth, the ultimate cinema du Bowie close encounter. Every single one of these films contains images, from Donald Sutherland chasing a red-cloaked figure through Venetian streets to the Thin White Duke shedding his skin and his kin, that feel like transmissions from another world. Every one of these films plays fast and loose with time, space, sexuality, gender roles, reality. They were movies that turned the lysergic hangover of the counterculture into collective nightmares laced with nocturnal emissions. Sutherland was never sexier. Neither was Mick Jagger, in eyeliner and full androgynous bloom.
For Bertolucci, the Seventies start with a masterpiece: The Conformist. The idea of a “perfect” film is ridiculous; this tale of a repressed homosexual who embraces fascism, however, comes ridiculously close to achieving that ideal. Jean-Louis Trintignant is seduced and abandoned by the nation’s brownshirt brigade, but not before he’s assigned to assassinate an old professor he knows in Paris, as well as … ok, so you know that saying about how you always hurt the ones you love? That becomes something of a mantra here. The partnership between Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro forged here and in the duo’s other 1970 movie The Spider’s Strategem, produced some of the most expressionistic images ever: The art deco architecture! Those light and shadows! That cascade of wind-blown leaves! Such a woozy melding of style and substance, form and content, felt revolutionary. This is cinema as an art form, full stop.
What’s there to say about Last Tango in Paris (1972) that Pauline Kael, the film’s costar Maria Schneider and various other collaborators have not said themselves? In forcing the Method-acting posterboy/movie star to dig deeper than usual into his own tormented psyche, Bertolucci gave Marlon Brando the chance to remind folks why he was (is) considered a contender for the greatest-screen-actor title. In forcing the then-19-year-old Schneider to perform something that made her highly uncomfortable — she’d come to refer to the infamous “go get me the butter” sequence as something like a “rape” — and later expressing remorse, then defensiveness over it, then remorse again, the director would forever taint what remains a highwire act of personal revelation. It’s hard not to consider the film as a towering totem of Seventies moviemaking, and equally tough not to think of it now and mildly gag. (We can’t recommend this brilliant piece by Ann Hornaday about those conflicting emotions highly enough.) It’s a scream into the abyss that doubles as the dictionary definition of a problematic film. It can’t be ignored. It is somehow both a high point and a low point of Bertolucci’s career.
His two remaining movies of the decade, the historical phantasmagoria 1900 (1976) — “sprawling epic” does not begin to cover it; nor does “Robert De Niro and Gerard Depardieu share a full-frontal handjob scene” — and the taboo-courting mother-son story Luna (1979) are some serious diamonds in the rough. But they’re unique and occasionally shiny jewels nonetheless, and you could say the same about Roeg’s ’80s output: see Bad Timing (1980), Eureka (1983) and Insignificance (1985). You could call the Reagan-to-Bush I era Bertolucci’s golden period, if by “gold” you meant nine Oscars for The Last Emperor (1987), an old-fashioned spectacle that gets better with every year that passes. Roeg’s last must-see comes in 1990, with his Roald Dahl adaptation of The Witches (we’d gingerly recommend his 1993 TV-movie take on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, with Tim Roth and John Malkovich). Bertolucci requires a time-warp to 2003, with The Dreamers giving us a flashback to a more hedonistic time and the concept of the libido as liberator. Consider this 10 cc’s of unfiltered, mainlined youth.
The men who made these movies are gone now. Their movies remain, unless you want to watch them on FilmStruck, which officially goes the way of all flesh on November 29th. It carried both of these artist’s work during its brief reign; six Roeg films were, in fact, added to the site the day before his death. Their work was debated in newspaper editorials and publications; now it is, along with most movies seemingly made before 1960, the province of a niche audience. And that may be why, with us losing two major filmmakers and a streaming service dedicated to keeping the legacy of artists like them alive over the span of a week, it feels like a certain era is ending. All artists die. Hopefully, their legacy and their influence remains; ditto cinephilia, the kind that was weaned on and prizes vision and madness. We mourn. And then we keep watching.
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