Once or twice a year the New York film critics, as a way of overcoming seasonal occupational identity crises, create occasions to wail and gnash their teeth in a series of intricate and ritualized battle gestures. The “occasion” for this intertribal aggression can be anything from a book like Pauline Kael’s Citizen Kane, a “provocative” review by John Simon in the New York Times — begging for a counter attack — or even, strange to say, a movie itself. What is most important in all of this is not the specific book, article or film but rather the opportunity each writer gets to affirm a “critical” position, register an esthetic preference vis-a-vis the “others,” and, last but not least, extract a bit of publicity for everyone concerned.
The most recent shot-at-Sarajevo excuse for another round of the New York critics’ skirmish is Last Tango in Paris — probably the greatest occasion for critical self-assertion and self-aggrandizement in the past ten, 20, 30 years — perhaps in the history of cinema. Superlatives are of course integral to the history and success of the film. The New Yorker‘s Pauline Kael led the first charge when, after Last Tango‘s premiere at last year’s N.Y. Film Festival (for which tickets were harder to come by than for the Ali-Frazier fight or the Bangla Desh concert), she compared the screening to the riotous first-night 1913 performance of Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring, calling the film “the most powerfully erotic movie ever made, and it may turn out to be the most liberating … Brando and Bertolucci have altered the face of an art form.”
Andrew Sarris led the first counter-assault against Tango in the Village Voice, and John Simon started dropping napalm in the New Leader. Neutralists like the N.Y. Times’ Vincent Canby and the slightly more anti-Tango Judith Crist of New York magazine could hardly get into the action before the Daily News’ Wanda Hale outflanked them all with a brilliant maneuver: Using her “last” review of Last Tango to announce her retirement as a critic, she gave the film four stars while reminding everyone that her first foray in the battlefield had consisted of giving four stars to a Shirley Temple movie.
Needless to say, the winners of this particular battle have been the critics and the film’s distributor, United Artists. The supposed object of the whole fracas — Last Tango itself — has been selling out almost every performance in New York at $5 a head. And on the perimeter of the critical in-fighting — undoubtedly watching the smoke and flares with perplexity and amazement — has been the film’s 31-year-old director, Bernardo Bertolucci.
My own interest in Bertolucci began eight years ago when I first saw Before The Revolution — the second feature film made by the director when he was 22! This extraordinary movie, partly based on Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma and partly autobiographical, tells the story of a young man from Parma who, torn between a romantic sensibility — a “nostalgia for the present” — and a theoretical Marxism, falls in love with his neurotic but liberated aunt, only to marry his wealthy sweetheart.
Like the foal which, in its first steps, reveals its full-grown characteristics, Before The Revolution reflects in microcosm many of the concerns and obsessions with sexuality and politics that Bertolucci would later develop in films like: A Spider’s Stratagem — a lush, elliptical, almost Brazilian cinema nuovotextured movie about a young man who returns to his birthplace in order to discover the facts about the death of his father, a martyred anti-fascist resistance fighter; Partners — a modernization of Dostoyevsky’s The Double starring Pierre Clementi as a young drama teacher who wishes to combine the Theater of Cruelty with political revolution; and The Conformist — a film about a sexually repressed Italian fascist (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who is ordered to kill his former professor, now an anti-fascist leader in Paris.
Brought up in Parma, Bertolucci started to make short films as a teenager. At 20 he published a book of poems entitled In Search of Mystery, worked as an assistant director on Pasolini’s brilliant first film Accattone, and made his own first feature The Grim Reaper — influenced in part by Pasolini’s depiction of the life of Roman pimps and prostitutes. For several years after he made Before The Revolution, Bertolucci couldn’t obtain financing for his feature films, and during this period he made an industrial film about oil in Persia for Italian television.
Like a number of other Italian film directors, Bertolucci is a member of the Communist party. But, as he told Guy Flatley of the New York Times, “I am condemned to be divided. I have a split personality and the real contradiction within me is that I cannot quite synchronize my heart and my brain. One of the two is always ahead of the other one. That is my charm.”
Bertolucci is in the midst of Freudian analysis in Rome, and one often imagines, when watching his films, that some of the director’s contradictions are a result of a Freudian view of life working against the grain of his Reichian themes and subject matter. At one point when I talked about how I thought the director Max Ophuls seemed to use the camera as if it were an instrument of memory itself, Bertolucci suggested that what was important for him in filming was what was happening “inside” the camera — as if (or so he seemed to imply) the camera itself acted as a kind of unconscious. Certainly, Bertolucci is an instinctive filmmaker, and you often feel that he uses his “contradictions” to energize his visually virtuosic and very painterly movies.
The director was in New York for several weeks in February in order to answer an interminable number of reporters’ questions about his latest film. I arrived at Bertolucci’s suite at the Sherry Netherlands Hotel early one Saturday afternoon. Relaxed, gracious, charming, and acting as if he had nothing better to do, Bertolucci offered us coffee and then put on a record he had apparently been listening to over and over again that week — Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man film score. “It sounds like Italian rock & roll,” he said approvingly. “I love it!” Michele Barbieri — the wife of Gato Barbieri who composed and performs the music for Last Tango — helped translate Bertolucci’s mixture of 70% Italian/ 20% French/10% English, after which the director took a group of us out to lunch at Sardi’s — the restaurant which is the gathering place for blooming and fading film and theater stars. Bertolucci seemed to enjoy his anonymity — no one recognized him — and looked excitedly at all the older Hollywood “types” eating their meals.
Over our lunch, he spoke about films. Bertolucci is a real film buff, and he talks about the famous pan shot in Welles’ Touch Of Evil (the shot begins in Mexico and ends up on the US side of the border) or about moments in Rossellini’s Voyage In Italy, Resnais’ Muriel, Sam Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono, and John Huston’s Judge Roy Bean with the childlike enthusiasm of someone seeing cinema for the first time. He spoke about his plans concerning the next film he is about to make in Italy entitled 1900 — a movie about the disappearance of the agricultural society and the traditions of the tilling farmers — “the agony of the soil.” After he finishes 1900, Bertolucci mentioned that he expects to direct a version of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest in this country. (While we were all walking to lunch, I happened to hear Bertolucci casually ask the man who was helping the director get around in New York if he’d consider being in Red Harvest. “You’d be perfect for one of the gang members,” said Bertolucci. “Really, I hope you do it.” A star is born.)
When we began talking at the hotel, I asked Bertolucci about something he had mentioned in an interview with the Times: “I fall in love with all the actors in my films,” he had said. “They are the prolongations of my penis. Yes, my ‘penis.’ Like Pinocchio’s nose, my penis grows!” — J. C.