On Monday Night, November 30th, I saw Last Tango in Paris at the Charles Theater Revival Series. It was not only the second time I saw the movie, it was the second time I saw the movie at the Charles, just to make sure that my risible impression from the first time I saw it at the Charles was correct.
Oh my god was it ever… There are no words for how dumb this movie is. It caused an enormous scandal in the 70’s, because it so blatantly portrayed sex on the screen. Were it made today, it would cause just as large a scandal, because it so blatantly portrays rape. Not only does it portray rape, it portrays a pneumatic nubile girl who enjoys being raped. Marlon Brando is not Marlon Brando in this movie, he’s just an ageing lowlife who with the pure power of his sexual being can ensnare a luminously beautiful young girl. Marlon Brando spends the entire movie with his clothes on, not even so much as a butt cheek - while she spends more than 50% of the movie undressed. Not surprisingly, nobody ever took this actress seriously, Maria Schneider, ever again. She died last year, a justifiably bitter old woman who made a choice when she was in her 20’s when she had no idea how it would color the rest of her career. This is not just the stupidest movie ever made, it also might be the most sexist.
If it were made today, it would be picketed at every theater it played in America, but if the people who picketed it ever stopped to watch it, they would collapse into laughter. I don’t know exactly when it would happen: maybe it would happen when Brando fucks the girl in the ass with the help of a giant stick of butter, maybe it would happen when Marlon Brando responds to questions about his name by screeching like a monkey, but it couldn’t possibly not happen later in the movie when the girl fingers Brando’s asshole while he makes her promise him that she would swallow his vomit.
Fifty years ago, pretentious snuff like this was practically a cottage industry, catering to people who spent their free hours at movie theaters which showed foreign films 12 hours every day. In 1960’s America, foreign films were a hundred times more popular than they are today. Many of these films were the transcendent crown jewels of the artform, and many of these films were the kind of pretentious trash that today make a new generation of film snobs urinate with laughter. How could our parents have ever have fallen for this shit?
The answer is, of course: Sex, Sex, and More Sex.
If you dress sex up in pretentious bullshit, it’s amazing what people will (no pun intended) swallow. Allow me to give just one example: in 1966, Michelangelo Antonioni made Blowup, a snail-paced slow ‘thriller’ which supposedly does triple duty as a chronicle of ‘Swingin’ London’ (which I can believe…), and also as a cinematic investigation into epistemology (the study of what we really know). But the only reason people swallow the philosophic bullshit is because people want to see David Hemmings have a threesome with two teenagers. Cut to 1994, I was twelve years old when I first saw this movie. For the first forty-five minutes, I was bored out of my gourd. Then the threesome happened, and by the end of the movie it was the deepest thing I’d ever seen in my life.
I don’t know if anyone else ever came up with the name for this phenomenon, but my name for it is ‘High Trash.’ High Trash is my short-hand term for vulgarity that gives the appearance of art because of how it’s dressed up. The line between the two can be razor thin, but it’s still fairly easy to tell the difference with just one question - is the primary reason you’re watching this because of the sex and violence, or is it because it has something truly compelling to say?
By this metric, you would have to call all your favorite art into question. I don’t want to spend 5000 words doing that, so let’s simply say that so long as civilization exists, High Trash will always thrive. It’s a virus, though hardly the worst of viruses, that makes a place for itself by feeding off a host of genuine art. Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover arrived within five years of each other, Lolita and The Story of O within just one year each other.
In our own time, think of the two most ‘defining’ TV shows of the last ten years: Mad Men and Game of Thrones. These are two TV shows that have the exact opposite approaches to sex. Mad Men treats sex, and everything else, with severe restraint. Joan Holloway practically redefined sex for the 21st century, but you never see her so much as in a bra - in the entire show, the most reveal you ever see of her is her bare shoulders. Yet Joan Holloway clearly drove men insane in 2010 just as she did in 1960.
Game of Thrones, on the other hand, treats sex like embarrassment of riches. If you can conceive of the act, Game of Thrones might well dramatize it before its run is over. In Game of Thrones, sex is simply part of the furniture, nothing more. Nobody over the age of 17 could possibly find it erotic. It’s just another way in which Game of Thrones hits us all over the head with its blatantness. Shows do not get more trashy than Game of Thrones. Everybody can pretend they watch it for the intricacies of the history of its world, but we all know better, because we all watch it too, and we all know what we really care about. Underneath all the intricacy, all the hundreds of characters, the thousands of years of fake history, Game of Thrones is pure wall-to-wall trash, but it’s the most artful trash you’ll ever see.
Sex on film is a very, very tough thing to do well, because film works best by suggestion. Pornography notwithstanding, nothing on screen can possibly be as erotic to you as the things you can imagine, so a sexualized person with her/his clothes gives a hundred times more prompts to the imagination. Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield at their most clothed inspired a hundred times more teenage wet dreams than any number of Hollywood actresses which later generations saw nude routinely, and this must all the more so be true in the age of ‘youporn.’
There’s a quote I love from George Steiner - “Pornographers subvert this last, vital privacy; they do our imagining for us. They take away the words that were of the night and shout them over the roof-tops, making them hollow.”
The appeal, and the nightmare, of pornography is that it lets you imagine that sex is perfectly normal. No matter how dirty the porn, because it’s not us doing it, it lets us imagine that these gross urges of ours are far more attractive, more humane, more attainable, cleaner, than they really are. “If people are acting this out for our enjoyment, surely sex is no more dangerous than going to the bathroom.”
Pornography takes all the dark mystery out of sex and makes it into something no less boring and domesticated than a valve we need to release once a day or so (this time pun intended). We don’t see the back stories of the girls who do this work that they probably find incredibly degrading, we don’t see the producers cheat their actors out of the money and probably mistreat the women.
This is, ultimately, why Last Tango, in all its gross absurdity, still resounds in the mind years after you see it as a unique disaster among all movies. When viewed from the outside, there is nothing in the world so ridiculous as sex. Not even Brando, the most legendary actor in American history, can possibly convey an experience as personal as what sex means to each of us. Sex is an experience so unique to each person that there is no containing it within a camera: pornography that is successful is so because it corresponds to what a person’s image of what sex should be, but the world of sex is something so diverse that nothing has yet been invented that can portray in art the universal nature of the act.
The arts don't do sex particularly well, because nothing in art can be as vivid as sex is. What art does better than anything is death, because death is the fundamental fact of human nature about which we know absolutely nothing - death is an apparent ceasing of sensation, the nature of which we can only have an infinity of guesses with no confirmation. Perhaps closer in complexity to sex is war, and we have certain works that correspond to the nature of war: certainly Tolstoy’s War and Peace conveys the complexity of war, but Tolstoy would never do the same for sex; in fact, he loathed sex and thought it was something so dirty that he wrote a treatise advising the entire world to abstain from it. In 1998, Steven Spielberg finally conjured what veterans regard as a image of what being in war truly feels like with Saving Private Ryan. Even so, Spielberg is just about the least interested in sex of any filmmaker in the history of the medium, so he’s obviously not the person who would be able to capture sex properly. Goya certainly captured something about war in his portrait of an execution in the Third of May, 1808, you see the stark image of the man about to executed and his terror at his impending mortality - but is that a picture of war or death? The painter of The Nude Maja was certainly no stranger to sex, but it’s hard to imagine that that painting was meant as anything but as commissioned pornography by a nobleman.
No doubt, if you’re going to find sex captured real form, the best place to look is in visual art. Just to give a few examples from memory and a quick google search… Certainly, we get a sense of sex’s dangerous allure in Hieronymous Bosch’s paintings, but Bosch uses sex as a cautionary tale. “As delightful as it seems, think of the horrors that await you in Hell!” Klimt’s fantastically titled “Die Frau und die Selbstbefriedigung” The bliss on the woman’s face does really seem like whatever “Selbstbefriedigung” is, but aside from that, there’s nothing particularly profound about it. Picasso’s famous Demoiselle D’Avignon, is an incredibly powerful picture of brothel workers, and it’s even more powerful if you go to see it in person at MOMA in New York. Nevertheless, while it tells us that sex is a very powerful thing, it tells us very little about what makes it so powerful.
The closest we get to that world-shaking profundity is probably just Courbet’s Origin of the World, which is a picture of a vagina. The point of this painting is not sex, the point is us. It is the place from whence we all came and where we all long to go again. Is it the most profound work of art ever conceived, or just a painted muff with an incredibly clever title?
Perhaps therein lies (again excuse the double ententre) the point. To contain sex like that would be to make it into a kind of domesticated pet, which is the very last thing sex is - perhaps especially now in the modern world. since contraception has unleashed this cosmic urge from most of the considerations of pregnancy.