Tuesday, December 18, 2007

LAST TANGO IN PARIS: Brando, Butter, Stockholm Syndrome, and the Hot Ass of Death

"... not until you look death right in the face...go right up into the ass of death... till you find the womb of fear”

Damn, I read Pauline Kael's beyond-glowing, deeply transfixed gush of a review for 1972's LAST TANGO IN PARIS at least five years before I actually was old enough to see it (before VHS was readily available) and I admit I was a bit disappointed when it finally can out. But now, five or six big screen viewings later, I agree with her 100%. Well, maybe 75% but that's still pretty good. Furthermore, I don’t think anyone can have a legitimate opinion about this movie until they’ve seen it at least once in an altered state. Ideally, thrice in altered states, three different kinds.

People also say this about Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, but in truth 2001 is boring even if you’re on enough Ativan to drop a rhino (unless you see it on a giant 70mm print on a huge curved Cinerama screen). TANGO, however, moves fast, looks beautiful and is sexy too. And no, I wasn’t on anything this time, I didn't need to be. I been up in fear's womb enough times already I can just check in with a phone call, like to my parole officer/sponsor.

The sex is what everyone seems to remember about TANGO, that and the brooding Brando improvisatory monologues (we can see from this film why Francis Ford Coppola would think that just putting Brando in the jungle as Kurz for APOCALYPSE NOW and letting him ramble about wombs and fear would be enough to create a psychedelic experience, but we can also see why it wouldn’t, ultimately, work.) It’s too bad that the majority of film critics fall under the sway of their readership and are ever simplifying cinema, dumbing it down for the rubes, so to speak, in ways Kael refused to. To these modern types, all beholden to reader-beholden advertiser-beholden editors, TANGO can’t be both sexy and serious (i.e. arty). It can’t have Brando asking a girl to stick her fingers in his ass while he rants about pigfucking and be taken seriously as a major work of art. And if we take it as a major work of art, it can't be funny and sexy and bawdy, both misogynistic and feminist, both self-indulgent and transcendental. Brando can’t be a disgusting old man wallowing in degradation and a sexy antihero at the same time. Pick one and don’t make the bourgeoisie angry; they find ambiguity threatening --it challenges their assumptions way too much. Just hearing Brando speak such good French makes them nervous enough. Is he French or isn't he? Has he forgotten were his bread is... Oleo-ed?

Known forever as a dirty sex film with a major star in it, TANGO's reputation is eaten away by the corrosive saliva of prurient tongues. Kael's praise shocked the elite, frightened the censors and helped usher in “adult” moviemaking (back when X-ratings were given to art films like CLOCKWORK ORANGE and MIDNIGHT COWBOY) but--once the smoke clears and the type has all been set--TANGO lacks the pedigree of Kubrick or the revulsion towards sex--gay or straight--exhibited in MIDNIGHT), because TANGO has dirty talk and rewarding no-frills BDSM sex it cannot be seriously reconsidered as a mythic archetypal exploration of fear, desire and death. Bertolucci’s THE LAST TANGO IN PARIS becomes reductively summed up as “that one where Brando uses butter to bugger young Parisian hottie.” It can not be more. At least, not until its officially canonized via a restored print and Q&A at Lincoln Center, replete with full page re-review in the Sunday Times Arts &Leisure section (excuse me while I go throw up -- in a gold-plated bucket).

The more film criticism I read and the more of these sorts of misunderstood movies I rediscover, the more I realize there are two types of filmgoers – the ones who have been "experienced" and the ones who are scared to try. If you go to see TANGO or SCIENCE OF SLEEP or FIGHT CLUB or I HEART HUCKABEES looking for a conventional narrative with happy endings and bad guys getting punished and everything reduced to comfy cliches, you are going to be frustrated, you might even get angry. At the very least, you "wont get it." If you expect bawdy comedy, guns and explosions, or steamy sex or anything you'll be disappointed too. If you expect lofty art or even edgy new wave street-eye Paris, that too... no.

The key to understanding films like TANGO lies in the concept of unfixed identity, of role-play. You must recapture the imagination you had as a child. You must know how to move from adult to child, from errant knight to punch-drunk boxer to nervous accountant as the game changes with your partner's mood. If you’re in an empty room with Maria Schneider for example, and she lifts her arms up and starts running around making buzzing sounds, you have two paths open to you: One is to assume the voice of an air traffic controller describing her flight pattern around the room: "She soars, she turns!" The other is to say, “Maria, what the hell are you doing?” and make her stop. If you’re more likely to pick the second option, then LAST TANGO is not for you. If you want Maria to just disrobe and have missionary position sex and then go make you dinner, then you're Karl Malden in BABY DOLL and we have no use for you. Orgasms are just the punchline to God's own little joke at your expense, Poppa. When you gonna wake up, turn off the TV, and smell the roses on your own grave? You better believe Brando has (smelled yours, I mean. Why won't you smell his?)

The late 1960s and early 1970s were--forgive the cliche--flash-burned by the psychedelic explosion that was the lotus crown to the bloody bottom chakra of Vietnam. People had “tuned in, dropped out” and were able to step outside their pre-scripted societal roles but didn't know yet how to step back into anything but the same ones they'd stepped out of. It's only natural. And the social order sighed with gratitude. They had a point. When you're too free, unless you're inherently 'good' and already an artist, and 'not an idiot', you're a hazard to yourself and others. When such people arrive too much at once with no destination, things happen: riots, accidents, theft and misplaced objects--why, whole governments can vanish (i.e. Paris in May 1968)--and diseases like AIDS can spread faster than wildfire. It's messy; people wind up in the booby hatch or dead for real. When adults play, they play rough and things get broken. They mix up being dead and playing dead (i.e. sacrificially, the straw dog vs. the wicker man). This is why parents will cite their children as “the reason” they can’t trip on the weekend, can't let go of their adult awareness and let it all hang out the way they used to. What they have effectively done is split themselves, like amoeba. Now they have a piece of them to whom they can say: you be the kid and I'll just worry about you hurting yourself, it's much safer than me not worrying about hurting myself, which takes real courage. Put all the psychedelic art in a museum and bring the kiddies... wait in line, buy the souvenir book and shelve it. We rocked, but now it's over.

It's never okay to rock, for these types. It's only to have rocked.

But real art resists the shelf, sneezes and fart when stuffed with grant money and old lady applause; it's messy yet unfurnished, like where Brando and Schneider get together for their trysts. In order to reach this place of fluidity and freedom the pair re-enact various archetypal roles from their childhoods, going deeper and younger as the film goes on, with Brando always bringing in pig shit and other base expletives... It’s kind of a turn off that he keeps doing that, actually; but I finally understand what he’s going for: he’s removing all conceptions of right and wrong and bringing everything back to the anal stage and then farther still, to the womb. It’s a regression back through to infantile development and further, until at the end, which finds Brando’s dead, coiled up in a womb-form, ready to be reborn, like Bowman the star child in 2001, only --we presume--having shit his pants (and put his chewing gum out under the railing like a schoolboy at church.)

The psychedelic experience--which spread from its customary roost in the world of artists and writers down to the general populace/theater audience during the 1960s-70s era--revolves around just this sort of “de-re-generation.” During various stages in the “trip” one might feel like they are dying, but if they’ve got a friend with the Tibetan Book of the Dead handy, urging them to “just flow with it, man,” if they face this death bravely, then they emerge out into a different consciousness, reborn, or as Brando says in the film: “It’s over and then it begins again.” Maybe they'll get to stand in the room of the self like Bowman in 2001, meeting their child self, their older self, their deathbed self, their embryonic self. This is the resurrection of Christ, the snake shedding its skin, the winter of our discontent made glorious summer. It is our psychic birthright to continually re-experience this symbolic transfiguration of the self, but the social order/ego is scared of it, scared of losing control. It lets us have the fun house mirror reflection, via roller coasters, horror films, skydiving, cage matches, meditation, etc., but it denies us the "real" experience provided by mystery rituals, peyote ceremonies, hazing, fighting (not watching it, doing it), overdosing on PCP and needing to be strapped down and given many Xanax. What society tells us to do instead of chasing this dragon, is to procreate and follow the herd, dig our heels in like a child who doesn’t want to go to his first days of school, tune in to CBS for 60 Minutes, to shut the door on our waiting coffin and hide it from our view, to turn the memento mori to the wall. We shouldn't "have" to die, society tells us. But in robbing us of the awareness of our immediate mortality, society, like the ego's distractive capabilities, makes daily life more bearable, but less interesting.

What we should be doing is having our funerals while we're still alive. As Tyler Durden once said: "It's only after we've lost everything that we can do anything."

But now I'm sermonizing. My point is, to "get" LAST TANGO in its full 3-D effect you don't need to drop acid or join a fight club, but you should try and take your blinders off and be willing to enter into that field of play which I just described. If you see the butter on the floor of your psychic sanctum, don't run out the room; take a deep breath and just go with whatever's gonna happen.

If you have your blinders off, you will see in that butter scene lies a genuine "lesson" that's being played out: Brando wants to try and show the innocent waif Schneider something about her own past – her father’s and by extension France's and by extension all the west’s--evil habit of colonization (accent on the colon). He is literally forcing her forced religion back upon her, making her regurgitate the dogma that is holding her back from full engagement in their womb-space-playpen.

When the blinders are off--when like Neo in the MATRIX you take the "red pill" in whatever form's around-- you realize that while you've been sleepwalking through life all these years, been pinned beneath Death like he's a wrestler kneeling on your arms in gym class, like little Billy Mahoney in FLATLINERS. Death is letting that venomous schoolyard spittle slowly drop down from his mouth down onto yours and there's nothing you can do about it.

When you wiggle free of your sleep mask and behold Death smiling down at you and smell his tombstone breath, you have two options: A) You can close your eyes and pretend you're asleep again, go back to Midge's apartment like Jimmy Stewart in VERTIGO and forget you're still hanging on the ledge, or B)You can look death in the eye, sip the spittle and go "hmmm-mmm good" and tap the mat signifying your concession to defeat. If you have the willingness and bravery to look up and acknowledge that old Death has you right where he wants you and hey, that spit don't taste so bad after all, then Death immediately jumps off and helps you stand up and you realize it was YOU, your death and you--facing each other but you're one!

And one of the things you see is that the whip and the carrot are the backbone of the social order you called life for all these years. The mature white “adulthood” you think of as holy and warm and safe is just the opposite, and this is what the butter scene is really about. Brando shows Maria that her reverence for her dead soldier father is nothing less than a Disneyfied version of Stockholm Syndrome, which is another word for nothing left to lose; it's not just for hostages anymore, it's built into human consciousness, a survival mechanism as innate as the ability to recognize mom’s face in a sea of nurses. Stockholm Syndrome, in case you forgot, is the ability to fall in love with your captors, to change sides as befits your situation. If you get over your pride and act like you like it, you can be a conquistador's wife at the banquet instead of a Native American warrior widow dying in a ravine. If you’re a straight male, you might never know this weird surrender once you hit puberty and no longer are forced to eat the spit of your elders; not until you're 40 or so and have had a doctor’s gloved finger up your ass to feel your Idaho potato-sized prostate and then after this brief flash of humiliating pain suddenly feel the urge to follow them around like now you're their bitch.

So what Brando is doing with his scatological obsession here is basically “rubbing” Maria’s nose in the colonialism under which her own false sense of “right” and “family” exists...once she takes a deep whiff of it, stops shrinking away in horror, stops judging its smell as horrible, she can move past her hang-ups and see the strawberry fields forever (which “ain’t gonna fertilize themselves”)

Pauline Kael, a great writer and genuine lover of cinema, was so excited about TANGO when she saw it at Cannes in 1972, she raved about it being the birth of a new cinema and caught flak aplenty. Poor Kael--and poor the rest of us film lovers who have learned through pain and hardship how to free ourselves--every time we get too excited about some new cinema discovery we make the frightened herd of mouth breathers all nervous and upset; they start firing up the crosses and witch-poles. Neither Hollywood nor the rest of America wants to open the view wider, to expand perception and thought, especially not in sexy flicks like TANGO. We can't validate Kael's enthusiasm any more than we can buy Lindsay Lohan CDs for our daughter now that we've seen Lindsay all coked up and half-naked in PEOPLE. To the masses, no thing can be both sacred and profane simultaneously (though most real art is exactly both these things) so rather than engage in the field of play of transcended duality, the masses go the other way, nail things down tighter and tighter, make the black blacker and the white whiter, airbrush and tweeze-out until there’s not a single surprise hair left in the world. Thus we pay homage to “literary adaptations” that flatter the intellect while giving us a little sex, powdered and wrapped in gauzy filters. Then we accidentally see the big, unkempt bush between Schneider’s legs and we recoil in horror: “Jee-whiz, and we’d just made ourselves so proud by coming out as pro-Jenna Jameson; now some uppity Parisian with bad teeth’s going to wave her untrimmed pubes at us?” Oh the humanity.

So, I hope I’m not being too rantish here. There's nothing I'm saying wasn't already said in QUILLS--but underneath the soap box grandstanding my heart is true. I want to help the non-“experienced” reader, the one who has yet to look old Death in the eye, yet to go up into the womb of fear, to read TANGO correctly. It's not a case of Emperor's New clothes in reverse, but a case of "if you turn the book upside down you'll be able to read the print better."

Instead of watching LAST TANGO IN PARIS as a narrative film like PRETTY WOMAN, try to see it as a weird painting in your bohemian friend's house, and to look for personal meaning in your own life. Watch it with your younger (or older) lover and play along, riff off what Brando and Schneider are doing and saying in the film... play as they play. If you do that, the film takes off. If you see the characters not as separate but all as aspects of one psyche (or two... male and female-yin and yang, black and white, whatever) then it coheres not into a "film" but into art in the broadest and most inclusive sense; the kind of art that flows out of the screen and envelopes you, like in THE BLOB! (Steve McQueen, man. He's always right where you need him. )

And you can look at all films this way, as autobiographical (telling the story of YOUR life) allegories of your approaching death and rebirth: from cradle to grave and back again. Keep doing this, and you will suddenly not be so worried if people will judge you for admitting you hated SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE.

Or as some tripping idiot at a Phish show might say: “it’s like you... and me... and the music, man, are one... it's beautiful, man... and so simple!"

But wait, maybe you shouldn't. You're not one of those kinky ass of death/womb of fear types. Are you?

Well... are you?

You look it.


  1. I guess someone missed the whole point of the film and this article.

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  3. I'm a huge fan of Brando, so want to see this.

    NOT for the buttery "fun".

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  6. Whomever you are, I wish you would limit your comments to the actual events and issues of the movie itself rather than reducing everything to this most common of denominators. But I thank you for taking the time to respond, nonetheless.

  7. i loved this piece and i don't even like LAST TANGO

    i do however like butter.

    but not for the purposes discussed her.

  8. Dude, I first saw "Last Tango" 10 years ago when I was 17 and that butter scene just threw me. I've seen the film at least 5 more times since then and have grown very appreciative of it. I agree with much of this article and can't wait to watch the film again with your added insights.

    But that butter scene is just weird to ignore.

  9. Like so much cinema I love, this ain't about the butter *or* the sex. I raised myself on Foreign Cinema...where pith lies naked and unafraid, scaring my fellow Americans while they grumble about 'the butter scene'! As the sex in "9 1/2 Weeks" was only a vehicle upon which two psyches rode; drop the sex to the cutting room floor...still, two extremely interesting characters performing a pathological pas de deux. "Crimes of Passion" displayed the inner sanctum of a complicated woman playing her 'selves' out deftly with and without sex; sans sex, this is a psychological tightrope.
    Luckily, the studio system broke up, indie films run amok...and *some* viewers are beginning to be able to see past 'the sex'.


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