Archive for the ‘Sex’ Category
Totally bizarre…I’m sitting here watching How Green Was My Valley, in particular the scene where Anna Lee visits the family for the first time, and a very young Roddy McDowall, taking one look at her, falls instantly in love. The concept of a kid falling in love with a grown-up idly passed through my mind, and out of the blue I flashed on something I can’t even remember the last time I recalled. When I was about seven we visited my aunt and uncle’s house one night (this was in St. Louis), and my cousins—all in their late teens—had some of their friends over. There was one girl, I’m sure she wasn’t older than 19, who I spent the evening absolutely *fixated* on. I can’t remember her name now but I can remember how she looked, and I especially remember how soft her neck looked, and that at one point I was sitting next to her on the couch, in a room filled with people of all ages, and I was just dying to kiss her there–on her neck, I mean. (Hey, I don’t know who controls these things. It for damn sure isn’t me.)
Anyway, when it was time to leave and my family was walking out the door, it suddenly felt all-important that I let her know how I felt, and so in a moment of real panic I turned around and blurted out “I love you!” There had to be 8-10 other people in the room, including my mom, who was standing right next to me. For a second I thought I was going to get away with it, but then the room erupted in laughter—friendly, sympathetic laughter, but laughter just the same—and I got embarrassed and walked out the door. Sitting here now I can appreciate that it’s a touching memory and yadda yadda, but mostly I’m struck by the fact that I remember this tiny little event well enough that one small moment in a movie can bring it back in so much detail. Seriously, I can picture exactly how, when I said those words, that woman’s mouth fell open and she looked at whoever it was sitting next to her.
Like I say…just bizarre.
(July 17, 2013)
I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of people who have beautiful daughters. Do they feel more paranoid for their offspring than parents of plainer looking girls do? Are there mother/daughter chats where Mom goes “Look, kid, you aren’t going to understand this just yet, but you need to be extra special careful out there”? Is there a moment, maybe over the breakfast table, when Dad looks up from his paper and suddenly really sees his kid for the first time, and thinks “Mother of God, what have I created here”? And what exactly do you do if you’re Marlene Dietrich’s father, other than try not to get run over?
Okay, so it’s not in the same league as the ACA ruling, but considering what a chilling effect the fine had at the time, it doesn’t deserve to go under the radar either. When conservatives bitch about the feds telling us what to do (that fine was levied by the FCC when it was being run by some of Dubya’s most primitive apparatchiks), why don’t they care about hysterically prudish actions like this one, or self-censorship imposed by a gun to the head like the MPAA ratings board? Don’t worry, I know the answer: our discomfort about sex gets to trump everything, including common sense. I’m just sick of the double standard.
Last night I checked out the Blu-Ray disc of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, a film which over the last decade or two has quietly made its way from cause célèbre to one almost needing rediscovery. (Of the twenty-somethings I’ve talked to who’d even heard of it, none had actually seen it. Odd thing is, their generation may be better prepared to enjoy Bertolucci’s cinematic in-jokes—ranging from the jabs at Godard to the casting of neorealist icons in a couple of important secondary roles—than the audiences of 1973.) It doesn’t help that MGM treats Last Tango like a Showgirls for people with opposable thumbs. The DVD case promises “THE PASSION IS EVEN HOTTER ON BLU-RAY” (along with the anal rape, presumably), though the additional puffery offers no serious indication that the film was a milestone in its day. A Blu-Ray release clearly signaled the time had come for a making-of documentary or (at the very least) a commentary track by a smart critic or two, but MGM considered its work done by merely remastering the film—the threadbare minimum.
The premiere of Last Tango in Paris at the New York Film Festival—that would be the same premiere which Pauline Kael compared in impact to the opening of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring—occurred on October 14, 1972, which happens to have been my eighteenth birthday. We’ll get into why that matters in a sec, but let’s just say for right now that by the time the movie opened wide a few months later, it was a full-blown media event, with a level of mainstream buzz and anticipation reserved today for Super Bowls and Batman movies.
For a Marlon Brando sex movie! I was a part of that buzz, most definitely, even if I can’t totally pinpoint today just why I was so eager to see it. It wasn’t just the sex: I’d let Therese and Isabelle and I Am Curious (Yellow) blow through town without taking a flyer on either of them. I adored Brando but earlier that year I’d been only mildly curious to see him playing a Mafia don, and while I knew who Bertolucci was, I’d missed The Conformist, his ultra-stylish warm-up to Last Tango, when it was in the theaters. And, of course, like everyone else in the world, I’d never even heard of Maria Schneider.
Last Tango was given a prestige release when it finally arrived. Tickets—available only by mail-order—ran a scandalous five bucks a pop. In Houston’s Bellaire Theater on opening night, I plopped down in my reserved seat only to notice that the head directly in front of me was topped by a familiar snow-white toupee. It belonged to Marvin Zindler, the obnoxious consumer-affairs reporter for a local TV station; Zindler, who had a foghorn for a voice, ended every report by booming into his microphone “MAR-R-R-VIN ZIND-LER! EYE-WIT-NESS NEWS!” The presence of Zindler, a well-known do-gooder and spoilsport, had people eying the exits, wondering if they were about to be swept up in a vice raid; in just a few months he’d make such a public fuss about La Grange’s “Chicken Ranch”—a/k/a The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas—that it would have to shutter its doors after 60 years of business.
Last Tango is often called an “erotic” movie, but there’s really only one stretch of it that I’d call sexy: the 15-minute long scene which Schneider plays wearing only a pair of jeans. With a post-coital mood hovering over them like a cloud, it’s the closest Paul and Jeanne come to acting like a normal couple, one whose relationship doesn’t feel driven by Paul’s rage. As Jeanne prowls the darkened living room, Paul plays a harmonica and tells a story—perhaps from Brando’s actual past—about getting cow-shit on his shoes. Jeanne chides him for talking about himself, and the teasing leads to their X-rated spoof of Little Red Riding Hood. Suddenly Paul remembers his dead wife and, disengaging, moves to another room; left alone, Jeanne masturbates and, weakened after she comes, pulls herself by inches up the wall. With her back to the camera, her arms stretched apart and her jeans just hanging from her hips, she looks like Fay Wray tied to the altar on Skull Island—a slave-girl waiting to be sacrificed.
Well, here we are in 2011, and Maria Schneider died a couple weeks ago, at 58. Her obituaries dutifully recounted her troubling relationships with Bertolucci and Brando, her resentment over being pigeon-holed as a sex kitten, her breakdown and drug abuse and the girlfriend-in-the-asylum mess. (Google the details if you must, but none of them are as interesting as the movie is.) Only one obit bothered to mention that she was any good in Last Tango, though it stopped well short of pointing out how she held her own against the acting phenomenon of her time, when he was twice her age and giving the performance of his career, or that she did it in the face of Bertolucci’s mind-games and while playing a third of her scenes fully nude. She was also all of 20 years old at the time. Finally, as if to add insult to, well, death, God thought it’d be funny to take, exactly one day later, the life of Lena Nyman, the star of Curious (Yellow), again yoking Schneider to the image of a date-stamped sex-object, which is the lasting impression of a world that never really bothered to look at her (or Nyman) in the first place.
I won’t try to kid you: for the longest time I was one of those people, mainly because I may be the only person on Earth who was more screwed up by Last Tango in Paris than Maria Schneider. Social Conservatives have a suspect reason for everything they do in their lives, up to and including brushing their teeth in the morning, but they come closest to making sense when talking about the need for two stable role models in a family. The number isn’t important, of course: one will do fine, just so long as that one person is sane. But when you come from a family whose every suppertime is like the third act of a Eugene O’Neill play, and your only parent has deeply, deeply ambivalent feelings about love and sex and the opposite gender—well, that shit tends to rub off on you. By the time I saw Brando screwing a ridiculously sexy Schneider before speaking a word to her, I knew so little about women and the world and I’d had so few sexual experiences that I naturally supposed that meet-cutes like Paul and Jeanne’s were the stuff of everyday life. I didn’t see Paul as a man agonized by his wife’s suicide when he abused Jeanne during their dusky afternoons together. I thought most everything he did—the callous jokes, the rough sex, the willful comings and goings—just a slight exaggeration of the things any man might do while courting a woman, and (and this is the kicker) that these were all things women secretly want, or at least secretly expect, their men to provide.
I won’t go into all the gory details; let’s just say it was a case of world-class cluelessness, and a disastrous way to go. It pretty much ruined me in my 20s and early 30s, as one failed relationship led to another drunken binge to another failed relationship, and some of the collateral damage—meaning most of the women I dated or lived with back then—won’t speak to me to this day. Why I had to choose Last Tango over any stray episode of McMillan and Wife is a question that’s long plagued me; all I can say now is that it’s what seemed most “adult” at the time, and if I’d come of age in ’85 I probably would’ve taken my sexual cues from Frank Booth.
What I do know is that no other work of art in the history of time had its way with me the way Last Tango in Paris did. It’s always been easy for me to see Brando’s part in all this; I just hope the fact that it took Schneider’s death for me to finally take a real look at her is a symbol of only limited meaning. Near the end of Last Tango Jean-Pierre Léaud, playing her boyfriend, drapes a ship’s lifesaver around her waist and proposes marriage to her—a union that would almost certainly be doomed by his cinema-fueled fantasy world. The couple banters the question back and forth in an almost bickering tone before Jeanne accepts, then she petulantly throws the lifesaver into a nearby canal. The legend on it reads “L’Atalante”—another in-joke, the title of Jean Vigo’s tribute to enduring love—but we barely have time to read the word before the lifesaver sinks like a rock.
So here’s the thoroughly charming duet with Elmo that got Katy Perry booted off Sesame Street:
The great bogeyman “parent protests” won this battle just by showing up on the field: to save itself a headache PBS caved in to a handful of puritanical whiners, leaving the hard work of defending free speech and common-sense to some other luckless sap. (It’s sure to be the saddest lesson kids will learn on Sesame Street this year.) Since no normal pre-pubescent child would ever notice Ms. Perry’s chest without some helpful adult writing F-I-L-T-H across it with a Sharpie pen, the parents are clearly registering their own reaction to her body. And because (unless you have a thing for Elmo) it’s all occurring in the most innocent possible context (even the song is a plea for emotional constancy), these prigs really are saying that the tops of a young woman’s breasts are objectionable in themselves—which, I gotta say, is both mind-boggling and kind of exciting, because it’s also very, very dirty. In fact, if anyone here can explain to me how, except by degree, this is any different from the Taliban and all of their crazy-ass shame-based bullshit about the female body, there’s a plateful of blueberry pancakes in it for you.
Meanwhile, over at Slate the professional busybody Emily Yoffe (aka “Dear Prudence”), who earns a living by solving “problems” that would make the average Somali laugh bitterly in your face, is busy having this exchange:
Two colleagues and I own a business. We are all good friends and do great work together. Our dress code tends to be somewhat formal, but we don’t have a specific uniform. One of us has been showing up lately for professional events braless, very obviously so. This concerns the other two of us, because we have a relatively conservative clientele, the market has been extremely cutthroat for the service we offer, and we always want to put our best foot forward. Is one of us “nipping out” a big deal? The two of us who wear bras have been trying to dress by example, but our third colleague doesn’t seem to notice. Should we mention it and, if so, how? Should just one of us take her aside? Or should we drop it?
—Mountains out of Molehills?
There you two are, trying to put your best foot forward, but all anyone notices is her bouncing chest. If her lack of undergarments is so obvious, your female clients are going to wonder what’s up (or not) with your partner. And your male clients are going to have a hard time focusing on your actual message when she’s sending such a distracting subliminal one. So she doesn’t feel ganged up on, before the next presentation, one of you should bring up the two of hers. Do it with as little drama as possible. Say something like, “Marissa, we’ve noticed that at the last few meetings, you’ve been going braless. That is just not a professional enough look for the image we’re trying to convey. So please truss up your gals.” Let’s hope she takes to heart that you’re just being supportive.
Is there a single line of this drivel that doesn’t make you want to spew? It’s all so neutered and boringly affable, it’s like the verbal equivalent of mom jeans. Note that we’re never given any information that would be actually useful in diagnosing the situation, such as which industry the women service, what kind of “professional events” the colleague is attending, whether the clothes she does wear are appropriate, whether any clients have complained about her, and whether or not she is known to have cost the company a penny’s worth of revenue. Instead we’re treated to that ghastly faux collegiate tone and a snotty assertion—“All anyone notices is her bouncing chest”—that isn’t backed up by even a whisper of evidence.
But other parts of Prudie’s advice caught my eye, too, beginning with: “[Your] male clients are going to have a hard time focusing on your actual message when she’s sending such a distracting subliminal one.” You want to know somethin’? A long, long time ago, back in the 1970s, there were these funny creatures running around who were called “feminists”. Oh, they were a pissed-off bunch of bitches alright, but if you listened to them long enough they began to make a lot of sense, and one of the things they made greatest sense about was how their actions didn’t necessarily mean what men might want them to mean. A lot of women back then didn’t wear bras—some to make a political statement, some to make a statement no bigger than “I don’t like the damn things”—yet somehow the engine of capitalism didn’t come flying off the rails. More to the point, if a man ever suggested that a woman’s bralessness was actually a “subliminal message” to him, he was usually disabused of the notion with extreme prejudice. Indeed, this happened enough times that guys eventually began to understand that a woman showing up braless—at school, in a meeting, or even on a date—didn’t necessarily mean that she wanted to break in a box-spring with them. In fact—and here was the gargantuan leap—it might not have anything to do with them at all.
And then there’s this:
So she doesn’t feel ganged up on, before the next presentation, one of you should bring up the two of hers. Do it with as little drama as possible. Say something like, “Marissa, we’ve noticed that at the last few meetings, you’ve been going braless. That is just not a professional enough look for the image we’re trying to convey. So please truss up your gals.”
Yeah, that’s the ticket, baby! Work her, but don’t let her feel ganged up on, even though that’s exactly you’re doing. And keep the drama down, for heaven’s sake! If crazy ol’ “Marissa” is willing to walk around in undergarments of her own choosing, God knows what psycho reaction she and her giant floppy tits might have if you simply approach her with your concerns. (She might even have a reasonable comeback to your objections.) I swear, if any adult professional woman thinks a line like “Truss up your gals” is anything other than sick-making in the extreme, having a braless colleague is the least of her problems. She needs to forget about doing grown-up things like running a business or slagging her friends in Slate, and stick to watching Sesame Street.
When I was 24 or 25 the woman I was living with dumped me and started seeing other men, and it sent me spinning out of control. For six or eight months there, I did every stupid thing under the sun and then some, and I made it through those days without any life-changing fuck-ups—for me or for anybody else—through pure dumb luck. But the frame of mind I was in back then never did evaporate completely. It only takes the crumb from a madeleine—a song, a situation—to bring back the anger and smallness and pain, and I can’t help but feel for anyone who ever goes through the process. I didn’t come close to stalking or hurting my ex (basically, I took my shit out on everybody around me except her), but when I hear about the TRO type of guys, even the violent ones, I simply can’t write them off as the social garbage that law-and-order nuts and women’s rights groups insist they are. Some of it’s a “There but for the grace of God…” thing, but I also know they’re just trying to obliterate the pain, and that they don’t want to be this way either.
Jealousy and the indignities of being left behind make for great film subjects because shitfits and degradation look so good to the camera’s eye: Emil Jannings humiliating himself in chicken feathers for Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel; Edward G. Robinson tormented by the sound of Joan Bennett’s voice calling another man’s name in Scarlet Street; Albert Finney driving a one-man Indy 500 all over Diane Keaton’s brand-new tennis court in Shoot the Moon. The titles alone—Raging Bull, Blood Simple, Love Me or Leave Me, Smash Palace, Contempt, Bitter Moon, In a Lonely Place—are emblems of bitterness, alienation and violence, while even comedies on the subject can’t resist coloring what happens when Aphrodite uses your brain as her pincushion.
And they keep tumbling down the chute. Malcolm Venville’s hard-to-pigeonhole 44 Inch Chest opens with a closeup of its hero lying flat on his back, sweaty hair pasted to his forehead, and surrounded by the shards of a room which he’s just finished demolishing. It’s a signature view of the primal, endlessly battered Ray Winstone, who’s embodied just about every form of moral depravity there is—hooligan, drunkard, daughter-rapist, mankiller—while keeping his inner yuck alive in fresh and interesting ways.
44 Inch Chest finds him hitting bottom again, this time as the car salesman Colin Diamond. Colin has just learned that the wife he adores (Joanne Whalley, looking better than ever) has been cuckolding him with a studly young French waiter, and in his distress he turns to his mates, a circle of friends played by Ian McShane, Tom Wilkinson, John Hurt, and Stephen Dillane—casting decisions which clue us in that this support group won’t be telling Colin to use his words. After hearing the news, the quartet brazenly snatches the Frenchman and delivers him to an abandoned house where Colin—and, vicariously, his friends—will take their revenge on him. With “Loverboy” now safely trussed to a chair, Wilkinson helpfully explains the situation to him: “You should have got your own fucking wife to fuck.”
The role of Colin was written specifically for Winstone by Louis Mellis and David Scinto, the duo who created the great part of “Gal” for him in Sexy Beast, and the two movies have the same staccato volubility, the same fierce contest between jokes, asides, argot and belligerence. Set mainly in a gutted room dressed in mustardy tones of decay, the film plays out over a long, talk-filled night, as Colin searches himself for an answer potent enough to satisfy the codes and imperatives of his gender as represented by his friends, a spectrum of masculinity ranging from McShane’s wanly hilarious gay gambler to Hurt’s perpetually outraged aging gangster. 44 Inch Chest boasts yet another of Angelo Badalamenti’s haunting scores, and it freely dips into both surrealism and straightforward theatricality. By the end of it we can see the glimmers of a better world, one in which even the most scarred among us can find a way to hold his head upright.
Nothing says more about how drastically the movie industry has changed than the fact that in the year 1964 Columbia Pictures gave an unlimited budget to a French director for a foreign language film about marital infidelity. This came about for a number of reasons. Columbia had just tried the same strategy with a black comedy about the threat of nuclear annihilation, and Stanley Kubrick had come back with Dr. Strangelove. European cinema, and French cinema in particular, was big at the time. And Henri-Georges Clouzot was a prestigious and reputable director.
Clouzot’s script for L’enfer was about a pair of newlyweds—Serge Reggiani and Romy Schneider—and the husband’s growing (but wrongheaded) suspicion that his wife is being unfaithful to him. Clouzot is often called the French Hitchcock, and besides bringing awesome levels of craftsmanship to their suspense films, the two men favored linear storylines that were almost too generic for the good of their reputations. By the time of L’enfer, Clouzot, having taken to heart the work of avant-garde painters and musicians, wanted to try something radical—and here was Columbia Pictures, with all that money. He envisioned L’enfer as two movies harnessed together: a series of black and white segments offering a conventional external look at the marriage and, intercut with it, Marcel’s hallucinations about Odette and her trysts, which were to be shot like a fever dream.
The shoot turned out to be a debacle. The production team spent weeks on expensive lighting tests for the dream sequences. Location shooting followed a quixotic, whimsical schedule as Clouzot demanded retake after retake of shots that depended on impossible timing schemes. He hired three camera teams, each of them stacked with first-rate talent, which he planned to use in a staggered fashion; however, when he kept getting caught up on the shot in front of him, the other two teams could only cool their heels. And though the manmade lake he was shooting on was scheduled to be drained within days, he insisted on reshooting scenes he already had in the can while leaving others to die on the vine. Reggiani grew uncooperative, then disappeared from the set; while searching for his replacement, Clouzot suffered a heart attack and the production was shut down.
The 13 hours of footage that survived the experience—some of it silly but much of it extraordinary—came to light only because the French filmmaker Serge Bromberg found himself trapped in an elevator with Clouzot’s widow one night. Bromberg has used it to create both an approximation of Clouzot’s film and an account of its making, under the doubly accurate title Henri-Georges Clouzot’s ‘Inferno’. It’s an incredibly seductive work, at once sensual, saddening and maddening. All that redundant, futile footage suggests that Clouzot, like Coppola on the set of Apocalypse Now, could never find the crucial handle on his material, but Bromberg has assembled it into something well worth seeing.
And thanks to Jonathan Rosenbaum, I just saw Peter Bogdanovich’s The Cat’s Meow, a what-if retelling of the 1924 party on William Randolph Hearst’s yacht that ended with the mysterious death of the director-producer Thomas H. Ince. Because Ince’s body was cremated before an autopsy could be performed, the rumors wouldn’t go away that Hearst had shot Ince, but by mistake; his true target, supposedly, was Charlie Chaplin, with whom Marion Davies, Hearst’s mistress, was thought to be having an affair. Kirsten Dunst as Davies and Edward Herrmann, who has Hearst’s trapezoidal jowliness, give a pair of the most convincing historical portrayals I’ve seen; I completely accepted that this was how those people acted, or could have acted, over that weekend. Dunst, only 19 at the time, is particularly good, not just at playing a woman eight years older than her actual self, but at conveying the spirit of Davies’ character as it’s filtered down to us over the years. The movie may look like a cheaper version of Gosford Park but it’s good from beginning to end, and it’s at its best in its melancholy final half hour, after the shooting has occurred, when an entire social circle can be seen sinking into collective shock.
The screenwriter Steven Peros gives us something we’re not really prepared for: a William Randolph Hearst with emotional context. “Willy,” as Marion calls him, may do monstrous things, but he’s clearly no monster: if anything, he wears his humanity like a yoke. His emotional tyranny is but a poor disguise for his neediness, making it easy to understand his agony when he spots Davies and Chaplin exchanging a loving gaze, and his horror when Chaplin jokingly announces to the roaring-with-laughter guests, “I give you Marion Davies—the New Tramp!” Peros, Bogdanovich and his cast treat these characters—or people, rather—with a decency rare for historical dramas, especially one revolving around such grotty affairs.
Bogdanovich, of course, has seen the other side of the coin. Bob Fosse’s Star 80 focused on Paul Snider, a penny-ante Hefner wannabe who killed his estranged wife, Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten, and himself, after she and Bogdanovich fell in love on a movie location. Fosse goosed up Snider and Stratten’s tragedy with the same facile gimmicks—time-jumps, shock cuts, varying film stocks, portentous-ironic fake interviews—that he’d ladled onto poor Lenny Bruce’s head a few years earlier, just to ramrod home his inflammatory and untested ideas about life in a materialistic, sexually loose America.
There may well be some worthwhile takeaway from Paul Snider’s story—who knows, it might’ve even been king of the jealous man genre—but Fosse never bothered to seek it out, and as a result Star 80 is a posturing, hypocritically lurid work, condescending to its characters and audience alike, and 180 degrees away from the respect Bogdanovich paid to his material. The Cat’s Meow ends by echoing one of the great closing shots in all of cinema—the last shot from The Rules of the Game—in a way that’s both earned and poetic in its own right. Scott Fitzgerald himself might have applauded the gentle way these children of the Charleston, power, and far too much money are ushered off the stage and into the history books.
Bogdanovich hasn’t directed a theatrical feature since The Cat’s Meow came out in 2001; in a sick joke whose origins I don’t want to think about, his next credit, three years later, was a TV movie about Natalie Wood’s drowning. I’ve given the man a lot of grief in my time but The Cat’s Meow makes up for a lot of things. If nothing else, it contains the fragrant moment when a flustered Hearst stammers out the blinkered Desiderata of needy men everywhere: “I do not ask much, but the little that I do ask, I must be respected. I don’t say this as a threat. It’s just a wish I have as a man.”