At one point this weekend while I was lying in bed, too tired to do anything but channel-surf — yes, it’s possible to be too tired to sleep — I stumbled across a rare treat on Flix, "Last Tango in Paris." It happened that the last channel I’d visited was CBS, and "CSI: Miami" was on, so for a while I switched back and forth between the two. One is Bernardo Bertolucci’s groundbreaking X-rated art movie with a great Gato Barbieri jazz score, the other’s…well. It was a strange experience, moving from one to the other.
I saw "Last Tango" when it came out — I was 14 years old, using my height and boobs and the presence of my 18-year-old date to get into the theater, although I don’t think anyone in the box office cared. Honestly, I didn’t get it (neither did my date, a whey-faced boy from Ironton, in town for a Demolay ceremony), for good reason. Like "King Lear," it’s something you don’t really appreciate until you’re old enough to have lived a little bit of its subject matter — sex, loss, heartbreak, and at 14 I was innocent of all three.
But I do remember how "shocking" it was, and the questions it raised: Can sex ever be kept entirely separate from emotion? When we fuck before we love someone — before we even know someone — what sort of shadow does it cast on the future? As I recall, the answer to the first was no, and as for the second, well, it doesn’t have a happy ending. But you still want to see it again, if only for the score, which I have somewhere on vinyl.
No, you want to see it again, you should see it again, for how dated it seems now. Googling around, I found Roger Ebert’s review on the occasion of a 1995 re-release, and I think he got it exactly right:
This movie was the banner for a revolution that never happened. "The movie breakthrough has finally come," Pauline Kael wrote, in the most famous movie review ever published. "Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form." The date of the premiere, she said, would become a landmark in movie history comparable to the night in 1913 when Stravinsky’s "Rites of Spring" was first performed, and ushered in modern music.
"Last Tango" premiered, in case you have forgotten, on Oct. 14, 1972. It did not quite become a landmark. …The shocking sexual energy of "Last Tango in Paris" and the daring of Marlon Brando and the unknown Maria Schneider did not lead to an adult art cinema. The movie frightened off imitators, and instead of being the first of many X-rated films dealing honestly with sexuality, it became almost the last. Hollywood made a quick U-turn into movies about teenagers, technology, action heroes and special effects. And with the exception of a few isolated films like "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and "In the Realm of the Senses," the serious use of graphic sexuality all but disappeared from the screen.
Watching Maria Schneider loll around naked, with her natural breasts and unwaxed pubis, you’re reminded that even bodies go out of style, these days. Forget Marlon Brando. Yes, it was before he blew up like the Michelin Man, but he was still, what? Fifty? Stanley Kowalski was far behind him. "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," remember, starred hot ‘n’ sexy Daniel Day-Lewis.
But still, this was something no one had really seen before in a movie that wasn’t playing in a part of town you’d never visit, and it had its impact. You can’t watch "CSI: Miami" and not realize the debt it owes to movies like "Last Tango," which were the first pebbles in the landslide. The boundaries are broken by artists, and then everyone else rushes in. It so happened, this night, that the Miami crime-scene investigators were looking into a murder at — anyone? anyone? — yes, a peep show! "He came, and he went," said David Caruso, and even though I’d just heard Brando give his "hap-penis" riff, which was juvenile even then, it just seemed…icky.
The whole CSI franchise is icky. I know lots of people like it, but every time I watch it, it reminds me that I didn’t know what autoerotic asphyxiation was until I was 25 years old, and Kate will probably be writing a paper on it in junior high. The way the investigators go on and on about semen and fetishes and "that smell? that smell, of bleach? that’s sex," and leather and whipping and ligature marks and the defense wounds on the rape victim and sadomasochism and drugs and needles and all the rest of it, it just seems like this is what sex in entertainment has come to — not just looking at the girl naked, but looking up her vagina with an ultraviolet light, and taking note of soft-tissue damage.
Sex and decay, sex and violence, sex and craziness. It makes sex with butter look like something Rotarians do.
And I don’t care what anyone says — I’ll take Gato Barbieri’s sax over that stupid Who theme-song trick.
Enough crepehanging. Whatever happened to Maria Schneider, anyway?
Not all TV is bad, of course; in fact, much of it is tremendous, these days, even the stuff about sex. I laughed more at this week’s "Six Feet Under" than in all the ones that came before, and "The Wire" rerun is even better. And even though I don’t watch "24," I thought Hank Steuver’s take on one of its characters, "Run, Kim, Run!" was really funny:
Kim, the danger-prone teenage daughter of Counter Terrorism Unit special agent Jack Bauer, fits a certain niche in these frantic times. Without meaning to, she has come to represent the vapidity and naive innocence of a Britney Nation caught up in something deadly serious, with only her wits and the occasional visibility of her nipples to save her.
…Kim is us. We are Kim. Every time your cell phone doesn’t work, every time you get kidnapped, every time you lose your car keys or, say, can’t get away from trained assassins, or every time you’re stuck in traffic (or causing a jam, like the time you set that deputy’s vehicle on fire, or the time the cops found your boss’s dead wife in the trunk of the car, which, technically, you stole from him), every time your boyfriend loses his leg trying to help you thwart disaster, just think of Kim and know you’re not alone.
And Hank is on to something, too, when he observes, Her mother, Teri Bauer, was also kidnapped a few times last season, and raped once. (The women of "24" are in serious need of a Take Back the Night march. Sexual violence is to the modern TV drama what being tied to train tracks was to the silent-movie era. The metaphor is almost too simple.)
OK, then. Long night behind me, long, indolent morning ahead of me. I plan to take advantage of every minute. Drop me a note; I’ll have lots of time to reply.
See you tomorrow, then.