Thursday, October 6, 2011

Bertolucci and The Meatrack

In July and August, the PFA had a series called Bernardo Bertolucci: In Search of Mystery. They screened 13 Bertolucci films including his well known films such as 1900 and The Last Emperor.

I was more interested in his earlier works and the infamous Last Tango in Paris. I saw four Bertolucci films in July. I was considering some of the August screenings but wasn't able to make it over to Berkeley.

Before the Revolution starring Francesco Barilli & Adriana Asti; directed by Bertolucci; Italian with subtitles; (1964)
The Grim Reaper; directed by Bertolucci; Italian with subtitles; (1962)
The Spider’s Stratagem starring Giulio Brogi; directed by Bertolucci; Italian with subtitles; (1970)
Last Tango in Paris starring Marlon Brando & Maria Schneider; directed by Bertolucci; some French with subtitles; (1972)

According the PFA program notes, Bertolucci was an Assistant Director on Pier Paolo Pasolini's Accattone which I saw in December 2010 at PFA. Pasolini was co-wrote and was to direct The Grim Reaper but chose to direct Mamma Roma (which I saw in June at the YBCA) instead. Bertolucci inherited the project with Pasolini's blessing and made his directorial debut with The Grim Reaper. That's quite a cinematic pedigree and I'm always looking for coincidences like the trifecta. When I saw Accattone, I didn't know Mamma Roma would be screened six months later. Although I knew the The Grim Reaper would be screening a month after Mamma Roma, I didn't know that Pasolini's involvement with the film. Those kinds of scheduling coincidences happen to me frequently enough that I think it must the provenance of astute film programmers. How many people see as many films as me? Are programmers screening films for the handful of people that would see such a connection?

Accattone, Mamma Roma & The Grim Reaper - I see a pattern developing. All three films are about prostitutes and depict their lives in realistic (although sympathetic) terms. Accattone & Mamma Roma portray the pimps in a bad light. The Grim Reaper is about a john who robs and kills his whore. Men come off poorly in the three films.

Accattone had a gritty feel to it, Mamma Roma had Anna Magnani and a lyrical feel and The Grim Reaper feels like a gimmick. Evoking Kurosawa's Rashōmon, The Grim Reaper tells the story of a prostitutes's murder. Told from multiple viewpoints, the film closes in the killer's identity and climaxes with his capture at a dance. By making the murderer's identity known, The Grim Reaper moves away from weighty issues such as the meaning of "truth" towards a crime story with some interesting ways of moving the plot - like a Hitchcock or De Palma film (Blowout comes to mind). I guess it is unfair to expect a 21 year old Bertolucci to top, arguably, the greatest director of all-time.

Judged on a curve, The Grim Reaper is an auspicious debut for Bertolucci. It's an entertaining whodunit. The reenacted murder scene was notable for the indifference shown by the killer.

Bertolucci's second film, Before the Revolution, was more satisfying for me. In that film, a young man (Francesco Barilli) embarks on a torrid love affair with his aunt (outstanding performance by Adriana Asti). This forbidden love plays against the backdrop of Marxism, class warfare and Italian political unrest in 1960s. The turmoil and passion Fabrizio (Barilli) feels towards his aunt is mirrored by the turmoil and passion he encounters in Italian society.

Before the Revolution has an latent energy which must have seemed vital if you lived in Italy in the 1960s or are a political student of the era. Being neither, I was more fascinated by the relationship between aunt & newphew. Asti dresses and slightly resembles Audrey Hepburn but her performance hints at inner demons in ways I cannot recall from any Hepburn performance. Asti and Barilli careem from scene to scene with subtle and obvious desperation as their affair waxes and wanes. The end shot at Fabrizio's wedding is a classic as it appears the woman has moved on her younger newphew.

Before the Revolution has a French New Wave and the early 1960s vitality when Italian directors were all the rage. Allegedly semi-autobiographical, Before the Revolution was not Bertolucci's debut but it must have heralded his potential as a film director.

In The Spider’s Stratagem, Bertolucci achieved something closer to Rashōmon. Released the same year as his more celebrated The Conformist, The Spider’s Stratagem tells the story of Athos Magnani, Jr. (Giulio Brogi). Magnani returns to the town of his father's death. Magnani Sr. was killed before Jr. as born and his murder remains unsolved. Invited town to by Senior's mistress, Junior returns to the town where his father is revered by street names & statues and spoken about with reverence by all who knew him.

Bertolucci does something interesting though. Frist off, he has Brogi play both Jr. and Sr. but more interesting is that he blurs the line for the audience. The audience becomes increasing less certain whether the character is father or son. The actors who are elderly (almost everyone in the town is elderly) play their characters at a younger age when they are in scenes with Sr. Bertolucci plays with time and identity. The revealed circumstances of Senior's death are secondary. Bertolucci seems to excel in telling a story in innovative ways as opposed to telling great stories.

For any criticisms I have about Before the Revolution, The Grim Reaper & The Spider’s Stratagem, I'm gland I saw the films. Last Tango in Paris is a horse of a different color.

The infamous film is one I've heard about for years and long wanted to see...if for no other reason than to cross it off my cinematic bucket list. In Paris, Paul (Marlon Brando) and Jeanne (Maria Schneider) meet while looking at the same apartment. Paul may have followed Jeanne; it's not clear. After their encounter, they inexplicably embark on an anonymous sexual relationship. It's anonymous in the sense that they don't details about their personal life. They meet weekly at the apartment (which Paul has rented but remains unlived in) and have kinky sex. Jeanne has a boyfriend (I think they may be engaged) but is fairly unsatisfied by the relationship.

The exact root of Jeanne's motivation is unclear. Paul, on the other hand, is still mourning his wife's suicide. If taken literally, he keeps her corpse in their bedroom with an abundance of flowers. Presumably to mask the odor but visually, Bertolucci makes the most of the scene. There was a later scene at a tango competition where Paul reveals his personal life to Jeanne which was masterfully shot. As for the controversial sex scenes, they were surprisingly lacking of eroticism. In fact, they were at time comical. I'm thinking of one scene regarding a finger nail clippers and Brando.

Brando's performance was uneven but I guess that's consistent his character. Schneider showed a some range in the portrayal her character and I'm surprised she didn't go on to bigger and better. Schneider portrayed herself in the media as wild child of 70s but in later years she was critical of Bertolucci, Brando and her experience on the set of Last Tango.

Perhaps if I had seen this film earlier in my life, I would have thought different. However, given the 40 years since it was released and my own life experience, I find the film to be passé. Unlike the other three Bertolucci films I saw, it seemed that Bertolucci's attempts at being overtly sexual lessened the film. The world changed drastically from 1962 to 1972 and I can imagine how filmmakers were trying to keep pace with the changes. Last Tango has the look and feel of a director in transition or perhaps more accurately, a world in transition and a director trying to find his way in that world. A lot of films from 1970s have that same feel. That's probably one reason I've fully appreciated films from that decade.


The YBCA had a series in July and August called Smut Capital of America.

According to YBCA Film Curator Joel Shepard, Though [Smut Capital of America] has a lurid title, and some lurid films, this is not a porn series. Only two of the films in the eight-part program could accurately be called “porno movies,” and they are radically different than contemporary pornography. The last thing I wanted to do was screen hours of close-ups of grinding genitals. It doesn’t get much more tedious.

This is a look back at a specific place (San Francisco) and time (1969 to around 1974) and the truly unbelievable explosion of sex culture here. Though many similar things were happening in Copenhagen, San Francisco was the center of the sexual revolution in America. And it wasn’t just about the exhibition of sexually explicit film. Strip clubs, live sex shows (there were dozens of them at one time), nude encounter groups, erotic restaurants, adult bookstores, and more, all played huge roles.

For some reason, my blog gets of hits for search keywords such as "Japanese hot sex," "hot roman women," "adult video," etc. I write about a few pinku eiga films, stalag fiction or penis dismemberment and I get labeled a porno site. Although Smut Capital looked kind of interesting (including an Alex de Renzy film), I largely stayed away. I only saw one film.

The Meatrack directed by Richard Stockton; (1968)

I can't remember who introduced The Meatrack. He gave the most scholarly and extended lecture on gay porn in San Francisco which made me wonder if he actually got paid to research the stuff. It was if he was lecturing on European Royalty. He explained the relationships between the key, local porn figures of era. I was transfixed by talk in which he did seem to use notecards. All this spoken extemporaneously!

To be honest, I don't know why I went to see The Meatrack. The program referred to it as follow, Shot mostly on the mean streets of San Francisco, this is a gritty, brooding tale of a bisexual hustler who’ll go to bed with any man or woman who offers him enough money and sexual kicks. Using both sexploitation and art film aesthetics, The Meatrack is an essential and compelling artifact of pre-hardcore adult cinema.

No matter how much it is dressed up, The Meatrack was essentially soft-core porn. Richard Stockton was an alias the director used so that's a good indication of how the film was intended. When Shepard wrote of close-ups of grinding genitals, "it doesn’t get much more tedious," he clearly saw something I missed. At 65 minutes, The Meatrack bored me to slumber. I don't mean catnapping either. I slept without interruptions for the last 40 minutes of the film.

The protagonist had two or three sex partners in the first 25 minutes and the film was just not sexy or even very interesting. It reminds of Last Tango except at least Bertolucci put a few interesting interlues between the sex scenes. It as kind of interesting to see the Tenderloin from 40 years ago but otherwise, it bored me senseless.

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