Bertolucci’s Insensitive Sensationalism

I’ve never been a fan of Bernardo Bertolucci’s films, although I’ve seen only two — Last Tango In Paris, and the abridged version of 1900.

I saw both on VHS tapes when I was in my thirties, and believe fair, adult-level thought helped me reach a conclusion: The movies were hollow and sensational.  They were made to shock and gross out the audience, and leave gullible people thinking they’d seen something unique.

In the United States, we’re too easily impressed by films made on other continents, and if one of us suggests a foreign film has more pretense than substance there’s hell to pay.  An angry mob of pseudo-intellectuals will be after us, but not necessarily to hurt us physically.  Most of the time, the angry mob in question will just smirk and say something to the effect that we’ll feel differently when we’re older.

If you consider yourself part of the Art House Movie Crowd, those condescending remarks will sting even when you know better.  You may feel the same way you did in high school when your classmates called you “immature.”  In that case, it’s time to get away from the Crowd.

Mr. Bertolucci’s recent statement that the rape scene in Last Tango was a recording of an actual assault should encourage us to question whether so-called art is ever justified when it harms someone.

When an administrator of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati went on trial on obscenity charges in 1990, the issue was an exhibit featuring erotic photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. Some of the erotic photos were of children, one of whom — in the picture titled Honey — had a horrified expression on her face.

The federal trial resulted in acquittal, and people who saw nothing wrong with the direction in which Mapplethorpe pushed the envelope celebrated.  It was seen as a victory for the First Amendment.

I wonder whatever happened to “Honey” and the other kids whose parents signed away their basic right to dignified treatment.  Those children lacked the legal capacity to refuse to pose for erotic pictures.  Any defense for this atrocity relies at least partly on parental entitlement, and sadly entitlement trumps responsibility. Go wherever you want with the wording of that last sentence.

A person who says, in effect, “Ethical rules don’t apply in art” isn’t likely to be thinking any more deeply than the person who brags about reading every banned book.  Trust me, there are a few controversial books you can skip and you won’t miss a damned thing, although librarians who insist on making those books available have earned my respect — as long as the books don’t have dirty pictures of underage models.

If you don’t see grey areas when you offer their own criticism, you aren’t gaining insight into yourself.  Overlooking the harm done in the course of creating art doesn’t make us sophisticated.  Actually, it gives us something in common with people who believe an absolute, literal interpretation of the Bible should be used in court rulings and legislation.  No, those far left and far right principles aren’t opposites. Really, they give new meaning to the term “concrete parallels.”

Mr. Bertolucci’s recent claim of how the rape scene in Last Tango was created is only slightly different from Maria Schneider’s version of the story.  Her slightly less distasteful memory still made her feel violated.  Her career, mental state and life in general suffered as a result.  At the end of this post is a screenshot from her Wikipedia listing, with quotes on how working on the movie affected her.  The quotes are attributed to media sources, and you can find attributions by clicking the link to the full page.


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