A Transit to Narcissus

Last Tango in Paris

directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

Marlon Brando
Marlon Brando; drawing by David Levine

To pay one’s $5.00 and join the full house at the Translux for the evening show of Last Tango in Paris is to be reminded once again that the planet is in a state of pullulation. The seasons accelerate. The snow which was falling in November had left by the first of March. Would our summer arrive at Easter and end with July? It is all that nuclear radiation, says every aficionado of the occult. And we pullulate. Like an ant-hive beginning to feel the heat.

We know that Spengler’s thousand-year metamorphosis from Culture to Civilization is gone, way gone, and the century required for a minor art to move from commencement to decadence is off the board. Whole fashions in film are born, thrive, and die in twenty-four months. Still! It is only a half year since Pauline Kael declared to the readers of The New Yorker that the presentation of Last Tango in Paris at the New York Film Festival on October 14, 1972, was a date which “should become a landmark in movie history—comparable to May 29, 1913—the night Le Sacre du Printemps was first performed—in music history,” and then went on to explain that the newer work had “the same kind of hypnotic excitement as the Sacre, the same primitive force, and the same jabbing, thrusting eroticism…. Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form.” Whatever could have been shown on screen to make Kael pop open for a film? “This must be the most powerfully erotic movie ever made, and it may turn out to be the most liberating movie ever made….” Could this be our own Lady Vinegar, our quintessential cruet? The first frigid of the film critics was treating us to her first public reception. Prophets of Baal, praise Kael! We had obviously no ordinary hour of cinema to contemplate.

Now, a half year later, the movie is history, has all the palpability of the historic. Something just discernible has already happened to humankind as a result of it, or at least to that audience who are coming in to the Translux to see it. They are a crew. They have unexpected homogeneity for a movie audience, compose, indeed, so thin a sociological slice of the New York and suburban sausage that you cannot be sure your own ticket isn’t what was left for the toothpick, while the rest of the house has been bought at a bite. At the least, there is the same sense of aesthetic oppression one feels at a play when the house is filled with a theater party. So, too, is the audience at Tango an infarct of middle-class anal majesties—if Freud hadn’t given us the clue, a reader of faces could decide all on his own that there had to be some social connection between sex, shit, power, violence, and money. But these middle-class faces…

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