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Past Its Prime?: 'Last Tango in Paris' (Blu-ray)

Last Tango in Paris is a perfect example of something's parts being massively greater than its ultimate sum.


Last Tango in Paris

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Cast: Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider, Maria Michi, Giovanni Galletti, Jean-Pierre Leaud
Extras: 2
Rated: NC-17
Year: 1973
US date: 2011-02-15 (General release)
UK date: 2011-02-15 (General release)

Certain movies are solidly "of their time." No matter how hard they try to break free of the cultural context in which they were created, they just can't seem to shed their particular period designs. It's not a question of when a movie is made. Lots of classic Hollywood films are set in the '30s and '40s and yet somehow manage to transcend such temporal trappings. No, it's almost always a question of social response, art not only trying to imitate life, but comment and complement it as well. Take Bernardo Bertolucci's controversial Last Tango in Paris. For 1972, the erotic drama was a landmark, a frank and open exploration of grief, sex, and interpersonal emptiness. Fast forward nearly 40 years, however, and the film feels as dated and derivative as an X-rated episode of Laugh-In.

Marlon Brando is a disaffected American in Paris. Having recently lost his wealthy wife to suicide, he stumbles along the streets looking to get lost. He runs into a spry French 20 year old and the attraction is instantaneous. Before they are properly introduced, they are engaging in the most intimate of contact. Soon, they begin an affair, he requiring no names or past information, she demanding and asking for personal details. While sex is the key to their connection, we soon learn of other elements driving their need. He - Paul - can't quite comprehend why his spouse took her own life, considering the complex and often open nature of their free relationship. She - Jeanne - has a fiancé who fancies himself a great filmmaker, placing unreasonable demands on her as part of his proposed art. As long as things stay physical, everything is fine. Once love enters into the picture, however, things take as turn toward the twisted... and tragic.

Last Tango in Paris is a perfect example of something's parts being massively greater than its ultimate sum. It contains a terrific performance from Marlon Brando, an equally compelling and evocative turn by the late, great Maria Schneider, spirited direction from Bertolucci and a decaying Parisian backdrop that just seethes with atmosphere and angst. Many of the scenes are very good, the dialogue delivering the proper balance of authenticity and human need, and the overall effect is one of admiration and respect. But in a world which considers Last Tango in Paris one of the greatest films of all times, there are obstacles to such a current quantification. Aside from the obvious pragmatic issues involved (in today's PC climate, a 45 year old seducing a 20 something is beyond scandal) and the "fancy that, free love" dynamic, such experiments in existentialism fail to resonate with a harried, high tech trained viewer.

Back in the late '60s and early '70s, such interpersonal wanderlust was common. Men and women were looking to "find themselves", an entire closed off planet waiting for them to explore and enjoy. Trips to India for enlightenment and the entire counterculture revolution demanded that such individual import be paid. The next ten years would be known as the Me decade, and with good reason. After society struggled through its own philosophical maturation, it was time for the participants to do the same. It wasn't until an aging actor declared it "morning in America" that people perked up and started focusing on what was really necessary - materialism. Last Tango in Paris taps directly into such free spiritedness, wanting us to disappear within the desire and degradation felt by these two souls...

...Except, there's really not much to champion. It's not until very late in the that Paul lets down his guard (a terrific scene with Brando crying over his dead wife's corpse). Before that, he's kind of a heel, an older man getting a sweet young thing to bow to his every carnal whim. For her part, Jeanne is the kind of gal who'd be showing up on Howard Stern, whining about her daddy issues if she weren't stuck in 1972. Clearly, her attraction is one of misplaced paternalism, a desire to be with the only man who ever meant anything to her. As the domination intensifies, as she agrees to do more and more demeaning things, Jeanne goes from likeable to laughable. Brando is a icon, but definitely not worthy of the various perversions he plays with.

Some will argue - as is there bonafide right - that greatness is in the eye of the consensual beholder, and for many, Last Tango in Paris passes the test. As with something equally as complicated and contentious as 2001: A Space Odyssey, it's all a matter of place and preference. Like a fine wine, this film needs to grow on you and mature, finding its fulfillment in unknown, unexpected ways. Again, that tends to give Bertolucci et.al too much credit. There is no denying that the movie is well made and well acted. In fact, those two aspects alone could be responsible for much of its majesty. But as for the storyline and the stunted, ambiguous subplots that go nowhere, the film fails. We want the trysts between Paul and Jeanne to mean more than they seem. Sadly, they really don't.

As a result, a determination of brilliance cries out for examination and explanation, to have critics or other scholarly thinkers dissect the motives and extol the meaning. Sadly, the Blu-ray disc of Last Tango in Paris offers none of this. No Pauline Kael essay arguing that it would change the face of cinema. No Roger Ebert review piling on the praise. Aside from an improved picture and sound, all the HD format has to offer is a trailer - and it's the only telling thing about the entire package. Accenting the infamy and downplaying almost everything else, the preview plays with our expectations. Like the best carnival barking it promises the prurient without preparing us for the often preposterous place-setting it sits within.

Again, Last Tango in Paris is admirable. It marks a definite turning point in the progress of motion pictures, one began with the exploitationers and continued through numerous likeminded foreign films and there is no denying that a 1972 audience would be completely blown away by the frank depiction of erotic release (along with the language, containing numerous f-bombs and c-drops). But in 2011, such shock value has long worn off, leaving one with the inherent lingering net worth. From an acting and directing standpoint, the film more than succeeds. Everything else is up for debate - never a good sign when considering a supposed "classic."

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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