The meaning of the sensation caused by Last Tango in Paris, of the febrile character of its reception quite apart from the character of the film itself, seems to me unmistakably clear: we want pornography. We want it, but we don't want to admit to wanting it, and so we want it cloaked in art, or some other socially respectable disguise; fun and “keeping up” will do, as witness the cultural legitimization of Deep Throat. Indeed, despite the enormous differences between the two films as individual works, their meaning as media events, the success of which can't be attributed to media hype alone, is, I think, conspicuously one not only in what we want of them but what we get: the common response to both films is some variety of disappointment. And this disappointment seems to me inevitable; we won't get what we want until we face up to what the thing we want is.
Take the simpler case of Deep Throat, in which the issues can be seen more clearly. Here is a film that in every essential respect is no different from the “pornos”1 which first inundated us when the floodgates opened several years ago. To praise it for any “technical” advances—its home-movie level photography, a few outré camera angles, etc.—is either to be disingenuous in the manner of the Lady Chatterley's Lover trial, as a means to warding off censorship, or to patronize it as one might encourage a mental defective's first stumbling sounds with congratulations on fine speaking. True, unlike most of its predecessors, the film affects a lightly comic tone, but lines like, “Do you mind if I smoke while you eat?” (accompanying action self-explanatory) are about as good as it gets. And though there is a plot, I think even the film's partisans would be hard put to pretend this is any more than a pretext for (and means of padding out to feature length) the film's series of sexual encounters. Nor (despite what at least one critic seemed prepared to say in court about the film's enlightened proselytizing for alternatives to the “missionary” position) is its sexual activity itself in any way an “advance” on that between two consenting, heterosexual, human adults which could be seen in movie theaters at least three years ago (alternatives to the missionary position being dictated less by sensuous than by photogenic exigencies), nor could it be, human ingenuity in these matters being more limited than we like to think. (Indeed, this limitation may well be the main message that the pornos have for us.)
To be sure, Deep Throat's star, Linda Lovelace, is a virtuoso performer of fellatio, yet she's this more by an anatomical stunt than by any inspired inventiveness (on the latter score, she runs, I think, a poor second to the nameless, unprepossessing girl who is used to tie together the episodes of Teenage Fantasies, the co-feature with Deep Throat when I happened to see it). And though it seems clear that Miss Lovelace does her own stunt work, what is a good deal less clear is whether she really enjoys it. For if Miss Lovelace's running nose and tearing eyes betray the sadistic male fantasy on which the movie rests, they betray simultaneously the fact that she is . . . acting. And it is this—the mere fact that she's acting (at least in the sense of pretending)—that distinguishes her from her anonymous colleagues in all the other pornos I have seen (though they, too, may be “acting,” we cannot finally tell), and permits her to become the first acknowledged “star” of the new porno films: Camp heroine, Esquire cover girl (in polka-dotted, old-fashioned, girl-next-door get-up), and author of an autobiography (Inside Linda Lovelace, naturally).
Yet is acting, whether rudimentary or extraordinary, what we really want from porno movies? Do we really want to see their evolution into “art” films, as several of the reviewers of the subsequent film (The Devil in Miss Jones) by Deep Throat's director so devoutly seem to wish? (The director, Gerard Damiano, has since announced his intention to forsake porno for conventional dramatic films.) I think not, and I think the proof of this lies in the fact that the one real “advance” made by the new porno films, and made early in their history, was in the moving on screeen of the act of ejaculation, the documentation of the fact that “acting” has not taken place. And, in this, one sees, I think, the line of development of porno films not from conventional dramatic film but from documentary, and, in particular, from that peculiarly prying, modern offshoot of documentary, “cinéma-verité,” the persons in both stripped, physically or metaphorically, of their clothing. The erotic content of porno films is actually extremely variable, and their ability to sustain a purely erotic interest a good deal less durable than I'd originally conjectured when I wrote about the pleasurable experience of first seeing them several years ago. And yet, though I've seen few of them lately, I find they do sustain an interest, even a fascination, despite their frequent boredom: an interest not so much erotic as voyeuristic. Watching the passage of partners in a porno film has less in common really with reading Fanny Hill or The Story of O than with watching the Loud family on television, or a newsman thrusting a microphone into the face of the wife or mother of a disaster victim, or being a spectator in the trial of a criminal case. As with the Louds especially, we are held less by what actually happens than by what could happen, since, despite the tedium, the vehicle of these peculiar spectacles is a form, unlike an art form, in which, in theory anyway, anything might happen.
What we seek of these various and related spectacles is something we seem no longer to be able to get from art: the experience of authentic feeling. In an age when the emotions have become suspect, revealed by the psychiatric oracle to be either conscious or unconscious masks, the province in which such authenticity is even possible has shrunk drastically; no longer can we trust love and hate not to be lies, but only orgasm, and, since only the orgasm of the male can be made visible, ejaculation alone remains as proof that something has authentically been felt. Nor can one dismiss this feeling as inauthentic because of the fact of its being filmed; the presence of the cameras does make a difference, but one that is eventually assimilated even if into an altered situation. One recalls here Lenny Bruce's dissertation on the adaptability of male libido, with his illustration of the accident-victim sexually aroused by a nurse as an ambulance speeds him to the hospital. The pornos' sexual encounters may be made artificially slow in starting by the recording camera, but a real climax is eventually achieved.
In a sense, then, Vincent Canby is right when he complains of Last Tango in Paris that, in the simulation of its sex, it represents not the “breakthrough” it has been claimed to be, but merely an extension of the “prudery” with which sex has been depicted in conventional dramatic films; for all its art, Last Tango in Paris only butts its head against the barrier in a blind alley, while even a work as crude as Deep Throat, like all pornos, effortlessly achieves this breakthrough despite all such obstacles as plot, dialogue, and acting. (To my way of thinking, the most successful pornos are short, plotless, and silent, since even the most elemental verbal interjections—the “Please don't stop!” or “Oh, God, it's great!”—cast doubt on the emotional veracity of what one is witnessing.) Given the eschatological weight with which orgasm has been burdened in the porno films, it's no wonder that conventional dramatic films have attempted to compete by their ever-increasing preoccupation with the mechanics of that other ultimate human experience that the pornos cannot parade numberlessly before us: death. And so it is that two totemic images of the contemporary cinema are those twin orifices of birth and death: the vagina and the bullet hole.
And yet it must be said for Last Tango in Paris, which itself makes no claims of breakthrough and seems almost deliberately to be the end of something old rather than any beginning, that what Canby asks of it is, at least by implication, silly. Of course, Brando and Maria Schneider are simulating their sexual activity, are acting; would one complain of Brando's death scene that he isn't really dying? The real question is whether the film required that the scenes of sex be so explicitly simulated, and I believe it did. For what the film is about is the attempt of the character, Paul, played by Brando, to pornographize his relationship with Jeanne, played by Miss Schneider, to obliterate his own and her self by the submission to a relationship given over totally to sex; and we need to know precisely of what this attempt consists. Paul's need in this is to escape from the doubt and pain caused by his wife's suicide (which has taken place before the action of the film begins), and, ultimately, his attempt is abandoned: he can expunge their names, and biographies, but finally not their selves from the relationship, no matter how rigorously he delimits its boundaries; in the end, he declares the ground rules void, and tells Jeanne that he loves and wants to marry her. But, prepared as she seemed to accompany him in his pursuit of sexual oblivion, she rejects his conventional proposal, returning instead to her colorless fiancé a cinéma-verité film-maker.
Despite the murkiness of some of its details, and the claims and counter-claims in which the film must now struggle to maintain its identity, the main drift of Last Tango in Paris seems to me transparently clear. For all the explicit representation of sexual activity in the film, I think it is almost pointedly non-erotic; the sex, at least for Paul, is too desperately death-driven, too patently a surrogate for suicide; there is none of that expansive, self-sufficient sense of the sensuous presence of flesh and of the intoxicating welling up of desire in which the power of a truly erotic work like Walkabout resides (though Walkabout is a work in which no explicit sexual activity takes place, and has been dismissed by several critics as a film for children). The vision in Last Tango of Paul's purposeful submission to the rule of sex is yet another instance of sex made into ideology, of sex in the head; it is precisely the fact that sex is used by Paul as a substitute for and escape from something else that drives the eroticism out of the film.
But if the erotic impulse, which is life-enhancing, has been extinguished in Last Tango, the pornographic impulse is seen pervasively to spring to life. For what is the pornographic if not the obliteration of the self, the conversion of persons into objects for use? For Paul, the quest to convert himself and his partner into nothing more than their sex organs fails; despite himself, banished emotions assert themselves: he wants to know her name. But what of Jeanne, who seems, in a curious way, to thrive under the conditions Paul has imposed on her? She does thrive, but it would be wrong, I think, to claim she grows; in the end, obsessively intoning “I don't know who he is . . . I don't know his name” (after having killed Paul to rid herself of him), she seems in her own way as profoundly alienated as he did at the beginning. It's true that the “freedom” through submission to sex by which Paul has held her in thrall (“I want you free,” he tells her; “Free, I'm not free,” she replies) is despotic and childish; “I feel like a child again here,” she says at one point of their relationship, in which the sexual activity itself becomes regressively anal and masturbatory, and, when Paul dies (shot by her as she speaks her name), he curls up in a fetal position. But if Paul, having declared his love for her and attempting to lead her, however parodistically, through the romantic “rite” of their tango, is seen to be no longer the masterful mentor but merely another gum-chewing, overaged adolescent American, his craziness only the antics of a college boy on a fling in Paris (and revealed to be sterile to boot, though ironically he dies exclaiming, “Our children will remember”), what is that adulthood her fiancé invokes for which she rejects Paul? In the end, she returns to a man for whom she is of interest only as she can be used to make “cinema,” and who, all along, treats her as only an object to be choreographed for the camera; a man who tells her, “I wanted to film you all the time. I wanted to film you in the morning when you wake up. I wanted to film you when you fall asleep,” the camera having become, for him, the instrument of physical intimacy; and a man whom she earlier accuses of “raping her mind.”
Perhaps this account of Last Tango in Paris that I'm trying to give isn't the media's; perhaps it's no longer possible to extricate the film itself from under the avalanche of hyperbole of all kinds by which it has been buried. The film I'm describing is not perhaps a work comparable in its impact on its medium to The Rite of Spring; if there were such a work, it would be Breathless, which characteristically was greeted by the media with indifference and incomprehension, though the influence of Godard on Bertolucci, so overwhelming in Bertolucci's earlier film, Partner, can still be seen in Last Tango in such things as the stop-start music and the fracturing of its narrative. Rather, Last Tango in Paris seems to me clearly to evolve from Bertolucci's earlier The Conformist in both its flaws and virtues, from the burnished glow of its color (it would be interesting to see the work of Vittorio Storaro, who photographed both films, for a different director) to its too neat ironies (the apartment in which Paul and Jeanne conduct their exploratory relationship is on the Rue Jules Verne, and, at the end, the film resolves itself by becoming, rather like Blow-Up, a perfect murder mystery). Like The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris seems at once theatrically complex—magnificent in its array of expressive means—and dramatically simplistic—as patly contrived as The Conformist's psychologizing of its protagonist's fascism as the result of his fear of his latent homosexuality.
But where Bertolucci's film seems shallow, full of those grand romantic gestures that have seemed faintly spurious in his work since Before the Revolution, there Brando's film takes over, and, between them, they have created a film good enough to make us reflect both on the meaning of Paul's and Jeanne's relationship, and on our own sensation-hungry relation to it. And though it's true that Brando is only “acting,” perhaps the “breakthrough” implied in Canby's strictures on the film may be closer at hand than we think; after all, the film which started the hall rolling, so to speak, for the pornos, I Am Curious (Yellow), was a serious, “art” film, if one with unknown, foreign actors. Have we now, with Last Tango in Paris, perhaps reached a point comparable to that of I Am Curious with respect to the demands we will place on every actor, no matter how famous or great, for unsimulated authenticity of feeling? If so, the ascendancy of true pornography may well be at hand; and I don't refer exclusively to the depiction of sexual activity, which, like every other subject matter, can be treated pornographically or not. Having finally demanded of films—always, by their nature, potentially pornographic, because always, in their allowing us to see and not be seen, potentially voyeuristic—that they be not art but life, spectacles of “real” emotions in which we aren't implicated, we will have successfully dissociated ourselves from feeling and rendered not only the performers in these spectacles but ourselves into pornographic objects. Perhaps that prospect isn't so unpleasant; probably, it is less unpleasant than to be human. Only let us hope that when we deliver ourselves over to the pornographic—to the realm of the user and the used—we do so with our eyes as wide open and with as much knowledge of what we want as does Jeanne.
1 I use the widespread colloquialism here not as any equivalent of either the pornographic or the erotic, though the pornos can be either, but only to refer neutrally to films in which explicit, un-simulated scenes of sexual activity are shown.