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Darwin at the Movies

March 1st, 2004 (12:00 am)

© 2004, D. Gordon. First posted on MilkPlus.

Feb 12th, 2:15 AM

Just got back from Bertolucci's The Dreamers with a group of friends, and I'm stumped. Masterful cinematography with decadently beautiful youths boinking in various settings; but somewhere between a third and halfway through I realized that something else was going on. And, despite the obvious "trapped in their own world" angle, I don't quite know what it was. We talked afterward, but everyone was still mulling over what we'd just seen (and the booze didn't help). Unfortunately, no one else saw much logic. We all liked it, though; I think the negative reviews were overblown.

Thurs, Feb 12th, 11:00 PM

Spoke with the sister and b-in-law tonight, and mulled a bit more. You know, the only other Bertoluccis I've seen are The Last Emperor - in 1988, right after it won the Oscar - and The Sheltering Sky on a very small tv. I know nothing about Bertolucci. Feeling like this is really holding me back. Also feel kinda stupid.

Sat, Feb 14th, 11:30 PM

Went to the video store; contrary to the stereotype, the kid behind the counter helped a lot and we found Last Tango in Paris, Stealing Beauty, and Little Buddha. Managed to get Tango in.

Okay, this puts things into perspective big-time. It's not exact, but one reviewer was right to call Dreamers "Tango revisisted" - there are definite demons Bertolucci is exorcising in both movies.

The sex looms large in both, but it's used as a weapon, a punishment. The wielders are fractured, wounded people. Paul bobs helplessly in the wake of his wife's suicide; combined with his natural violent tendencies, he dominates Jeanne to work through his grief. Isabelle and Theo are also traumatized by separation - in their case, the operation that separated them as cojoined twins. (Not biologically possible in real life, but we're in Movie Land.) They're busy taking the trauma out on each other; and, with Matthew as catalyst ratcheting up their conflict, learning the many means by which humans torture each other. (Sibling rivalry to the nth degree.) Theo is right to say, "I'm no sadist, but..." And, seeing Isabelle's attraction to Matthew, Theo transfers his sibling attraction/conflict to her new fascination. While Isabelle and Matthew screw around the apartment, Theo is visible at the edges of the screen - and all the cracked eggs in France can't disguise the fact that he wants to trade places with Matthew. Theo and Matthew argue over movies and guitarists, sans Isabelle. Theo digs through the garbage to "provide" for Isabelle, but Matthew is the one who salvages and splits the banana. Theo seems to have experience in the outside world that Isabelle doesn't, but Matthew is the one to introduce her to the outside. This can't end well, and we see the apartment itself fall apart as the situation deepens. Theo repeatedly tells Matthew that this arrangement isn't forever, and his ambivalence leads him to choke Matthew. The one bright lining is that as a catalyst, Matthew walks away relatively undamaged in the end.

One question: what does happen in the tent? They fall asleep drunk but clothed; the scene cuts to the parents discovering them asleep / passed out and naked. Was anything resolved in there? Given their actions at the demonstration, I'm thinking yes...

Sun, Feb 15th, 4:30 PM

Stealing Beauty: similar themes to Dreamers, and the same beauty in the shots, but not the same kind of story; my first evidence of Bertolucci's range. One striking line that shows up in both movies: as the couple is about to have sex for the first time, the boy tells the girl he needs her help. Matthew speaks almost the same exact line in Dreamers. Again brings up the thought that B is working through something in his movies. (Oh, and Liv Tyler - she shoots well, but I'm thinking she's not really naturally beautiful.)

Sun, Feb 15th, 11:00 PM

Little Buddha. This is what I remember Last Emperor being: wonderful cinematography, a tale of an old and honored culture, the sweep of history, a few child actors thrown in. Some really wonderful construction: I really really really love how the story of Siddhartha Gautama plays out (Keanu - who knew you had it in you?) More proof of versatility, although not much in common with Dreamers. Although... Dreamers carries three story threads: the sexual situation, the homage to classic films, and the social chaos outside. But the threads abruptly come and go, leaving the question of why they were there in the first place. The cinematic subtext seems undecided whether to lead into a plot escalation or to reflect B's thoughts about his craft (and younger life). The street protests come, then disappear, then come back - but are they there for contrast? As influences on Bertolucci's outlook? They sure don't seem indispensible - any socially chaotic period could work just as well.

Little Buddha doesn't have this problem. Its threads- Jesse's parents' disbelief, his father's work situation, the long-term effects of the boy's new identity - are much smoother. They don't really matter in this film, their untidiness doesn't drag down the story.

Weds, Feb 19th, 9:05 PM

Went to see The Dreamers again, loaded with much more ammunition. Of course, everything I thought I understood just went out the window - seems I didn't get anything. WTF. What is this movie about?!?!?!

Sun, Feb 22nd, 6:45 PM

Just sat through the 311 minute director's cut of 1900 with a friend. Yes, Bertolucci can tell a solid story - even if it takes 5-1/2 hours. There's the expansive cinematography: lush countryside, lots of yellows and reds; and omigod - Donald Sutherland, Robert De Niro (and his pet mole), Gerard Depardieu (or at least his visual presence), all very very young. An Italian history of the first half of the twentieth century, loosely told as contradictions: Upstairs / Downstairs, good guys / bad guys, Communists / Fascists. And the length is no hindrance because the plot is plenty rich. B picks up and drops threads seamlessly - there has to be chaos in a film covering this period of Italian history, and the thread device exploits it well. Even the overdone bits can be forgiven. It felt like this movie develops a lot of the bits and pieces that B almost didn't have time for in a mere two hours. And interestingly, during this film I got that something-bigger's-going-on feeling again.

Ended up discussing my Dreamers reaction with the friend. I may have picked up more than he did - or I could be just hallucinating. But in a 1966 interview, B spoke of his overall goal "to arrive at the point at which one can live for dreams, can think cinematographically, eat cinematographically, sleep cinematographically." I still think B's letting off a lot of personal steam through his movies. Too often he's sorting through the same themes of conflict, especially between classes, family, friends, and/or lovers; loss of sexual innocence; the contradictions of Communism. These things reappear too many times to be mere throwaways. The details are undoubtedly different and ultimately unimportant; the point is whether he's purposefully blurring celluloid and cellular matter. And maybe on some level he's the one living in the apartment, in his own world...

I do have a much better appreciation of Bertolucci than before, and the crash course was fun. B is in his 60s now. If I'm right, the next ten years could be his most interesting, watching to see if he comes to some kind of resolution or continues staging battles in his head.

Then again, I might see another Bertolucci film and decide I've missed the boat, and will never understand. I haven't seen any of his early stuff...