Last Tango through time... but some­times ‘no­to­ri­ety’ is just short­hand for ‘bor­ing’

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Viewpoints -

WITH the death of the Ital­ian film direc­tor Bernardo Bertolucci, we lost a man who played a small but not in­signif­i­cant part in Irish his­tory — some would spec­ify that it was our cul­tural or so­cial his­tory but, you know, it’s all his­tory.

And the man who made Last Tango In Paris is en­ti­tled to throw his hat into the ring there along­side any­one from Fine Gael or Fianna Fail who at the time were mostly en­gaged in pre­vent­ing the Irish peo­ple from gain­ing ac­cess to the world which Bertolucci and his hea­then kind were promis­ing.

I have these dis­tant mem­o­ries of what it was like to be emerg­ing from child­hood, liv­ing in that Ire­land when Last

Tango In Paris and the great con­tro­ver­sies it was caus­ing around the world, were like tales from some for­bid­den king­dom — though strangely enough, my first re­ac­tion on hear­ing of the death of Bertolucci, was to re­call these ads for the film in the West­meath-Of­faly In­de­pen­dent, which turned out to be a false mem­ory, be­cause of course the film couldn’t be shown in the Ritz cin­ema in Athlone or any other Ritz in Ire­land, be­cause it was banned.

On closer ex­am­i­na­tion of my deeply dam­aged sub­con­scious, I re­alise that I must have been think­ing of ads for The God­fa­ther, an­other global sen­sa­tion of the 1970s star­ring Mar­lon Brando, an­other movie full of dark prom­ises of a more ac­cept­able kind — Brando the mafioso or­der­ing the mur­ders of nu­mer­ous ri­vals or as­so­ci­ates could be freely en­joyed in the Ritz in Athlone, whereas Brando do­ing what­ever he was do­ing with Maria Sch­nei­der in Last Tango, could not be en­joyed any­where in Ire­land at that time.

But we knew about it, from read­ing the pa­pers — in­deed maybe that is where the false mem­ory came from, this sense that the na­tional news­pa­pers of Ire­land were es­sen­tially pro­vin­cial, that they didn’t think it was their place to be com­plain­ing about cen­sor­ship or in­deed about any­thing.

And it was such a pow­er­ful thing, this ab­sence of Last Tango In

Paris, best de­scribed by Colm Toibin who wrote of his “pure ex­hil­a­ra­tion”, be­ing in Lon­don at the age of 19, and be­ing able to see the no­to­ri­ous film. Ire­land used to give you that, with its ma­nia for try­ing to pro­tect you from any­thing that was any good. It used to give you that pure ex­hil­a­ra­tion you felt when you were not in Ire­land any more, an ex­hil­a­ra­tion that my chil­dren have never known, be­cause you can get ev­ery­thing in Ire­land now.

About 25 years af­ter those ads didn’t ap­pear in the pa­per, I saw Last Tango on tele­vi­sion, and I wanted to love it, think­ing of all the peo­ple who had hated it enough to keep it from us. And it def­i­nitely had some kind of mad beauty — but even­tu­ally it was just too bor­ing.

It felt like some­thing that was thrown to­gether in a night­club in the early hours by a few very tal­ented but very drunk peo­ple who felt they were good enough not to be both­er­ing them­selves greatly with writ­ing things down or any­thing so la­bo­ri­ous. Just let it roll…

And a few years af­ter that, in an in­ter­view with Maria Sch­nei­der, we dis­cov­ered that the fa­mous “but­ter” scene in the film was done in this make-it-up-as-we-go-along spirit, ex­cept they hadn’t in­cluded Sch­nei­der in the game. As Bertolucci put it: “The se­quence of but­ter is an idea I had with Mar­lon the day be­fore shoot­ing. I wanted Maria to re­act, to be hu­mil­i­ated. I think she hated us both be­cause we did not tell her any­thing.”

As a re­sult of this rev­e­la­tion, Last Tango is now hated by many of the peo­ple who would have orig­i­nally hated the fact that it was banned. Now it is de­spised in equal mea­sure by those who would see them­selves as “sex pos­i­tive”, and those who have al­ways been sex neg­a­tive.

That would be ev­ery­one, I guess.

Maria Sch­nei­der and Mar­lon Brando in a scene from Last Tango in Paris

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