X Post Facto

Production still: Paul Morrissey, Women in Revolt, 1971, 35 mm, color, sound, 97 minutes. Jackie Curtis.

ON PRINCIPLE, I appreciate holiday counter-programming, and this year into next, the Christmas season festivities at the Quad are a nasty wonder. “Rated-X” is an ultra-democratic selection of movies that once received an “X” from the MPAA ratings board, which throughout its history has been composed largely of retired people from Los Angeles and Orange Counties who have the time to look at unreleased movies all day and give them ratings that supposedly are meant to protect children, but occasionally adults, from seeing things that could have a deleterious effect on society. (I’m not kidding: In the early 1990s, I researched the rating system, discovering that, among other pernicious beliefs, they held that “our young girls need to be protected more than our young boys.” Which is why when a boy masturbates in his mom’s apple pie, it’s just fine, but when a girl plays around with a vibrator, it’s not.) The X rating, whose legality applies largely to property leases (shopping malls, for example, forbid theaters from showing X-rated movies), has been replaced today, almost always, by NC-17. The X is reserved for hard-core porn, which is defined by the lack of redeeming social value attached to depicted sucking and fucking. In the past, the X was sometimes a kiss of death at the box office, but it occasionally breathed a bit of life into movies so drab and depressing they should have rotted away unseen, such as Vilgot Sjöman’s I Am Curious Yellow from 1967 (don’t go even out of curiosity of how Grove Press made money).

But do go to Derek Jarman and Paul Humfress’s gorgeous Sebastiane (1976), which has one of Brian Eno’s most sinuously repetitive scores, and Paul Morrissey’s Women in Revolt (1971), starring the sublime Warhol superstar trans trio, Jackie Curtis, Holly Woodlawn, and Candy Darling, waxing hilarious as they explore what advantages feminism has for them. In this largely improvised fiction, Candy is an exquisitely beautiful heiress; Holly and Jackie, who can’t even pay rent, are kind of after her money. Jackie has the funniest lines; Holly is the most generous and lovable. All three have male semi-slaves, who are hairy and unbathed, and who welcome verbal abuse and being shoved around, especially off the couch or the bed. Other must-sees: Lindsay Anderson’s If..., which, in 1979, looked like a cross between Bunuelian Surrealism and an Angry Young Man–style assault on the institutionalized sadism of the English public school system, though it reads slightly differently today in the light of mass school shootings in the United States; and, of course, Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1977), which needs to be seen on the big screen before you can decide to love or loathe it (I do both at once). These days, I feel too pummeled by real life to go to horror films, but two of the most elegantly constructed—1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and 1989’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer—should be seen by fans of the genre, who then might realize why Heredity (2018) is incompetently directed, and a bore.

Bernardo Bertolucci, Last Tango in Paris, 1972, 35 mm, color, sound, 129 minutes.

I had an ulterior motive in asking to cover this series: It gives me an opportunity to weigh in on the Last Tango in Paris (1972) controversy––specifically, that director Bernardo Bertolucci and star Marlon Brando abused the film’s nineteen-year-old costar, Maria Schneider, leaving her feeling, as she said several years later, “a little bit raped.” The film’s pièce de résistance is a scene in which Brando’s character, employing a conspicuously placed stick of butter, sodomizes Schneider’s character. Although the rape was not real, in the sense that no penetration occurred, Schneider explained that she felt humiliated by Bertolucci and Brando, who pressured her to enact something that was not in the script. Schneider was nineteen and had never played a major role in a movie before. Bertolucci was an “auteur”; Brando, who was nearing fifty and not looking healthy, was a still a megastar. In other words, the balance of power was as skewed as it almost always was, and mostly still is, in moviemaking. Brando’s performance was stunningly naked emotionally—a desperate, over-the-top attempt to stop time because he was already in a downhill slide (“he” being both the actor and the character). Schneider’s character is a bit curious about Brando’s character, then angry and upset when he rapes her, and can’t wait to get rid of him once he shows signs of becoming obsessed with her. When he keeps coming after her, she shoots him dead––which made me laugh very loudly in the theater. It was 1972, feminism was on the rise in the United States and in France, and I found it inconceivable that this gloriously beautiful, adventurous, self-assured young woman would find this wreck of a man so threatening that she’d need to defend herself with a gun. Bertolucci’s movies have never lacked for male characters that ask to be pitied for their very entitlement. Last Tango is a prime example, but forty-six years ago, it also seemed like its director’s paranoid fantasy about the feminist movement and what “liberated” women would do to him. Bertolucci and Brando both went on to make many more movies. Schneider made a few, but she didn’t have the great career that her performance in Last Tango suggested she might—if she only had put up with the humiliation and the sexist scripts that were offered. It’s simplistic to say that Bertolucci derailed her career, and it also gives him an importance he doesn’t deserve, just as he made Brando’s character important by having him matter so much to Schneider’s character that she had to kill him. The film industry as a whole derailed Schneider’s career, just as it has done to the careers of most actresses. Knowing that, I wonder if I will still be able to laugh at Last Tango’s ridiculous ending, or if it will just make me very angry.

“Rated X” plays at Quad Cinema in New York through January 10, 2019.