Santa Monica’s arthouse theater, the Aero was the scene of a late Sunday protest due to its screening the classic Bernardo Bertolucci film, Last Tango In Paris. Moviegoers were treated to an initially silent protest by Emma Julia Jacobs who identified herself as a survivor, while wearing a torn t-shirt over her mouth as a form of silent protest. She was joined by a man, who refused to give his name. They were holding signs decrying the movie, and a “system” that allows for the exploitation of artists, actors and women. Later in the night Matthew Currie Holmes, an actor/director with credits from Queer as Folk to Wrong Turn 2, joined in support of the anti-Bertolucci protesters.
I had stumbled upon this activist awareness when I, and about 40-60 others decided to attend the movies. Earlier in the day I was looking at what was available in town, and the choices for me were slim. I was down to Lady Macbeth at the Landmark or Last Tango at the Aero. It was a tough choice, I’d seen neither, and both looked excellent and so I asked on Facebook if I should go to the theater with the real butter on the popcorn. Little did I know how much butter would be a theme for the night.
The background is this: it’s 1972 or 1973, Bertolucci is making a film with Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider. The story is about a widower and a young woman meeting for liaisons. They have an unusual relationship. He is in some ways mourning the loss of his wife to suicide, and the Schneider character, at 20, is engaged to a budding filmmaker. They are not named in the movie, so I will use their last names here to discuss their characters, not the actual people.
The power dynamics of this relationship between Brando and Schneider are intense and erotic, there is an undercurrent throughout the movie of his penchant for violence and anger, which is oddly erotic. But hey, it’s Brando. The woman in the film cannot seem to get herself free from an obsession with Brando. She is portrayed as submitting to him and his wants on more than one occasion, yet they seem to also be her wants.
In the controversial scene, Brando uses butter as a personal lubricant on Schneider as he engages in sex, what her thoughts are is actually unknown. The scene is controversial due to how it came about. As the story goes, Brando and Bertolucci were conferring prior to filming, but did not inform Schneider of the specific direction the scene would take. During filming there had been a great deal of improvisation and the director wanted her “real” reactions to the action, so he kept her in the dark, and in later interviews regretted it. Important to note is that Schneider herself has said that there was no actual rape occurring, by which I presume she means there was no intercourse. However, she has also said that she felt ‘like she was raped’ and was grateful the scene was done in one take.
The issue of directors manipulating actors to get the reactions they want on film is an age-old complaint of actors. Some directors are worse than others, some scenes are more assaulting than others. Hitchcock used cold water to shock Janet Leigh – does this qualify as a physical assault and should we be up in arms and protesting the cold shower treatment? On the other hand, Randall Miller pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter for the death of Sarah Jones based on a lack of safety, which is clearly a violation of any decent standard.
The protesters on Sunday were upset that the Aero Theatre did not make an announcement prior to the screening about the “rape” scene, and that they did not donate 50% of the proceeds to a rape crisis center. The theme of the theatre “profiting off the rape” was a recurring argument point and I think weakened their argument greatly. A revival house makes a pittance for screening older films and barely survives on “the kindness of strangers.”
Holmes was by far the most eloquent of the protesters, most of whom it appeared were there to support their friend, Ms. Jacobs. The comments by Holmes were succinct and thought out, and then he veered into the land of pop-agro-speak with jingoistic tendencies. As one of the unnamed counter-protesters described Schneider as a toxic personality, Holmes countered with the ‘slut shaming’ retort as a means to shut down the other man speaking, and it continued like this for several minutes. I’m not sure where Holmes was coming from, or what his true position is. He makes films that seem to celebrate violence. His IMDB profile has him holding an axe with a finger to his lips in the universal “keep quiet” sign which makes me question is he pro violence when it makes him money, and anti-violence when it involves women?
One of the biggest complaints about the victim advocate community is that they go to extremes in the wrong places. This would have been a good protest about directors’ responsibility to their actors, but as soon as it becomes about ‘slut shaming’ ‘rape culture’ and they attack me as a viewer who ‘supports rapists’ – they lose me.
On the other side of the debate was Kansas Bowling, who was in support of the arts. She said, “The protesters’ claims against Bertolucci’s award winning film are purely speculative. Good art makes people question. So called art that does not make people question is propaganda. Thank you to the Aero for projecting fine art films that make people think, even 45 years after a masterpiece is made.”
Should the Aero have announced prior to screening that there was a “triggering” scene? Not in my opinion. If you are an adult and you choose to go see a film that has a NC-17 rating, you know you’re going to see something intense. Deal with it. Know enough about the film to make an educated guess. If you are triggered easily, probably best to do more research rather than less.
Was Bertolucci a manipulative director? Yes. Aren’t they all on some level? Where and how to draw the line is murky. Angry, attacking, protests like this don’t make it any clearer.
But hey, the film did spark a conversation, so there’s that.
David Pisarra is a Los Angeles Divorce and Child Custody Lawyer specializing in Father’s and Men’s Rights with the Santa Monica firm of Pisarra & Grist. He welcomes your questions and comments. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 310/664-9969.You can follow him on Twitter @davidpisarra