Sunday, April 27, 2008

Jazz Score: Bad Love with Subtitles

“Go to the movies to see love!” a rather agitated dance judge tells an inebriated Marlon Brando towards the end of Last Tango in Paris. It is one of several pictures screening as part of MoMA’s Jazz Score series in which you will not see much love, but plenty of unhealthy obsessive behavior. They have nice scores though.

There is love of a kind in Kô Nakahira’s Crazed Fruit (trailer here, with unrepresentative music), but it is corrupted by boredom manifesting as lust and obsession. Brothers Haruji and Natsuhisa have nothing better to do than while away their summer sailing and drinking with the elder’s equally aimless friends. Haruji is the shy, sensitive younger brother, whereas Natisuhisa is a brash, self-styled ladies man. They both fall for the beautiful Eri, who seems like an innocent sun worshipper, but harbors a dark secret: she is married to a middle-aged American. In the post-occupation mindset of Fruit, where the kids actually shout “yankee go home” to tell each other off, that is about as scandalous as it can get.

Played by Mie Kitahara, Eri is a tragically corrupted young woman, who loves the Haru, but cannot resist Natisuhisa. Eventually, the brothers’ respective puppy love and lust both lead to obsession, focused on an awfully young looking object of affection. (Kitahara was attractive to be sure, but did not have the beauty of a real woman like Hideko Takamine in A Woman Ascends the Stairs.)

Of course, that is sort of the point. Each side of the love triangle, particularly Haruji and Eri look too young to see the film they are in. If this 1956 picture were to be released today, it would at least rate a PG-13 for some very frank discussions of sex and downright misogynistic dialogue. Fruit wants to show a generation bereft of values, idly exploring hedonism. It was evidently influential in spawning other so-called “Sun Tribe” films. However, Fruit’s generation of Japanese youth would knuckle down and rebuild the Japanese economy into a world-leading power, so its influence only extended so far.

Fruit is often compelling, with an intriguing undercurrent of dark comedy. The climatic shot is still impressive filmmaking, even in 2008. It also has a jazz influenced soundtrack, often voiced by a baritone saxophone, with a bit of Polynesian steel guitar accents for color, making it another interesting selection for MoMA’s Jazz Score.

The kids of Fruit were at least looking for happiness through sex. That is not the case for Marlon Brando in Bernardo Bertolucci’s notorious Last Tango in Paris (not quite safe for work trailer here). Perhaps the most misrepresented film of all time, Tango is considered either a masterpiece or pornography. It is actually neither.

Jeanne, a young woman played by Maria Schneider, catches the eye of Brando’s Paul. He follows her to a vacant apartment she wishes to see, where they have a rather forcefully initiated sexual encounter. She however, does not seem to have any problem with it, agreeing to come back for more.

There are several critical defenses made of Tango: Paul’s sexually depraved acts are meant to demean himself and not his partner. As we learn about the recent suicide of Paul’s wife, we come to sympathize with him, despite his misanthropic actions. By sharing intense intimacies, regardless of the depraved nature, Paul is able to feel love again.

Maybe, maybe not. There are elements of truth to some of this, but clearly Paul’s actions are often humiliating for Jeanne. Her reasons for repeatedly coming back remain obscure—her boredom with her idiot filmmaker of a fiancé hardly seems sufficient motivation.

Truthfully, Tango is not erotic at all. Jeanne seems to be in a child-like stage of arrested development, and really is not that attractive. Brando is Brando—all of him. Their sex scenes are total turn-offs. Nobody could be aroused by the now infamous butter scene. However, probably the vilest dialogue of any film comes when Paul basically has Jeanne return the favor as he describes a bestial fantasy.

The main theme to Tango would become a bread-and-butter tune for Gato Barbieri, but his score actually does not get the credit it deserves for making the film respectable. Elegant and sweeping, it has a lush romanticism that counteracts the baseness of the acts seen on screen. As Jeanne leaves the flat after her first encounter with Paul, she looks stunned, vacant. Yet as Barbieri’s theme swells up in the background, it becomes easier to think of what transpired as a “ravishing” in the paperback bodice-ripper sense.

Barbieri began his career recording for the very avant-garde ESP label, but would record popish material for A&M in the mid 70’s. In a sense, Tango would foreshadow the commercial appeal of Barbieri’s later work, while maintaining the passion and intensity of his earlier recordings. With an assist from Oliver Nelson as orchestrator and conductor, the soundtrack is among Barbieri’s best work. The 1972 vinyl soundtrack release consisted of eleven themes expanded into full tunes, but the late 90’s CD reissue also included nineteen original film cues.

Tango is not porn. It does not seek to arouse and there is hardly any nudity. It is serious cinema, but not a masterpiece. Schneider brings little to the underwritten role of Jeanne and there are serious flaws in character development and motivation in general. Yes, the music is great. It would be interesting to see Fruit and Tango programmed together, because in their own ways, each addresses sex, obsession, and betrayal. That will have to be during a different retrospective. Fruit screens at MoMA May 3rd. Tango screens July 5th and 12th.