Monday, September 20, 2010

Coming Home To Tango

One thing that becomes apparent as you age is how differently you view events and art and relationships with the advance of each new year. What's thrilling to a five-year-old is dull to a fifteen-year-old. What's cool to a fifteen-year-old is idiotic to a 25-year-old. What's fascinating to a 25-year-old is old hat to a 35-year-old, and so on, with each additional decade changing and shaping our perception of the world around us. I, and perhaps many of you, have noticed this with movies, especially, in my case, in the last few years as I entered middle age.

Recently I watched Coming Home again for the first time since my teens. I was just barely entering my teens when it was released in 1978 and saw it in my still early teens a year or two later on cable. I have used that childhood viewing as my measuring stick for the film ever since and my negative, condescending dismissal of it was based on the views of a budding cinephile barely into his teens.

Another film I watched again recently was Last Tango in Paris. This was another film I first saw in my early teens and then, later, around 1988, had the pleasure to see it on the big screen at the AFI, which was, at that time, still headquartered in the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. I loved it and thought it not only immensely entertaining but deep, dark and profound.

I watched both of these films again recently by happenstance, scrolling, as I was, through the selections on Netflix Instant. As it turns out, both films deal directly with mid-life crises, one, an American widower living in Paris who has just lost his wife and the other, a military wife coping with being alone as her husband goes off to war. Paul (Marlon Brando), the character in Last Tango, finds a woman (Maria Schneider) he can fuck and frolic with in a neutral apartment under the condition that neither one ever finds out anything about the other one, including their names. Sally (Jane Fonda), the character in Coming Home, finds a paralyzed veteran, Luke (Jon Voight), with whom she connects on a personal level, the whole relationship being entirely dependant upon each one knowing everything about the other.

In watching the two back to back, several things struck me:

One, Coming Home, while no cinematic masterwork, is pretty damn good and no one should ever pass off any opinion as valid that they came to while anywhere in the vicinity of puberty. I shrivelled thinking of my smug kiss-off of this film at such a young age, a film dealing with a subject with which I had no sense of connection and that lack of connection, I arrogantly thought, didn't matter. I was under the impression, you see, at the wise old age of fourteen, that movies were objective beasts and could be judged according to a matrix of acting, directing, cinematography and writing that could be cut, divided and assigned numerical value. How stupid I was.

Two, Last Tango in Paris felt more juvenile than ever, mid-life crisis as seen through the eyes of a teenager. I realize neither Bernardo Bertalucci nor Marlon Brando were teenagers, but the film still has that feel. And that's precisely why I found it so good, so goddamn cool, as a teenager! Watching it now, at close to the same age as the Brando character, I found his behavior quite unintentionally funny, silly and stupid. His wife cheated on him and then up and died and what's he do? Find some Parisian girl and talks about reaching into the ass of death while she sticks her fingers up his ass. And, oh yeah, he also mentions a pig simultaneously fucking her and vomiting on her while she's doing this. Deep, deep stuff. Real heady, that there shit. And it's a load of shit I ate up in my teens and twenties.

Meanwhile, Sally and Luke connect sexually in a way so meaningful that I found it one of the most emotionally powerful sex scenes I've ever witnessed in a film. Coming Home chooses a different path than Tango, I realize that. It deals with the lost wandering of Sally by having her seek out, and find, an emotional connection with a fellow traveller and Tango has Paul seek out anonymity as escape from the problems of his life. One is a female character, the other is male. I understand both are going for vastly different things but my point is this: It's the handling of Coming Home's plot and characters that makes it feel real and grown-up, and the handling of Tango's plot that makes it feel phony and juvenile. Tango, with the exact same plot could have felt real and mature and Coming Home could have felt forced and childish. It's not the plot, it's how the writer, director and actors all chose to handle it. Brando's mumblings about butter and pig vomit make him sound like a kid doing his best to impersonate middle age angst while Fonda and Voight feel like the real thing.

In the end, it may just be the directorial approach. Bertolucci darts back and forth in his story from Schneider's tryst with Brando to her movie making adventure with her boyfriend, from Brando at the funeral parlor yelling at his dead wife to the apartment building he runs to commiserate with one of her lovers. It goes here, there and everywhere and Brando says a lot of funny, clever things along the way but none of it ever really adds up to anything. With Coming Home, on the other hand, Hal Ashby keeps the focus tightly on Fonda and Voight at the Veteran's Hospital where she volunteers to help paralyzed vets like Voight. There are other elements present but Ashby never lets them take over.

Since I know the tempting response will be one of disbelief ("You think Coming Home's better than Last Tango?! You're crazy!") I should reiterate that I'm not writing this piece in praise of Coming Home as a great film nor am I necessarily saying Last Tango is not. Just that, in dealing with a middle-aged adult's life in turmoil, one chose a path that felt real to me while the other did not. And that's a difference I never noticed, or could have noticed, until reaching a certain point in my own life. And so the obvious proves true once again: movie aren't objective beasts after all. Our perception of them changes and warps and distorts through time. But then, we already knew that didn't we?

As a final note, I'd be curious, if anyone cares to spill, what movies anyone else thought were bad or good, cool or dull, thrilling or indifferent at one age and then felt practically the opposite way at another.