Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Film Review #60: Marie Antoinette *** 2006 *** Director: Sofia Coppola *** Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Danny Huston *** Originally slated for theatrical release on October 16th to coincide with the anniversary of its subject’s beheading during the French Revolution, Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette ironically had to make do with a regular Friday opening, a market convention aimed at maximizing first weekend box office returns. After all, a largely French audience at Cannes booed this film, and some dismissive stateside reviews seem to confuse the film’s subject with its writer/director. Still, last Friday night I had to pick my way to the geographic center of a multiplex theater to find two seats together. *** We can dispense straightforwardly with what ails this movie-as-just-a-movie. At 123 minutes, it’s a good 20 minutes too long and generally handles the passing of time awkwardly. Some blame here goes to repeating scenes of Marie’s partying and fashion excess. I don’t mind that the seven years during which Marie’s marriage to Louis XVI went unconsummated are compressed on-screen for cinematic effect, but the last third of the film grows confusing. Historically Marie Antoinette covers the period from 14-year-old Austro-Hungarian archduchess’ journey from Vienna to Versailles to marry Louis-Auguste, who becomes Louis XVI, until they flee Versailles twenty-one years later. But there is little explicit anchoring time-frame on-screen and events like their first son’s death go unexplained (we merely glimpse a small blue-and-white draped coffin). What’s more glaring after her every move is watched by throngs of courtiers, midway through the story Marie (Kirsten Dunst) abruptly has enough private time to take a visiting Swedish count as lover. *** But why the resentment of French viewers at Cannes toward this flawed film by a young American woman director? First, there’s the perception that Coppola trivializes their history by softening a notorious, still highly-charged figure into a frivolous but likable Valley Girl. Much baleful irritation has been hurled at elements like the soundtrack’s mingling of today’s pop groups with period music, but frankly I found this inventive, effective and unobtrusive. Really, we’ve have enough Hamlet and Antigone in modern dress to handle this. *** Then, Coppola reduces the French Revolution to one mob scene in Versailles’ courtyard and a sacked royal bedroom before closing credits. On a slightly different tack, US dismissal assumes Coppola herself is – if not outright empty-headed – at best flimsy and unserious (see for example Nathan Lee’s remarks in Film Comment.) No one accused Bergman, just now coming back into fashion, of being apolitical when he made his Vietnam parable, Persona, or more recently, Laurent Cantet of ignoring Haiti’s murderous Duvalier regime in Heading South. *** One of this film’s most fascinating cultural markers is an article in November’s Vanity Fair by British historian Antonia Fraser, whose 2001 biography of Marie Antoinette is the primary source for Coppola’s film. Disguised as a chatty, inside peek at movie adaptation, Fraser’s article is actually the vetting of Sofia Coppola by the intellectual power couple that she and her husband playwright Harold Pinter comprise. The Nobel laureate used his acceptance speech last year to attack US foreign policy, and of his reaction to this film, maligned as light-weight, Fraser confides, “Harold loved it.” Fraser describes a stream of emails between herself and the director once Coppola optioned the book and began the screenplay. As a final stroke, this biographer of historical political figures reveals that Coppola calls her the movie’s “godmother,” a reference to Coppola’s own family legacy that moves Marie Antoinette away from the realm of ephemeral entertainment. This reminds me of Aliens, when Ripley, clad in her giant forklift, defends the orphaned child Newt, uttering to the acid-drooling monster, “Get away from her, you bitch!” *** Whatever film one wishes Coppola had made instead, it seems fair to start with the one she did make, which has politics to spare for those who look. With three features to her credit now, Coppola has built each around some outsider’s point of view and inherent issues of access and power. She has always included some prenaturally lovely creature whom the men surrounding her have, really, no idea what to do with. So the neighborhood boys in The Virgin Suicides (1999) who recollect worshiping Lux Lisbon (Kirsten Dunst) and her sisters from afar twenty-five years ago actually have much in common with the celebrity photographer John of Lost in Translation (2003), who neglects his new wife Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), leaving her adrift inside Tokyo’s giant, disorienting Park Hyatt Hotel – and with the fumbling French dauphin (Jason Schwartzman). Lost in Translation additionally presents its marooned Americans with bizarre popular Japanese interpretations of American culture, as when Bill Murray’s Bob Harris encounters the TV talk show host. *** In Marie Antoinette, Coppola portrays how an outsider enters, is engulfed and transformed by the French court. As in previous Coppola films – I especially love Bob Harris’ barest split-second hesitation before he closes the door to passed-out Charlotte’s hotel room after he gets her safely home – some of Marie Antoinette’s best moments flow from the quietly tuned performances of its principals. Indeed the film opens with Marie being awakened – her sleep intruded upon – a situation repeated throughout the film. Dunst scowls slightly, her eyes narrowed. You can almost hear the adolescent muttering, “Who are these people?” at each successive awakening. She is left to shiver naked while her ladies in waiting wrangle over who has the honor of handing her a chemise, and she sensibly bursts out, “This is ridiculous!” Her minder counters, “This is France!” *** Marie wears that same quizzical little scowl when she first hears the mob clamoring in the courtyard and goes out to meet them. This is arguably Marie’s most overtly political moment in the movie. Answering their pitchforks and howls, she makes a simple gesture. The queen bows from her waist, prostrating herself on her balcony railing and briefly quieting them. Too little, too late – other than a graceful impulse, she has no more idea what to do with her people than her husband had with her. But scarier than the gulf across which Marie Antoinette peered are those heads of state today who still see “the masses” as she saw them from that balcony, and we have some. *** Jason Schwartzman’s Louis retains the still, watchful air of a child oppressively scrutinized from his earliest days. Short enough to pass for a stocky boy, Louis jounces on horseback, represses his glee at a good billiards shot, and hilariously switches his sword like any nervous 12-year-old pretending nonchalance might when Marie’s older brother Joseph (Danny Huston) embarks on a fatherly discussion of sex. When you and your cousins run the continent, such talk is political conversation – just as the court protocols that have witnesses watching royal childbirth simply insure that no last-minute substitutions occur, a form of check and balance. *** For those who know Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution – a source not cited in Fraser’s book – the film’s most tantalizingly suggestive political thread concerns Louis XVI’s considerations about supporting the rebelling American colonists. Although he suspects it unwise to fund the example of overthrowing another sovereign, Louis happily sticks it to England. But in a film that leaves out so much, one has to wonder what this iceberg tip of a scene is doing there. *** Arendt contrasted the two revolutions as fundamentally different, with the American notion of freedom really an expansion of already-existing notions of freedom to participate in public life. And the Americans only wished to leave, not literally separate George III’s head from the body politic. The North American colonies never had the numbers of people starving that France did, nor the murderous potential that rumors about the crown’s spending – and a queen’s comments on cake – might provoke. The French Revolution transformed forever the meaning of political freedom to include freedom from want, an utterly new idea. In this context, excavating the seductive excess of the Bourbon court is anything but frivolous, and no, the French aren’t over it yet. I think Coppola’s Marie Antoinette makes this less distant and inexplicable to us. There is a moment when Coppola has Marie cross a vast vaulted hall whose floor is a grid of black and white parquet tiles. She pauses in the middle – surely a figure as frozen is historical convention as any priceless museum piece surrounded by green sensor beams. Of course there had to be a revolution. *** This review appeared in on 10/24/06.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Film Review #59: Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple *** Director: Stanley Nelson *** For a fleeting moment not too far into Jonestown, the Reverend Jim Jones reminds me of Henry Fonda’s Tom Joad. In scratchy archival footage of Jones preaching theatrically to his heated congregation, he thunders, “Wherever there are people struggling for justice, there I am!” *** It is tempting to wonder whether Jim Jones—at whose behest 909 followers downed cyanide-laced Kool-Aid in the jungles of Guyana in November 1978—might have seen The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and that scene where Tom Joad assures his mother that he’s not really leaving, that even dead he’d somehow be present, dissolved into the ferment of the masses. It is one of Fonda’s most often-cited speeches: “Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there.” *** Departing from conventional views of the Peoples Temple as simply “foreign” and “crazy,” this film makes excruciatingly clear that, besides echoing Tom Joad’s words, Jones and his followers came right out of America’s heartland—down to their Okie-like cross-country caravan to the promised land of California when, in 1965, the deep Midwest of his native Indiana became too inhospitable for Jones’ racially integrated church. *** Stanley Nelson has had his own journey. This new documentary opens October 20 at Quad Cinema in New York City, followed by week-long runs in—so far—eleven other cities nationwide before its April 2007 television broadcast on PBS’ American Experience. Whether the film’s tell-tale earmarks of a larger turning point for Nelson prove out, it marks at least some clear departures. In contrast to longer-simmering films, this one came together quickly after Nelson heard some Peoples Temples members on the radio three years ago talking about the event’s 25th anniversary. And besides the leap to theatrical release, the project required adjusting his working habits. *** Speaking recently by phone from Berkeley, where his and partner Marcia Smith’s production company, Firelight Media, maintains its west coast office, Nelson said that, for the first time ever, he had turned down other film projects while making Jonestown. Nelson’s work ethic is legendary. He’s been reliably churning out highly respected, award-winning PBS docs at the rate of about one each year for some time now, an output he maintains by always having at least three projects—in pre-production, production, and post-production—in the air simultaneously, “and probably, if you can, one film you’re going to festivals with.” But with Jonestown, he says, “I don’t know how I could possibly have made this film while I was doing something else.” Fortunately, receiving a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award just before embarking on this project made that choice possible. Finally, Nelson has been steadily and systematically amassing an encyclopedic body of work that focuses on African American experience. He has said simply that he makes films about what he knows that have universal themes, but in this case, tackled the project before he recalled that the Peoples Temple membership was some 80% black. Now Nelson has begun work on one segment of a massive, five-part PBS project covering Natives Americans. *** Jonestown works as a documentary by Nelson’s signature techniques. Although he structures his narrative by chronological segments—the early years of 1931-65 in Jones’ native Indiana, the northern California farm years in Ukiah from 1965-74, the 1974-77 period of heady public influence and increasing controversy in San Francisco, and then the final mass flight to South America—he intersperses archival stills, video footage, and audio recordings with current interviews. Nelson doesn’t use actors for dramatic re-enactment; his interview clips are lively, telling, succinct, and placed with unerring aim in the story’s precisely edited flow. He is a master at achieving movement by panning across the frame and zeroing in to pick out details in stills and highlight chunks of text. *** Nelson also had access to a stash of videos with soundtracks that surviving Peoples Temple members themselves saved—besides the five who escaped into the forest, another 80 or so were elsewhere that November 1978 day—or which have been recently declassified by government investigators, such as film shot by journalists accompanying Congressman Leo Ryan on the visit to Jonestown that disintegrated so horrifically. Besides providing the film’s tense last half-hour, devoted to the events of those final two November days, this trove of footage provides frequent juxtapositions of interview subjects—over 20 church members with friends and relations—alongside younger versions of themselves speaking from the past. In one riveting scene, a woman describes how Jones had one of his secretaries masquerade as a cripple whom he heals during a service while the church-made video documenting this runs on-screen. Other older, wiser members recount their growing dismay at Jones’ sexual behavior and increasingly paranoid controls. With enormously wise restraint, Nelson allows the emotional resonance created by these pairs of younger and older selves to accumulate throughout the film before his stark revelations of exactly who they lost, which roll in installments between the final credits. *** Nelson told me that his striking first impression of the Peoples Temple survivors on that radio show three years ago was their rationality. On screen now, that holds up. One after another, these bright, decent, candid people who have aged with a measure of earned grace, look you in the eye as they recount what happened, where they lost themselves, what getting themselves back cost them. Some went to Peoples Temple accomplished already; some have become so since. Deborah Layton, whose 1999 memoir Seductive Poison details her seven years with Jones and her subsequent escape, provides incisive commentary, as does Jim Jones, Jr., the preacher’s adopted black son. Nelson also secured invaluable interviews with figures such as Marshal Kilduff, whose New West Magazine exposé literally drove Jones to leave San Francisco in the middle of the night; Congressional aide Jackie Spiers, who survived being shot at point blank range on Jonestown’s landing strip (Ryan himself was killed); and journalist Tim Reiterman, who accompanied the Ryan group, too. *** As for the Tom Joad factor in this, there’s no doubt that Nelson won both the access and the material by deeply grasping the desire among Peoples Temple members for community, social justice, and something larger than themselves. Far from aberrant, these things comprise a broad streak in American character that surfaces from time to time, startling us much as those younger selves that arise on-screen, via cinematic editing, beside the now graying Peoples Temple members. Jonestown invites us to see that same streak, with its wildly swinging potential, in ourselves and others. Near the end of our conversation, I asked Nelson if he thought people might draw parallels between Jonestown and our post-9/11 world. With a little half laugh, he said at once, “I hope so!” ***** Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple opens October 20 at Quad Cinema in New York City for one week, with other engagements in Los Angeles and nationwide through early next year. It airs on PBS on April 9, 2007. This review, with an accompanying interview with the filmmaker, appeared on 10/19/2006 in

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A Second Take: Bertolucci's The Sheltering Sky *** Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1975 film 1900 has a circuitous history with its American audience. When first released, this five-hours-plus epic of the intertwined lives of two Italian men, born on the same day in 1901 to different classes and political outlooks, was a commercial flop in the U.S. Then in 1995—the year Bertolucci said he wanted to embrace a wider audience—the film was re-released in the U.S. This version, an hour shorter, has achieved enduring recognition among audiences and critics alike. Reflecting on 1900’s differing stateside receptions, two decades apart, Bilge Ebiri wrote in Senses of Cinema that, in retrospect, a “U.S. studio releasing a Communist film at the height of the Cold War seems downright surreal even now.” *** Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky (1990), adapted from the 1949 novel by Paul Bowles, is another film whose time has come belatedly. It was only a minor success in America and many critics disliked it, finding it boring and mistaking it for apolitical. Claretta Tonetti has written in some detail about this. For example, Pauline Kael complained about miscasting and spoke for many when she quipped that the characters traveled “deep into monotony.” *** The Warner Home Video DVD release of The Sheltering Sky dates from 2002, suggesting a commercial faith in its better chances twelve years later. Why might they be right and why should we pay attention again to this movie? First, we ought to reconsider the film in light of his overall work and signature cinematic techniques. The Sheltering Sky begins to seem more like Bertolucci, for example, when we focus on the theme of looking backward — either to mid-century (WW II and the post-war period) or to May 1968 (the student strikes in Paris) — to really comment on the present. His subsequent films have also increasingly engaged questions about the role of art in society. Second, the current climate is more receptive to other issues The Sheltering Sky raises. Some of those have been incubating since the novel’s publication — in 1990, Bertolucci told Fabien Gerard during an extensive interview that the novel was “ahead of its time”—but these issues now seem more urgent and more pervasively intelligible in a post-9/11 world. *** The Sheltering Sky is the middle film of three often grouped together as Bertolucci’s “Eastern trilogy,” a shift from previous work, a working-out of a cluster of particular interests, and a point in the evolution leading to his later films. First was The Last Emperor (1987) — massive in both scale and popularity — about how China’s last hereditary ruler, Pu Yi, transitioned through the Communist Revolution. That film includes thoughtful attention to the presence and implications of his English tutor. The third film was Little Buddha (1993), with complementary stories about a reincarnated Tibetan holy man born to a modern-day Seattle couple and the mythical figure Siddhartha as a youth in the initially unlikely person of actor Keanu Reeves. Despite their far-flung settings and diverse story-lines, these films all present the volatile personal consequences ensuing from the East-West encounter. The Last Emperor won nine Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. This might have earned Bertolucci’s next film at least the benefit of the doubt. Instead, many reviewers were vitriolic. In her own 2002 look at post-modern Italian cinema, Millicent Marcus suggests a way to start understanding this hostility. Discussing The Last Emperor, she refers to Palestinian Edward Said’s book on the East-West encounter, Orientalism (1978), insisting that the first film of the Eastern trilogy was much more about Italy than China. Said argues that the “Orient” is a fixture of the West’s imagination because it performs a “mirroring function” against which the West defines itself. *** Well, we are immediately in Bertolucci-land with this thought. Marcus’s use of Said’s discussion of mirroring, reflecting surfaces, projection on screens, and views through the veils provides a pretty good starter list of Bertolucci’s favorite cinematic techniques for visually representing the scrambling, disintegration, and cultural confusion of identity in The Sheltering Sky and elsewhere — from at least as early as The Conformist. *** Let’s look at what happens in the film. At 137 minutes, The Sheltering Sky is long. Set in 1947 in post-World War II North Africa, its story loops from Tangier, Morocco, and south through the Sahara to Niger and eventually back again (although Bowles says in his introduction to the 1998 paperback edition that he set the novel in Algeria). Bertolucci’s film opens with something else that’s new besides a setting: a stunning title montage of post-war New York City — the world the film’s characters have left for Africa — backed by Nelson Riddle-style orchestration with xylophone accents, of a ticker-tape parade, 5th Avenue, Radio City Music Hall, and other landmarks, the Automat, and jitterbug dancing, Central Park in winter and finally, boarding an ocean liner. This archival footage of New York City in the title montage is followed by the scene on the dock in Tangier, where a specific ocean liner arrives with Port and Kit Moresby and their friend George Tunner (John Malkovich, Debra Winger, and Campbell Scott, respectively). It’s easy to let their ship and the one leaving Manhattan in the title montage slide together in our mind as one. This creates a visual inversion of the familiar for us. The landscape that we know to be “our” New York is oddly distant, exotic, like something brought back from far away as part of a documentary film perhaps. But that Tangier dock, with its giant rusty cargo crane, warm rich colors, and the cast in their crisp outfits, seems immediate and real. And the contrast makes it easy to understand the expression that one’s old life “seems like a dream.” *** One of the first things Port Moresby talks about is his dreams, though the café in which he does this has both radio and a newsboy hawking papers to keep travelers connected to the outside world. Port’s dreams proliferate as time goes on, some of them feverish and hallucinatory, some possibly “real.” In that first café scene, Kit Moresby’s legs splay, unladylike, while she gets her shoes shined like a gent and remarks that the Italians have “oddly” given women the vote. She’d already opened a case on the dock with Djuna Barnes’ 1937 novel Nightwood sitting on top, signaling that elastic sexual identities will have some place in this story. In the café, we also meet the distasteful British duo, mother and son, the Lyles, and Paul Bowles himself, delivering the first of three narrator’s epigrammatic voice-overs. *** Self-indulgent and excessive, the Lyles regularly spew the kind of racist, contemptuous remarks about Africans and about French Jews that make it difficult to accept this as an apolitical film. Mrs. Lyles is a travel writer, stealing a living from those she disparages; her son cadges money from Port, then steals his passport. Passing a group of indigenous prisoners in chains marching along a remote road later, Port remarks that “someday they’ll throw the French out.” *** Both novelist and filmmaker portray the financially independent Moresbys as genuinely loving one another, but their marriage is in trouble. Kit goes along with Port’s quest for a geographic cure, though she pleads with him to stop by the time they are looking over a valley with circling, white-caped horsemen, from what they discover is a cemetery. Port has been to North Africa before, speaks Arabic fluently, has both familiar destinations he wants to show Kit and others he wants to explore. Atop the cliff outside Boussif, they try to make love, fail to hold the moment once Port pauses to philosophize, and then weep wretchedly in each other’s arms for the loss — moving, memorable dramatic performances from Malkovich and Winger. *** Although Port visits prostitutes and exotic dancers himself in the film, he is jealous of his wife and gets rid of the seduction-minded Tunner — the Lyles take him off the Moresbys’ hands — but he sickens with typhoid fever in El Ga’a. Port dies in a shabby, remote French garrison, imagining that Kit is leaving him as he leaves her stranded. Dazed and wearing his jacket, Kit hitches a ride with a Tuareg nomad, Belquassim (Eric An-Vu), on a passing camel caravan and accepts his sexual advances. For a time Kit, disguised as a boy, resides in a locked rooftop room after they reach his home city, until Belquassim’s wives turn her loose and she unveils herself to them as a woman by unwrapping her turbaned head. *** The New York Times’ Vincent Canby, writing on the film’s opening day in 1990, called this part of the film an “existential update on Rudolph Valentino’s old chestnut, The Sheik,” the 1921 silent film that depicted a white Western woman’s swooning seduction by the obviously Italian heart-throb, dressed up as an Arab to add some thrill. Part of the difficulty in the East-West encounter has been the limited, stereotyped categories available within which to imagine intimacy. Kit and Belquassim’s encounter, as written by Bowles, involved rape and sharing Kit with another nomad. Bertolucci told critic Fabien Gerard that he committed his “betrayal” of Bowles’ novel -- softening and reconfiguring Kit’s sexual experience with the nomads — after he talked with them on location about their culture and heard a convincing account at odds with Bowles’. *** Eventually transported by British Embassy staff back to Tangiers’s Grand Hotel, Kit instead sets off for the old café, missing by moments a more seasoned, now-moustached Tunner, who’s actually waited months for her. Paul Bowles greets her. Is she lost? he asks; she says yes. *** Many opening reviews of The Sheltering Sky were mixed and contradictory. Sometimes this belied a fondness for Bowles’ novel that created a hurdle for any film adaptation. Roger Ebert wrote, for example, that he grasped Bertolucci’s adaptation well enough, but the book was “so complete, so deep and so self-contained that it shuts the movie out.” It’s worth taking a look at the range and fervor of those first reviews. Canby liked the film a lot, calling it “possibly Mr. Bertolucci’s most seductive, most hypnotic movie. . .a long, beautifully modulated cry of despair,” and he thought Malkovich and Winger as the leads were “extraordinarily fine.” Stephen Farber judged Bertolucci’s film “one of the most uncompromising movies ever released by a major studio, a despairing masterwork.” The Washington Post printed two reviews the same day. Desson Howe found the film “rhapsodic” and the plot better as it went along, whereas Hal Hinson groused that the movie was “monotonously obscure, a Marxist version of Dances With Wolves.” James Sanford predicted The Sheltering Sky would “provide blessed relief for any insomniacs who venture near it.” *** Do some of these comments tell us more about antipathy toward Africa and the East in general than about Bertolucci’s film? The director told Gerard that some common elements in the novel and the late ‘80’s might make that era more understanding of Port and Kit’s “isolated melancholy,” which he thought had reached “epidemic proportions” in Western culture. He noticed renewed searches for “alternatives to consumerism,” which illuminates the giant, rusty, unused cargo crane that sits on the dock when Port, Kit, and Tunner first arrive in Tangier. Bertolucci also felt that late 1980’s environmental focus on greenhouse effects and the encroaching desert supplied the Sahara with greater power as metaphor. *** How about our own era now and its openness to Bertolucci’s long-held concerns? Bertolucci has often looked back in his films on two eras in particular: Italy during World War II (and the post-war period) and the May 1968 Paris student strikes (the time of his own political coming of age). In 1970, The Conformist investigated how one man could turn himself over to the Fascists and suggested parallel contemporary dangers. Millicent Marcus insists that Bertolucci’s choice to focus on how collaboration with the Fascists occurred (instead of focusing on heroic resistance) marks that film as a warning. Bertolucci has returned to that theme a number of times. *** Moreover, we now seem more open to reconsidering that era and its moral dilemmas too. One of the most popular dramas in New York City last season was Light in the Piazza, a musical about an American mother and her daughter visiting Italy in the 1950’s, resurrected from a novel and film adaptation (both 1962). This seems an odd project for post 9/11 theater unless we consider that US audiences are now willing to explore the last great global turning point of similar significance. I have argued elsewhere that Woody Allen’s Match Point is likewise really about the 1950’s—a virtual remake of A Place in the Sun (1951)—and that he achieves the stuffiness of that era (for U.S. audiences) by placing his story within a certain British class, despite the story’s apparent contemporaneity. We seem to be able to look back seriously in about half-century chunks. Ahead of his time in being open to The Sheltering Sky, Canby noted that it occurs in 1947, that anxious sliver of time before the 1950’s “when the civilized world is still trying to discover the reassuring boundaries of commonplace routine.” *** A Western post-9/11 world similarly feels it way along now, too. This exploration involves an insight like Port Moresby had when he remarked that the Moroccans would throw the French out one day. Yet a few reviewers either confusingly considered the film "Marxist" at a time when Bertolucci had moved away from Marxism, or those like Bilge Ebiri considered that The Sheltering Sky’s “sheer lack of politics seems to be its most remarkable trait.” I find Port’s comments and the racism of the Lyles both clearly political. The film is political in the very implications of its aesthetics. So Said’s discussion of Orientalism still offers a way to wed East and West cinematically in Bertolucci’s work. The Italian director’s cinematic vocabulary is based in Western thought. Ever since The Conformist, Plato’s myth of the cave, with its shadowy illusions, has been Bertolucci’s basic visual metaphor. But the techniques he has used for expressing that are also wonderfully consistent with Said’s description of how the East has served the West aesthetically as a mirror. The Sheltering Sky offers a common visual language of mirrors, shadows, and reflections, Venetian blind effects, shots through glass or veils, and images of both entrapment and separation via shots through bars, cages, and wire mesh. Additionally, Bertolucci told Gerard that the Tuareg nomads considered the desert a mirror of their own eternal movements. *** Roger Ebert also liked The Sheltering Sky early on. He objected to its marketing as an erotic thriller, saying it wasn’t really about sex at all—it was, he felt, “about American intellectuals confronted by an immensity of experience they cannot read or understand.” Part of what Ebert meant about American intellectuals circa 1990 occurs in the film with a major recurring image, the floating head. We initially see our trio head-first from behind the edge of the stone pier and we often see close-up shots of Port’s head upside down, suggesting his inability to position and integrate himself successfully in the world. Bertolucci mirrors his characters’ heads with a movie poster depicting a head outside the Cine Alcazar, across the street from the café in Tangier. Both early in the film and later, when Kit returns to Tangier and the café, tracking shots take us by this poster on the way into the café. *** The Sheltering Sky is, after all, about two artists at creative impasses (Port is a composer and Kit a playwright). Bertolucci’s next three films portray artists who withdraw from the world; Stealing Beauty (1996), Besieged (1998) and The Dreamers (2003) all address the danger of illusion in art. This was, finally, the lesson of Plato’s cave, his reason for distrusting artists, and part of Bertolucci’s point about how the Fascists could fool The Conformist’s Marcello and others of his generation. This culminates in The Dreamers, about three young film buffs who rattle around in an ancient Paris apartment while the May 1968 strikes occur outside. Bertolucci’s films have long urged us to use cinema for something other than escapism or “an outing.” *** Ebert also compared Bertolucci’s film to Australian Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), in which the white women simply disappear into the landscape. The Weir film is extremely unsettling because -- against plot conventions of that time anyway -- there is never any resolution of the school girls’ disappearance from the austere rock formation they visit. This brush with the unresolved unknowable evokes dread. For Americans, 9/11 has made this dread explicit and apocalyptic, and provides motivation to untangle our own illusions and our own “Orientalism.” So, The Sheltering Sky may now be interesting and absorbing in a new way for U.S. audiences, who may be willing to stand some degree of discomfort without so much “boredom”—or its underlying defensiveness. ***** This was written for the Second Take feature column at, where it appeared on 10/11/2006.