A comparison: “Last Tango in Paris” and “2001: A Space Odyssey”

“Last Tango in Paris” is a straightforward case of a film that has aged poorly. In this instance, its potency has flattened with age. When it came out, it was a brutal, sexually explicit film, and it pushed the frontier of sexual depictions in film. As a result of its superb acting – Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider – not to mention unobtrusive, molasses-slow direction, it had the stark appearance of real life. It was intimate drama, where its predecessors were decorative drapery. It was explicitly frank, in a time when nakedness of any kind, whether physical or emotional, was not common. It shocked a lot of people, and those who weren’t shocked had the following reaction: hey – this is real stuff right here. I can’t believe they dared.

Fast-forward forty years. We jaded filmgoers have seen everything. It is extremely hard to surprise me with the content of a film. I’ve seen all sorts of sex, and more acts of violence than I can count. Films like “Last Tango in Paris” can have an effect on me, but usually only when they’re taken to the emotional extreme, as in “Magnolia,” and Lars Von Trier’s films. So when I went to “Last Tango in Paris” with my brother, at a nook of a theater called The Grand Illusion, the film didn’t grab me. The bumpy seats took precedent over the love story. I knew this tale would turn sour and melancholy; there wasn’t one single moment that turned my outlook sunny. Not one single laugh, not one snappy soundtrack selection. Just two people, emotionally flagellating themselves and each other. I can picture people my age back in 1972, seeing this movie and being blown away. But I wasn’t.

In my mental image of film history, “2001: A Space Odyssey” moves in the opposite direction as “Last Tango in Paris.” Undoubtedly, it was a stunning achievement when it came out in 1968. But it moves me even more in retrospect. Movies that came in its wake – Star Wars, for example – were not any more technically grand. Stanley Kubrick, over 40 years ago, made a movie that still sparkles today.

Even in the prehistoric scenes, where Kubrick used painted backdrops for the horizon, the effect is seamless. They horizons are fake, but so artfully done that it doesn’t matter. There is a swooping grandeur to the film; it spans existence, and not cheaply, but with the execution to match its ambition. The scenes with Neanderthals are close up and real, and they document mankind’s genesis, somehow without being trite. The apes whoop and swing bones, but even though they’re just actors in suits, they stick in my memory. No film glimpses prehistory, nor bridges between it and the present and future, as does Kubrick’s “2001.”

The middle portion of “2001” pushes outward to space, and details mankind’s attempt to conquer it. The hallucinatory end splashes esoterically onto the screen: a fitting ending for a film that has attempted to connect the dots of humanity. “2001” is a big, bold film, a philosopher’s bright ordered dream. As we stumble over our follies, it will only seem truer, and more prophetic. Its ambiguity (and even the possibility that Kubrick wasn’t trying to say anything at all) oddly befits a film of such visual and thematic ambition. As cinema plods along, “2001” will retain its value. Even if the film’s special effects become aged. Which, 42 years later, hasn’t happened yet.

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