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January 09, 2007

DVD Journal: "The Conformist"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I just noticed that Bernardo Bertolucci's legendary 1970 film "The Conformist" can now be obtained on DVD. (Amazon, Netflix.) This is a pleasing cultural event for two reasons. One is that for much too long the movie has been almost impossible to find, even at colleges and rep houses. So, let's indulge in a big sigh of long-time-coming relief. The other is that "The Conformist" is both a wonderful (IMHO) and an influential (objectively speaking) movie. Watching it can be a sexy, moody high; it can also make you go, "Oh! So that's where that came from!" a large number of times.

An Art Deco / Freudian thriller starring Jean-Louis Trintignant and Dominique Sanda, "The Conformist" has an orchestrated elegance and a flowing sumptuousness that's part Josef Von Sternberg, part Jean-Pierre Melville, and part "Pierrot Le Fou." The film's combination of fantasy and funk, politics, sex, psychology, and thrills hits many moviebuffs like a ton of bricks. Although dismissed by some as a chic Vogue layout, "The Conformist" has seemed to many others to be a culmination of the Great Tradition in movies -- a blend of high and low, and an extraordinary demonstration of the ways movies can combine many different art forms: acting, design, writing, music, dance. The film has all the overstuffed, hyper extravagance of opera while being as slick and tight as a film noir. (In fact, despite its visual opulence, it was produced for only $750,000.) It also has a three-dimensional human intensity that sets it apart from such current is-it-ironic-or-not? exercises in movie delirium as "Moulin Rouge."

Here's a mini-gallery of memorable images from the movie:




As far as influence goes, well, where to start? The film's brilliance entranced young American filmbuffs, and inspired '70s American directors to kick their work up a few notches. Coppola hired Vittorio Storaro, the cinematographer of "The Conformist," to shoot "Apocalypse Now" and "One From the Heart." Storaro went on to photograph such mainstream movies as "Reds" and "Bulworth" for Warren Beatty, and "Dune" for television.

Paul Schrader hired production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti to art-direct "American Gigolo" and "Cat People." Laugh if you will -- they're bad movies indeed. But the Italian-GQ imagery of Richard Gere, L.A., Nastassja Kinski, and New Orleans that these films featured had an immediate impact on what Americans expect of luxury and style. Brian De Palma's over-the-top, decadent "Scarface" was designed by Scarfiotti too -- and "Scarface" continues to influence popular imagery to this day.

In the art houses, current fave Wong Kar-Wai is working rhapsodic-reverie soil first turned over by "The Conformist," albeit in more nonlinear, halting ways. The influence of the film can still be seen in ads and music videos as well as in movies too; fashion magazines (and Armani-like imagery generally) have been far more influenced by "The Conformist" than vice versa. Let's just say that "The Conformist" woke a lot -- a lot -- of people up to the power of sleekness, color, movement, texture, mood, and light.

Speaking only for myself, I loved the movie for its style and sensuality, but also for a particular hum it emits. You're drawn into an altered way of perceiving and experiencing. I'd see "The Conformist," leave the theater, and find myself picking up unusual existence-waves -- I'd experience life as a Bertolucci movie for hours afterwards. There was something about the way his camera-moves and editing connected with the inner lives of his people and the drama of the moments he portrayed ... Bertolucci tuned you into wavelengths you couldn't normally find.

Only 29 when he made "The Conformist," Bernardo Bertolucci was one of movie history's few prodigies. (He'd made his first feature film at the age of 22.) He went on to direct "Last Tango in Paris" in 1972. For me, all his movies up through "Last Tango" emitted that special mind-and-sensation-altering buzz. Then, for whatever reason, the magic vanished.

Why does this happen with some artists? Success? Age? Drugs? A film critic I know speculates that movies enable an artist to express so many sides of his / her talent that there can come a moment when that's it, it's gone. Maybe that happened to Bertolucci; maybe after "Last Tango" he'd simply given all he had to give. I've enjoyed some of Bertolucci's later movies anyway, "Little Buddha" especially. But as far as I was concerned, what had made Bertolucci's movies special never surfaced again. Well, that's not entirely true. I found that his novella-ish 1998 "Besieged" had some of this eerie poetic power, if in intermittant form.

Anyway: "The Conformist" on DVD is certainly worth a rent and at $12.95 isn't a bad buy either. As many reviewers and fans have noted, the storyline of "The Conformist," from a novel by Alberto Moravia, isn't the greatest one ever invented. But let's be generous: the film's characters, situations, and settings are beyond-vivid. These are genuine achievements that shouldn't be sneezed at. Organizing the film's material as a "what's this man's inner secret?" thriller ... I confess that that isn't my favorite move either. But still: Is it really so different than the ordering principle behind "Citizen Kane"? The film's thinking may leave something to be desired too. But, c'mon, what has art (most art, anyway) got to do with thinking?

In a word: As a way to get drunk on what was once meant by "the movies," "The Conformist" is hard to beat.

Only ... Now that we finally have the DVD of the film, I find myself thinking that it isn't enough. When will a high-definition version of the film be issued? If ever there was a movie that demanded to be experienced in HD, "The Conformist" is it.

Still, much as I'd like a widescreen plasma of my own -- and isn't it nice how prices have been plunging? -- I haven't been as dazzled by HDTV images as some commentators. There's a lot to be said for more detail, but good lord some of that detail is harsh and cold. It can be surgical-lighting scary too, like looking at your own face for too long in an overlit hotel mirror. And the HD precision sometimes has the effect of yanking you out of the action that you'd like to involve yourself in. Instead of following the game, for instance, you can find yourself thinking, "Shouldn't someone be telling these basketball players to trim their nose hairs?"

Speaking of which: Does the success of HDTV -- 33 million American households now have an HDTV -- mean the end of the extreme closeup? As I've often pointed out on this blog, there's something about a video image, even one that's hyperclear, that's different than a traditional film image. The engineers might tell us otherwise, and cite tons of facts and figures in their defence. But the people who are actually making the shows know the truth. "The grain structure of film allows a softness that HD video tends not to have, posing more challenges, especially when it comes to capturing female faces," says Stephen McNutt, director of photography for the Sci Fi Channel's "Battlestar Galactica." Needless to say, the way that film can make love to the female face (and make the female soul feel made love to) has been one of the biggest reasons movies have had the hypnotic power they have. Stripped of that ability to create dreamy erotic magic, what becomes of that thing we've known as "the movies"?

The horizontal aspect ratio of the HDTV screen is certainly nice too -- enough with nearly-square screens! But -- I've found myself thinking while prowling Circuit City -- an HDTV image is still just a big TV image. Although superb for sports, news, and documentaries, it's anti-sensual as hell. There's nothing transporting about it.

The other day, though, I got my first look at a 1080p Sony screen displaying images from a Blu-Ray DVD. And hoo-mama, if that wasn't a thing of beauty. The images looked like National Geographic photography only with a motion dimension added. My eyes weren't brought up short by detail and then repelled by it; I didn't have the familiar "Wow, wouldya look at that acne scar!", too-much-info reaction. Instead, my eye and brain tumbled right into the screen, where the imagery was creamy, continuous, and luscious. It was a screen that would serve "The Conformist" well.

According to the Circuit City salesguy I yakked with, it'll be a while yet before 1080p TVs and HD DVDs are commonly available at reasonable prices. But when they are ... Well, let's just say that I'm curious to see what movie-theater-owners will come up with in the way of inducements to lure us away from our TVs.



posted by Michael at January 9, 2007



I remember reading a bunch of stealth ads that were disguised as news reports at the end of last year trying to convince buyers that they needed needed needed an HDTV. Because, well, broadcasting for the TV you have now will end! Oh my! (A lie, btw.) And the picture's so much better! It's worth the grand or two! Really!

Well, hell, I just didn't see the improvement, and I prefer the picture I get on my old square tube TV better.

You put your finger precisely on why, M. Blowhard.

Posted by: yahmdallah on January 10, 2007 10:35 AM

At a little more than $10, The Conformist might be the DVD of the year (2006). The transfer is good, it's cheap, and it features some nice little documentaries. Oh, and the movie is geat as well.

I saw it (for what was t hen the second time) on the big screen about a year ago. Talk about a rapturous experience--like being caught inside a moving painting for 90 minutes.

You experience the movie as a series of set pieces, each one entering your consciousness and wafting through it like a melody. And afterwards you remember little details as you would flourishes in a parade or an opera--one which has overtaken and engulfed you.

What's most amazing about The Conformist to me is that none of this feels empty or shallow. As Michael points out, the narrative of the film is pretty dull, even naive, and yet no one would accuse the movie of being sterile or mechanical. Rather, The Conformist is filled with emotions and feelings, some of them coming out of nowhere (they take you by surprise), and they all seem to grow out of the movie's style, it's way of seeing things. They're of a piece with it.

We stayed for a good bit of the "critical discussion" that followed the screening, but I had to bail when one of the audience members used the term "dialetic." I couldn't bear any more. Almost none of the discussion was focused on style and feeling, which is really where any talk about The Coformist should be focused.

Instead, people were trying to shoehorn the movie into convenient little topical boxes, and thereby prove, I guess, that they went to college. "What does this movie teach us about the gay experience in the '70s?" one woman asked. Ummm...nothing?

I felt for the guest critic. He kept trying to steer the conversation towards the cinematography, the lighting, whatever. But he was continually directed back to more mundane territory, usually centered on sexual politics. I guess for most people that's what amounts to "serious art."

Anyone can trowel an issue or an idea over a work and give it "substance"--a kernel that gives the yammerers something to yammer about. But only Bertolucci could have filmed that amazing dance hall sequence, in which you can almost feel the acid rising in Tritignant's belly as all the decadence of Paris seems to swirl around and entrap him; or [SPOILER!] the climactic killings, with the light streaming through the trees, and the snow, and Dominique Sanda's immaculate face turning horrified as she slowly realizes along with the audience that she's about to die.

Bertolucci's 1900 also came out on DVD recently. It's ludicrous and awkward, but intermittently mind-blowing as well. (It's also unreasonably long.)

Now, if we could just get Before the Revolution (for me, nearly up there with The Conformist) and The Spider's Stratagem (beautiful but remote) on DVD, Bertolucci's early stuff would be pretty well accounted for.

Posted by: Ron on January 10, 2007 10:51 AM

"Then, for whatever reason, the magic vanished.
Why does this happen with some artists? Success? Age? Drugs?"

Interesting question. But it doesn't happen to all artists. Certain poets seem to be able to keep it going well into old age. Browning, Stevens, Hardy, Yeats. Same for a composer like Verdi, whose last works were Othello and Falstaff!! Haydn wrote some great stuff in his 60s. As for film Hitchcock's late Frenzy is great work, if a bit distasteful. John Huston made The Man Who Would Be King when almost 70. John Ford made The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence at 68.

Other artists seem to have an enourmous burst of great work which then slows down to a trickle. An example would be Robert Frost. In middle age he wrote an enormous amount of great work and then tapered off. But there were always one or two poems in the late collections fully equal to his best work. Perhaps a good contemporary example is rock group U2. The days of great albums like The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby seem long gone. But there's still been a trickle of great songs. Beautiful Day, Electrical Storm, Vertigo.

Some artists though burn out fairly quickly. Wordsworth and Whitman had only a decade.

And then there are those who really have only the one work. I've been reading a lot of Mark Twain and am coming to the conclusion that you should pretty much stick with Huck Finn and be done with it. If it weren't for that one work, I'm convinced that Twain would be regarded as a very minor figure indeed. So what happened with that one book? Which he stopped writing in the middle for 6 years!!!! Pretty much beats me. I'm sure we can all name favourite artists of whom we are disappointed to find out that they were only capable of that single work.

Incidently I pretty much think Bertolucci falls into the one great work category with The Conformist being that one work. So perhaps the better question for him is not what went wrong but what the hell went right?

Posted by: Thursday on January 10, 2007 1:53 PM

"I'd see "The Conformist," leave the theater, and find myself picking up unusual existence-waves -- I'd experience life as a Bertolucci movie for hours afterwards."

When I left the theatre after seeing "Memento," I was convinced I would never ever be able to remember where I parked my car.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on January 10, 2007 3:20 PM

Yahmdallah -- It's interesting, no? Flat-panel HDTV's seem to be the big-ticket item to buy right now. I wonder what the tipping point was. When prices on decent ones got below two grand? But I'm out of the mid-American shopping loop. Any hunches? Are your buds buying 'em?

Ron -- That's really beautifully put, and many thanks for the report from the front lines too. Seems funny that people should see something as overpowering as "The Conformist" and then want to talk about its very silly sexual politics, but there you go. Who was the unfortunate on-stage critic who tried to contend with this?

Thursday -- Age and creativity is an interesting topic, isn't it? As are the other topics you raise ... I've had the impression that the length of time people are good for varies a lot from artform to artform too. Lyric poets: spent by the time they turn 30. Painters -- often still doing topnotch stuff when they're very old. I hear from writers that writing past the age of 60 or 65 is a real challenge. The mental ferocity and concentration start to slip away, and of course words themselves don't come as easily any longer. I wonder if trustworthy surveys have been done of this kind of thing ...

Steve -- That's hilarious. As well as a premise for a good blog-posting.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 10, 2007 3:55 PM

Michael, the critic who spoke after The Conformist was Joe Meyers, who reviews movies for The Connecticut Post. I'm not familiar with his work.

He tried to focus the discussion on the way movies have changed since the '70s, which I think is reasonable. The question of why movie going has lost much of the richness it had going for it in the early part of the '70s is a good jumping off point, even though it's been posed more than a few times.

Unfortunately, the audience members (who were pretty few) took this to mean that movies in the '70s were more willing to take up "difficult" and "worthy" topics, like sexual confusion. This was disheartening.

I suppose I can see where the audience members were coming from, however. That's just how many people have been trained to look at things.

The best comment came from a Regular Joe type of guy, who looked like he'd been dragged there by his wife. He found the movie dense and somewhat hard to follow. This seemed to me a genuine response, particularly since I could tell from the tone of his voice that the movie had affected him, and that he was processing the experience.

I shouldn't complain. I'm too shy to jump into the fray at that type of event, so I certainly didn't do my share to aid the conversation. But the experience knocked my post-Conformist high down a few pegs.

Interestingly, when I saw Ugetsu in a theater last year, the guest critic (a film prof from SUNY Purchase) gave something more akin to a lecture. He didn't allow the audience to control the course of the discussion, in other words. Maybe this is a better strategy.

I'm seeing The Rules of the Game with guest-speaker Terrence Rafferty this weekend. It'll be interesting to see how that goes, especially since I enjoy Rafferty's writing.

Posted by: Ron on January 11, 2007 11:00 AM

The Conformist DVD from Netflix has been sitting on top of my TV for a month now. I've never seen it and would like to sit through it uninterrupted, but by the time we get all 3 kids to bed, it's usually almost 10 and I crash soon after. But as God is my witness, I will watch The Conformist!

Posted by: the patriarch on January 11, 2007 12:02 PM

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