AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
Bernardo Bertolucci -
The Sheltering Sky
by Harlan Kennedy
The sun burns down on the cracked sidewalk. Dry birds wheel in the sky. Propped against a wall, a ragged beggar holds out his hand. The babble of a street market filters from an alley. I find the door to the rooms where I am to meet Bernardo Bertolucci. Yes, it's another hot summer in London. (It hasn't rained for two days.) Global warming marches on, Thatcherite economics beggar everyone but the rich, and in a Wardour Street cutting room far from the Sahara Desert, geographically at least, the director of Last Tango in Paris and The Last Emperor greets me with a "Ciao!" and a cup of coffee. Bernardo Bertolucci is editing his new film, The Sheltering Sky, for Warner Bros., shot in North Africa and starring John Malkovich and Debra Winger. As you'd expect from a director whose last movie won nine Oscars and the hurrahs of the world, he's not cutting his movie on any, old chopping bench. All week, I've heard nothing from film-business people but, "Have you seen Bernardo's laser-disc machines?" Very state-of-the-art;. I'm told,. But where are they?
"They're not here; they're gone," says the director.
"No, I have completed that stage." And he's been dazzled, I learn, by the new technology: The Sheltering Sky is the first feature film to use laser-disc editing. "It's the Chyron CMX 6000, and it's the most high-tech machine of the moment. For doing a first assembly, it is fantastic. I'm always making my movies too long at this stage; I'm greedy. I float on an ocean of rushes." Bertolucci gestures accordingly.
"We look at the rushes," he explains, "and print the ones we want. These are then transferred to video and onto laser disc. With laser disc, there is no fast-forwarding or rewinding. It's not like tape; it's like compact disc. You compose the shot-number immediately on the computer keyboard. Bang! You punch up the take you want. Bang! You edit. In 28 days, we did an assembly that would take three months with other equipment."
Now, to complete things, Bertolucci is moving on to the good old steam-driven Steenbeck.
"Because we are starting to give it shape. So we use a cesello – how do you say? – for fine cutting."
A jeweler's tool?
"Yes. Because when I do a
more precise kind of work, I have to feel the physical
Yes, let's. For a Bertolucci movie transferred to the small screen always looks like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon redone as a window box. You miss the majesty, the beauty, the subtlety. You miss almost everything that makes the work of this 50-year-old, Parma-born filmmaker one of the treasures of modern cinema.
An unpredictable treasure, too.
Since quitting his native film industry, Bertolucci's
career has swung like a compass needle seeking new artistic directions. He
turned first to the Far East, for a thinking-man's epic made in Beijing's
Forbidden City; now to the not-so-far East, North Africa, for a movie of Paul
Bowles' cult 1949 novel, The Sheltering Sky.
The American-born, Moroccan-settled Bowles was a creature of the postwar age that fathered like Camus and Sartre and the heyday of existentialism, a philosophy which argues that man's life is a mapless journey monitored by no supreme authority, only himself.
Depending on the artist, this school of thought can be either liberating or rich with tragic doom, or, in Bowles' case, an aromatic mixture of the two. The Sheltering Sky tells of a young American couple whose journey into the desert mirrors the lost bearings and threatening aridity of their own relationship. He's an intellectual seeker, half in love with the lure of the annihilating infinite. She's a poor little rich girl, flung into the Sahara with a crumbling marriage and the increasingly useless baggage of civilization. His name's Port (alias John Malkovich). Hers is Kit (Debra Winger).
As changes of pace go, this sounds like a record-breaker. A chamber drama, albeit at fresco, from the maker of The Last, Emperor? In that film, Bertolucci the painter reigned, pouring. color and spectacle over a tale so simple and accessible, it was almost high-concept: Rich tyrant is humanized by plunge into poverty and anonymity. Oscar-lavishing Hollywood, where the fall from wealth and power is the deepest terror in the communal psyche, clearly liked having Maoist balm applied to its mogul nightmares. Or perhaps, on statuette night, everyone just agreed to recognize at last that Bertolucci is a major poet-imagist of the cinema.
But which Bertolucci? The Bertolucci of the political-historical epics (1900, The Last Emperor) sometimes seems a different animal from the Bertolucci of the intimate Freudian dramas (Last Tango in Paris, Luna). And since many critics today laud the director's Italian period as his golden age (Before the Revolution, The Conformist, The Spider's Stratagem), how has internationalism affected his integrity and vision?
"If I find myself in China or Africa today," he says, "it's because I feel a certain malaise in my own country and across the Western world. Of course, there are communication difficulties in making such films, but at this moment, I need a change in my life. It's over with me and the consumer society. I can't take it, I hate it! It seems escapist, perhaps, but it's important to be sincere with one's own feelings."
Yet Bowles' concentrated, baking-kiln story seems closer in spirit to Bertolucci's early films than anything since.
"It's very important," says Bertolucci, "and I've been explaining it to distributors, that this film is not seen as another Last Emperor. It's not an epic with a thousand extras. It's an epic of the heart." The phrase is delivered with a certainty that suggests it might end up adorning the posters. "It's a love story. And the most common love story of all, about two people who adore each other but cannot be happy.
"On another, perhaps deeper, level, The Sheltering Sky is about the difference between the traveler and the tourist. It's a distinction Paul Bowles makes in the early part of the book. A tourist wants to go home as soon as he has seen what he set out for. But a traveler wants to disappear, he wants to d-r-o-w-n," Bertolucci savors the word like finest pasta, caressing it with one of his guttural Northern Italian r's, "in this other reality.... "
So why are Port and Kit unhappy?
"Port is condemned. He's looking for something which I think is ultimately death. There is this exterior trip they take from the Mediterranean, from Tangier, inland into the desert and across the desert and beyond the desert. Then there is the trip inside the characters, which is parallel. And Kit tags along with him, with this explorer, this seeker, until she is suddenly thrown into a situation where she has to react."
When Port dies?
"Yes. She has a kind of metamorphosis. In a sense, she becomes Port. She goes out into the desert, into the night, and she does exactly the kind of things that Port would have done in the past. In the film, we have seen her hiding behind the barricades of her trunks in hotel bedrooms, always protected by her belongings. Now she has a kind of osmosis with him. She gets the same drive that Port had for risk and adventure. After his death, he enters her mind again. It's an extreme proof of ultimate love to give up, in some way, her personality to become him."
As readers of The Sheltering Sky will know, Kit's is quite some osmosis. When Port dies in a festering outpost hundreds of miles from medical help, she spares few moments for mourning. Instead, she hurls herself into the desert night, becoming the love-slave of a Tuareg sheik.
Were it not for Bowles' power as a writer, we could be into novelette territory here: "The Girl and the Sheik." But far from indulging the "One-leap-and-the-swarthy-Arab-was-upon-her" school of prose, The Sheltering Sky is written with a harsh, dry precision, one resonant with philosophical inquiry. Bowles' characters, like Bowles himself, are Western agnostics flirting with North African mysticism and fatalism. In Bowles' case, the flirtation proved lasting and fruitful: four novels, several short story collections, an autobiography. For his characters, it proves dramatic and fatal.
"Port, like Kit, is a New York intellectual," explains Bertolucci. "They are like the spiritual children of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald who find that their world, the world of culture and glamour, has been broken up after the war. There is something they want to escape and something also that they are looking for. They decide to emigrate, culturally, and come to North Africa in the years when existentialism was born.
"They are the years of Camus, of L'Etranger and La Peste. And though Port was not in any way influenced by Camus, I think this was the direction in which a sensitive intellectual at that time would have gone. Existentialism, with its idea of the acte gratuit, has much in common with Arab fatalism: the notion that something has been written. I think all these things were in the atmosphere that Paul Bowles breathed when he went to live in Tangier."
No surprise then that Bertolucci has set the film in 1947, the period when Bowles was writing the novel. Nor that fate wrote into the cast Malkovich and Winger, who seem born to play the main roles. Malkovich's monkish-epicurean looks are ideal for Port, a man crashing out on self-denial in the Sahara. And Winger has the right gasping-for-air intensity for Kit. Neither star, though, was a first choice.
"I wanted William Hurt and Melanie Griffith," says Bertolucci, seeming relieved that he didn't get them." But sometimes destiny steps in.
"I choose two actors like Dominique Sanda and Jean-Louis Trintignant for Last Tango," he recalls. "She gets pregnant. He can't get naked and do love scenes. I end up with Brando and Schneider. Thank God!"
For Malkovich and Winger, wrestling with the meaning of life in the Sahara can't have been much less challenging than other, tactile forms of wrestling were for Brando and Schneider in Last Tango in Paris. If sun, sand and flies weren't enough, there was Bertolucci's systematic removal of verbal crutches. Throwing out whole pages of Bowles' dialogue and spoken thoughts – "I didn't want to do a literary movie" – he encouraged the actors to express themselves through behavior, not words.
"In the film," says Bertolucci, "it is the physicality of the two of them – their bodies, skins, faces, eyes, mouths – that becomes so strong. It is as if their biological presence substitutes for what would have been literary. "But then, ironically, Bertolucci wondered if he hadn't thrown the book out with the bathwater.
"When I started shooting,
Mark [Peploe, coscreenwriter]
and I thought, My God, there's a loss of literature. But how could we find a
way to have the presence of literature without being literary? And we
thought, Let's put Paul Bowles himself in the film. So we have the physical
author there, looking on, seeing with his eyes something he invented 40 years
ago. I told him, I would like to see in your eyes the pain of man – the pain
of the past – la douleur passé."
As Bertolucci says this, I spill the remains of my coffee. I've had a Damascene glimpse (ripple dissolve, cue melting harps for flashback music) of the point where The Sheltering Sky intersects with his previous work. A man viewing his own past ... la douleur passé ... memory. Suddenly, I'm being vortexed back in time myself, spinning through previous movies by Signore B. And meetings with him. Like a whirling tunnel formed of giant snapshots (more harp music), key moments rear up and fall away before me....
Snap one. First experience of a Bertolucci film. The moon-walking, monochrome beauty of Before the Revolution, poeticizing history, turning neorealism into a ballet of memory....
Snap two. Jean-Louis Trintignant adrift in self-deceit and stunning decor as the Fascist sympathizer in The Conformist: a movie that hitched the avant-garde to the pleasure principle and took the God out of Godard. (The film's murdered mentor-figure, Professor Quadri, was based on Jean-Luc Godard and even shared, for those who picked it up, Godard's Paris phone number).
Snap Three. The movie-theater roof sliding open to the stars in Luna, spilling Marilyn Monroe's voice and image into the heavens. One moment from Bertolucci's cinema that defines his power to site the finite in the infinite, la douleur passé (or present) in an eye-blink eternity.
Snap four. Bertolucci and I tete-à-tete across a sandwich lunch in a London apartment. Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man is about to open – and close. Glimpse of a moviemaker with a fistful of douleurs who's still fighting, though at lowest career ebb. He rhapsodizes about cinema, fires off new ideas, refuses to repent what the world, or the critics, call his failures....
Ah, the critics. A trip down Memory Way, while it shows that for Bertolucci the past isn't necessarily a Via Happier, suggests there's more consistency of theme and style in his work than audiences have ever given him credit for.
From La Commare
Secca (1962) to The Last Emperor (1987),
every Bertolucci movie is a
locking of horns between past and present. Every movie is about the quest for
salvation, political-historical or private-spiritual. And every movie has a
visual style based on concealment and revelation. Stories of teasing enigma
are punctured by moments of ravishing apocalypse: the sliding roof in Luna, the primal cry of Brando in Last Tango, the
billowing golden drape that rises to reveal the pageantry of troops to a
child-king in The Last Emperor.
But you'd never guess from the uneven welcome given Bertolucci's work over the years that it had any constancy at all. The director himself shrugs off the roller-coaster ride he's had, though the shrug is tinged with intellectual resentment.
"One thing that is missing
from the critics is any knowledge of the écriture of cinema," he told me as we munched those
sandwiches back in '85. "I love when I go to an opera or concert to see
the music critics with the score! You can tell them by the little light in
their hands. They are reading the music score as it unfolds! I'm
afraid many movie critics judge movies just through the content – the plot,
the psychology – because they know nothing about style and syntax, about the écriture.
"Go back to see Sunrise, go back to see Napoleon. A movie is something different from literature because there is a miracle that happens. That's why we love these American movies where the story, the content, is quite primitive, quite naive, but there is this miracle that is cinema: the language through which reality has chosen to talk.
"I think that cinema is the language of reality in our century. Every moment in history chooses a way to talk: in other centuries through music or painting, literature or theater. Now it has chosen cinema. And when this miracle happens, I'm afraid very often the critics don't see the cinema in the movies, they see the literature or the theater. It is a bit sad for someone like me, for whom cinema is a question of life and death."
Bertolucci's own movie language took a quantum leap in accessibility with The Last Emperor. And not just with the critics. The director's style – baroque camera movements, opalescent period sense, bursts of trompe l'oeil – suddenly showed it had Oscar and box-office appeal.
It's a style used by Bertolucci but honed and packaged
by a team of longtime collaborators. On The Sheltering Sky, the cameraman is once again Vittorio Storaro, who's lensed every Bertolucci
picture bar one since The
Spider's Stratagem (1970). The production designer is Gianni Silvestri, of Luna and Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man. And the producer and coscreenwriter are Jeremy Thomas and Mark Peploe, respectively, both of The Last Emperor.
This band – with slight variations – follows Bertolucci about the world, fighting the good fight even on days when their leader's not feeling so hot. Back while filming 1900, he had a week-long spell of vertigo and double vision. Hence those collector's-piece production stills of him wearing an eye patch. And while lining up a shot on Luna, he fell over and broke both arms. No production stills available: he went on filming with his arms and chest in plaster.
With luck like that, who doesn't need loyal friends?
"The crew is always my crew," declares the director happily. "They follow me everywhere, as long as I produce pasta for lunch!"
It says much for Bertolucci, or his pasta. A blueprint for production misery on The Sheltering Sky would have indicated the following: weeks of filming under a burning sun in the driest deserts and dustiest, dirtiest towns in the world. Bertolucci's crew should have been so lucky. North Africa in November, when shooting began, was bitterly cold. There had been floods. And when an army of Saharan flies was required for deployment on John Malkovich's face, during a long hot bus journey, where did they come from? Italy.
Producer Jeremy Thomas, keeping a straight face, recalls, "John really attracts flies. Once he was sprayed with sugar water, we had about a million of them let loose in the bus. They had been bred by a fly-trainer from Italy. We brought him in with all his larvae. The first time we tried to shoot the scene, we couldn't, because we had a flood and all the larvae died. So he had to go and collect more, breeding them on these rotting pieces of meat. Disgusting, really. Anyway, the flies liked John, and after that, it went fine."
Sounds like a happy moment.
"For me, yes – I wasn't on the bus."
But you were with the production throughout?
"Oh yes. As you know, the
film moves through distance and time, and it required the punishing logistics
of moving cast, crew and period over
thousands of miles. The Sheltering
Sky is a sort of road movie/love story, and so it has road-movie
production problems: moving ahead and preparing ahead. We had to do a very
detailed reconnaissance in Morocco, Algeria and Niger to find the areas where
we would be shooting. Then everything had to be made ready by a pre-crew that
would remove television aerials and modern street signs, and cover over
tarmac. That became quite difficult because the film's shooting sometimes
went faster than the preparations. So, at times, we had two, maybe three,
pre-crews working ahead of us as we filmed. Part of my responsibility was to
keep an eye on and control over all that. By the time we flew out of Niger,
we had shot approximately the same amount of footage as we did on The Last Emperor."
Of course, producer Thomas had a sand dune of detail to attend to on The Sheltering Sky, as did director Bertolucci, who feels that cinema is in some ways unknowable and unplannable.
"What you want from a movie when you begin it is 150,000 miles [gesture of enormity] from what you reach at the end. Moviemaking is a process. You end with something different; that's what gives it life. I cannot plan a film as a script or as a storyboard. I need the camera; I need the actors. I can't do it on a desk. I need the reality to whisper to me. If you leave the door open to reality, the smell of reality is so strong, it adds so much. It attacks and enters and infiltrates, that's what I enjoy," says the director.
But, to adapt T. S. Eliot, how much reality can humankind bear? Especially moviegoing humankind. The more I hear about The Sheltering Sky, and the more I get a mental image of the movie running in my head (since I haven't seen the real one or been shown the screenplay), the braver and crazier seems the whole venture.
Just who is going to stomp along to his local multiplex to see a picture about doom and death in the desert? Who's going to sniff excitedly at a film in which (if it follows Bowles' novel) the only perfumes of Arabia are the reek of Casbahs and the stink of mortality? And what will filmgoers make of a story in which a tormented hero and heroine are joined by some heftily flawed supporting characters? These include the callow Tunner, played by newcomer Campbell Scott, completing a destructive romantic triangle with Port and Kit; and the seedy, querulous Lyles duo (mother and son), who spice their tourism with a pinch of petty crime.
While pointing out that he may play the Lyleses for bitter comedy – "They're like those grimy characters in John Huston's films, walking representatives of our wicked selves, our sweaty parts! " – Bertolucci agrees that it's a story shot through with pessimism. "When I read the book, I was struck by the amount of poison in the air. Is it in the air of Morocco itself or is it projected by the characters?
"I think it's inevitable when you have a story of someone on a quest, a quest with no obvious goal, that it may be a story of self-destruction. But we end the movie in a different way from the book because I found Bowles' ending too much like a tunnel with no exit. The weight of despair is too unbearable. In the book, Kit loses her identity, she's no more the person we knew. She doesn't know who she is; she disappears. You see these Arab faces on the streetcar, these faces and eyes that go toward the end of the line. Those are the book's last words: `the end of the line.' I think the movie couldn't stand this mountain of despair which, in literature, is more acceptable.
"What interests me in The Sheltering Sky is not where the story goes but what it is and what it does on the way. It's about the mystery in the characters and the couple" – Bertolucci whispers the word like the wind – "the mystery of their chemistry. The interesting thing is the mystery itself, not its solution or resolution."
So the poet of the unknowable rides again, astride his Steadicamel, into the cinema's biggest multimillion-dollar existential sunset.
Meanwhile, the sun is setting over London. I have one more by-the-way question for Bertolucci. "Tea in the Sahara" is the title of the novel's long first section and the translated title of the novel itself in France (Thé au Sahara). It's perhaps the crystalline image of the book: the surreal spectacle of an intruding Western civilization trying to blend in with the North African world. Will it be an image or motif in the movie?
Bertolucci interrupts me. His eyes light up. "Ah, yes! `Tea in the Sahara.' Do you know there is a famous song by Sting on the album Synchronicity? He sang it when he was with the Police. It has the line, `Tea in the Sahara with you ... under a sheltering sky.' I think it was recorded in '82, '83."
I didn't know. Is Bertolucci using the song in the film?
"No. But I can sing it."
OK, I'll book a recording studio. And never mind my question. The answer was more interesting.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE DECEMBER 1990 ISSUE OF AMERICAN FILM.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING
INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.