How many minutes to an informed opinion?
by Nandia Foteini Vlachou
I’ve often wondered how much time one has to dedicate to a painting, a book, a movie, an event of sorts, before s/he has the right to form an opinion about it. As Clint Eastwood famously once observed (in the guise of Harry Callahan), opinions are like assholes. Everyone has one. I have a friend who feels obliged to finish a book she has started, even if she does not like it. I have never felt similarly inclined. I have been very selfish in this respect, believing that my time was too precious to waste on something that was not good enough (or capable of capturing my attention, for whatever reason).
But exactly how many minutes one has to wait before they can switch the television off or walk out of the movie theater? In my life, I have only walked out of three movies, and I could not tell you that any of them were bad movies (I’m sure one of them is a masterpiece): Boogie Nights (1997), by Paul Thomas Anderson; The Thin Red Line (1998), by Terrence Malick; and Ma nuit chez Maud (1969), by Eric Rohmer (in the chronological order I have seen them, and I suspect I was growing a bit fidgety in the late 90s, since I saw the first two movies when they came out).
I was reminded of this the other day, when I caught Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty (1996 – again, the 90s…) on television. I have never been a Bertolucci admirer – I appreciated the Last Tango, never got around to watching his first masterpieces Il conformista and Strategia del ragno (both in 1970), did not warm up to Novecento (1976), considered The Last Emperor (1987) an extremely elaborate and overrated historical fiction, and always reserved a special place in my heart for the wildly uneven The Sheltering Sky (1990), the music of which I have loved passionately. I meant to watch Stealing Beauty when it came out, chiefly because it took place in Tuscany (I’m obsessed with Tuscany), and because at the time I was also obsessed with Jeremy Irons (The Mission, Dead Ringers, Reversal of Fortune, Damage, M. Butterfly, House of Spirits, even Die Hard: With a Vengeance and Lolita). But I had never managed to see it. So, I sat down to watch it, although it was already past midnight.
I was appalled from the opening minutes. In a sequence shot with a hand-held camera, in a mock-amateur style, the viewer-director observes the main character (portrayed by a youthful Liv Tyler) while traveling on a plane, and then train, on her way to Italy. Pink socks establish how girly she is, and frumpy clothes that she is not particularly interested in how she looks, although we’re supposed to believe that she’s stunningly beautiful. The most disturbing part of this short, peeping Tom voyeuristic homemade video, is a scene where the man who shoots it (and you know it’s a man before he reveals his identity and willingly hands over the ‘evidence’ to his unaware ‘victim’) is watching Liv Tyler, eyes closed, drool running down her cheek in deep slumber, and hand laying dangerously close to her crotch where the shot purposefully lingers. It’s preposterous, it’s offending, and it sets the tone for the entire movie – well, not exactly the entire movie, because I don’t think I made it past the 30 or 40 minute mark. It was more out of curiosity that I continued that long, because I could have turned it off after those first five minutes or so and still be content that I was making the right choice.
Stealing Beauty is a movie made by an unapologetic voyeur, disguised as a coming-of-age story of a terribly shallow, uninteresting and talentless creature. If Bertolucci had chosen an actress that managed to convey at least some semblance of interior life, of emotions stirring beneath the surface, perhaps the entire movie would not strike the viewer as something made solely for the pleasure of its leering director (and like-minded viewers?). As it is, Bertolucci has directed an extended video clip, that is as pretentious as it is vapid and cliché ridden: well-to-do, upper middle class representatives idling away their existence in the Italian countryside; bohemian artists; a dying writer (smitten with the heroine, for some unaccountable reason, and informing her that she’s in need of a ‘ravisher’ – no, seriously, that’s a line he actually uses in the film); and a young girl writing atrocious poetry, trying to find herself and lose her virginity – oh, the irony…-, while her dead mother is frequently referred to as a ‘poetess’ (as pretentious and ridiculous a characterization as ever).
I can’t remember the last time I was so annoyed, even offended, by something I saw. But mostly, I wondered: could I write about this film, if I didn’t watch it till the end? And what does it take to make one an ‘informed’ viewer? I was not going to wait to find out. I decided that I can resort to the authorial fiction that my opinion carries enough weight to be able to go on-line and say: this is a terrible, terrible movie. I don’t care one bit that I haven’t watched it till the end. I’m glad I didn’t have to waste another second on it. But I have to hand it to Bertolucci for the title – he is bold enough to admit upfront that he intends to visually appropriate the protagonist’s youth and beauty. Since he cannot get what he wants, he’ll settle for beauty. Verdict? Avoid at all costs.