Forty-six years after its making I’m yet convinced that Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist is not only among the greatest films of the director’s career, but also one of the greatest films period.
No film speaks louder or more succinctly, in my estimation, about where we are, unsurprisingly, today.
Bertolucci began his career in revolt, lashing out at the injustices of capitalism and the blinding middle-class decadence he witnessed as a young man. The son of an affluent and highly regarded poet, he was born in Parma, Italy. As a young man, Bertolucci fell under the spell of family friend Pier Paolo Pasolini, who gave him his first job in cinema and became his mentor.
Bertolucci's first films dealt with an early personal conflict of values. Awakening to the struggle of the lower-classes, he sought a method of disowning the comfortable. To combat the emptiness of bourgeois conformity, he turned to Marxism in the 1960s. His second film, Before the Revolution, probed questions of political identity. How is the tension between individuality and forms of governance reconciled? How does one live a moral life within the framework of materialism and the uneven hand of fate? What choice has man between how he feels and what society expects?
They're age old questions, and every artist deals with them. In fact, they are among the major foci of great art. Answered or not, they reflect the artist's worldview—that is, their importance is judged on a scale by the artist, whose work is always metered by perceptions of "what it means."
The "it" can be everything or nothing and anything in between. It depends on what you mean by “it,” famously uttered Clinton the husband with an artist’s flourish (he was a sax man, recall, riffing).
Of course, one doesn't necessarily have to be an artist to deal with such questions. One need only be human and engaged with life. But artists are the messengers, and what they do interests me, so I keep my eye on them.
Bertolucci's early movies fit my style, and a few of them have sat near the top of my Top 25 list for years.
His movies speak to political evolution in the context of self-examination.
The Conformist, finished and distributed in 1970, gave the filmmaker international cachet. The story of how one man deals with 1930s fascism and his own broken psyche, the film's appeal rests in its recognition of an historical imperative—that individualism is in constant peril under the restraints of governance overly reliant on bureaucratic stridency and pettiness and the propensity of stakeholders to crush dissent in its many forms.
Bertolucci wasn’t condemning governance per say, but rather isolating and examining elements of totalitarianism as he understood them in both the historical record and everyday life.
If you've seen this film, you know its message is as pertinent today as it was in 1970, when aspects of fascism similar to Mussolini's in the thirties were once again infiltrating Western thought. The rise of neoliberalism and Cold War propaganda fit each other well and lingers as a new cold war beckons amid our many hot ones.
The Kent State Massacre, in 1970, is one obvious example of fascist suppression in the U.S. from that era. Like mindless conformists, members of the Ohio National Guard opened fire at a student demonstration, killing four innocent people.
Neil Young wrote and sang about it.
There are of course many other more recent examples from around the world, from the squelching of dissent in China to the fundamentalism of the Taliban, and more recently al Qaeda and the Islamic State, to elements of the Christian Right here in "the greatest country in the world." What they have in common is the ability to herd people into a niche that makes conformity expected and of paramount importance across a social spectrum. Holdouts are regarded as outlaws and are ultimately shunned by the conforming mass and its overlords.
Today, the American police state is teetering on the cliff of a totalitarian imperative as the tentacles of a law and order mentality and the surveillance state are ascendant, enmeshed and fitting.
Tomorrow's news will bring more evidence that the murderous conformist is still plying his trade, in the name of one ideology or another. The stifling of cultural differences in the U.S. has become a parlor game for a mainly white technocratic class in full blossom. Ask a black man in the line of fire.
Bertolucci's career took off after The Conformist appeared. He made the blockbuster, Last Tango in Paris, another mendacious breakthrough that probed its characters’ damaged psyches. The popularity of that film allowed him to make the five hour-long epic, 1900, his final exposition of his hoped-for utopianism. The film didn't sell well, crushing Bertolucci and causing him to rethink his ideals, which is unfortunate because it is my second favorite in his canon.
With The Last Emperor (1987), he moved into the mainstream and altered much of the political ideology he had so carefully manipulated as a young filmmaker.
Correspondingly, his movies became less interesting.
It may seem odd at first to couple the work of Sebastian Junger with Bertolucci while trying to comprehend the dimensions of conformity in these times.
Sebastian Junger, you may recall, is the author of The Perfect Storm, a gripping account of a fishing accident in the Outer Banks region of the Atlantic off the coast of New England. George Clooney starred in the movie, which wasn't too bad, but not nearly as riveting as the book.
I read his 2010 reportage, War, shortly after it appeared. The book wasn’t nearly as inspired as Storm, but it was a fascinating read nonetheless. For the purpose of this essay, let’s call War a book about conformity uncovered—that is it deals in part with what happens to warriors who belatedly discover that the fusillades of their imagination are real and not elements of a video game.
We could also call it a book about American imperial precepts flying out the window at inopportune times, conjuring the old question: What if they started a war and nobody came?
Junger spent a year embedded with a U.S. Army platoon in a Taliban-controlled segment of Afghanistan's Kunar Province near the Pakistan border, entering and leaving the region five times over the course of his 14-month embed.
Taliban fighters controlled a thirty-six square mile swath in the southern area of the province, in the Korengal Valley.
The valley is a tight area of villages hugging the Korengal River, which confluences with the Pech River to the north. The stretch of road from the Pech River to a series of U.S. outposts situated at the lower end of the valley was then in the heart of Taliban fighters' turf. At the time of Junger’s reportage it was considered the most dangerous road in the country. A majority of U.S. casualties in the Afghanistan War were occurring in the Korengal Valley when Junger embedded with the troops in 2008. He describes in detail what happened there over a harrowing year.
War correspondents are usually nuts, and Junger was no different at the time. (He has since sworn off reporting from war zones.) He got caught in firefights, had a Humvee blown out from under him, and fell in love with the Army grunts he wrote about. Like the soldiers under his reporter's gaze, he lost interest in the politics of America's war and turned survivalist to cope.
Junger notes that grunts in the main are unconcerned with moral questions. There are no moral questions when someone is shooting at you. Reading War, one is struck by how all the memoirs and reportage of war correspondents are usually so similar. (Michael Herr’s Dispatches, his Vietnam reportage, was different, more a reliable hallucination about surviving the shit and less gung-ho than most.) Inevitably, the writer falls in love with the troops, drops attempts to question the war's meaning on any level that hasn't a warrior's slant, and tells a gripping story.
In other words, you've read this book before.
The usual suspects show up in the narrative. Only their names and home towns have changed. The crusty old-timer reappears, along with the cherries new to the killing business. The rough but brilliant sergeant is in the hooch next to the frightened and inexperienced young officer. The types are ready-made for a movie set. (In fact, Junger and his photographer, Tim Hetherington, documented their experiences and made Restrepo, a digital video of the action. Hetherington later died in Libya, a reporter in the wrong place when the mortars fell.)
In War, commanders are asses more concerned with dress codes than strategy. The soldiers are quick with their bios and tell Junger things like: it was either the Army or jail; the Army or a dead-end job in a Subway sandwich shop; the Army or boredom.
In rare cases there is patriotism, or rather something like it at first which quickly ebbs.
This book doesn't reach the plateau of the best books about war, but it is serviceable, particularly in the way the author draws the terrain of Afghanistan and Korengal Valley, as well as the personalities of the kids who travel into harm’s way in support of America’s military.
I am reminded yet again about the vagaries of conformity.
Waiting for a train one morning on 5th Avenue, I fell into conversation with a fellow going to his job at the central library in Portland.
He told me how he secured his job, which I won't get into; suffice to say it was not through what might be considered normal or old-fashioned channels.
You see, he was a contract laborer, a temp in economically tempestuous times. Our conversation turned to wages and how the American economy has been stymied by stagflation, the reality we love to hate, which is a terrible problem for a vast segment of low-income workers in the U.S. and has been for years—well, since the U.S. government and the masters of the universe, the corporatists, conspired to give us our present economic model.
Naturally enough, the conversation turned to the day the free-fall of real wages for workers started, which we agreed was the day Ronald Reagan became president and over the next eight years when the effects of Reaganomics took hold and dug in. I mean, this fellow and I, about the same age, were in sync.
We commiserated some more, recalling that when the bad actor-turned president died, a vast outpouring of sentimentality seized the nation, perpetuated by the contrived sentimentality of big-assed corporate media.
My new friend was quick with it, knew the score, had been around the block a few times, had read the news, was in tune, had been there and done that, had been a witness to history, had felt the hard hand-slap of fate, was down with it, was as clear as the Oregon sky on a rare good day, was hip and knowing, etc.
He said, "Because Americans are stupid."
That was the correct answer, exactly what I wanted to hear! And this was a stranger, honest to God, not some crony in the street, or a planted co-conspirator of mine tempting passers-by to berate us.
This was an honest-to-God citizen of Portland, a beautiful character, a truth-teller.
Then, being brilliant but perhaps lacking a few synapses like the rest of us aging folk, he said Reagan always reminded him of Peter Sellers in that movie...what was it called...you know…Sellers plays this...
In his view, Ronald Reagan was Chauncey Gardiner in Being There, the Jerzy Kosinski satire about an ignoramus thought to be a sage.
Indeed, perhaps Kosinski was inspired by Ronnie…
The train rolled to a stop in front of me and this brilliant man I'd come to know so well after only five minutes. We got on, certain we had solved one of the great mysteries of life, and went our separate ways.
It was then, too late as I rode to my next appointment with reality that I thought of something else, something I would have liked to mention.
I was thinking about Terry Southern, who had the balls to tell Stanley Kubrick that Dr. Strangelove was a comedy and not the oh-so-serious anti-nuclear muckraking political tract Kubrick believed he'd conceived.
Kubrick listened and a classic was born. It was again—this man was a bona fide genius if one ever lived—Peter Sellers who turned Kubrick on to The Magic Christian (Southern's masterpiece about human greed and conformity), and the book opened the director's mind to the possibility that Southern just might be a special kind of thinker. Plus, face it, if you were Kubrick and Sellers was telling you something, you were going to take it seriously.
Southern knew what kind of film Kubrick was, without knowing it, actually making, because the novelist was intimately connected with the absurd. Southern understood plenty about comedy and its role in blowing apart the dearest old myths of his nation. To Southern, nothing was as absurd as a nation willing to annihilate humanity to save humanity.
Take another myth, which Southern obliterates in The Magic Christian, surely one of the top ten funniest fictions ever written by an American: The myth of the detached fiscal aesthete, the man who is above needing or wanting money.
Guy Grand, an eccentric billionaire (sounds familiar), has a wicked cruel streak and a desire to demonstrate how hypocritical people can be. He gives people money to illuminate that nothing is too debasing for an American to try if enough cash is offered in exchange. At one point Grand tosses 100K into a vat of shit and tells people to have at it if they want, and of course people jump into the vat to retrieve the money.
And that is just one of the many situations Southern created to demonstrate his discomfort with the American conformist.