Classic Cinema Revisited: The Conformist

The Conformist/Il Conformista (1970)
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
Paramount, 111 minutes, Italian with subtitles

In my latest version of classics reconsidered, let’s take a look at Bertolucci’s The Conformist. Bertolucci makes any serious film buff’s list of influential auteurs. His directorial credits include The Last Tango in Paris (1972), The Last Emperor (1987), The Sheltering Sky (1990), and Stealing Beauty (1996). He began his career in 1962 and attracted some notice, but The Conformist made him into an internationally acclaimed figure.

As is occasionally the case with “breakthrough” films, The Conformist hasn’t weathered well. That’s especially the case if you don’t know its context. The film is based on a 1951 novel by Alberto Moravia, written just 6 years after the execution of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. You’d never know this from Fox News commentators railing about socialism, but it has always been the political right that has been more prone to forced conformity, the suppression of individualism, and police state tactics. Until the 1960s, writers and social commentators such as Sloan Wilson, C. Wright Mills, David Riesman, William Whyte, and President Dwight Eisenhower fretted about the decline of creativity, the emergence of rubber-stamp yes men, the rise of a junta-like military-industrial complex, and the squashing of individualism. Think Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

Bertolucci’s The Conformist centers on Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a veritable fascist version of Miller's Willy Loman. The film opens in 1937 and closes in 1943, just days after Mussolini was deposed and jailed. (He faced the firing squad on April 28, 1945.) Clerici desires to be a player, which in 1937 meant becoming a fascist and attracting the eye of a political patron. It also meant taking care of the proper social details such as taking a wife and denouncing family and old friends with leftward leanings. Clerici thus pursues the air-headed Giula (Stefania Sandrelli) out of a desire to be properly wed, not because he even likes her. He also drifts into fascist circles and is called upon to plot the assassination of Luca Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), a socialist professor he once admired. Along the way he also pursues Quadri’s beautiful and younger wife, Anna (Dominique Sanda).  In many ways, the film is about the rise and fall of a once-decent man. By the end, it’s a once-an-informant-always-a-lying-rat tale. After Mussolini’s fall, Clerici–now the father of a son–denounces two former friends as fascists to save his own hide. Thus a subtheme of the film is the latent fascist leanings of the middle class. Still another is the Catholic Church’s not-so-secret cooperation with fascist movements and the clerical role in suppressing non-conformity.

I includes these spoilers because the film is hard to follow for most modern viewers. Bertolucci doesn’t explain much because he assumed that his 1970 audiences would be aware of the deeper historical context. The fact that his narrative is built around rather stilted flashback sequences doesn’t help much. Toss in a little Freudianism that emerges from an attempt of an older man to seduce him as a child and much of the film jumps at us from an era whose values now seem antiquated and unfamiliar. Indeed, were I not of a certain age and a historian who has studied the things I mentioned, I would have been hard-pressed to explain why this film felt important 49 years ago.

Bertolucci shot the film in color, though its tones could be black and white. This certainly enhanced the shadowy machinations Bertolucci wished to emphasize. It was also effective in implying the sterility and latent authoritarian impulses upon which bourgeois life rests. Find the right shade and it hides sin, vulgarity, and betrayal.

Should you see The Conformist? It depends upon your purpose. It’s on the must-see list for those interested in film studies, though one might now see it as an example of how much filmmaking has advanced since Bertolucci made the film.  You can also infer how today's impressionistic and episodic storytelling owes a debt to Bertolucci. He certainly trusted that his audience was smart enough to fill in the gaps, a welcome respite from much of the mall movie dreck in which the obvious is bludgeoned so that even an illiterate can follow the story. Those looking for something thoughtless, generic, or heart thumping should steer clear. After all, Bertolucci sought to skewer conformity, not reinforce it. Overall, though, seeing The Conformist now is analogous to opening a bottle of vintage wine only to find it corked and soured.

Rob Weir


College Should NOT Be Intellectually Safe

Et Tu, Williams?

The academic year is over, but I'm still troubled by what happened at Williams College last spring. (See insidehighered.com "Free Speech Meltdown" 4/23/19). Tensions often rise on campuses as finals approach, but in Williams' case a student group rallied to challenge white professors to "acknowledge their privilege."

There are two aspects of the drama I can't shake. The first is the Kafkaesque absurdity of Williams students criticizing anybody's privilege. There's a well-traveled quip that goes: "Snooty little Williams College. If you can't get in there, try Harvard." Is that harsh? Not really. It's either the first- or second-ranked liberal arts school in the country each year and its acceptance rate is just 15 percent. No matter how students arrive–superior achievement, affirmative action, legacy admission—they are the privileged, be they white, black, yellow, brown, or green with purple polka dots. They are privileged even if they don't come from money and must take on debt to be there.

I don't deny anyone's rocky path to college. In the 1970s I was a member of the working-class poor with dreams of upward mobility. I'll spare you sob stories of a childhood on the economic margin, but I will say that that I was quite aware that being in college made me privileged. There is a world of difference between assuming student loans and borrowing money to pay the rent. Anytime I forgot my privilege, I heard an earful from neighbors, factory workers with whom I worked during the summer, and my father. They often informed me in language that would deeply distress delicate members of today's campuses.

The shifting definition of "distress" is what really bothers me. Williams, Yale, and numerous other colleges across the country have been beset by demands that colleges should be a "safe environment." If we mean "safe" physically, I concur. But if we mean intellectually, culturally, or morally "safe," I vigorously dissent. In 2014, the University of Chicago adopted recommendations outlined in its "Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression." The gist is that the university rejected coddling, political correctness, and forced conformity of any sort. 

To my ears, what the U of C did in 2014 was what was routinely practiced during my undergrad days in the 1970s. I didn't need trigger warnings to alert me which professors were nasty or nice. That I could figure out! What was harder was sorting out which of my values needed clarification, not affirmation. Like many 18-year-olds, I entered college with a messy pastiche of developing notions, internalized but unexamined ideas, and half-baked views I latched onto. I supported the civil rights movement, but "superficial" would be the proper adjective to describe my level of understanding. In retrospect, my sole well-considered progressive position was that I was firmly against the Vietnam War. On the flip side, I entered college assuming patriarchy was normal, that homosexuality was sinful, that "foreigners" were inferior to Americans, and that all non-Protestants were bound for hell (though I didn't know any Jews, Catholics, Muslims, or persons of other creeds).

College shattered my preconceptions, but through discourse not indoctrination. If I could resurrect a single word from my college days, it would be "analysis," as both conservative and New Left scholars dubbed it. I was jolted by "See Me" note scrawled across my first history paper. My professor dubbed my paper "merely adequate," though he detected "promise" in several passages. He advised in no uncertain terms that he expected me to write and analyze in ways consonant with college-level thinking, or pack up and go home. This expectation persisted across campus among both professors and serious students. Expressed opinion was routinely met with the challenge, "What's your analysis?" By the time I graduated, all that was left of the person who entered was that I still thought the civil rights movement was correct and the Vietnam War was wrong–and I had an analysis for each. 

In other words, college made me feel "unsafe." What could be more unsettling than having to dismantle and rebuild one's values system? Later I found there was a term for the pedagogy my profs were using: Socratic irony–asking questions and feigning ignorance as a way of making others expose the illogic of their own points of view.  Those in or recently retired from academia can attest that these days a professor who forcefully challenges students risks being called out for making them feel unsafe.

Think I'm exaggerating? I got into a mild kerfuffle just for having students see the "N-word" in print. Call me crazy, but I'm not sure how one can teach a course on the American Civil War without exposing students to racist writings from slavery apologists. In a different class, two students (out of 30) complained about a single offhand remark I made. During a discussion I made an unintentional rhyme and joked that maybe I was ready for a career in hip-hop. My quip was obviously self-deprecating humor, yet two white students–there were no African Americans in the class–complained it was racist. (For the record, 80 percent of white music consumers listen to hip-hop and the genre has many white artists.)

Too many colleges and universities have abandoned dialectics in favor of consumer-based and therapeutic models of higher education. Many have become echo chambers for whatever the cause du jour might be; others are soccer balls kicked by both liberal and hard-shell right agenda-wielders. As for dialogue, I was horrified to see Williams students carrying signs emblazoned with the claim, "Free Speech Harms." Good grief!

Contrast that nonsense with what happened when Camille Paglia spoke at Smith in 1992. Her lecture shtick was a mix of scholarship and provocation. Smith didn't welcome her with open arms, but it did pack the auditorium to hear what she had to say. Paglia punctuated her talk with lots of words you can't say any more and many students were outraged by her act. But hats off to Paglia for making them work on their analyses. You can imagine the post-lecture discussion in my class. Or maybe you can't; she'd have trouble getting a lectern these days.

Wither the spirit of open inquiry? Noam Chomsky observed, “Goebbels was in favor of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favor of free speech, then you’re in favor of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favor of free speech.” He's right; free inquiry often deeply unsettles. As the University of Chicago put it, "… concerns about civility and mutual respect [should] never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable these ideas may be to some members of our community." Enough with safe echo chamber colleges. Without opposing viewpoints there is no credible analysis.

Rob Weir




Fashion Nonsense: A Satire

High fashion: 17th century style

A few days ago I saw a woman walking downtown wearing yoga pants and Crocs. That’s not unusual, but it was pretty obvious that this person has never assumed the Lotus position and wasn’t on her way to do some gardening.

There’s often a big gap between “fashion” and what’s merely “fashionable.” I marvel over the basic contradiction in North American society between individualism and the desire to look like everyone else. Do fashion and commonsense even know each other?  

It’s not like this is new. Check out pix of Baroque era men mincing about in powdered wigs, dotting their pancaked faces with fake moles, tottering in their architectural shoes, and wearing garish clothing that made them look like mutant tropical birds. (See above) Watch some old movies where all the men wore hats, ties, and worsted wool suits–even in summer. (Remarkably they never seemed to sweat.)

Full confession: I too have sinned. In the late 1960s I grew my hair long, wore a bandana headband, had several blousy flowered shirts, strings of love beads, and bell-bottoms so wide my legs disappeared. I also had a fringed leather vest and moccasins, but envied my buddy Mike who had an entire fringed ensemble. Whenever Mike moved, he was out of focus.  If he had but carried a long rifle, he could have been Buffalo Bill’s body double. In the ‘70s I briefly had a particularly ugly pair of 3-inch stack-heeled shoes. Hey, when you’re only 5’5” those babies almost made me reach for an oxygen tank. Later on I owned a polyester leisure suit and I’m not proud about that.

Let’s not let our Canadian friends off the hook. In the 1980s I spent time in Montreal, where I observed that all the women were supposed to dress like they just walked off a Paris runway, whilst the men looked as if they just waded out of a Paramus swamp. When I visited last summer, the women still looked overdressed, but the men upgraded to looking like French existentialists too bored to notice their attire.

Cue current wicked dumb fashion:

1. Crocs are today’s jellies.
Please leave in garden with the dude below

Remember “jellies,” those molded plastic shoes lots of young women wore until they collectively said, “Damn! These are really uncomfortable, unspeakably dumb-looking, and make my feet smell like I bathed in raw sewage?” Crocs are just like that, only uglier.

2. Ripped jeans and rip-offs.
When I was a kid my mother patched the holes of my ripped jeans. She used old denim if available; if not, any material she had, as if the humiliation of the makeshift patches were intended to warn me not to tear them again. She would have grounded me had I asked to spend $100 on jeans that look as if weasels shredded them. She had a word for such garments: rags.

Ladies: When buying a handbag or a pair of nosebleed heels, never spend a sum that is greater than your college debt.

3. Tattoos

Yeah, I know scarification is an old art form. It used to be, though, that mostly Maori, U.S. Navy veterans, and sideshow freaks had tats. Now scores of people you barely know will brazenly pull up their shirts or push down their trou to display their ink. Ironically, much of it is on parts of their bodies they can’t even see.

4. Boxer shorts underwear.

I guess that’s because you just never know when you’ll be called upon to spar a few rounds.

5. Mullet dresses.

Can we just agree that any and all forms of the mullet are a really bad idea–even for a tooth-challenged hockey player?

6. Shorts that aren’t and other spatial distortions.

Ummm… aren’t long shorts an oxymoron? Is the point of them to make it appear as if your waist is connected directly to your ankles? A female corollary would be Uggs and short skirts. One's hemline should always be longer than the height of the footwear.

7. Twenty going on fifty fashions.

What’s up with gear like nerd glasses, pork pie hats, nouveau poodle skirts, retro mod, the calico renaissance, the return of Butterick patterns, and patterned shirts so ugly a drunken Scotsman wouldn’t wear them? To my young friends in your 20s: You really don’t want to hasten the process of what you’ll look like when you’re 50!

8. Rhinestone cowboys.

If you’ve never ridden the range or been closer to a cow than a milk carton, don’t wear cowboy hats or boots.

9. Geographically inappropriate clothing.

An acrylic sweater in New England is like a bikini in Greenland. If you wear pastels up this way, though, people will want to know why you look a Florida verandah. The flip side is that no one south of the Mason-Dixon needs a pair of Bean boots. Other geographic misfits include white suburbanites dressing like Mexican campesinos, Andean llama herders, or Jamaican Rastafarians. Don’t get me started on cos-play.

10.  Of yoga and sweat pants.

I get it that people are often in a hurry, so I’ll overlook the occasional transgression, but I still say you shouldn’t wear athletic wear unless you actually take yoga classes or work out.

Is this the part where I ask you why you’re considering sartorial advice from a guy who now thinks high fashion is a clean t-shirt?

Rob Weir