Bernardo Bertolucci, Nicolas Roeg, Ricky Jay and the Problem With Obituaries

What the deaths of Bernardo Bertolucci, Nicolas Roeg and Ricky Jay reveal about the 'obituary version' of a person.

Bernardo Bertolucci, Nicolas Roeg and Ricky Jay.
From left to right: Bernardo Bertolucci, Nicolas Roeg and Ricky Jay. Kaitlyn Flannagan for Observer

When Stan Lee passed away earlier this month, the world responded with an outpouring of genuine kindness. In this case, the grandfather of superhero-dom, the legend who helped create our modern mythos, had passed away at a ripe old age and at the odd peak of his celebrity. But I was also caught off guard by the lack of complexity in that outpouring—how people seemed to have bought into the idea that he created all of Marvel himself, as if he wasn’t the showman who was largely selling the work of his creative partners like Jack Kirby.

But perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. Not just because of Lee’s inherent likability and emotional impact on people, but because loss so often leads to lionization. Maybe we simply wish to speak well of those who have brought us happiness. But that also leads us to a lot of overt simplification. And I worry because I can’t help but feel the “obituary version” of people is what gets remembered far more than the complex stories that shaped their mythos. Especially when it comes to the ugly parts of those stories.

Which brings us to the passing of Bernardo Bertolucci.

For a long time, the story of Bertolucci was that he was one of our great international filmmakers. And while you could point to a host of works like the meditative epic The Last Emperor, he was best known as the taboo-breaking artist who frequently explored sexuality, particularly with his career defining film Last Tango in Paris. The word I keep seeing pop up again and again in describing his art is “transgressive.” But for a long time that term was only used to describe the art itself. Late in his life, the narrative changed. While Maria Schneider, Last Tango’s star, had always alluded to her poor treatment, in 2007 she spoke directly about having felt violated on set. Then Bertolucci himself admitted in an interview in 2013 that the filming of the infamous butter scene was non-consensual and carried out without her prior knowledge.

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But even then it was years before the story finally gained traction on Twitter and in the news. And when it did, the public response was a deeply necessary and long overdue reaction to something that had always been excused. It seemed like a moment of evidence that the hard-won fights had changed societal attitudes and we were finally ready to call a duck a duck.

But when Bertolucci passed, many obituaries didn’t really get into it, let alone even mention it. Our utter inability to take the complexity of an issue and its much-needed context into consideration once again showed in these greatest hits–style obits. The story became part of that single word used to define his work: “transgressive.” But it deserves so many more words.

It would be far too easy to look back on what happened and shrug it off with “It was a different time.” That’s a cop-out; women have been slamming these exact kinds of patriarchal hypocrisies and abuses for decades—even centuries. But where context does help is in understanding why sexually transgressive art like Bertolucci’s was held in such high regard in the first place.

Any discussion of Last Tango makes me think of the famous review by Pauline Kael, in which she states that “Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form,” before going on to explain the soul-rendering nature of the film’s emotional violence. She even prophetically taps into the grim reality of Schnieder’s horrible situation by saying that “Realism with the terror of actual experience still alive on the screen—that’s what Bertolucci and Brando achieve.” The artistic transgression and the real life transgression are intertwined and inexorable. It’s as ugly as the statement being made.

It reminded me of a conversation I had long ago with my stepmom about how much I loathed the self-obsessed sexism of John Updike. And then she, who spent the ‘60s knee-deep in both literature and the feminist movement, said, “but you’ve got to understand, no one was writing about that stuff.” She explained how much of it was made to puncture the whole veneer of ‘50s suburbanism and the popular, vapid notions of sexual plasticity. And so it all became part of the ‘60s sexual revolution and norm-upending films like 1969’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. But please understand this contextualization has no aim of validating the work. For with hindsight, it is so easy to forget hypocritical nature of the sexual revolution itself.

One of the many reasons I love Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This podcast is precisely because it spends so much time unpacking the hypocrisy of the sexual revolution, using behind-the-scenes stories of famous icons, less-remembered actresses and even Manson girls to show just how much of it wasn’t about liberation, but rather men controlling women and their sexuality. This context matters precisely because it is meant to be learned from, especially in an age where so many people are expressing their exhaustion for the over-praising of “complicated” genius men who have trafficked in the transgressive. Which is true not just when it comes to real life transgressions, but when it even rests in the art itself.

Which brings us to the passing of Nicolas Roeg.

In truth, I always think of Roeg in tandem with Michael Powell, because they were both British directors who had the most amazing, voyeuristic visual eye. Roeg in particular. His fascination with shattering narratives gave him the ability to craft near-hypnotic films. It was evident right from the start with the outback epic Walkabout and in the lovely, lurid insanity of the David Bowie collaboration The Man Who Fell To Earth. Heck, I’ll even go to bat for his adaptation of The Witches.

But Roeg is yet another figure who came to be mostly defined by his art that dealt with “sexual transgression,” both with the infamous sex scene in Don’t Look Now and the less talked about Bad Timing, which explored the darker side of Art Garfunkel (you read that correctly). I could write endlessly about the complexity of these films and how they craft messages that get to the ugly heart of masculinity, from its possessiveness to its inability to process necessary emotions.

But upon Roeg’s death, and particularly in conjunction with Bertolucci’s passing, I can’t help but feel like any reverence for the sexually transgressive work of the ‘60s and ‘70s needs that same critical contextualization, especially in the age of lionization. We need to understand that it’s time for these ugly tropes to die along with them. For it’s not that society isn’t interested in sexually transgressive work, it’s just that we want it from other voices who are usually the ones being victimized in such transgression. All so that we can get at the ideas that don’t play into the lionization of older white men who are actually just backing up many of the same heteronormative issues they’re supposedly criticizing or transgressing.

Besides, there are so many other things I’d rather discuss about Roeg, from the symbolic criticisms of colonialism in Walkabout to the terrorizing depiction of grief in Don’t Look Now. But we live in a world where the biggest talking point of Roeg’s career is the question of whether or not Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie were actually having sex in that graphic scene. You’ll hear endless conflicting anecdotes from people who swear they were there or heard from so and so, which has just served to build it up into Hollywood lore, or at worst, lurid gossip. On one hand, it could be a sad reminder that the biggest part of Roeg’s legacy is going to be focused on a salacious, unknowable moment. But perhaps fixating on what is unknowable is the more “correct” way to approach obituaries in the first place.

Which brings us to the passing of Ricky Jay.

This one hit me hard. Not only because Ricky Jay was still working, but because he was still at the top of his game. I can’t help but feel this deep pang of regret that I never got to see him perform live. Why so much regret? Well, it would feel insulting to merely refer to Jay as a “slight of hand magician” because he took that concept to absurd, brain-bending heights. Look no further than this incredible New Yorker profile extolling his brilliant philosophy and low-key approach, which was exactly what made him feel like one of the only illusionists who was all substance and no bullshit. But it didn’t come from nowhere. He had the deepest knowledge of magic’s history and the deepest reverence for the craft. Jay was a full “bibliomaniac” and the very definition of the eternal student. And yet he somehow existed at the junction of the Venn diagram where he was both a “magician’s magician” and yet famous (thanks in part to his on-screen collaborations with David Mamet and Paul Thomas Anderson).

But trying to summarize his life feels futile because he actually kept most of the details of it under wraps. If you read that profile, it feels like a mix of him trying not to relive a lot of very real pain while simultaneously embracing the idea of “print the legend.” Which is perhaps apt for an illusionist who had such blatant adoration for the grifters, con men and the best forgotten magicians in history.

There’s an allure to becoming this kind of figure, but I also can’t help but think about my own relationship with the reality of that idea. The way it often comes with great cost because grifting sure seems romantic, but the result most definitely isn’t. Which really just shows us that the allure of magic versus conning is that the audience has to be willing participants.

Besides, Ricky Jay doesn’t really have a story. His story exists in the hundreds of anecdotes that built his legend. Not just in the number of times he pulled an amazing trick on a deeply-suspecting person. But I think about his endless talk show appearances that capitalized on his unflappable, solemn demeanor that would get punctuated by his wry smile. Just as I think about the hilarious “nevertheless” story that Paul Thomas Anderson relayed on the WTF podcast. Just I think about how Ricky Jay’s life forms an endless series of moments that make for a wonderful night of going down a YouTube rabbit hole. His life is measured in these lovely, small contributions.

And when I think about his simple contribution to mine, I think about how he gave me a dumb quote I happen to say all the time. There’s this great moment in Boogie Nights where they are editing their first action-laden exploitation film and Ricky Jay turns to Burt Reynolds and with the most earnest, plain-faced, factual delivery tells him, “It’s a real movie, Jack.” They had somehow transcended the bounds of being mere pornographers and become storytellers. And since then, it’s become this weird quote I say whenever I read or view a collaborator’s work that really transcends into something special. It’s a real movie, Jack. Which is also the best thing I can say about Ricky Jay himself. For he is the only magician I am convinced was doing actual magic.

Which brings us to why obituaries are so hard.

It’s so easy to lionize. Just as it’s so easy to look at life and imagine the person who has passed as a collection of facts, accomplishments and greatest hits. But it can’t help but feel odd. In the rush of publishing, we have to remember that obituaries are actually the most important time to slow down. To remember that mourning can be exploratory or meditative. To remember for someone out there, this figure’s passing will probably be the first time they even hear of this person. For others, this loss will hit just like in real life: the closer we are to feeling like we knew the person, the more it feels like actual grief. Which means we have to take stock of the physical and mental effects of that loss, especially because it only gets harder with time. When you’re young, someone dies and their legend is an abstraction to you. But when you get older, you know more of them. You feel like you’ve lived with these figures and seen their rise and sometimes their fall—their best and worst moments. You understand the totality of them, and that means you hopefully understand their larger humanity.

Which is why we always have to be careful with the way we tell their stories. I mentioned loving it before, but perhaps the biggest reason I love You Must Remember This is that it de-obits the legends of Hollywood and places them in some much-needed context. It humanizes them. And in turn, it reminds me that I can’t write about Bertolucci without trying to unpack the problems and victories of the sexual revolution itself. Just as I can’t write about Roeg without acknowledging the heartbreaking irony of how we fixate on that one particular sex scene. Just I can’t write about Jay without understanding that I can’t really understand Jay at all.

It also reminds me all obits are personal. These are human beings with the same wants, needs, problems, flaws and joys as most of us. It reminds me that obituaries are ultimately the art of reflection, and so it’s perhaps important to take those legacies and constantly use them for self-examination and discovery. Because in the end, what we’re talking about is essentially an invitation to understand a greater context. And when people pass on…

We have to ask what we want to pass on along with them.

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