Ink and Obsession: Remembering 1981’s Tattoo

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Ink and Obsession: Remembering 1981's Tattoo

A look back on the controversial and lurid erotic psycho-thriller Tattoo starring Bruce Dern

While re-watching Quentin Tarantino’s magnum 65mm, locked-door mystery/giallo/western/morality tale The Hateful Eight, I was once more struck by how damn good actor Bruce Dern is in that film. It’s a deceivingly simple performance, mainly because the then 78-year-old performer never leaves the chair in which he sits, from the first time we see him to the point in which he loses his miserable life at the barrel of Sam Jackson’s vengeful Smith & Wesson. But it’s perhaps the most layered turn in the picture; subtle and oddly dignified despite the fact that his character is a coward hiding behind racist, patriotic bravado and by the end, even somewhat sympathetic.

But that’s Dern. He’s one of Hollywood’s finest character actors and an artist who rarely gets the credit he’s due. Not a traditionally “good looking” man, Dern has his own thing going on; a pointed look, almost rat-like, and when he opts to play an unsavory character (as in H8, HBO’s Big Love, The Cowboys et al) he is a fiend without peer. And when he’s given the task to actually carry a film himself, the results are startling.

Take, for example, director Bob Brooks’ controversial 1981 psychosexual character piece Tattoo, a film that belongs to the experimentation of the 1970s, like all of the great, misunderstood American thrillers of the early ’80s (Cruising and Wolfen, I’m looking fondly at you). When the movie was released it was almost universally reviled, condemned for being vulgar, trashy, pointless and criminally misogynistic, the latter claim being an odd one as it was written by a woman, filmmaker Joyce Bunuel, the daughter-in-law of the father of cinematic surrealism, Luis Bunuel. Sure, on the surface, the concept of a man keeping a woman prisoner to be his “thing” might be seen as being politically incorrect, but it’s meant to be. It’s not a film in favor of its antagonist so much as it an allegory about the extremity of love, using the ancient art of inking skin as its fetishized hook. I’d call it a masterpiece, but I’m not sure it is. All I know is that its incredibly powerful, strange, sensual and bizarre, as it was meant to be. And I know that Dern, who is virtually ever scene, is mesmerizing in it; it’s the ultimate Bruce Dern experience.

In it, Dern plays Karl Kinsky (an obvious nod to dangerously eccentric German actor and performance artist Klaus Kinksi), a brilliant, humorless Hoboken-based tattoo artist who lives by an odd, dichotomous moral code.He is obsessed with Japanese culture and iconography and has latched onto a kind of Samurai-steeped sense of honor and chivalry. He also loves porn and frequently combs the underbelly of New York to find the greasiest jerk-off joints he can. And yet, don’t dare utter the “F-word” in his presence, or you’ll stir his mania. Because, though it takes some screen time to totally figure out, Kinksy is hopelessly insane. His mostly dormant madness wakes up fully when he’s hired by a glossy Hollywood agency in love with his work to paint nude models with his patented bizarre and beautiful dragons and Asian imagery. One of the models, the gorgeous Maddy (played by the immaculate Bond girl Maud Adams) strikes his fancy and he launches a quest to court the woman, who is so out of his league, it’s not funny. But this class divide is exactly what fascinates the high-rolling Maddy. She’s fascinated by this strange, troubled artist, by his rough edges and intensity and is flattered by his would-be “knight-in-shinning-Indian-ink” treatment of her. They begin a sort of uneasy friendship and quasi-courtship.

But when, after a night of Sushi and conversation, Maddy dares utter progressive feminist views and worse, starts to cuss, Kinsky loses his mind and asks the shocked woman to leave. She does. And then Kinsky totally loses it. The ensuing stalker dynamic echoes that of Tattoo’s closest sociopathic anti-hero cousin, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, a close shadow of the relationship De Niro has with pretty political groupie Cybill Shepherd. That same pretty, progressive girl relationship was also exemplified in William Lustig’s Maniac, released the previous year and I’m not sure if its a coincidence that Tattoo shares that film’s same fashion-centric device to hook that relationship. Could Bunuel have seen Maniac? It’s unlikely, but possible. The captive connection is also, of course kin to the Terrence Stamp/Samantha Eggar relationship in the classic thriller The Collector. And later, Jennifer Lynch’s Boxing Helena, which is another film made by a disciple of a great surrealist filmmaker.

Anyway, Kinsky begins phoning Maddy, begging to see her and generally scaring the wits out of her. He goes to his family’s coastal home and retrofits the abode as a prison/studio and kidnaps the model. His intent? To mark her. To make her taught skin the canvas to etch his masterpiece on. And he’ll do this. And she has no say in the matter.

It’s here where most audiences tune out of Tattoo and yet I think this is the very point in which the movie comes to life. Instead of raping the woman with his body, he assaults her with his needle. The sequence where he slowly prepares his gear to do this and the immediate moment he begins to draw on her flesh while she is in a drugged-stupor is disturbing and Brooks blasts histrionic violin string scrapes across the soundtrack to mirror Psycho‘s shower scene. And when Maddy wakes to find the first illustrations permanently on her skin, her outrage and terror and misery is deeply affecting. No, this is indeed a rape scene, the images left on the woman’s body akin to the psychological damage such an act irrevocably leaves on a victim.

But what got Tattoo into such hot water with disgusted audiences and critics was the fact that a semblance of a sensitive relationship continues in captivity, that Dern’s “Norman Bates with a Needle” fiend treats Maddy like an object of affection and worship despite her protests, that she eventually plays along with the scheme, that she eventually becomes aroused by his perversions and even begs him at one point to stop his kink and just make love to her like a man.

What is this daft film trying to say?

I do read Tattoo is a very dark, very ugly love story on one level, with the broken-minded Dern finding salvation of a sort through Maddy, who he imagines “needs” him. But the fascinating thing is that maybe she does need him. I don’t read Tattoo as a film that takes place in reality. It’s an art film, a dream, masquerading as mainstream studio film (in this case, a brave 20th Century Fox). Maddy is somewhat lost herself. In a loveless relationship, at odds with the world she is enmeshed in. In giving the monstrous Kinksi her time and attention, she wakes something up, something dangerous, maybe in both of them. The last 10 minutes of the picture, dissolve into the abstract, with a strange sex scene and a death and the final shot, with Maddy standing nude and inked like a warrior, is one of the most powerful and metaphorically potent shots I’ve ever seen. Like the model has been oddly empowered, transformed. Like this horror needed to happen to her for her to find out who and what she really is.

That’s socially irresponsible thinking of course. But who on earth said movies need to be socially responsible?

As Kinksy, Dern offers the best of what he can do, giving us a character who is in some respects, neither man nor monster, but a different species entirely. It’s an unforgettable performance matched by a strong, fearless turn by Adams who should have had a much healthier career as an actress. She’s remarkable. So is the movie.

Tattoo has never to my knowledge been released on DVD or Blu-ray. It’s a film that needs to be seen however, so I suggest you find it…somewhere, someplace. Find it.