TO hear filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci speak candidly is a privilege - especially when he's talking about the genesis of his epic movie ``The Last Emperor'' in a year when it has swept the Oscars. The occasion was the Bernardo Bertolucci Weekend held this spring in this idyllic northern California town. Film critics and scholars were among those who had gathered for symposiums exploring the literary, historical, metaphysical, mythical, archetypal, and psychoanalytical dimensions of the auteur director's achievements.
Only a handful of directors have produced a body of work that could withstand such intense scrutiny, pointed out Mark Fishkin, founder of the Mill Valley Film Festival, which co-sponsored the event with the Forum for the Psychoanalytic Study of Film and the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute.
One of the most fascinating portions of Bertolucci's talk, given the day before Oscar night in Los Angeles, was his recounting of how certain experiences of his inner and professional life conspired to engender ``The Last Emperor.''
Before ``The Last Emperor,'' Bertolucci had not enjoyed critical acclaim in the United States since 1972, when the startling ``Last Tango in Paris'' appeared. His ``1900'' (1977) had only a cool reception, and the following two films, ``Luna'' (1979) and ``Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man'' (1982), were ``disasters'' in this country, as he put it. But it was another misfortune that proved to be the catalyst for his epic.
The 47-year-old director told of having been in Hollywood doing pre-production work on a film adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's ``Red Harvest,'' which was to star Jack Nicholson. It was a project he ``had always wanted to do.'' Two full years had been devoted to writing it; casting was complete. Then, ``somebody pulled the plug,'' as Bertolucci described it, ``and the film was canceled.''
In the aftermath of this ``very bad experience,'' he sought out a culture as removed as one can imagine from Hollywood's materialism and chilling competitiveness.
``I wanted to go away,'' Bertolucci told the audience of 150 cin'eastes. ``I couldn't think of a place farther away than China.''
When he arrived there, his mood was one of bitterness over his aborted project and disillusionment about the prospects of financing and making movies in the West.
In his suitcase were two books. One was Andr'e Malraux's ``Man's Fate,'' a novel set in Shanghai in the '20s. He proposed to the Chinese government the making of a film version of the novel, but his wish was rejected.
As a rebound, he pulled out a second book, ``From Emperor to Citizen'' - the autobiography of Pu Yi, the last emperor of imperial China and a man who survived the tumult of 20th-century Chinese politics in a strangely noble way. This time, the government accepted Bertolucci's proposal for an adaptation. The rest, as they say, is history.
And, indeed, history was made at the Academy Awards in April, as Bertolucci and his international collaborators captured nine Oscars, including best film, best director, and best cinematography - more than any film has received for a quarter of a century.
In his engagingly gentle manner, Bertolucci told his personal tale of frustration and dashed hopes that were turned around to emerge as a commitment to an awesome creative project - a $25 million film involving a vast number of Chinese, Italian, American, and British professionals, as well as more than 19,000 Chinese citizens as extras.
``My agents, my lawyers - they were all shaking their heads, telling me it was an impossible project, with no future,'' he recalls.
By any standards, it was an extraordinary feat to persuade the Chinese government to permit filming inside what he describes as ``that incredible backlot called the Forbidden City,'' the elaborate network of palaces where Pu Yi grew to manhood. It was also the first Western feature about China to be shot on location with the full cooperation of the Chinese government.
The director told the audience that, to his great relief, the Chinese did not impose any obstacles to filming until the very end - a scene in which Pu Yi serenely walks the streets of Peking as a common gardener, confronting his nation in the throes of the Cultural Revolution. At this point, the authorities insisted the Maoist slogans, plastered on walls, be covered up each evening after the film crews left so that the population would not have to see traumatic reminders of that dreadful era.
A prime quality distinguishing ``The Last Emperor'' from other cinematic epics is its lack of an epic hero, an insight offered by one of the panelists, T.Jefferson Kline, author of ``Bertolucci's Dream Loom.'' Bertolucci concurred: ``Pu Yi is the opposite of a Western kind of hero. He's not a great leader.'' To focus on the complexity of the man - malleable, resilient, aloof, and tender - Bertolucci says, ``I took out the big scenes with battles and wars. I wanted to look through the eyes of one man.''
Bertolucci listened intently to the intricate webs of interpretation spun by the panelists: their discussion of Freudian symbolism and Jungian archetypes in ``The Last Emperor,'' the use of the draperies and veils, the film's recurrent motifs of growth and redemption. His reaction seemed a mixture of enticement and detached amusement.
Among Bertolucci's far-ranging reflections was the intriguing notion that each century seems to embrace a single artistic form as its defining spirit or muse. ``In the Renaissance, the language was painting,'' he said. ``In the 17th century, it was music, then the theater, with Corneille and Racine. In the 19th century, it was the novel. And the 20th century chose cinema as the official language to speak about itself.''
He expressed fears about the future of cinema, remarking that television has taken over as the late 20th century's mode of self-reflection and cultural communication. ``Electronics is the chosen language, chosen by society. It's sad,'' he continued, ``seeing movies trying to imitate television. To me, television has just been born, exploited but not yet explored.''
The director's poetic, almost romantic expansiveness radiated through the audience as he spoke of the movie theater as a ``cathedral'' where people come to ``dream the same dream together.''
As for the art of directing, he likened it to a state of ``sleepwalking'' in which he gives as much room as possible to the sometimes transcendent moments that can unfold from improvisation and ``the forgetting of every rule. Dramaturgic consistency can be a lie,'' he asserted. ``Life itself is inconsistent.''
He explained that, when making ``The Last Emperor,'' he ``tried to leave Western culture behind when I went to China. I tried to absorb the East, which wasn't easy, because we are full of prejudice, and also we like instant interpretation when we go somewhere. I tried to be very modest, as if I were going to school.'' Then he added, ``We were doing self-criticism all the time, which is very Chinese.''
At the reception following his appearance, Bertolucci quietly confessed he felt ``a strange m'elange of shyness and narcissism'' in anticipation of the accolades he was so soon to receive at the Academy Awards ceremony.