Sunday, July 26, 2009

Tango with the Flintstones :: The Mis-use of Tradition

I watched this the other day, somewhere. I can't remember who to credit for the find - a Facebook friend, or perhaps another blogger. It's a miracle I was able to find it again. My brain apparently isn't functioning as poorly as sometimes I would like to think.

This YouTube clip appears to be a segment from the 1988 movie "Tango Bar" (which I haven't yet seen) with Raul Julia, showing tango scenes from several films, etc. It includes Rudolph Valentino in "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse", Fred Flintstone dancing with Wilma's mother I think, Charlie Chaplin dancing a tango parody, Laurel and Hardy dancing a tango in the Old West, and finally, I think that's a young Gene Kelly gallivanting around the way he does.

Ever since I read "Tango, The Art History of Love" by Robert Farris Thompson, I am always struck by how tango is caricatured and.or generally made fun of in film, especially in early films. Newer, truer versions of Argentine tango are being seen these days. Sally Potter's "The Tango Lesson". Robert Duvall's "Assassination Tango". Adam Boucher's "Tango, the Obsession". Carlos Saura's "Tango, no me dejes nunca".

It is because of this that my interest in Sandra Bullock's "Kiss and Tango" (the film) is piqued. Take a bad book and inject it with the Hollywood formula and you are very likely to end up with yet another stereotypical maltreatment of Argentine Tango, once again pervading our cultural misconceptions about Tango.

Oh well. It is what it is. All we can do is hope for the best from Ms. Bullock. That is, if the film is ever made.

Here is a great excerpt from Thompson's book -- where he discusses the film "Last Tango in Paris" starring Marlon Brando:

The misuse of tradition intensified in Bernardo Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris" (1972). Forget, if possible, the auteur's ambition to blur art into pornography and vend it as a revolution, with a world-class actor, Brando, securing the way. Forget the breakthrough promiscuities that Bertolucci has Brando commit with a smashing ingenue, Maria Schneider. Forget, as well, expectations aroused by the strange, sensual tango danced by Stefania Sandrelli and Dominique Sanda in Bertolucci's earlier film "The Conformist" (1970). Forget if you can, all of that and cut to a long, famous scene:

Interior: bar, dancing; day
Jeane is hiding behind dark glasses. Behind them in the room there is a small tango contest. The jury, in front of a long table, follow with their eyes the couples dancing with numbers on their backs.
PAUL [BRANDO]: You know the tango is a rite...And you must watch the legs of the dancers.

So far so good. Norman Mailer loved it: "[a] near mythical species of tango palace." And the setting *is* beautiful. Vittorio Storaro's camera distills a golden light in colonnaded spaces, a light that illumines intent, moving couples. Gato Barbieri wrote the score. In sum, we savor a tango nirvana.

But not for long. Bertolucci was out to *use* the tango, not to reveal it--to use its fame and its glamour, together with Brando's, to power a dark vision.

He causes the camera to glide like a serpent through the tango contestants, transforming their Eden into hell. Pauline Kael declared the women "bitch-chic mannequin dancers." Somewhere a compliment to their integrity lies buried in that. To Kael the dancers were "automatons," posing with "wildly fake head-turns."

Bertolucci--and his critics--had misunderstood tango hauteur, which, as the gifted Julie Taylor reminds us, consists of the following: "dancers demonstrate their skill by perform[ing] like somber automatons, providing [themselves with] psychic space." The root of all this is black cool. But by 1972 the Afro-Argentine shaping of the frozen face in tango had long since been forgotten, even amongst most tangueros.

Bertolucci, in any event, definitely reduced dancers to mannequins. He turned ritual into farce. It gets worse:

PRESIDENT OF THE TANGO JURY: Now gentlemen, ladies, all best wishes for the last tango!

Note the last phrase. For some this suggested the end of the tango as a world-class tradition. As if to rub that interpretation in, Brando drunkenly sashays his way across the dance hall, mocking the seriousness of the contestants, mocking their moves, mocking their reason for being. He makes fun of their posture. He falls flat on his back, like a spread-eagled ape.

Then Schneider tells Brando she's leaving him. He chases her, corners her. She pulls out a pistol. She kills him. End of tango.

Critics rose to Bertolucci's faux-revolutionary bait. Pauline Kael pronounced "Last Tango" equal to Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring"--not the best call for someone whose judgements were normally brilliant. Another critic went so far as to denounce the tango judge, as if she were personally responsible for the Vietnam War. It was dangerous to be decent in the 1970s.

Norman Mailer, alone among critics, felt uneasy: "Did [Brando's] defacement of the tango," he asked, "injure some final nerve of...deportment."

It did. The damage was not virtual--it was real. Copes remembers, "Last Tango was the climax of films that ridiculed tango." People the world over got the impression in the 1970s that tango was "antiquated and comic." Recalling Wittgenstein's famous axiom "The meaning of a symbol is its use," tango had been defined, unfairly, by mis-use.

The mis-use of the symbol of tango. The mis-use of tradition. Now that's something to ponder. Something to worry about? Probably not. Even given the huge tango stereotypes in our culture today, the myth of tango is alive and well. Beautiful, mysterious, sensual, difficult (but within the reach of the average Dick and Jane) --our amazing dance is indeed alive, and well. Real, connected, alive tango. Not mythic at all.

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