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THE POLITICS OF DANCING
Tony Manero, dir. by Pablo Larrain
by Diego Costa

Any guide to screenwriting will say that your characters need to want something badly. There also needs to be obstacles between their wanting and their getting it. This seems analogous to real-world living, but when your character is all id and no superego, as is the case with Tony Manero's Raul (who looks like a hybrid of Roberto Benigni and Valentino), the distance between his longing and his object of desire becomes a little shorter - and the trajectory both ruthless and lethal.

Raul, who lives and breathes dance and his dancing partners, wants to win a contest of impersonation of John Travolta's character in Saturday Night Fever. And nothing will get in his way. He will squash all obstacles - human and not - with the moral reflection employed by someone before swatting a fly.

This halting of ethical considerations between wishing and acquiring clearly resembles the drive behind, say, a coup d'état - a dime a dozen in 20th Century Latin America, specially in 1978, the year Tony Manero, by Chilean director Pablo Larrain, is set.

Chile, until recently the most conservative country south of the Equator, has interestingly evolved from the irrational bloodstained 'disappearances' of the 1970s to the also id-driven 'poncear parties' of the 2000s, where hundreds of teenagers must make out with as many people as possible throughout the evening in order to win the Ponceo title.

Tony Manero, like Saturday Night Fever, is also about winning a title through the sheer-- and inevitably libidinal -- intensity of wanting. So is That's The Way I like It, the Singapore comedy about a grocery store employee who uses a Tony Manero-like star as model to accomplish his dreams (buying a motorcycle, getting the girl). But for both the original Manero and his Singaporean version, Hacko, victory has a sour aftertaste if the journey to achieve it was marred by injustice.
Manero sure wants certain things with all his might (a nice shirt, a feisty girl, a dancing trophy), but not at any cost. When he wins the dancing competition while the Hispanic couple clearly outperformed him, he hands over his trophy to the ones who deserved it.

Hacko also copied Manero's moves all the way to a dancing competition's final so that he could buy his dream motorcycle, all the while inheriting his hero's sense of ethics, as in the end he hands over the cash to his brother, who needs it for his studies.

Tony Manero's Raul, however, unencumbered by the rights and feelings of others, is all drive and no reason. This lack of a moral code enveloping desire echoes the paradoxical workings of a dictatorship. While the wounds of a century marred by coldblooded dictators bring nausea to most South Americans, many often eke out a sense of nostalgia for a time when the streets were, at least, peaceful and bread was on the table.

In the film, too, Raul both bites and kisses the hands that feed him. He may help out a lady with her groceries, if only to kill her a few minutes later. And he will make sure he feeds her cat before stealing her color television.

This scene, for instance, the squashing of the vulnerable other, condenses much of the climate of pre-globalized Latin American living. The nicety among citizens, who invite strangers into their homes for coffee and who cover the top of their TV sets with hand-knitted cloths that obstruct a quarter of the screen: the wish to render things nicer, easier to endure, overtaking any pragmatism. The lady is mugged by some youths, then saved by Raul, only to be attacked by him soon after. It's as if one were besieged: no matter how tender the helping hand may seem, it will unavoidably end up robbing one of something.

The movie theatre Raul reports religiously to watch Saturday Night Fever becomes such a site of his uncontainable drives it could almost be a porn theatre: a place where the lonely come to release what they cannot control, to be inhuman again. This could easily be Jacques Nolot entering the X Cinema on the Boulevard de Clichy in Before I Forget, or the desolation seeping through the theatre lobby in Tsai Ming-liang's Good Bye, Dragon Inn. The same sense of stripped-bare wanting: nothing obstructing the desiring self from the desired object.

At the core of both dancing and film-watching is the desire to be looked back at in return. One which, in a country paralyzed by the fear of being found out and punished for one's ideas, may find its safe harbor on the dancefloor, where the exuding is ambiguous, non-verbal and deliciously anarchic. Dancing as a way to re-claim the surveilling eye because at the club the eye that looks back is sunk in excitement - perhaps envy - not terror. When Raul dances, then, his body becomes a self-pleasuring spectacle of freedom, his limbs move about as if unshackled by the law. The exterior eye refrains from hunting and punishing and gives in to glee, recognition and applause.

Every time director Pablo Larrain's camera faces Raul head-to-head, one gets the sense that this could turn out to be either Strictly Ballroom or Elephant, the prelude to breathtaking spectacle or a ritualistic bloodbath. The unwavering look in Raul's face, like an incredibly skilled hunter aiming for an incredibly easy prey (we hurt the feeble, the film seems to say), makes one wonder if he is rehearsing his steps for a dancing competition or for a mass-killing showdown.

In one scene Raul hammers a mirror to little pieces and glues the shards around a soccer ball to make a disco ball. Soccer, historically used as political weapon by authoritative South American regimes to numb public discontent, is here transformed into a reflecting device. Something that looks back without judging. While the soccer ball served as clearly defined object with clearly defined goals (to numb the mouths of those who root, to embrace the feet of those who play), the disco ball can actually look back at the spectacle - without using its sight to calculate its suppression.

Like Sergio, the sex addict in Joao Pedro Rodrigues' O Fantasma, who, by the end of the film, had returned to such a primal state he lay splattered on a garbage dump getting off on detritus - like a brainless beast, Raul collapses the filters between the latent and the manifest. Like a razor to the neck, everything oozes out.

Raul shares with Sergio, the rubbersuit-clad sex beast, not only the unrestrained drive but also the tendency for regression. Tony Manero is full of instances in which Raul acts as a spoiled child refusing to accept the borders between fantasy and reality (psychosis' number one symptom): from his fondness for sucking on women's right breasts to his winning strategies that involve defecating on people's wardrobes.

It is also worth noticing this fascination with the American other, for Travolta serves as icon of freedom and enabler of some kind of existential and bodily catharsis. When Raul finally takes the stage to dance like Tony Manero, the de facto imitation of the colonized, like most unsuccessful mimicry, turns out to be a rather grotesque event, as he seems so overwhelmed by his wanting to be Travolta -- to exercise his existential paralysis through imitative movement -- he can barely pass for something other than his own failure. Like a gay man trying so desperately to act straight and failing miserably.


 



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