The Dance Macabre of Tony Manero

By Lee Hill

tony-manero-pablo-larrain.jpgTony Manero, 2008

Anyone with even a glancing familiarity with TS Eliot will not be able to watch Tony Manero without thinking of the St. Louis native’s line about mankind not being able to bear too much reality. When the film begins, we are immediately introduced to the title character, Raul Peralta, who is waiting to audition for a variety/game show and show off his apparently sole talent – his knack for impersonating John Travolta’s performance in Saturday Night Fever right down to the smooth dance moves. Within minutes it becomes awkwardly apparent, that Raul has shown up a week early for the audition and must return, “creative energy” on hold, to his grim digs where he ekes out a marginal existence as a petty thug, drifter and, if circumstance demands it, killer.

This tawdry milieu is immediately familiar to those of us with not only a passing awareness of the poetry of tightly wound anglophile expatriate geniuses, but the likes of Pop Idol, Big Brother, Strictly Come Dancing, Wife Swap or any other form of “reality TV” that has made us all pod people in these Malthusian times. It is at least some comfort in watching a film that does not allow the viewer an opt-out clause for the bulk of its 1 hour and 38 minutes that the setting is not London or Los Angeles, Now, but Santiago, Chile, 1979. It is a time when not only has John Badham’s box office smash stamped its footprint across the North American consciousness, but was then making its way to foreign and ancillary markets with a Gotterdammerung vengeance.

More importantly, 1979 was also a time when Chile was not only under the heel of Hollywood imports at their most insidious and imperialistic, but when Augusto Pinochet was at his peak as the country’s dictator. Any flickering embers of socialist dissent from the days of Salvador Allende are continually suppressed by the brutal DINA secret police force. What freedom exists in the Chile of this period is the freedom to be a consumer in a state still divided along strict class lines. If one is not so lucky to be a part of the country’s wealthy or middle class, then freedom to daydream about fifteen minutes of success on a daytime variety show where the best celebrity impersonator might pick up a couple of grand or at the very least, a household appliance, might just be as good as it gets.

tony-manero-pablo-larrain-2.jpgTony Manero, 2008 

Played by Alfredo Castro, Raul looks more like a mid-period Leonard Cohen impersonator who hasn’t bathed properly for several years than John Travolta in his late 70s glory. Castro, a mastery stage and screen performer and director (he has played both Eva Peron and Buster Keaton in his career), inhabits the cipher-like shell of character that makes up Raul with unsettling conviction. Raul is a man clearly in the grip of an obsession that won’t take no for an answer.

The bulk of the film is taken up with Raul’s efforts to recreate not just the moves in Saturday Night Fever, but the iconic disco set with its mirror ball and dance floor of flickering coloured lights. Working out of a pathetic dance hall/bar where the poor locals are entertained by faux recreations of popular hits, he manages to boss around his own version of a dance troupe made up of his girlfriend, her teenage daughter and an androgynous young man (these characters appear to be victims of Raul’s hectoring brand of friendship for most of the film, but take on a fascinating subtext in its denouement. I can say no more). With the exception of the dialogue from the Travolta film, Raul barely has time for words as he divides his time between finding raw materials for his “disco stage” in junkyards, thievery and rehearsing his moves. To the extent that he relates to the others in his small social set, it is as a domineering, moody bully. As a lover, his dubious charisma is undercut by his abusiveness and impotence. As a dancer, he manages to get by more on pure will than any natural technique. To watch Raul fulfil his artistic destiny is a disturbing experience – imagine King of Comedy meets Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer and you have some idea of the social and psychological deprivation that Raul embodies.

tony-manero-pablo-larrain-3.jpgTony Manero, 2008 

It is to the credit of director Pablo Larrain, and his co-writers Mateo Iribarren and Castro himself, that this study of individual psychosis contrasted with the psychosis of the Pinochet regime never bogs down into unwieldy allegory. Despite the fact that Raul is no better than the dictatorship that he lives in, one gets caught up in the details of his banal compulsion to be the greatest Tony Manero since Travolta quite quickly. And this is part of the film’s genius, Raul has the “anti-star” quality of the Z-Grade celebrities that now typify the hierarchy of reality-TV internationally. Having few genuine heroes left, we are accustomed to looking more kindly towards the dispossessed, the marginal and the forgotten as the new stars. Yet as the film demonstrates in its final scenes, “reality TV” has drawn us further away from empathy and action than the dream factory of more traditional Hollywood films and television ever did by reducing human behaviour at its most unmediated to yet another kind of performance, albeit one bleached of any form of redemption or catharsis.

Although Tony Manero borrows its look from documentary – the film was shot on 16mm blown up to 35mm to heighten a gritty look that resembles a can of footage retrieved by accident from a toxic waste dump – this is a film that clearly argues we need more fiction, not more faux depictions of reality, to not just make sense of our lives, but to reconnect with each other and the societies we want to live in. As played by Castro, Raul/Tony Manero is a moral vacuum in desperate search for a barely remembered sense of humanity. To the extent, there is any poetry in his life it exists in the words and movements of Travolta/Manero. While Raul is a man who ultimately deserves to share the same prison cell as the murderers who ran Chile for several dark years, it is to the credit of the filmmakers behind this remarkable feature that we understand what brought him to this desperate place.

Tony Manero plays at the ICA.

Lee Hill is a writer and consultant who would like everyone to buy his friend, Nick Dawson’s Hal Ashby biography (University of Kentucky Press), the film book of 2009.