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The Art History of Love

Tango by Robert Farris Thompson
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In this generously illustrated book, world-renowned Yale art historian Robert Farris Thompson gives us the definitive account of tango, "the fabulous dance of the past hundred years–and the most beautiful, in the opinion of Martha Graham.”

Thompson traces tango’s evolution in the nineteenth century under European, Andalusian-Gaucho, and African influences through its representations by Hollywood and dramatizations in dance halls throughout the world. He shows us tango not only as brilliant choreography but also as text, music, art, and philosophy of life. Passionately argued and unparalleled in its research, its synthesis, and its depth of understanding, Tango: The Art History of Love is a monumental achievement.

From the Trade Paperback edition.
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group; June 2010
384 pages; ISBN 9780307498229
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Title: Tango
Author: Robert Farris Thompson
Chapter 1



I hear the echo of those tangos

of Arolas and Greco

danced upon the sidewalk,

an instant distilled that remains

without before, or hereafter, an anti-oblivion,

having the taste of everything lost,

and everything regained.

—jorge luis borges, “El tango,” in El otro, el mismo (1969)

In order to recognize a symbol by its sign observe

how it is used with a sense.

—ludwig wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921)

The history of tango tangles with Hollywood. Tango on film is a chronicle of its own, lurid and strange, mixing dreams and deceptions. Often a tango augments a star—Rudolph Valentino, Marlon Brando, Madonna, Al Pacino—not for its sake but for theirs. And the accord with the tango is always with stereotype: sadness, sex, violence, and doom.

This sounds ridiculous and was. But thankfully, in the 1990s, with Adam Boucher’s Tango, the Obsession (1998) and Carlos Saura’s Tango, no me dejes nunca (Tango, Never Leave Me, 1998), truer versions have appeared on the screen. By then the authenticity of Claudio Segovia and Héctor Orezzoli’s stage extravaganza, Tango Argentino, had cleared the way for genuine footwork, sizzling like a Pollock on the floor.

The trend toward the real article includes the conversion of a major star of film, Robert Duvall, who makes pilgrimages to Buenos Aires and frequents traditional dance halls. He takes lessons from masters like the late Lampazo, Danel and Maria Bastone of New York, and Juan Carlos Copes, the latter described by Duvall as a “Rolls-Royce without a speedometer.”

A Buenos Aires television special cuts to a dance floor where Duvall sits enthralled with his girlfriend, studying the moves. Early in 2000 Duvall danced tango for President Bill Clinton and the president of Argentina in the White House—at the express request of the Argentine ambassador.On March 28, 2003, Duvall released his own tango film, Assassination Tango. It had cameo appearances by major tango dancers like María Nieves, Milena Plebs, Los Hermanos Macana, Pablo Verón, and Gerardo Portalea. We’ve come a long way from Valentino.

Valentino was the first man to tango on the screens of North America. His tango in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) is a celebrated sequence. Measured against Argentine barrio reality, his moves were a travesty, but his charm and self-confidence made people notice him. Rex Ingram, the director of Horsemen, tells us why:

I was attracted at once by Valentino’s face. It was obvious that he was the exact type for the young tango-hero of the story . . . Rehearsing the tango Rudy did so well I made up my mind to expand this phase of the story. I [used] a sequence in a Universal picture I had made years ago. The sequence showed an adventurous youth going into a Bowery dive and taking the dancer, after he had floored her partner. I transposed this action to South America.

The account is revealing: Ingram was not interested in tango—he just wanted to build up his star.

Valentino was no stranger to tango. He had danced it at Bustanoby’s Domino Room, on 39th and Broadway in Manhattan, around 1913. Mirrors around the room magnified his every action. There he learned the style of the “tango pirate”—ostentatious dipping, holding tight, and above all bending the woman back, way back, building an image of conquest. Valentino was fluent in dips and bends, and that caught the eye of Rex Ingram.

Four Horsemen was the Titanic of its time. Like the Leonardo DiCaprio film, it had an Italianate lead, and a huge cast and budget. Not since Birth of a Nation (1917) had Hollywood seen anything like it. But the scene the world remembered was Valentino’s tango. John Seitz, the cameraman, photographed the action on a set filled with smoke and tough-looking extras, meant to set off the beauty of the stars.

Valentino appears, you see his face laughing; thin lips, hard eyes, tough jaw. His eyes slit with interest. There is a woman on the dance floor, Beatrice Domínguez, dancing with a man. Rising in his incredible

gaucho/flamenco attire, Valentino ambles over. He asks for a dance. Close-up of Domínguez’s face: dancing eyes, moist trembling lips. Her partner says no. Valentino sends him flying into a table.

Then Valentino and Domínguez start to dance. Their costumes are so heavy—tassels, shawl, dress, carnations, hat, shirt, chaps, whip, boots, spurs—that initially their motion reads like a ballet between the Monitor and the Merrimack. Valentino tangos on. Sometimes he holds out a stiff arm in the fashion of the tango of Europe, sometimes not. He looms over Domínguez, bending her back, tango-pirate fashion, with a devastating downward gaze. He is making the world look at him. He and Domínguez dip and dip again, in a parody of quebradas, Argentine torsions of the hips on bended knees. A black drinks maté and coldly regards them. They sway. Another black sips a beer. They dip. Close-up: their feet in a crossover, Valentino’s spurs flashing.

His features ride the motion like a mask. He is dancing his face, not the tango. And Domínguez dances her lips and her flowers. Before the finale, when their mouths almost meet, the gaucho vaunts his full strength. He picks up Domínguez bodily and brings her back down to the floor. The bar erupts. They like that. He does it again. Now everyone’s standing and shouting. Cut.

Valentino conquered the world with that scene. One tango deserved another: he stalked the floor again in Blood and Sand (1922). His faux-tango image would linger in films for some time.

Argentine dancers are bemused. “When we see someone tango, stiff arms and long steps, we laugh and call that dancing à la Valentino,” Roberto “El Alemán” Tonet, a star of the Broadway stage hit Tango Forever, told me in 1998. Still and all, a distinguished Argentine critic, Sergio Pujol, admits that “in spite of the fallacy, Valentino as Buenos Aires type, the success of this dancer-turned-actor is a reality impossible to ignore.”

Gilda (1946), a movie about love and gambling in 1940s Buenos Aires, was Rita Hayworth’s greatest role. Somewhere in a casino we hear a bandoneón, but that’s about it for the tango. In 1946 barrio dancers were creating new steps, but Gilda gives no hint of this. Buenos Aires is a stage set, midtown Manhattan with signs in Spanish.

Valentino haunts Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, the classic 1950 film. Gloria Swanson, in the role of a passé star of silent film, throws a tango party for just herself and William Holden. The scene is handsome: two dancers and a tango orchestra, in rich black and white. It was shot by John Seitz, the cameraman who had filmed Valentino.

Swanson, keeping Holden under the pretense of hiring him as a writer, hopes to seduce him with the dance music of her era. She will be his Domínguez; he will be her Valentino. She hires a tango orchestra to play, endlessly, just for the two of them, in her Beverly Hills mansion on New Year’s Eve.

Holden appears in a tux. The excitement of his looks and the savor of the tango overcome her. She tears off her tiara, like a pirate raising the Jolly Roger, and hurls it to the floor. The camera follows it. Swanson’s butler (Eric von Stroheim) retrieves it in white gloves. She rests her head on Holden’s shoulder. Getting the point, Holden looks worried.

Swanson tells Holden, “Valentino told me: get rid of my wood floor, replace it with tile.” The camera pulls back, revealing a tiled floor in octagonal patterning.

Holden, the hard-boiled screenwriter, abruptly breaks off and heads for another party, where he knows a young girl awaits him. Swanson, irreparably hurt, retires to her bedroom. She slits both her wrists. End of tango.

Nearly half a century later Wilder would tell Curtis Hanson, after the latter’s triumphant L.A. Confidential, “Now I suppose you’ll do a comedy.” Hanson did: Wonder Boys. Wilder had, too, following Sunset nine years later with the hilarious Some Like It Hot (1959). Tango in this film is pure slapstick: while Tony Curtis romances Marilyn Monroe on a yacht, using an outrageous Gary Grant accent, the camera cross-cuts to Jack Lemmon, tangoing in drag (to hide from gangsters) with Joe E. Brown. “You’re leading!” Brown says.

Lemmon and Brown lock hands and move forward, heads in profile, in European stiff-arm tango style. They also mirror Valentino, bending each other backward. Brown has a rose in his mouth. By the end of the scene Lemmon is striking insane gypsy poses. The orchestra is blindfolded—this spares them the travesty.

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 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

Jeanne 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 among most tangueros.

Bertolucci, in any event, definitely reduced dancers to mannikins. 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 judgments 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 Argentine military government of 1972 banned Last Tango, so Buenos Aires was prevented from making up its own mind at the time. The grim political reality of the proceso, the dictatorship of the military junta that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983, in many respects put tango—and tango criticism—on ice.

But things started changing in Europe in 1977. That was the year of Soldier of Orange (Soldaat van Oranje), directed by Paul Verhoeven, one of the best European films of the century. It includes a strong tango, bristling with politics.

This tango was an invention. It does not exist in the memoir of the Dutch hero of the Resistance upon whose life the film is based. As Verhoeven recalls, “We were looking for a situation to bring the hero and the anti-hero of the film together and came up with the tango.” One model for their dance was Lemmon’s tango with Brown in Some Like It Hot.

“I grew up admiring that scene,” recalls Verhoeven. The other source was Bertolucci, “but only as a second impression.” Verhoeven, in any event, transcended his sources.

Soldaat is the tale of two Dutchmen. Tight friends in school, they separate after the occupation of the Netherlands by Nazi forces in May 1940. One, played by Rutger Hauer, escapes to Great Britain, then returns by submarine in 1943 to spy for the Allies. The other, played by Derek de Lint, joins the German army and becomes an SS officer. (He is eventually shipped to the eastern front, where Soviet partisans assassinate him.)

De Lint and Hauer meet at a party in occupied Holland. The scene is a hotel in Noordwijk, a small beach town not far from The Hague. The time is early 1943. There is a swastika on the wall. The room is filled with Nazis. De Lint, as if to extend the aura of Hitler’s aggression, suddenly seizes Hauer. He makes him tango with him.

Their dance is war. It returns us, in an odd way, to early days in Buenos Aires, when men tangoed with men, to practice for women. De Lint and Hauer break, however, a fundamental rule of tango dancers: they talk.

alex [de lint]: Quite a disappointment to see you here among these Dutch Nazis and builders of Hitler’s bunkers on the coast.

erik [hauer]: Why not? It’s war, and it’s a nice party, isn’t it?

alex: I heard you were abroad.

erik: That’s bullshit!

alex: I heard you were in London.

erik: You heard wrong. I’m here.

alex: Shame we’re not fighting on the same side.

erik: Yeah . . . a bloody shame.

alex: In a couple of years the Germans and English will be fighting together against the Communists.

erik: I don’t believe that.

alex: Well, anyway, we won’t be around to see it.

Hidden in this dialogue is an odd prediction of the coming of the cold war. It is clear de Lint is not fooled by Hauer’s cover. One senses, correctly, that out of loyalty he will not betray him. So their dance is a mix of friendship and politics, fascism and democracy.

Suddenly the two men break into mirrored head-turns. It puts them in joking relation to their audience—and to tango film history. They’re citing Some Like It Hot with a dash of Last Tango, pure movie faux-tango cool. Hauer and de Lint perform appropriately stone-faced. They are having fun. Beaming, pretty women form a circle around them, giving them space and approval.

They race up and down, high-spirited males in action. One tangoist chose evil and will die. The other will live and become a hero of his nation. But while they are dancing, tango holds back their tarots and gives a full moment.

Tango Argentino, in the mid-1980s, changed the way films depicted tango, but not immediately. Catherine Deneuve and Linh Dan Pham, in Regis Warner’s beautiful film Indochine (1992), practice tango to the sound of a Victrola on a rubber plantation in colonial Indochina. They dance the European stiff arm. It’s all they know. They laugh as they dance, savoring the moment. Dan Pham exclaims, “We’ll never get it!”

From the Hardcover edition.
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