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
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
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.