“When I recall you, beloved tango,
I feel the earth moving under our feet
As we danced, and hear the rumbling of the past.
Mother is no longer here now
But when your song begins on the bandoneón
I hear her creep in on tip toe to kiss me.”
–Enrique Sántos Discépolo, El Chóclo
I can’t swim. This is the real reason I’m reviewing Carlos Saura’s Tango this month. You see, when I was a kid I used to have these wish-fulfilment dreams where I could swim like a fish. I’d be heartbroken when I woke up and found out I wasn’t Mark Tewskbury or Alex Baumann, but the feeling of gliding effortlessly through pools and lakes and rivers was great while it lasted. For the space of a dream, I felt like one of Tom Wolfe’s “Masters of the Universe.” Those dreams recurred right into adulthood.
Now, I can’t dance either.
Need I say more?
I have faith in my subconscious. I’m not sure how many times I’ll have to watch the sublime dancers in Carlos Saura’s film before my dreaming mind has me join them, but if even once I’m out there on the oneiric dance floor with Mía Maestro or Cecilia Narova I’ll be smiling for weeks. In the meantime, let me explain why even those of you who can dance divinely should take a look at Tango.
Carlos Saura is one of Spain’s national treasures. Now almost seventy, he’s been making films for over 30 years. In the course of Saura’s career, his films have followed two distinct paths. On the one hand, there are the political films motivated by his early exposure to Italian neo-realism. These incorporated what one reviewer called “the Spanish artistic tradition of ‘esperpento,’ an absurdist type of black humour in which fact and fantasy are intermixed.” Among the best of these films were Peppermint frappé (1968), La Prima Angelica (1974), Cría Cuervos (1976), and Deprisa, Deprisa(1981).
The other focus of Carlos Saura’s work has been dance. He himself has explained why:
“When I was a 17-year-old, I would love to have danced Flamenco. One day I went to this famous Flamenco teacher to see if I could take classes with her. She was a Gypsy and a fantastic dancer; she looked at me and I was very thin and she said: Well, you’ve got the right shape; I will see how you dance. So she started clapping to a rhythm and I tried to dance. So she said ok, ok, and paused before concluding: ‘It would probably be better if you dedicate yourself to something else.’ That was the beginning of both my love for dancing – and movies.”
Since that fateful meeting with his Gypsy muse, Saura has made at least five extraordinary films combining his love of dance and of cinema: Blood Wedding(1981), Carmen (1983), El Amor Brujo (1986), Flamenco (1997), and Tango (1998). In each of these films there are moments of indescribable beauty. The human body is glorified by dance, made perfect by it. That perfection can be in the complex sequence of interlacing steps of a tango, or simply in the line of the arch of a foot, the curve of a back, the extension of a leg or turn of a hand. Just as there are pieces of music of which one can never tire, there are dozens of scenes in Saura’s films which never cease to spellbind.
“The shadows on the dance floor,
this tango brings sad memories to mind,
let us dance and think no more
while my satin dress
like a tear shines.
–H. Manzi’s tango “His Voice”
How does Saura succeed in capturing this magic on film? First of all, by being an excellent student of the dances which fascinate him, flamenco and tango. In his own words, “Every dance has its own language and narrative technique.” Saura knows these as well as anyone. Secondly, by working with the finest artists and craftspeople: choreographer Antonio Gades, musicians like Antonio Agri on violin and the astounding 82-year-old Horacio Salgan on piano, composer Lalo Schifrin, and master cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. Lastly, by inventing his own narrative technique which, unlike the Hollywood approach to dance, subsumes narrative to a very transparently theatrical staging.
It’s the tango of the joyful military
Gay conquerors of here and everywhere
It’s the tango of the Let’s-Go-To- Warriors
It’s the tango of all the gravediggers.
–Boris Vian, “The Joyful Butchers”
Much of the dance in Carlos Saura’s films actually takes place on a soundstage or a rehearsal floor. He has said that he’s much more fascinated by the process of rehearsal than he is by the finished product. While the dancers onstage are telling one story, the director is using their environment to tell another. The relationships of the dancers to one another within the dance itself is given added dimensions by their relationships and actions offstage. The effect is like a mirror held before a mirror, where the images reflect off into infinity.
Tango is perhaps the ultimate refinement of Saura’s technique. Here the mirrors are literal. Saura shot the film over five months largely on a single soundstage in Argentina. The physical environment, with its dozens of screens, scrims, cameras, and lights, becomes as much of a player as the actors, dancers, and musicians. The film plays out with its characters’ silhouettes in motion behind screens, with their shadows cast upon them, with their movements distorted or magnified or multiplied by wall-sized mirrors. Imagine telling a story in dance inside a Rubick’s Cube. Or a painting by Magritte.
Working on a soundstage also allowed Saura to play with lighting with extraordinary freedom. It didn’t hurt that in Vittorio Storaro he had a cinematographer who could ensure that any experiments he tried would make it onto the finished film with their luminosity and vibrancy of colour intact.
If the physical setting of Tango is deliberately disorienting, so is the actual narrative. It’s a play within a play. The film opens with a director named Mario (Miguel Ángel Solá) sitting at his desk reading over a screenplay for a movie beginning with a director sitting at his desk reading over a screenplay for a movie. As the story progresses, it becomes difficult to distinguish the lives of the characters from their roles in the production on which Mario is working. By the end of the film, it’s almost impossible to tell if one has been taken backstage at a rehearsal, with actual glimpses into the private lives of the director, dancers, and producers…or whether the backstage narrative was part of the rehearsal itself and what the viewer thought was revelation was actually theatrical trompe l’oeil.
No matter. In the end it is the dances and the music one will remember and return to. That great tango orchestra with its four bandoneón (the tango accordion) players lined up across centre stage. Three or four classical tangos to die for. Other tangos, pairing Mario’s current lover, his former lover, and his former flame’s new partner, that charge the screen with an erotic energy that would make D.H. Lawrence blush.
The tango has an incredibly rich history, rooted in the politics, the passions, and the argot of Argentina. Saura brings it all to the fore. From the immigration ballet, to jealous or selfless love, to the powerful sequence dedicated to los desaparecidos, murdered during the bloody reign of the Generals, Saura uses a lifetime’s worth of skills to give his dancers their full due. Some of us may only be able to join them in our dreams; for those of you with only one left foot, you’ll know what you’ll have to do.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
This entry remains incomplete, as I’m unable to find a copy of Tango for a second look. I could have sworn I had a copy, but I must have imagined it. And there’s nothing available through any of my usual sources—rather surprising given Carlos Saura’s reputation as a director. Perhaps Criterion will one day consider releasing a box set of all of Saura’s dance-themed films.
Here are a few tango-related fragments I wasn’t able to include in my original review:
My obsession, heartbreak tango,
plunged my soul to deepest sin,
as the music of that tango
set my poor hear all a-spin.
–from Roldan’s “Blame That Tango”
Your tangos are fatherless children,
roaming the streets at dark,
when each of the doors is bolted
and ghosts of song dismally bark.
–H. Manzi’s tango “Malena”’
Well ya play that Tarantella
All the hounds they start to roar
And the boys all go to hell
Then the Cubans hit the floor
And they drive along the pipeline
They tango till they’re sore
They take apart their nightmares
And they leave them by the door.
–Tom Waits, “Tango Till They’re Sore”
Available on YouTube? No