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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.”
From its syncretic evolution in the nineteenth century—partaking of European, Andalusian-Gaucho, and, unbeknownst to many, African influences—to its representations by Hollywood and dramatizations in dance halls throughout the world, Thompson shows us tango not only as brilliant choreography but also as text, music, art, and philosophy of life.
As he did in his classic Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy, Thompson, in this book, “takes his subject in the round, not in any specialized or compartmentalized manner. He is part anthropologist, part art critic, part musicologist, part student of religion and philosophy, and entirely an enthusiastic partisan of what he writes about” (The New York Times).
Passionately argued; unparalleled in its research, its synthesis, and its depth of understanding; and written with revelatory clarity, Tango: The Art History of Love is a monumental achievement.
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Robert Farris Thompson is the author of, among other works, Black Gods and Kings and African Art in Motion. He has been a Ford Foundation Fellow and has mounted major exhibitions of African art at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. He is Col. John Trumbull Professor of the History of Art at Yale University, where he is also Master of Timothy Dwight College. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
TANGO IN HOLLYWOOD
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 ...
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