Near the end of Tuesday night’s second of three Presidential debates, Tom Brokaw asked the Democratic and Republican nominees a question about national sacrifice. Barack Obama seized on the moment to discuss the fragile time just after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when Americans were united in purpose, asking what sacrifices must be made in order to expand national security and bring the terrorist plotters to justice. Cool as a cucumber, Obama reminded the nation of President Bush’s vision for a national reconciliation; confronted with the defining moment of this century, the President offered us four simple words that summarize his world view about as well as anything else he’s said in the wake of 9/11. His national mandate, his call to sacrifice? Go out and shop.
Strangely, in the corners of my weird, overly-cinematic brain, I drew a straight line to Pablo Larrain’s devastating look at narcissism and political apathy in late-1970’s Chile, Tony Manero. Here, we are in the wake of another terrible September 11 (September 11, 1973, when Augusto Pinochet lead a coup d’état against the democratically elected socialist government of Salvadore Allende), but this time, the terror comes from within. Raul (the brilliant Alfredo Castro, channeling an off-beat combination of Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman’s Midnight Cowboy sleaze-bag-with-a-heart-of-gold Ratso Rizzo) is the choreographer of and a dancer in a small cabaret show that he has created to emulate the moves of his idol, John Travolta’s Tony Manero, the heart-breaking protagonist of Saturday Night Fever. Raul worships at the altar of Travolta’s Manero, sitting through innumerable screenings of Fever, repeating each line of the film’s dialogue in fractured English and carefully studying the character’s dance moves so that he can compete in a nationally televised Tony Manero look-alike contest. Unfortunately, Raul’s is a complete sociopath, his violence and greed slithering just below the consciousness of his colleagues and neighbors.
Pablo Larrain’s Tony Manero
Terror got you down? Go shopping! Tony Manero’s violence comes in shocking, brutal bursts as Raul murders his way through a series of economic transactions, each of which brings him a little bit closer (but never close enough) to his goal of creating an authentic discotheque environment in the down-and-out cabaret where he works. Larrain pulls no punches (literally) in showing us the depths of Raul’s character; Alfredo Castro’s face and head are in almost every shot of the film, Larrain’s handheld camera following his protagonist through Santiago’s backstreets and gutters like the all-seeing eye of Pinochet himself. The effect of the close-ups and long tracking shots is to create a sympathetic relationship between the violent egomania that drives Raul toward his goal and omnipresent violence of the state; the common denominator between the machinations of the Pinochet regime and the brutality of Raul’s murderous acquisition of disco-era ephemera is the influence of the good ol’ US of A.
Larrain is far too smart an artist to wink and draw underlines beneath Raul’s parallel reign of terror. Instead, he creates a searing portrait of a singularly nasty (and, it must be said, hilarious) character with bold, violent strokes of the narrative brush. There is no inner-monologue here, nothing spoken or revealed by the near-silent Raul that would give away anything as cheap as a psychological motivation. And yet, we understand Raul, we know that his obsession with the tragedy of Saturday Night Fever is that it represents something bigger than his own squalid life, that by emulating the life and values of Tony Manero, he can be a star, an individual.
The desire to stand apart, to manifest one’s external obsessions, is a near-universal experience for movie lovers; each of us is guilty of fantasizing that we could somehow live a life as interesting, as beautiful, as what we see projected on the big screen. Movies are the great harbor of fantasy, but Raul’s great disconnect is his unconscious synthesis of the real political violence that surrounds him with the fantasy of being rewarded for mimicking his on-screen fantasy life. These two social impulses, the escapism of cinema and the political horror of the Pinochet regime, come crashing together in the film’s haunting, hysterical climax; After destroying a rival’s costume en route to the televised impersonators contest, Raul finds his colleagues confronted by the secret police. Refusing to help his friends in the face of certain torture and death, Raul escapes across the rooftops of the Santiago slums and heads straight to the TV studio to compete in the contest that has driven him to all manner of brutality and deprivation. The film’s final shot, a quiet seat on a bus that echoes the finale of Midnight Cowboy and The Graduate, is about as darkly comic a climax as could be imagined, Raul’s emptiness finally crashing against the rocks of his own delusions. Larrain has created a totally unique film, a brutal black comedy that brings personal and political disgrace into homologous ignominy. I can’t stop thinking about it.