The Infamous Man
In other circumstances one might feel there is a plot failure at the centre of Pablo Larrain’s Tony Manero. Shouldn’t the central character, who murders a woman and walks off with her TV set, and later kills someone so he can steal the glass he needs for a Saturday Night Fever-style dance floor, be more immediately under suspicion from the cops? But time is of the essence here; it takes place over just a few days, and during a particularly dark moment in Chile’s history. This is the late seventies and the political regime is Pinochet’s. Here was a country of the ‘disappeared’, where thousands of people opposed to the policies of the military dictatorship ceased to exist. Who would be worried by a couple more lost lives in a dictatorship that caused, in President Ricardo Lagos’s words, in 2001, “a thorn in our country’s soul”?
Tony Manero is not initself a political film as The Battle of Algiers or Battleship Potemkin happen to be, nor even like Missing, a Jack Lemmon starring Costa-Gavras film about Lemmon’s son who goes missing in a country similar to Chile, or No, Larrain’s recent feature on the advertising campaign in the late eighties that finally led to the weakening of Pinochet’s power. Yet it is still very much a film concerned with a political presence, or rather the presence of politics. The politically present focuses on the political event; but the presence of politics is in the background but unavoidably connected to the story being told. Battleship Potemkin and The Battle of Algiers are films of the politically present, but films like Aleksandr Sokurov’s Moloch and Tony Manero are films of the presence of politics. In the former examples the purpose is to show politics actively at work; in the latter the political is passively evident. We do not expect in Moloch the storming of Hitler’s hillside fortress, and we don’t expect Raul here to get a political conscience and fight the Pinochet government. However, every action alludes to the presence of politics.
A good example of this comes just before the end of the film with Raul (Alfredo Castro) entering a TV competition where they are looking for Chile’s Tony Manero, the character John Travolta plays in Saturday Night Fever. Raul acquits himself well, and the crowd has to decide who is the winner by shouting as loudly as they can for the man they think deserves to win. It’s close, but another man takes the title, and wins more consumer goods than the runners-up. There are several ironies here. Firstly that around the same time “the Communists, Socialists and Radicals were proscribed. In 1977 the traditional parties were dissolved and private enterprise economy was instated.” (The Encylopaedia Britannica) This push towards acknowledging American influence in the form of a US film, and offering everyday consumer items as a reward, has its correlative in a system that wanted to turn politics into consumerism. There is the added irony that people in the TV studio can vote with their vocal cords when it comes to saying who happens to be the best Manero imitator, but can’t have their voices heard on a political level.
A question someone might ask is whether the film is aimed specifically at a Chilean audience, or do we need to know the details of Chilean politics? It would seem necessary to know that Chile was under dictatorship during the seventies and that people were being imprisoned and arbitrarily executed, but not to know when exactly certain policies were pushed through. As Larrain says after an interviewer admits that he isn’t as fully informed concerning the Pinochet regime as he should be: “but it doesn’t matter if you are. The film is not a political statement over Pinochet…” (Twitch) What counts is that we know the film takes place against the backdrop of a politically troublesome regime, and that it seems to allow for the untenable to be acceptable. Here is a man who can murder and steal at will because the state is doing likewise. Larrain believes: “the police during those years weren’t worried about common crimes because they were working in collusion with the oppression of a military government, thus common criminals could act with impunity.” (Twitch) In one scene Raul finishes off the job a couple of cops have started: they shoot a man dead, and Manero, half-witnessing the incident, then goes over after the cops have left and robs him of his worldly goods, taking his watch, jewellery and money. This is the act of the bad samaritan, someone who will cross the road to rob a dead man rather than to help him while he is still alive.
It is one of the many scenes in the film that suggest an implicit political purpose, as opposed to the direct approach taken by more politically-oriented films. Missing might have centred on the politically oblivious Lemmon as he determines to find his son, but there is a clear politicization when he realizes his son is missing and why. In Tony Manero there is no character acknowledging the political climate as an issue of conscience and consciousness, but the film is permeated by acts of bad conscience and false consciousness. These are actions few will approve of, but there is no narrative action that counters the behaviour or that acknowledges a position of disapproval. If in Missing, Lemmon is a good man with a poor understanding of geo-politics, the film’s purpose is to show him remaining a good man by moving towards political comprehension. In Tony Manero, Raul is a bad man who remains exactly that as everything he does is out of self-interest and the film finds no position within the narrative to judge him, no counter character or personal revelation leading him to a better comprehension of his actions.
Why would a filmmaker choose to create a character who is not only obnoxious but then deny ready audience disapproval of such a character? After all, if a character happens to be egotistical, selfish, lustful or proud at the beginning of the film, a character arc can be created to reveal their awareness of these weaknesses by the end, and if a character remains without merit, then often there are other characters available to make them pay for their onerous behaviour. In the former instance we have Top Gun and Fatal Attraction as examples of egotism and lust tempered, while anything from a Bond film to Speed, from Lethal Weapon to Rambo, will show irredeemable characters necessarily dispatched. However, the examples we give are films where the foreground is more important than the backdrop, where for Larrain the background allows for the context in which to understand the characters’ behaviour. As he says in Twitch magazine, “The context was not just a background but was the floor on which everyone was standing.”
Yet how does this square with Larrain’s claim that we needn’t know anything about Pinochet’s rule? A Bond film might concern itself with Latin American dictatorships, Far Eastern despots or African tribal warlords, but any political dimension is token: it provides exotic seasoning to a dish that remains essentially the same. Larrain obviously doesn’t mean that Pinochet in the film functions similarly. If Yaphet Kotto in Live and Let Die and Robert Shaw in From Russia with Love reflect the common assumptions about African dictatorships in the seventies, in the former instance (Idi Amin, Mobuto), or the cold war in the latter, this reflects well the generalizing principles at work: specificity isn’t important and no amount of historical research will lead us to be any the wiser over actions within the film. This isn’t so in Larrain’s, and while we can accept the director’s claim that it isn’t important to know very much about Chilean politics in the seventies, it occupies a space where the notion of politics in Chile is itself important. If Bond films, for example, demand no more than an idle interest in the political as it plays on general assumptions about cold war politics and third world dictators, Tony Manero asks for an active interest that might have us looking into the political situation in the wake of the film.
In generating this active interest the film works with what we’ll call inexplicable over explicable images of the political. In a commercially oriented movie with only an idle interest in the politics, it is important that the film sets up the socio-political situation explicably. When in Lethal Weapon the film plays on South African apartheid-supporting villains, the issue is foregrounded but hardly socio-politically relevant. In Tony Manero it is ‘backgrounded’ but of immense importance. When at one moment Raul hides from a passing tank, the tank has a small dramatic function but a large metonymic one: this is an oppressive state more than this is a threatening moment. The image is inexplicable in the sense that the film does not turn such a scene into a dramatic sequence, but lets it hang as a hint of a dictatorial government. The idly political or the politically present would be more categorical, even if in the former instance the political would be insignificant next to the dramatic, and in the latter the dramatic perhaps less important than the political. If it isn’t uncommon for Hollywood to use another country’s undemocratic regime to create space for a dramatic adventure, then in the politically present the regime is not an example of oppressiveness that could have been another country equally easily, but very specifically a country: Russia in Battleship Potemkin, and Algeria in The Battle of Algiers. Of course this doesn’t mean that a film based in an unnamed country doesn’t make the politics central, and indeed Costa-Gavras not only with Missing but also with Z and State of Siege opts for an unnamed country no matter the specificity of the political content. The films are closer to Battleship Potemkin and The Battle of Algiers in trying to generate a political consciousness out of the images. Could the same be said for Lethal Weapon and James Bond films, no matter the presence in the former of Danny Glover, known for is interest in raising issues of black consciousness?
But what about a film that raises political consciousness through the inexplicable, through assuming both that the viewer needn’t know very much about the politics (as Larrain claims) and where the political is often alluded, to but where the film barely attends to it? Whether it happens to be the passing tank, or the woman who gets bludgeoned to death after telling Raul that with the colour television she now has (and that Raul will soon steal), she can see that Pinochet has blue eyes, the film wants us to recognize the problem of the state, but it internalises many of the issues it addresses through character and situational specificity. In the scene where Raul kills the old woman, the scene has no clear motive, and taking place early in the film we might see Raul’s initial gesture as an example of good samaritanism, as he crosses the road to help the woman who has just been mugged. He walks her home, accepts a drink, and briefly watches the TV with her before beating her to death. The scene is properly complex if we accept that complexity lies in a sequence that has neither dramatic throughline or singular motivation. Does he kill her because of the television? Perhaps, but only after the event and not before it: he capitalises on what seems like a good deed with a bad one, as he literally crosses the road to attend to her after she has been robbed, but could he have known in advance that the woman would be mugged and that she would have owned a colour television? His actions are mixed and his motives spontaneous, whether in helping her as he rushes out of his apartment, or beating her to death in her own home. What seems to interest Larrain more than motive and story, are symptoms of a cultural malaise. Raul’s gestures might be inexplicable from the angle of character motivation and narrative development, but they do make sense in a context that goes beyond these confines and absorbs the political. In this sense Tony Manero is as political as more ostensible works, but since it is the politically symptomatic rather than the politically dramatic that he searches out, then the immediately inexplicable allows for the more generally explicable. In other words we have to look beyond the immediacy of the event and look for the broader context that can provide a rationale.
The film’s British tagline was “It’s murder on the dance floor”, a facetious blurb for a serious film, but one that captures also quite well the tone of a work which sees that whether the symptoms manifest themselves in violence or in imported entertainment, both are signs of an enervated culture. Whatever the benefits or otherwise of Salvadore Allende’s socialist government that was ousted in the military coup of ’73, the purpose behind it was collective action on the one hand and a rejection of American colonial influence on the other, expropriating for example the American owned copper mines. Several years into Pinochet’s government, the exiled former minister, Orlando Letelier said of mid-seventies Chile that “it was absurd to talk of free competition in an economy such as Chile’s, subjected to the monopolies which play with prices at their whim, and laughable to mention workers’ rights in a country where genuine unions are outside the law and the military junta fixes wages by decree.” Letelier, in Eduardo Galeano’s words, “described the massive destruction of gains made by the Chilean people during the Popular Unity government”, as the “dictatorship had returned to their former owners half of the industrial monopolies and oligopolies which Allende nationalized, and put the other half up for sale.” (Open Veins of Latin America) This is the country Larrain explores, and where the rejection of American culture becomes within several years its complete absorption not only through the political measures Galeano mentions, but also through the culture imported. There isn’t only an obsession with Saturday Night Fever, the characters sit one evening and watch a Chuck Norris lookalike competition on TV. This might say more about Larrain’s ignorance of the period more than the pervasive influence of American culture, with Norris a star of the late seventies and early to mid-eighties. His early hits like Good Guys Wear Black and The Octagon came out at the turn of the decade, and while Norris is now a figure of Reaganite policy in cinematic form (Missing in Action and Delta Force), he would have been as little known in 1978 as Arnold Schwarzenegger cinematically, with at least Schwarzenegger a celebrity for his Mr Universe victories. Norris may have been well-known for his expertise in karate, but would this have justified a look-a-like competition in Chile in 1978 one might wonder? Nevertheless, the sequence serves to suggest that even lesser know stars like Norris could become part of the Chilean mental landscape. A proper colonization of the sub-conscious is surely all the more complete when it incorporates secondary stars as well as major figures.
It is but one of the many areas within the film that wants to allude to the political without focusing on the immediacy of its presence, and this can be all the more politically pervasive because it is all the more politically permeating. If Larrain’s following film Post-Mortem was also allusive, in its reenactment of the events of September 11 1973, when Allende’s government fell, as Larrain hinted at events off-screen, here he puts that event into the past and wants to see how it nevertheless eats away at the cultural fabric and arrives at false consciousness as psychosis. As Xan Brooks says in the Guardian, “You might file this as an acid satire of 1970s Chile, a time when imported escapism served to distract the masses from the real business of political oppression.” Raul is determined to succeed, but his adoption of the American dream functions as Chilean nightmare. There is of course an allegorical dimension to be drawn out of the story for those looking for it, with the US the ideal and Latin Americans entitled to live the dream but living a life that undermines their own society. If socialism implicitly proposes that we are all equal, and that we perspire for the equality of all, capitalism is perspiration for aspiration, for the purposes of making more of yourself than those around you. If there is well-known line in Hollywood that it is not enough to succeed, your friends have to fail also, variously attributed, then Raul is the ideal Hollywood aspirant. In one scene he defecates on a rival’s costume so there is one less person to worry about when he goes off and tries to win the Tony Manero dance contest. It is the perfect and literal embodiment of the demotic phrase, shitting on others. Larrain wonders what happens when what matters isn’t man’s humanity to man, but people’s imposition on their fellow man.
We notice this in the admiration other characters have for Raul, people who might not be aware of his murderous activities but are obviously aware of his capacity for temper tantrums. Whether it is his girlfriend, her daughter or the older woman who runs the club where Raul practises, their infatuation absorbs his obnoxiousness. When the floorboards give way as the aging Raul boogies on the dance-floor, he is the ultimate workman blaming his tools. Someone else might acknowledge they are a little past it, but not Raul, who starts to rip apart the floor as he curses its inadequacy, and though the club owner clobbers him, not long afterwards she wants him back in her affections. Larrain proposes that the more screwed up the culture the more charisma takes on a distorted function. Shortly before the moment on the dance floor, another character involved in the troupe, Goyo (Hector Morales), seems to lack enthusiasm and Raul’s girlfriend Cony (Amparo Noguera) reckons it is because he doesn’t care much for the music: “He prefers other things, different things, things that are more profound, like folklore.” Goyo agrees, and Cony adds mockingly, “roots?…comrade Goyo”. It’s as if to go against the cultural norms is to lack virility, with the political closely affiliated with the fashionable, and the purpose isn’t to possess principles, but surf the zeitgeist. When shortly after Raul mentions that they should all listen to Tony Monero, it is an absurd statement but one taken seriously nevertheless.
One of the ideas behind Larrain’s film seems to be: how do values function when there is a political void, when the culture plays up the cosmetic over the ethical, when false consciousness becomes the means by which an individual survives? The far end of this lies in the murders that Raul commits, but the near end would be the American celebrity culture that gets absorbed into a country whose leader Pinochet was as in thrall of as Allende was opposed to it. Goyo’s position isn’t chiefly principled, in this context, it is old-fashioned, as he is obviously not keeping up with the times that makes a popular American film of far more import than indigenous music. He might be politically involved (there is a reference to Goyo by the cops when the man Raul robs is killed), but culturally he is deemed a lost cause. Much of the film’s irony, so low key that it never quite surfaces as ready humour, rests in Raul’s opportunism: his ability to ride the wave of the murderously selfish and the musically trendy. It is as though removing lives and moving to the sound of a disco beat are one and the same. Obviously they are not, and Larrain’s correlation is provocatively suppositional, an attempt to combine everyman with the darkest side of human personality to propose that one reason why Raul is presented as amoral rather than immoral (a distinction Larrain insists upon in the Twitch interview) is so that he can be viewed not as an exception to the rule, but someone who shows that the rule can produce the exception. In most genre films focusing on villainy the character’s symptomology is found in personal back story (from Psycho to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, from Silence of the Lambs to Halloween) but here the symptomatic is sociological, with the character less a product of a specifically dysfunctional past, than a figure functioning in the dysfunctional present.
In this sense there is a structuralist dimension to the film, taking into account the always useful distinction between the diachronic and the synchronic, the notion of the analysis of a code, an event, a behaviour etc., through the issue of time versus the examination of structure. When Larrain insists it isn’t too important to know very much about Chile’s history, it is perhaps because he ambitiously wants to propose not its singularity as a Chilean problem, but instead to see it as an issue of given structures in certain circumstances. “If the notion of ‘diachrony’ replaces that of “history” it is precisely in order to emphasize that temporal variations and transformations”, says Josue V. Harari, “obey certain rules and these rules can be systemized”. (Textual Strategies) Rather than examining either personal back story or even Chilean social history, Larrain seems to be asking what brings out the everyday Fascist, taking into account Deleuze’s comment on Foucault’s idea of the infamous man. “The infamous man isn’t defined by excessive evil but etymologically, as an ordinary man, anyone at all, suddenly drawn into the spotlight by some minor circumstance…the infamous man is a particle caught in a shaft of light…” (Jeremie Valentin, Deleuze and Philosophy) It is not greater force of will or a troublesome childhood but the nature of circumstances. What are the given conditions of Raul’s behaviour? We know nothing of his past and nothing even of Chile’s history as the film concentrates on no more than four days in the man’s life. What we can glean from events is that for most of the people hope is linked to US popular culture, and despair resides on the edges of society, in deaths that are barely attended to, to tanks passing through the streets, to muggings casually done, and political beliefs scoffingly dismissed.
However, though we have concentrated on the film’s political allusiveness, it would be remiss to ignore the form in which the film’s content is contained. If there are very loosely two modes in which Latin American cinema has manifested itself in recent years – the narratively driven and the narratively sedate, the obliquely narrational and the obliquely personal – Tony Manero is much closer to the latter than the former. Where City of God, Nine Queens, The Secret in Their Eyes, Amores Perros and Days of Grace are high on their own virtuoso energy; La Cienaga, The Headless Woman, Los Muertos, Liverpool, Paraguyan Hammock and Battle in Heaven are films on the way down, possessing a depressive, determined quality that indicates something rotten in the states they focus upon. Any narrative possibility is secondary to a scrutinizing sense of enquiry. At the beginning here when Raul goes along for an audition, the film isn’t interested in finding a form in which to generate excitement, but searches for a position of maximum scrutiny. Opening on a handheld shot following Raul into the studio, the film holds closely to Raul’s perspective if not quite to his point of view. When Raul spots a figure from TV, Larrain jump cuts to give us a sense of Raul’s sudden burst of hope and energy as he calls out “Enrique”. As a woman at the studio explains the rules of the show to others, the film holds on Raul’s face, capturing well a man interested in his own scheming ways and indifferent to broader realities. Yet the film doesn’t create a style that leads to identification, more to a scrutinized sense of observation. The films stays close but rarely asks us to feel complicit. When Raul sits in the cinema and repeats lines from Saturday Night Fever or uses his hands to copy some of Travolta’s moves, this is discomfort as cinematic gaze, and it is especially pronounced in a scene where Raul dances alone in his underwear. The sequence gives us familiarity without giving us intimacy: it makes us feel present where we ought to be absent, and the film’s purpose seems to be to emphasize this radical non-identification where we’re close to a character throughout, but where our reason for being there seems suspect.
Larrain never quite removes this feeling, since he wants to implicate us in the situation rather than to utilise complicity, wants us to wonder what to think but doesn’t expect to know when we will laugh. Where the Belgian serial killer movie Man Bites Dog found its alibi in black comedy, Tony Manero refuses this immediacy within distance and instead looks always to keep the humour ever so slightly out of reach because the concern is with the political and not with the comedic. If the film played up too easily the comic dimension, then that sense of wondering what we were watching would be alleviated by the punctuated gags. Here is laughter that sticks in the throat as Larrain alludes to the type of political regime he suggests we shouldn’t be able to stomach. Tony Manero works a fine form/content weld to produce in Raul a cinematic monster, a political Frankenstein as the infamous man of politics.