“Tony Manero” is the kind of name that will instantly ring a bell. It will also leave most people scratching their heads. “Where have I heard that name before?” they’ll wonder for a few seconds before finally realizing that Tony Manero was the 19-year-old Italian American disco king played by John Travolta in the 1978 classic Saturday Night Fever.
Saturday Night Fever, as I have previously argued, was not only an international blockbuster that brought the disco culture to the masses, it was genuinely great film that dramatized the crackup of the sexual revolution at the end of the 1970s. What people remember about Saturday Night Fever, however, is not the highly intelligent screenplay that deftly analyzed the toxic masculinity and rape culture of working-class, Italian American Brooklyn, but Travolta himself, who had so much star power and so much sexual charisma that we sometimes forget his character, a frustrated nobody who worked in a paint store, even existed.
Tony Manero, Pablo Larraín’s 2008 film about life in Santiago, Chile under the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, revolves around just this kind of conflation of John Travolta’s character with Travolta himself. It’s 1978, only five years after the coup in 1973, and Pinochet’s secret police are still mopping up the last remnants of Chile’s once mighty social democratic left. There’s an air of fear and squalor, and hopelessness. Alfredo Castro, who bears a striking resemblance to Al Pacino, plays Raúl Peralta, a 52-year-old unemployed loser who’s so obsessed with Saturday Night Fever that his only dream in life is to win a Tony Manero lookalike contest at a local TV station. If Travolta’s Tony Manero was a frustrated nobody who worked in a paint store, then at least he was a young, good-looking, frustrated nobody, and more importantly, at least he was good at something. Raúl Peralta on the other hand is a nasty little middle-aged man who has no style, no grace, no charisma, and who almost breaks his kneecaps every time he tries to imitate Travolta’s iconic moves on the dance floor. If Tony Manero is a one-joke movie, it’s also one very funny joke. As we watch this evil little troll lie, steal, loot dead bodies, even kill, do anything and everything just to win a contest on what’s basically Pinochet’s answer to the Gong Show, we are forced to come to only one conclusion. Raul Peralta is no Tony Manero.
When he directed Tony Manero back in 2008, Pablo Larraín was a thirty-two-year old TV director making his first feature length movie. A member of Chile’s wealthy, ultra-conservative ruling class – his father is Hernán Larraín, the former President of the Chilean Senate – Larraín, like so many radicals from wealthy families, wanted to Épater la bourgeoisie, to shock the kind of “respectable” people like his parents who had colluded with the United States to entomb their country in a decades long, fascist dictatorship. Do you see this fucked up society? he seems to be saying to his parents. Do you see this joyless pile of shit? You did this.
Pablo Larraín has made a better movie than he intended. Raul Peralta aspires to the status of an American icon, and fails grotesquely, hideously, obscenely. Yet, a deeper reading of Saturday Night Fever, one that gets underneath its marketing hook as “the disco movie” and ignores Travolta’s charisma, reveals that Peralta isn’t quite so different from Tony Manero as Larraín’s film would have us believe. Raul Peralta is a thief and a murderer. Tony Manero is a rapist. Peralta stands by and watches Pinochet’s secret police murder political dissidents, then loots their bodies. Tony Manero stands by and does nothing as a the awkward, overweight, insecure young woman who loves him was brutally gang raped in the back seat of his car. Neither Tony Manero nor Raul Perolta has trouble finding women who will sleep with him, but in both cases it doesn’t really matter. Manero hates himself so much that he can’t be attracted to any woman who’s attracted to him. So he falls hopelessly in love with a snobbish, abusive, uneducated shrew who probably somewhere deep down inside reminds him of his mother, a joyless, pious Catholic who hates her son for the very reasons almost every other woman in Brooklyn seems to worship him. Raul Perolta’s problem is a lot simpler. He’s impotent. That shriveled little, certainly little, fifty-two year old penis can no longer get an erection.
If Saturday Night Fever’s Tony Manero is both the embodiment and yet also the victim of the crackup of the American sexual revolution, Tony Manero’s Raul Peralta is the embodiment, and perhaps the villain of Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, the kind of insignificant little man whose joyless, unimaginative life makes fascism possible. Both fascism and neoliberalism require the death of eros and the triumph of thanatos. The counterculture in the United States ended with one massacre at Kent State by the Ohio National and another by in Southern California by Charles Manson. Chile’s great experiment with social democracy ended with an even bigger massacre in Santiago’s National Soccer Stadium on September 18, 1973, the week after the murder of Salvador Allende. By the late 1970s the dream was over, not only in Chile, where it was brutally obvious, but also in the United States, where it was cloaked by a thousand layers of advertising and propaganda. In 1978 the typical American and the typical Chilean was living in a pile of spiritual and cultural shit. He had just witnessed the orchestrated destruction of the democratic promise of the 1960s. This was the world of my childhood. Pablo Larraín has reminded me of just how much I still hate it.