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His Light Materials: Puig, Film, and “Gruesome Tangos”

I hope some of you are reading and digging Manuel Puig’s Betrayed by Rita Hayworth. In my first post, I talked about the disorienting opening of the novel, which thrusts us right into the middle of pages of dialogue without any sense of how many characters are talking or who they are. The book then goes on to various other chapters of dialogue, including a one-sided phone conversation, and after that into various internal monologues from the “main character,” Toto (it is difficult to call him that in a novel which is so decentered), as well as from other characters in the village of Vallejos. If you are on the fence about reading or reluctant because of the difficulties, I’m here to vouch that .

By the end of the book, if my own experience is in any way generalizable, you’ll want to go back to the opening chapters with some new insight, and will have the experience of being in a country that you’ve lived in for a few months–you may not pick up on every reference, every idiomatic toss-off, but you’ll grasp a lot more than the first time when you were struggling just to stay with the pages.

There are several topics I’d like to raise for future posts, among them Puig’s ventriloquism as put on display in these monologues, and the book’s loose structure, which felt to me, at times, almost arbitrary. Yes, the book sticks (mostly) to chronology, and yes, it runs the stylistic gamut from the dialogue and monologues to an anonymous note to the principal and the commonplace book of a young female Peronist, but it never establishes a rhythm; by the end, one feels that the next section could be in almost any form.

But for now I want to direct your attention to what I think is a very illuminating interview with Puig, conducted by Jorgelina Corbatta and published in The Review of Contemporary Fiction in the Fall of 1991, shortly after Puig’s death. The interview is here, and I highly recommend reading it all, but wanted to pick out some choice quotes because for one reason or another I found them provocative or memorable.

Whenever I write, I’m always thinking of the reader. I write for somebody who has my own limitations. My reader has a certain difficulty with concentrating, which in my case comes from being a film viewer.

I found this ironic insofar I had a tough time concentrating at various intervals while reading Rita Hayworth, sometimes because of the unattributed and unremitting dialogue, and sometimes because of the density of monologues without resting points.

MP: I don’t have traceable literary models because I haven’t had great literary influences in my life. Instead, that space has been occupied by cinematographic influences. I believe that if you looked into it deeply, you could find an influence by Ernest Lubitch in a few of my structures, by Joseph von Sternberg in the need for a certain atmosphere. Also Alfred Hitchcock. Otherwise … I don’t know. Of the modern writers, I like William Faulkner and Franz Kafka very much. Yet that doesn’t mean I have read them in an exhaustive or passionate fashion.

For me, parody means mockery, and I don’t mock my characters. I share with them a number of things, among them their language and their taste.

JC: With whom do you share a style?

MP: Sorry, but I don’t know much about literature.

JC: And in film?

MP: In film I believe I have certain affinities with Dishonored by von Sternberg, made in 1932, with Marlene Dietrich. Whenever I see this movie, I think, “Wow, there’s a lot I share with it.”

Here’s the end of Dishonored, a film I haven’t seen. But watching the clip, it’s difficult not to think of the film version of Kiss of the Spider Woman. Apart from the fact that she is making art as a way of staving off the realities of prison, much like William Hurt’s character spinning stories in Spider Woman, if you study Dietrich’s bravado, the dignity and uncompromising femininity she keeps as she goes before a shooting squad, it’s hard not to find parallels with Hurt’s character’s celebration of his own queerness/femininity. (Total aside: kudos to von Sternberg for the shot of the shadows of guns on the skins of the drums.)

MP: I am very interested in what has been called “bad taste.” I believe that the fear of displaying a soi-disant bad taste stops us from venturing into special cultural zones, some of which are even beyond bad taste. I am very interested in those areas and I allow my intuition to lead my path toward them. For instance, in the gruesomeness of certain tangos I see the possibility of a different kind of poetry. I am also attracted to the excessive sentimentalism of a certain kind of cinema. I wonder, what’s beyond that? What kind of audience uses these products? What kind of intellectual or intuitive need is satisfied with this type of “culture”? Yes, I’m interested in exploring the different manifestations of bad taste. But of course, not with a cold approach. I am only interested in bad taste if I can enjoy a gruesome tango or watch a movie that makes me cry.

I wonder if there are parallels here between Puig and John Waters, that other noted celebrant of bad taste, who said,

To me, bad taste is what entertainment is all about. If someone vomits while watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation. But one must remember that there is such a thing as good bad taste and bad bad taste.

I’m not sure that they mean the same thing by bad taste–in some ways, Waters seems to lean more toward the (im)purely lurid, an anti-Hollywood aesthetic, Puig toward the glitziness of Hollywood, but maybe they are alike in their embracing of “scorned objects.” Corbatta quotes Puig’s narrator in The Buenos Aires Affair in the interview:

Flotsam, I only dared to love flotsam, anything else was too much to dare hope for. I returned home and began to talk—in a whisper so as not to wake up mama—with a discarded slipper, with a bathing cap in shreds, with a torn piece of newspaper, and I started to touch them and to listen to their voices. That was my work of art, to bring together scorned objects to share with them a moment of life, or life itself. That was my work.

And in his response to being quoted, Puig affirms that this is, indeed, a valid way of describing his own outlook on the purposes of his art.

One thing that’s striking, however, about reading Betrayed by Rita Hayworth against the backdrop of this interview is that for all of Puig’s avowed adoration of cinema and its icons and tearjerkers, the novel is not particularly cinematic at all. It is, on the contrary, highly auditory, not very visual, with most of its effects those of speech, writing, or thought. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that Puig was trying–and failing–to write screenplays around this time, and it wasn’t until he turned away from that endeavor and began focusing on transcribing the talk he remembered from childhood that he began to get acclaim for his work. It also seems to me that the book is pretty unsentimental as well. And though Puig puts on an aura of anti-intellectualism at times, passages in RH get downright heady, with references to Schopenhauer and to the absurdity of everyday existence, i.e. in addition to watching films, Toto (as an adolescent) has been reading his Camus. In other words, I think, as with any author, it’s important to maintain some distinction between Puig’s self-perception and perhaps self-mythologizing, and what is actually transpiring in his work.

Regardless, “gruesome tango” is my new favorite phrase, so I wanted to close with a couple of tango clips. The first is more of what one would expect from a tango, but the second is unusual. It is titled “Tango in Yiddish,” and brings out the overlap between klezmer music and the music of the Argentine (or Uruguayan) tango, and exposes the music’s thick crosscultural roots. Moreover, the band performing it does so over film clips from the German film “Amerikaner Schadchen,” or “American Matchmaker,” about a closeted gay man in New York who, in coded language, conveys to the audience (but not the woman he is offering to make a match for) that he is gay. In short, Puig would have appreciated this film, I think, on more levels than one.

  • Tim Horvath is the author of Understories, which won the New Hampshire Literary Award, and Circulation (sunnyoutside press), and is working on a novel entitled The Spinal Descent.

3 thoughts on “His Light Materials: Puig, Film, and “Gruesome Tangos”

  1. Nice one Tim.

    Though I have to sit on the bench during the reading of this book, I very much appreciate Puig and his parle. The idea of being more influenced by the cinema is pleasing.

    Image, mood and tempo seep into me from films in different ways than books. The overlay of music on the image also compliments and complicates the situation.

    1. Thanks, Greg. I agree with you on the idea of being influenced by the cinema…my guess is that Puig downplayed his reading and upplayed his movie intake a bit, just given my experience of the text. But I like how he opens up this possibility. Last year I taught (and will teach again this fall) a class called Cinefiction in which we tried to think through different ways of incorporating the cinematic in writing. I’d like to do some more thinking about how movies are used in this book and reread some of the sections where films are mentioned, summarized, etc.

      By the way, the interview is pretty fascinating even if you don’t have time to read RH this month.

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