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‘Tango’ Short Film Critique: Overlapping Routines as a Collective Ritual

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A short essay for my Film Theory and Criticism Class

Filmmaker Zbigniew Rybczyński presents his critically acclaimed 1981 Polish short film “Tango” as a rhythmic play set in a stage that gradually progresses. It begins with a vaguely minimalist room where there are three points of entrance and exit: two doors and a window. These points become the gateways of a plethora of characters that initially starts with easily recognizable parts until each one’s repetitive acts create layer after layer of intertwined interactions as more and more characters enter and exit the confined room. These diverse characters criss-cross one another but they seem to be oblivious to the other characters on frame. They have no interactions – each one has his/her own universe. Each universe loops, while adding to the beat of the larger whole. 

This 8-minute film shows the power of repetition and condensing time and space as different people move around in the same room, as if very short stories of the personal things they do inside a house (domestic chores, preparing to go outside, or wrapping up things after being outside) happen in layers. There is a sort of collective randomness to the ritual-like motion of the characters on screen, each one entering and exiting to the tune of tango. They overlap one another in a randomly orchestrated dance of life. As the film progresses, more and more people fill the room that the viewer is eventually unable to track them, forcing the spectator to watch the entire frame instead of merely focusing on specific elements on screen. Where the eyes look would be largely dependent to the viewer as s/he examine the details and sensibilities of this mysterious room – with some attempt to demystify such a “small world.” As noted in French film critic and film theorist Andre Bazin’s realism, the use of depth of field, long takes, and locked framing is very apparent in this film. Indeed, all these paves way to “a more active mental attitude on the part of the viewer, who could now explore more fully the interpretive and moral ambiguity inherent in the film image.”

On the technical side of things, the cut-out treatment in this animation and live-action piece works well in conveying a different universe for the spectator to examine. The camera is in a lock-frame position, working like theater. In the tradition of George Melies who revolutionized the use of cinema during his time by creating illusions with the aid of techniques that were then unexplored during his time, this film reflects the formalist tendency in making the audience look beyond their search for narrative elements to complete their understanding of the film. Cinematic coding aids the spectator in trying to make sense of the elements on screen more than just a matter or recognizing similarities of the images in real life. Considering how it doesn’t utilize dialogue and instead capitalizes on musical score and diegetic sounds present in the scenes, this film allows a construction of a spectator’s own meaning systems beyond what a unified grammar can offer.

Related Readings (Film Theory and Criticism):

Film Theory and Criticism: Looking beyond the Vestiges of Film Language

The Rise of the Seventh Art: Cinema as Art and Language with Andre Bazin

Cinema as an Invention, Art, and Idealistic Phenomenon with Andre Bazin

The Essence of Realism Through the Photographic Image with Andre Bazin

The Evolution of the Contemporary Film from Reading Classical Narrative and Spectacle Cinema to Defying and Deconstructing Through Counter and Art Cinema

The Evolution of Cinema and the Film Language with Alexandre Astruc

Sigfried Kracauer’s Photographic Reality, Cinematic Illusion, and Everything Else in Between

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Rianne Hill I. Soriano
Rianne Hill Soriano is a freelance production artist working as a director, writer, educator, and consultant in film and commercial productions. 
https://www.riannehillsoriano.com
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