12 Tangos and three sappy stories   7 comments

12 Tangos and three sappy stories
Two years after its celebrated release in German and Japanese cinemas, Arne Birkenstock‘s documentary feature “12 Tangos – Adios Buenos Aires” has been finally released for the international audiences in a DVD-edition with a Spanish, German and an English versions and many extras on it. The film is directly distributed via its website www.12tangos.com. This novel approach to film distribution deserves praise for leading the way into new forms of bringing art film  to the masses bypassing the profit centers of corporate conglomerates. Through a very aggressive direct email approach requesting help in promoting the documentary the director and producer asked, among other things, for articles and critical reviews.

The film tracks the personal tribulations of two families as they deal with the 2001 economic crisis and the perils of emigration. Daily life scenes acted out by the people in question are interlaced with dance and music scenes filmed at a dance venue called “La Catedral” where an orchestra featuring Jose Libertella, Luis Borda and Pablo Mainetti provide the dozen tangos that serve as bookmarks for the documentary . Singers Lidia Borda, Jorge Sobral and Maria de la Fuente provide some of the best musical moments of film, which includes some of the last moving images taken as well from Jose Libertella and Jorge Sobral.

My expectations were high. The kind of expectations you get when invited to dine at Commander’s Palace‘s kitchen. In paper, 12 Tangos, Adios Buenos Aires promised to be a great documentary. It does have superb photography, the music is very good showing that being modern doesn’t mean straying from the roots. But the main course was just way off the expected culinary feat.

The late Roberto Tonet, a.k.a. El aleman plays a veteran show dancer turned teacher of a young girl preparing to emigrate to France. Along the way Tonet is shown talking to the camera while sucking mate through a silver metal straw. His personal loss of his retirement savings during the 2001 financial crisis is his main story line. He’s also cast as a sort of Jack La Lane, wondering out loud in a lesson on tango fitness if today’s young dancers can twist their bodies and touch the ground with one knee. Yes, they can.

The pitfall of trying to tackle politics in a foreign country is acting foolishly and sounding foreigner. Resorting to outdated cliches is a turn off, and focusing on a handful of stereotypes out of millions inhabitants provides a sappy interlude to a dozen musical video clips.

Mr. Birkenstock lost me the first time the voice over narrator said, “You can find the history of Buenos Aires in the telephone book.” Whatever point he wanted to get across is still a mystery to me, but that didn’t stop him from having the phrase repeated several times during the film. Those who’ll be watching and thinking they are being educated in the socioeconomic strata of Argentine society be aware, immigrants didn’t invent the tango.

The film leaves the impression that Buenos Aires is a collage of shanty towns with elementary school kids well versed in economics. The choreographed milonga setting is fake with music that is never heard at a real milonga. Argentinos have emigrated in masses at various periods in the history of the country, for political and social reasons but never because they have Italians grandparents. And those who stay, thanks God, don’t all dance the tango.

Even in times of crisis, Buenos Aires is an amazing city vibrant and alive with incredible architecture and enormous amount of cultural activities available to everyone at no charge. The people of Buenos Aires don’t consider teaching tango to be a job and those who have a college degree in classical or modern dance have only moved into the tango after the city government took over the business of tango for export.

Realizing that most people wouldn’t understand the disappointment of being served Popeye‘s chicken tenders at Commander’s Palace‘s kitchen, let me say that 12 Tangos, Adios Buenos Aires is a narrow look at a period of real crisis that uses as a background to good musical numbers the sappy story of an obscure tango dancer’s ordeal trying to emigrate to Paris, the non related story of a mother who leaves her whole family behind to go work as a domestic in Spain, and the sad circumstances of Roberto Tonet, having lost his life savings and his home, passing shortly after the film was released. The voice over and the subtitles have softened the stereotypes voiced by the characters in the original language.

Get a copy of 12 Tangos, Adios Buenos Aires and enjoy the music segments, even if you at first don’t get the historical relevance of Maria de la Fuente and Jorge Sobral and the significance of seeing Jose Libertella squeezing and stretching the bellows of his bandoneon. If you can resist the temptation to stereotype Argentines or go off the mouth repeating “tango history factoids” from this film, the tango and those in the stands will thank you.

7 responses to “12 Tangos and three sappy stories

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  1. 12 tangos: sad – yes, soap opera – no. If it was a one, I would not have enjoyed it. None of the characters are stuck in their misery: they are doing something to cope with whatever happened to them and to get out of this situation. And they are doing it with a great deal of humor.
    It is a great production, not a Tango for Export piece with the stylized turn-of-the-20th-century decor and costumes. Plenty of that have been done and it is tiring. The history of culture (tango in this case) is created out of the lives of the people and the political fortunes and misfortunes of their country. That’s what you see in 12 tangos – the messy, sad stuff of life out of which the modern tango is being made.
    And, yes, the soundtrack is gorgeous. I wish the tango DJs would have played the music along those lines at the milongas.

  2. There is so much room available in the tango for anybody to create their own fantasies. My contribution is meant to challenge stereotypes and to present a reality based on direct personal knowledge and experience. The modern tango is not made out of the messy and sad stuff of life.

  3. “Strike!”, Firulete (whoever is the person behind that name), one should say– you really wrote a snappy review there. The music was great, the photography superb as you say yourself but still you write a throughoutly unfair review in a very agressive tone, full of „mala onda“ and with a bunch of severe accusations towards the filmmaker.
    Starting with the phone-book-quote. It is marked clearly in the film as a quote from Bruce Chatwin and it deals with the history of Buenos Aires, not Argentina. It is not repeated once in the film. The entire off-commentary in the movie sums up to only two minutes (out of 90), why do you make such a fuss about it anyway? For me it is a strength of that film that Birkenstock does NOT comment on everything the people say and that he permits them to speak for themselves. I am fed up with all these films who explain everything to us.
    Then you talk about a fake Milonga: When I was in Buenos Aires, „La Catedral“ existed and they did play all kinds of music. Looking at the images it seems that they filmed some time during the “real” milonga and some other time without milonga-audience. What is “fake” about that?
    You find the stories of Roberto, the little girl and Marcela were sappy and vane. I thought they were very touching and well connected to music and dance. I never had the feeling somebody wanted to tell me that these are „the“ one and only typical argentines or that they alone explain the sentiment or substance of tango. But they do give you some kind of an idea of a certain part of tango and a certain part of reality in Buenos Aires. What did you expect? A statistical survey, well representative? It’s a film!
    And it finally is a film on tango which does not dig out the old clichés of macho and whore who dance in a cloud of steam in the middle of plaza san telmo while we listen to a tango arranged in golden age style. One of the many strengths of this film is that it does NOT continue with the always same stereotypes on Argentina and Tango. No! Luckily this film deals with real people and their real problems today, and tries to link today’s reality with today’s tango-scene. Great! I loved it! You do not need to agree with every single detail in order to enjoy that approach and its result on screen!
    Than the musicians: You ask fort he historical relevance of Maria de la Fuente and Jorge Sobral and the significance of Libertella playing the bandoneon. Why has there to be a historical relevance? These shots are about artists and their passion for their art. They are wonderful and of a strength you seldomly see. I did not need any historical relevance to enjoy them throughoutly!
    I do not know if you have any personal problem with Mr. Birkenstock but that would be the only possible explanation for your very unfair critique which peaks in the accusation he betrayed his audience by selling a fictional film as a Documentary. Wow! That is strong! Do you have any proof for that? If not – I believe it explains more about you than about “12 TANGOS” if you state such a severe accusation without a proof or even signing your „review“ with a real name.
    It is up to each ones taste to like or dislike a piece of art but one should stay fair and just about the effort, even if it is in a critical sense. I enjoyed “12 Tangos” and you did not. That is fine. However – maybe we could agree that it is a professional piece of art which would deserve a professional review too.

    • Your opinions are well received and your mastery of conclusion jumping is admirable.
      – A fake milonga is one that it is staged for filming purposes.
      – There is no word “betrayal” in the review, only in your subconscious as you betray intolerance for things that don’t fit your personal world.
      – You may consider changing your source of information from fortune cookies to something more reliable since Golden age is not a style but a period of time.
      – I’m not asking for any historical relevance, I’m merely suggesting that there is one. Of course, don’t let me confuse you with the facts because it might distract you from living your own tango fantasy.
      – I don’t have any personal problem with anybody. Do you? Actually Mr. Birkenstock insisted that we review his work.

  4. Again, that speaks for itself;-) There must be some very strong feelings involved, Mr. Firulete.I am sorry to have irritated you that much!

    • My good man or woman,

      I hope engaging in silly attacks brings some excitement to your day. I also hope you bought many copies of the DVD and sent them to all who admire your fortune cookie based knowledge of tango tales. (yawn)

  5. Well, thanks for the review, Alberto and Valorie, thanks for the praise, Elmira and thanks for your not at all “silly” defense on my behalf, Livian – A friend just pointed out your little debate to me and I am happy that the film gives reason for some discussion! I leave the details to everybodies taste and knowledge… Anyway I hereby delare that this film is a documentary feature with real stories. I also would like to point out that I did not mean to be “very agressive” when asking for reviews. I just wanted to ask for help.

    Tango is a wonderful and complex thing! Enjoy it – however you define it!



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