Tango: cycle of life with 36 disconnected characters from young to old playing out in one room

Zbigniew Rybczinski, “Tango” (1981)

Winner of the 1981 Oscar for Best Animated Short, this 8-minute film is a collection of live-action film clips, all of which are repeated over and over in parallel in an artful way. In a plain setting of a room with three doors, a round wooden table surrounded by benches, a cupboard without a door, a bed in the foreground, a window opposite and a baby’s cot to the right-hand side of the screen (from the viewer’s point of view), a ball is tossed through the sole window into the room. A boy climbs through the window to retrieve the ball and then returns outside the same way. The ball then comes into the room again and the boy repeats his action; almost immediately a woman comes through a door to the left of the window into the room to nurse a baby and then place it in the cot before returning to her original spot through the same door. As with the boy and his ball, the woman repeats her action over and over. With each repetition, new people, one by one, enter the room: a burglar climbs through the window to steal a case on top of the cupboard; a schoolgirl comes into the room to dig about in the cupboard; a courier arrives to place the case on top of the cupboard; various workmen arrive; a man balances upside down on one bench; another man stands on the table to touch the light, screams and falls onto the floor, recovers and goes off with a limp; a naked woman enters the room to put on her clothes; two lovers make out on the bed; an elderly woman lies down on the bed; and somewhere in all of that to-ing and fro-ing, two other women enter the room (separately of course), each with a small child in tow.

Viewers quickly lose track of who goes in and out and does whatever in the meantime. A gorilla could have entered to face the audience, beat its chest with a roar and then exited without being noticed. The crowd of people go about their actions repeatedly without any one of them noticing what everyone else is doing. The courier does not notice that the burglar has stolen his case. The burglar need not have worried about anyone noticing him. The schoolgirl appears to throw something at the burglar but he does not notice. Nobody comments on the naked woman in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen. The two lovers go about their business openly. The man who is electrocuted receives no help. No-one laughs at the fellow doing his headstand on the bench. A workman brings a toilet-bowl into the room. What’s significant here is that people are doing outrageous things and everyone else rushes by!

Eventually people stop performing their obsessive actions and it’s only at the very end that something new happens: there is a connection between an action performed by someone and somebody else noticing the result of that action. But that second person does not know who performed the action that led to the result – because the perpetrator has vanished. This might say something about how fragmented and impersonal our society has become.

Mini-narratives might be seen: the burglar and the courier might be two spies vying for valuable secrets in the case; the lovers are interrupted by another character who flees the scene in distress; workmen come and go. The small children might represent the same child at different ages. An entire cycle of life takes place in the room from the tiny baby being nursed and put into its cot, to children at play or home from school, to young adults finding life partners, to adults at work or caring for children, to elderly people being served dinner or put to rest.

There’s no definite narrative – viewers can interpret the short in different ways. Some might see modern society at its most impersonal and robotic, others might simply see people in all stages of a person’s life-cycle going about their daily activities.

Technically the film is no big deal in this age of computer-generated imagery and it does look dated and flat. Still, it’s quite mesmerising in its own way with a rhythm all its own. The film can bear a certain number of repeat viewings until the viewer registers most of the characters and the mini-narratives being enacted to his/her heart’s content.

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