A famous face or tune or quip or saying or photo constitutes the raw material for a shared cultural understanding around the world. Everybody somehow knows “James Bond” or “Mercedes” or “Big Ben” in London or the “Eiffel Tower” in Paris.
Think of the Polish movie masterpiece from the mid-fifties, Kanał by Wajda. It shows the doomed resistance story of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 against the Germans, which followed the Warsaw Ghetto rebellion of a year earlier.
“Kanał” means sewer, and the story takes place in the sewers of Warsaw as this band of resistance fighters tries to avoid being killed by the Germans who still have overwhelming military superiority in weapons, ammunition, etc.
At one point these fighters enter a Polish “bourgeois” home (i.e., great wealth is on display) and one of them, Michal, the classical musician, played by Sheybal (whom you will have seen as a villain in James Bond movies) goes over to the piano they find, a Bechstein, and “plays around” including the famous tango from Uruguay and Argentina, “La cumparsita” (the little parade) which went “viral” (for its time) around 1916-1917 “radiating out” from Uruguay and Argentina.
Famous versions of this tango include Carlos Gardel’s and performances by orchestras led by Juan d’Arienzo, Osvaldo Pugliese and Astor Piazzolla. “La cumparsita” is very popular at milongas; it is a common tradition for it to be played as the last dance of the evening.
The song was named cultural and popular anthem of Uruguay by law in 1997.
Appearances in Movies
Gene Kelly dances to “La cumparsita” in the film Anchors Aweigh (1945). The song was included in a ballroom scene of the film Sunset Boulevard (1950), in which Gloria Swanson and William Holden danced the tango. In the 2006 dance movie Take the Lead, Jenna Dewan, Dante Basco and Elijah Kelley danced to a remixed version.
In the 1959 film Some Like It Hot, “La cumparsita” is played by a blindfolded Cuban band during a scene in which Jack Lemmon dressed in drag dances with overstated flair in the arms of Joe E. Brown who thinks Lemmon is a woman (“Daphne—you’re leading again”). During the filming in 1958, actor George Raft taught the other two men to dance the tango for this scene.
In the Olympic Games of Sydney 2000, the Argentine team marched with the Uruguayan music “La cumparsita.” This originated protests and official claims from the Uruguayan government. The work was also an opening part of an infamous radio drama: The War of the Worlds was broadcast as an episode of the American radio drama anthology series The Mercury Theatre on the Air. It was performed as a Halloween episode of the series on October 30, 1938, and aired over the Columbia Broadcasting System radio network. This was directed and narrated by actor and future filmmaker Orson Welles.
Many artistic gymnasts have used variations of the song as their floor routine soundtracks including Vanessa Atler (1998–99), Jamie Dantzscher (2000), Oana Petrovschi (2001–02), Elvire Teza (1998), Elise Ray (1997–98), Natalia Ziganshina (2000), Maria Kharenkova (2013) and MyKayla Skinner (2011–12). Joannie Rochette skated to the song for her short program during the 2009–2010 season, most famously skating a clean performance at the 2010 Winter Olympics after the sudden death of her mother.
Students should realize as part of an education, thought of in the sense we are introducing here, that the world is an “ambient” ecosystem of these cultural icons, memes and tropes and one should be attune to them and how they connect the world into something like a semi-shared experience.
Notice, say, that the Bechstein piano, played by Michal (Vladek Sheybal) in the movie Kanał (he later goes mad and playing an ocarina, starts reciting lines from Dante and loses his mind) is the name of the Bechstein family which were instrumental in the rise of Hitler. The irony should be part of the student’s viewing experience and should show how “screwy” the world is.
Notice too that there’s an ocarina-playing character in the movie Stalag 17 who’s described as mentally unwell.
All of these aspects are part of the material world and the iconic world and the world of “signs” that are part of our education, understood as ambience of which the campus is one part only.