I Am Cuba (October 23, 1996)

Port Townsend, Washington, 10/17/96 — If there really is a culture war raging in the US — right vs. left, hippies vs. rednecks, New Age vs. Old Country, etc., this little town of 7,000 people is a prime example. In the upcoming County Commissioners' election, good ol' boy property-rights factions are pitted against younger, seemingly well-meaning liberal Nice People, and though the difference between them is about as meaningful as the difference between Dole and Clinton, passions are running high. Us and Them, Them and Us.

The local restaurants illustrate the culture gap rather graphically. For every steak, burger and beer place (there's even a joint that boasts elk and ostrich meat), there's a corresponding eatery that features white wine, brown rice and arugula or sprouts and tofu. Who eats where tells you who votes for whom.

Even the two movie theaters in town can be easily defined as “right” and “left.” The older, Uptown theater seems to take whatever the mainstream distributor throws at it, which pretty much means a steady diet of crap: Disney, Schwartzenegger, Stallone and Willis.

Downtown it's another matter entirely. The Rose Theater, closed and boarded since the 40s or 50s, was meticulously restored and re-opened a few years ago by a gentle, quiet intellectual movie buff (complete with wire-rim glasses, that prominent badge of the politically correct) who brings in “quality,” foreign, “art” and independent films.

This week, at the urging of a friend, I went to see “I Am Cuba” at the Rose. Townsend (that's the friend's name, nothing to do with the name of the town) told me it was a Russian propaganda movie from the early 60s.

The Rose is one of those places where someone, often the theater owner himself, comes out before the picture and gives a little talk about it. We learned that “I Am Cuba” is distributed by two really big Hollywood names, Francis Ford Coppolla and Martin Scorsese, who say the movie is “too important” to go unseen by American audiences. I always wince when I hear the word “important” applied to entertainment or art. This stems from the first time Rolling Stone magazine called an album by the Grateful Dead or Rolling Stones “important” when really, it was just another record. We are also told (speaking of music trivia) that the singer in the film's nightclub scene “went on to become the falsetto singer in the Platters.” Which would mean someone had a time machine because “I Am Cuba” was made late enough to have '59 model cars in it, and the Platters had their big hits in the mid- to late-50s. But the little talk also included something about “amazing cinematography,” and on this they were right.

The Russian approach to moviemaking could hardly be more different from the American. I've only seen one Russian movie before this, a sci-fi thing called “Solaris,” and it was very, very slow. When the characters went somewhere in a car, the audience was along for the whole ride, even if it took 15 minutes. No dialog, just the road as a passenger sees it, mile after mile. “I Am Cuba” opens with a long, drawn-out aerial shot of palm trees and shoreline. When the camera finally settles on a small fishing village, it's through a fish-eye lens and almost made me dizzy at first.

The movie takes the audience through different strata of Cuban life: a nightclub where rich, arrogant Americans choose between the poor women forced into prostitution by evil American capitalism, to a university campus where earnest young people are spreading the word of Fidel and one of them is killed in a demonstration, to a cane field where the kindly old sugar grower is booted out by the heartless landowner who has sold out to United Fruit, to the Sierra Maestra where a poor, peaceful farmer's eyes are opened by Battista's bombs and he joins the rebel band.

My favorite scene is one in which a dozen or so American sailors are swaggering down a Havana street, singing in heroic self-praise. They bump into an innocent woman, and encircle her threateningly, obviously intent on gang-raping her. She runs and finds her boyfriend nearby. The sailors approach them angrily, but in a rare moment of humanity decide not to harm them. I have to say they had the sailors' hubris down pat, but as Townsend pointed out later, that's a universal military trait, not just American.

All in all, standard propaganda stuff, predictably ending in the rebels marching gloriously, flags in hand and smiles on faces, as the voice of Cuba drones on with stock leftist clichés.

The soundtrack is confusing at first, then funny. Characters talk in Spanish and English, a Russian translation is layered on top of it all, and the subtitles are in English. You hear an actor say, “lime-ade,” and the Russian translation follows, and the subtitles say “soft-drink.” You're getting English to Russian and then back to English through an obviously different translator.

However, all this aside, this movie contained some of the most astounding camera work I've ever seen. There were a lot of very effective angled film noir-type shots, pretty damn artistic for a bunch of godless Russkies, I'd say. Some of the shots seemed impossible, especially considering the technology of the time; yet there they were. From a city crowd scene the camera rises up four or five stories, moves to the right, enters a building, goes through a roomful of office workers and out through an arched doorway on the opposite wall, continuing in mid-air to follow the parade another block or so. All without an edit or break in continuity.

When Townsend called to get my take on “I Am Cuba,” I told him I've never before seen a movie that was at once so well-made and imaginative, and so boring.

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