Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Our men in Havana

Before Night Falls
Strawberry and Chocolate
The Lost City
El Argentine, Che Part I

In the post-post-modern world we live in, fed with everything American, the small island state of Cuba, just miles away from the US of A remains an enigma. Even after so many years, Cuba means commu-nism, Fidel Castro and Che Guevera, and of course, the Havana cigars. Beyond this, the world outside knows next to nothing about the country and its people.
Yes, good ol’ Hollywood has tried its hands in bring Cuba to popular imagination (No, we are not talking about Che Guevera, he is a post-modern anti-establishment icon on his own right; conservative Hollywood has nothing to do with it.), but most of these movies sees the country from outside and portrays it a ‘commie’ state, totalitarian and oppressive. If you want to be your own man, you must leave Cuba, (and come to America, who will give you asylum, of course). So, Tony Montana (Al Pacino) in Brian De Palma’s ‘Scarface’ must leave the country to pursue his American Dream. In films like ‘Bad Boys II’, ‘Miami Vice,’ ‘The Godfather,’ ‘Die Another Day’, Cuba is the breeding ground of drug dealers and mafia.
On the other extreme, it’s the country of lost hopes, which Andy Garcia so succinctly depicts in ‘The Lost City.’ The premise of the film is that Cuba was a great nation until the revolution happened, after which individualism was scarified, so was the arts.
As Garcia’s film bemoans the loss of Cuba, one thing is clear. You cannot have a real picture of the country in films, it’s either black or white — either Cuba is the villain (in which case America will be the hero, from ‘Scarface’ to ‘Before Night Falls’), and if Cuba is the hero (as in Steven Soderbergh’s two part epic on Che Guevera), America is the villain.
Add to that gay rights issues in Cuba, the scene is complicated. A popular document of the gay life and its persecution is Julian Schnabel’s celebrated ‘Before Night Falls, a film based on the autobiography of Reinaldo Arenas, a Cuban author and an avowed homosexual who had to escape to America to survive the persecution. Despite Javier Bardem’s powerhouse performance (he was nominated for an Oscar), the film somehow did not work for me. (I cannot find fault in Schnabel either. He is an excellent director. The 2007 film ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ is the ample prove.) For me, the problem was that it identified the revolution and the revolutionaries as the villain very early in the film. You agree with the reality of the situation, but why do you have to rub it insistently. The problem was, the film saw Arenas from the outside, and invited us to sympathise with him, even if we did not want to.
And, the fact that the film is in English, with Bardem speaking with Spanish accent does not help the case either.
This brings us to the other film, which actually prompted me to write this piece. The film in question is ‘Strawberry and Chocolate.’ Called ‘Fresa y Chocolate’ it’s a Cuban-Spanish-Mexican co-produced, directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío, based on the short story "The Wolf, The Forest and the New Man" written by Senel Paz in 1990.
What’s great about the film is that it catches you unawares, and it never unfolds the way it expects. Diego is gay, slightly effeminate, and a writer and artist. He meets David, who is nursing a heartbreak after his girlfriend is married. Diego tries to seduce David, but the things are not easy as they look. David is a communist, committed to the revolution, whereas Diego wants to live his life the way he wants, reading foreign magazines, drinking red label... As the film progresses we see how the two ideologies, the pro and anti-establishment collide on a humane level and cements the bond of friendship. Diego learns to accepts the rules, David learns to break them... This is where it scores over ‘Before Night Falls,’ which takes a long romantic look on a man’s life, without actually trying to un-derstand what’s going on.
Now, Arenas escapes to America. Even Diego plans to do so. But Diego says he’ll miss Cuba. But for Arenas, US was freedom. But, is it?
Homosexuality is a problem whether its a socialist or a capitalist society. The foundation is every society is marriage and family, something that a queer ideology dismisses, and thus, a queer becomes a threat which must be eliminated.
Talking about the black and white representation of Cuba, even Steven Soderbergh’s near-masterpiece cannot avoid being one-sided. In ‘The Lost City’ the fall of Batista’s fall is a major event. But in ‘El Argentine’ (Part I of the Che movies), this is just a news.
Tailpiece: ‘Our men in Havana’ is an ‘entertainment’ by Graham Greene, which was made into a film in 1959, directed by Carol Reed and starring Alec Guinness. The film was actually shot in Havana.

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