Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Andy Garcia's "The Lost City": A Movie Review.

Unfortunately, the paragraph spacing in this review has been altered (I guess) by spyware or software, directed at this blog in response to my review of this movie or for other reasons. The image may be blocked. Hackers may tamper with the text, but I will do my best to correct the problems. Writers who describe similar experiences of censorship include Reinaldo Arenas in Castro's Cuba and Jacobo Timmerman in Argentina, under the generals. The first author was tortured by Communists; the second by Fascists. Otherwise, their experiences were similar. Regrettably, many Cuban-Americans favor exactly the same methods against those with whom they disagree as were used against them in Cuba, except that these Cuban-Americans wish to torture their fellow citizens in America. ("'Che': A Movie Review" and "Fidel Castro's 'History Will Absolve Me.'")

Cubanazos may be expected to alter the capitalizing of the word "Revolution," something which I have corrected several times. Any number of possible further defacements of the text are possible and expected. Let us hope that they will continue to assist me in proving my accusations against them in Coral Gables and Union City.

"There are certain cities, strange to the first view, nearer to the heart than home ... approaching Havana in the morning ... I had a premonition that what I saw was of peculiar importance to me."

Ernest Hemingway
I saw Andy Garcia's The Lost City yesterday evening. This is a movie that one should only see in the evening, as the light is fading, because one of its important themes is the fragility of memory. The home movie seen by the central character at the end of the story is made of his own memories, which also constitute the cinematic text presented to the audience. I plan to review the movie. I do so with some misgivings, however, since anything that I say about this film or its subject will displease someone. My goal, as a writer, is to be as accurate to my understanding of the work of art as possible. It is very likely that I will displease everyone who expects some kind of party line from me. I am not a member of any party.
An "error" was inserted in this essay-review since my previous reading of the text. That "error" is not found in print versions of this essay. I surmise that Cuban-Americans are responsible for this censorship and alteration of copyrighted works. I am embarassed to realize that America and the world may judge the Cuban-American community by the actions of such thugs. Castro is an improvement over such people.
This is a movie, folks, and not a position paper on the Cuban Revolution. (I will capitalize "Revolution" only when referring to one of the "great" specific national uprisings of the modern period.) The movie is a work of art, with an explicit political and historical interpretation, certainly, but one which succeeds or fails as cinema, aesthetically, not as a tract for one particular reading of a complex history.
No one movie can tell the whole truth about a huge historical event, like Cuba's twentieth century revolution, which is for Latin America -- and maybe for the Third World -- what the French Revolution has been for Europe during the past two centuries. It will take many films to tell the "whole" story, if there is such a thing, of Cuba and the Revolution. Only time will allow that full truth to emerge.
I say this in defense of Andy Garcia, whose courage in making an independent film -- with a controversial view of a contested history of struggle, seeking to come to terms with important meanings in his own life -- deserves our respect and admiration, whatever one believes about Cuban society. This is his film, his truth, his interpretation of history and he is entitled to it as well as to communicate it. A different film -- from the opposite perspective -- might be made. And that other film could point to different facts, just as true, to support its interpretation of events. This is irrelevant to the assessment of Andy Garcia's movie.
Those who deny such complexity are not living in the real world of divided human motives, uncertainties, mixed blessings and tragedy. No, this is not to suggest that "there is no truth." It is to make the obvious -- but necessary -- point that historical truth is complex and revealed only in fragments, to different people, inhabiting different corners of the political landscape. For this reason, we need art. Art gives us an imagined unity and meaning that allows us to understand large historical events and movements as well as their significance in our lives.
This is a good movie which you should see. I plan to see it again and to get the DVD, as soon as it is available. It is interesting and mature. It is not about car crashes and pornographic violence or special effects. The film is a character-driven, nuanced, thoughtful attempt to come to terms with what happened in Cuba, from the perspective of one comfortable middle class family torn apart by events, not all that different from the families of many Cuban-Americans and exiles now living in the United States, including mine.
The script, which had some problems (surprisingly), was written by Guillermo Cabrera-Infante, a successful Cuban novelist. This is an ambitious work of art, which captures one's interest, despite its flaws. Incidentally, there is no such thing as a perfect movie. The literary sources for Cabrera-Infante are the great Russians, Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago casts a long shadow over this text, but also the Cuban novelist Jose Lezama Lima's Paradiso is an offstage presence. The Afro-Cuban dancer providing a warning to the protagonist might have come from the imagination of Lezama-Lima. Stylistically, both Francis Ford Coppolla and Sydney Pollack have influenced the film-maker, more the former than the latter. There is also a European feel to the pace of the movie and the cinematography is reminiscent of Italian neo-realism.
In organizing what I wish to say, I hope to get the political issues out of the way first. Many reviewers in the U.S. were shocked to see the affluence and literate conversations among Cuba's comfortable middle class, in anticipation of the revolution ("wasn't everyone a starving barefoot peasant?"), so I will provide some factual details to support Mr. Garcia's focus. Next I will examine the symbols used in this work, cinematic references, literary references and musical punctuation of the themes explored by Mr. Garcia. I will conclude by summarizing the interpretation offered to viewers, assess the performances of the actors, provide my opinion and some suggestions to those interested in alternative views of these events.
What are the facts?
One of the best accounts of the revolution in English is Hugh Thomas's massive The Cuban Revolution. Cabrera-Infante's collection Mea Cuba is recommended also, as are the writings of both Fidel Castro and Ernesto "Che" Guevara, which are essential reading for all students of this episode in world history, whatever one thinks of those two men. "Che" means "what?" in Italian. It is usually interrogative in Argentinian-accented Spanish, which is beautiful by the way.
The society that Andy Garcia's film depicts and describes did indeed exist. I saw the remnants of it as a child. In fact, this was both blessing and curse. The revolution is incomprehensible without understanding this situation. For a neutral source, consider UNESCO's report on Cuba of 1957: "One feature of the Cuban social structure is a large middle class." According to some sources about 60% of the Cuban population, which enjoyed a higher standard of living than Italy in 1957, identified itself as "middle class." Like the French Revolution, Cuba's uprising was a middle class revolution led by a Lawyer (Fidel) and a doctor ("Che"), involving all sectors of the society:
"Cuban workers are more unionized (proportional to the population) than U.S. workers. The average wage for an 8-hour day in Cuba in 1957 is higher than for workers in Belgium, Denmark, France and Germany. Cuban labor receives 66.6 per cent, in Switzerland 64 percent, of gross national income. 44 percent of Cubans are covered by social legislation," -- which included health care -- "a higher percentage than in the U.S. [at the time]."
Humberto Fontova writes:
"In 1958 Cuba had a higher per-capita income than Austria and Japan. Cuban industrial workers had the eighth highest wages in the world. ... Cuba, a country 71% white in 1957, was completely desegregated 30 years before Rosa Parks was dragged off that Birmingham bus and handcuffed. In 1958 Cuba had more female college graduates per capita than the U.S. ..."
I can go on quoting statistics that will shock people with a standard American view of pre-Castro Cuba. The situation in Europe prior to the French Revolution was "complex," the same is true in fifties' Cuba. There were people living La Dolce Vita, aristocrats and Hollywood stars in the Paris of the Caribbean, which was Havana. Night life was superb. One might well run into Porfirio Rubirosa or the Gabor sisters, Graham Greene or Ernest Hemingway at a party. Renata Tebaldi and Mario Del Monaco could be heard at the Opera; and Alicia Alonso danced Giselle. For a while, the Havana Symphony counted on the stewardship of Maestro Eric Kleiber.
There were also people suffering grievous humiliations, deprivations of opportunity, class- and racially-based discrimination, political corruption that is still unimaginable by American standards, cronyism, favoritism, politically-sanctioned torture and murder were common, so was illegality in the courtrooms and corridors of power, where "pressure" or "pull" often accounted for results in the legal system. Even contemporary New Jersey is a model of good government by comparison with Batista's Cuba. And that's saying a lot.
The poor and campesinos were looked down upon by a snotty privileged class that tried to keep the goodies for itself, excluding blacks from country clubs and yacht races, along with most good things. The unfortunate tendency toward Fascism in the Cuban national character -- which is not exactly unknown even among Cubans living in the U.S. -- reared its ugly head in discrimination against gays and lesbians, something which continued (or worsened!) under the revolution, and in the cozy relationship between organized crime and politicians. There were reasons why the revolution succeeded.
So the film portrays a complicated reality that was lived by many people, not all of whom were evil or exploitative, some of whom -- notably most women -- were trapped themselves in suffocating roles that required them to be "demure" and "lady-like," lovely, "accomplished," in a nineteenth century sense. Yet this sytem totally failed to equip those privileged young women for the rigors of the real world in the twentieth century. The ancien regime was destroyed in France, with many horrible injustices being committed in the process and many lives were wrecked. Much the same occurred in Cuba. Compare A Tale of Two Cities with Before Night Falls, then see Memories of Underdevelopment.
What is the story?
We are introduced to a prominent Cuban family. "Fico" is the elder son and nightculb owner who will serve as central character of this drama. He is apolitical, an artist (which makes him laughable to many powerful men in this "macho" culture), seeking to live his live and create his work, unable to escape the forces of history, which permeate the story, like a miasma. Inspired by Tolstoy, Cabrera-Infante's script hopes to show the tension between private concerns and duties to family, to one's love and oneself, as against the social roles and public obligations intruding into these comfortable lives. An early reference to Seneca and the Romans suggests an analogy between "Nero" (Batista) and "Caligula" (Castro). Not much of a choice there, the film suggests.
One brother joins the revolution and is killed by Batista's thugs; another ends by becoming a killer himself, but for the rebel forces, since he is required to dispossess his own uncle from the land which the old man had cultivated over a lifetime. Che Guevara is depicted presiding over summary executions in Cuba's most notorious prison, which was not noted for its strict adherence to due process of law. Revolutions are not tea parties. Those with a pristine view of Guevara will be disappointed. There was also a "Terror" in France, where the revolution "devoured its children." The U.S. role in fostering these pressures on Cuba is insufficiently explored, though hinted at, by the director. There was a bloodbath in Cuba, murder and torture, that followed the success of the Revolution. We all should strive to avoid a similar episode in the future. One way of avoiding a similar bloody episode is to resolve the hostilities with the United States before the natural transition takes place in favor of a second generation of Revolutionary leaders.
A romance blooms between Fico and his brother's widow, who is portrayed by the beautiful (but wooden) Ines Sastre. The rose as metaphor is used twice: first to depict Cuban women, Cuba, and the revolution; second, at the end of the film, in Marti's famous "white rose" image of love/death. There are some stunningly beautiful Cuban women in this film, wearing beguiling fifties' attire, who alone are worthy of my $10.50.
The most important missing character in this work is Havana, which was truly "lost" since it was not available for location shooting. Also, there is no chemistry between Mr. Garcia and his female lead in this story, which is highly damaging to the movie.
The references in the script are subtle, but revealing. An allusion to "darkness at noon" is clearly intended to suggest Arthur Koestler's classic attack on Communist totalitarianism. The Bill Murray character, "the writer without a name," is the "it" (id), representing the subconscious of the Fico character and also -- like Shakespeare's fool in Lear -- a running commentary on the absurdity and folly in human nature as well as the specific lunacy of Cubans and their tortured political history. He is that famous mordant wit which characterizes many writers and is said to characterize the Cuban psyche -- except for me, of course.
The central symbol and metaphor in the movie is the scratched record, suggesting the paralysis gripping Cuban society and Cuba's middle class intellectuals, frozen by indecision ("sometimes the best move in chess is to do nothing"), trapped in a time warp and dreams of a mythical, trouble-free, pre-Castro paradise in Cuba. It is never the best move in chess to do nothing. Garcia also suggests the nightmare of contemporary Cuban society, "stuck" in a militarized Cold-War climate of paranoia and repression, systematically violating human rights and destroying the possibility of any real art (with all exceptions granted), but for nostalgia. Again, the U.S. is not entirely innocent in this situation.
A reference to "sharks" that also "drown in the sea" is aimed at Fidel, who is still swimming happily in his warm waters. A musical note about "no longer loving what does not love me," is an allusion to what happens to political ideals and revolutions in the real world. See the Opera Andrea Chenier.
Fico's journey to New York is the reality of many blighted exiles' experience: life as aftermath, seeing his love and saying goodbye. I envy him that much. Fico's real heart-breaking separation is from Cuba, symbolized in his lost romance. The film ends as tragedy, with Marti's elegy to love and death. One is reminded of Marti's final letter to Gonzalo de Quesada ... "I should prefer not to lift my hand from this paper, as if your hand were in mine; but I shall end, fearful of putting into words the things which do not fit into them."
Andy Garcia's hand is in yours as you exit the theater, for he has understood the sufferings of many persons like him and me (including many still living in Cuba), sufferings which transcend ideology and politics, rising to the universal contemplation of finitude, failure and loss. Yet with a hope of something better, something more lasting in that "white rose," symbolized by the space inhabited by Fico, who is also dressed in white, as the final image fades.
"But such a [broken] heart should stand in the midst of a white rose, to show that faith yields joy, comfort, and peace ... The rose is to be white, not red, for the color white is the color of the spirits and all angels. Such a rose stands in a field the color of heaven, for such joy in spirit and in faith is a beginning of the heavenly joy which is to be: now already comprehended within, held through hope, but not yet manifest."
Karl Lowith, From Hegel to Nietzsche: The Revolution in Nineteenth-Century Thought (New York: Morningside Ed., 1991), p. 19 (quoting Martin Luther's letter to Lazarus Spengler, dated 1530).
Performances and Problems.
Dustin Hoffman steals every scene that he is in as Meyer Lansky. Genius screen acting can be seen in Dustin's delivery of a final line, in a late scene, while standing behind a closing door. "Anybody want an egg cream"? Dustin alone is worth the price of this movie. To his credit, Garcia (as director) allows Dustin to have his fun -- at the expense of Garcia (as actor) -- in that same scenery-chewing scene featuring Dustin, Bill Murray and Andy Garcia. Andy Garcia has real talent as a director and actor. Most actors can direct. Few can do so, as Antonio Banderas did in Carzy in Alabama, which was a movie bordering on genius for a first directorial effort. Yet Mr. Garcia is very good, for a first-time director, and promises to do as well or better in future projects.
Steven Bauer is underused in a small part, as a Batista thug, who is depicted as a human being and genuine friend. He might have been more interesting as the brother who becomes a Fidelista. Batista's hoods are, otherwise, shown as the monsters that they were. Bill Murray is having a laugh throughout this movie. Ines Sastre is adequate, if somewhat lifeless on screen, and I would give my eye teeth (but neither of my testicles) for someone like Melanie Griffith or Sharon Stone to play opposite Mr. Garcia, as the love interest and rival conscience of the story, possibly as an American socialite sympathetic to the revolution and in love with one of its opponents. Rachel Weisz would be great, if you wanna go Brit with this. Kate Winslet wants $20 million.
Havana is, like several Cuban women I have known, a heart-breaker. She is cool, vague about her age, seductive, hot and yet breezy in the evenings. Havana is sad these days, missing us as we miss her. Writing his memoirs -- as "night fell" on his life -- Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas spoke of "... all the rulers of the world, that reactionary class always in power, and the powerful in any system, [who] must feel grateful to AIDS because a good part of the marginal population, whose only aspiration is to live and who therefore oppose all dogma and political hypocrisy, will be wiped out."
As a marginal man, who is (like all of you) dying slowly -- not of AIDS, but only of that terminal illness known as the "human condition" -- I encourage you to see this movie and be prepared to cry for all of us. As long as Cuban-Americans continue to be guilty of censorship, homophobia, racism, sexism, political corruption and celebrations of stupidity and ignorance combined with vulgarity, there is little hope for an improvement in the lives of ordinary people. Care to insert another "error" in this essay, muchachos?



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