31 Days of Cinema, Day Twenty: “Memories of Underdevelopment”

I can recall a specific moment, during my viewing Memories of Underdevelopment, when I at last realized what the film was up to, or at least what it was trying to do. Before, the film was a hodgepodge of the recollections and observations of one Sergio (Sergio Corrieri), a bourgeois Cuban stranded in Havana in the years soon after Castro’s revolution, and documentary clips depicting the trauma the island faced under the previous Batista regime. By themselves, the former scenes intrigued me for their experiment (Sergio’s reliance on voiceover and recordings, against a backdrop of relative silence; the P.O.V. shots dissecting and forcing us to connect with his mad pursuit of women) and for their ready wit (Sergio musing on the absence of a statue that Picasso promised for Havana’s skyline)—and the latter scenes are beyond critique in their urgent call for human rights. Together, they don’t work. The film reminded me of Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, which stitched together some very powerful indictments of America’s international war crimes and domestic trigger-happy jingoism, yet failed to converge on any succinct thematic foci. The first hour or so of Memories has a randomness to it that comes wholesale with a tone of forfeiture, an unwillingness to find a narrative thread on the broad canvas being painted. Then came a scene when a series of erotic film clips—dry-humping on a beach, stripping in a club, amour in bed—are repeated ad infinitum, in what seems at first a mockery of orgasm, or a Kantian takedown of our Sisyphean yearning for complete sexual fulfillment. We pull back to see a theater of political officials watching these clips, and we realize that these are scenes of extramarital passion that these Communists have censored from the cinema. And that’s when I had the epiphany: these scenes are the dregs of life from early-‘60s Cuba that Castro would not want you to see. In that way, it’s not really supposed to cohere.

I can hence see what the filmmaker, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, and perhaps by extension the author of the source novel, Edmundo Desnoes, have in mind. They’re miming the structure of memory, which is of course essentially underdeveloped, to reflect the lack of urban progress that has plagued Cuba since 1959. If the film somehow felt developed, it would kind of defeat the purpose. I can appreciate that innovation, but I don’t agree with the execution. For a while, I daresay, the film exploits the traumatic underdevelopment of Cuba as an excuse to dispense with narrative logic. True, there may be no need for a plot—I’ve seen myriad great films without one—but there is a need for a point, a statement, an essence, a raison d’être. (To this, I imagine some filmmakers, maybe protégés of Alea, rebutting, “Why the hell should I pamper you with your idea of a ‘point,’ or a ‘theme’?! Don’t you find it a little dictatorial of you to impose your ideas of ‘logic’ and ‘structure’ on me?! I don’t need to make a point! I don’t need to contrive my art to affect history, as the Communists so strive to! That’s the freedom of art!” But wouldn’t you find that rather glib? If you feel that having a backbone is constrictive, you have a serious issue.) At most, the film culminates in the sexual escapades of Sergio, whose histrionic wife and family flee to Florida in the wake of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, which gives him free rein to greedily pursue the younger Elena (Daisy Granados). He chases her down on the street. She’s wary of him but humors him and agrees to a date. He brings her to his place—or so I think it was his place—and ravishes her. She’s wary at first but relents and plays off the blurred-lines energy. One pro of Communism, amidst all its cons, was its emphasis on equality between the sexes, and Memories appears to combat that with a testament, or an elegy, to the primacy of alpha male lust.

You can tell I didn’t approve of that approach, and I was affirmed of my disapproval in the film’s final half-hour, when I saw the point on which the story does converge. To appease her conservative family, Elena accuses Sergio of rape. Ugh. The representation of rape in cinema as a whole disappoints me. Too many mainstream films—from The Graduate to Gone Girl—present rape as a falsehood that some femme fatale uses to discredit some man who has wronged her, and the public consumes them like ice cream because by and large, they don’t like to think that rape actually happens. As a result of this large-scale denial, great films that honestly struggle to deal with rape as a genuine plague in our society (Landscape in the Mist, The Piano Teacher, quite a few of the films I’ve seen this July) are more often than not consigned to an art-house niche, labeled as some sort of “disturbing” cinematic endurance test, and seen by few. Talk about dishonesty. Memories, in particular, has not dated well since the free-love ‘60s, and its false rape accusation subplot is near-total kitsch. Elena’s family comes off as hysterical, while one is wont to make the case that Sergio does kind of take advantage of Elena’s youth, and it becomes very difficult to care for anyone involved in this brouhaha, and to buy it in the first place. (Oh, and do you think that someone would escape such an accusation so easily in early-‘60s Cuba, or in any similar dictatorship? I doubt it.) The film seems like it’s going to culminate in some catharsis, with the missile crisis and looming and Sergio alone in his flat, contemplating suicide, or so I think. That catharsis never happens; the ending fizzles to nothing (the missile crisis’ fizzling to nothing notwithstanding), and it all feels like a cop-out, a noncommittal shrugging off, and a waste. There’s a large train of critics who declare Memories the masterpiece of Cuban cinema. You wanna know what that train smells like to me? Gravy.

Grade: C

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31 Days of Cinema, Day Twenty: “Memories of Underdevelopment”

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