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

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

31 Days of Cinema, Day Three: “Man of Marble”

For a description of my “31 Days of Cinema” challenge, as well as the complete list of films I’ll be watching for it, click here.

For the second day in a row, I had the privilege of watching one of my favorite types of cinema: films that use film itself—which is to say, its own machinations and industrial structures—to commentate on the powers and limits of the art form it represents. For a while now, I’ve focused on the limits to the extent that it is refreshing to have a film remind me of its powers—for manipulation, in a nasty sense, but also for exposure and, when necessary, historical revisionism. In yesterday’s review of The Asthenic Syndrome, I mentioned a “sort of Godardian hyperrealism,” which could be interpreted as an antidote to the fantasies perpetrated by Soviet communism—fantasies extreme insomuch that some cineastes felt it necessary to confront film as fiction. Yet while Syndrome viewed its characters as antisocial in a way that did not seem attributable to Soviet trauma and that risked validating Soviet pseudoscience, Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Marble makes clear the socialist society’s (ab)use of film to shove its philosophy onto the masses, and brooks nothing from it. Both Syndrome and Man were made—as one of Wajda’s fellow Poles put it—“against the system, with the system’s money,” and under the system’s conditions. How does one criticize what oneself is made of? Man turns that possible double standard to its own advantage, stripping itself back to reveal the filmic process and the industrial nature of showing cinema (more so than Muratova’s austere, cluttered film), and hence too the politics that always interfere with it. For that, it is the better film, and potentially a great film.

Even in the era of Stalin, the Soviets knew as much as what William James states in his essay “The Moral Equivalent of War”: that the desire for competition, as viewed on a massive scale in capitalism, is innate in man and rather inexorable. Thus, among the proletariat, there were contests, races against time and tests of cooperation that centered on who could meet—nay, exceed—industrial quotas, and how fast and how competently they could do it. The laborers who showcased the most extreme work ethic and highest productivity were valorized as yardsticks of strength, stamina and faith in socialism. They are comparable to Patsy from 12 Years a Slave, and the most famous example from Stalin’s time was the coal miner Aleksei Stakhanov, who was said to improve on quotas fivefold, but whose efforts were likely exaggerated by propaganda. Wajda’s Polish substitute for Stakhanov is the bricklayer Mateusz Birkut (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), a humble, soft-spoken, quietly tireless presence who impresses the filmmaker Burski (Jacek Lomnicki as a youth, his father Tadeusz Lomnicki in old age) with his charisma and who thus becomes the center of Burski’s newsreel calling for increases in industrial productivity. We see the newsreel first, along with the film student Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda) researching a project on Birkut in the present-day late-‘70s, in black-and-white, appearing to show Birkut and his posse lay 30,000 bricks in eight hours without breaking a sweat. Then, later, we see the newsreel’s filming in color, and Birkut’s growing exhaustion, in tandem with a division of labor that makes the task far more realistic, is exposed by Wajda while left omitted from history by Burski.

Muratova’s meta-filmic device in Syndrome, and her meta-audience’s reactions to it, made a point about the hypocrisy of those who expect an ordinary life with entertaining cinema—who scoff at having their banal lives reflected back at them by cinema while not wishing to get involved in any conflict that they would gladly watch fleshed out in a film. Ultimately, though, it came off as that filmmaker mourning the oft-tepid responses to her own films, a self-indulgent tactic that I felt was meant to shoot down any attempt to critique her faulty vision. Wajda’s approach is more humble. Through clever touches, he admits his likely complicity in the overall project of socialist film and the conceptual difficulty of his (in the end successful) struggle against it. These touches are as small as Wajda putting his own name on the credits of a newsreel, and as grand as the frequent moments when newsreel scenes are repeated in color flashback to ensconce a brutal irony—that of the present being in black-and-white, with its set morals and official accounts of history; and the past being in color, fresher and more honest, packed with truths that the Polish communists deign to hide. Yet, the color footage is not fully reliable. If it is not recorded by newsreel film, then it is by memory—namely, the faulty memory of the contemporaries of Birkut that Agnieszka interviews in the manner of Citizen Kane or Rashomon—and that is what Wajda’s camera is mimicking. Is such a point-of-view valid? The camera adopts a perspective removed from its characters’ perceptions and occupying what passes for objective history; it is unmoored, godly, nebulous, voyeuristic, invasive. Who are we to take on God’s worldview—to see vantage points of characters in their own private spheres that are concretely impossible (as Wajda does a lot)? Should we be watching Agnieszka covertly recording her interviews with the agent Michalak (Piotr Cieslak) and Birkut’s ex-wife Hanka (Krystyna Zachwatowicz), violating their privacy? Should what they say and do be enshrined in history, even if for Birkut’s benefit, if they don’t want it to be?

There’s another cruel irony that is consistent with, and insightful towards, Soviet politics: the outing of what ought to be private, and the obfuscation of what out to be public. Wajda’s take on this theme is deeply meta-filmic; he makes us realize from the get-go how difficult Agnieszka’s—and, by way of that, his own—film project will be in her (and his) political environment. In some cases, the director dodges his Polish censors through a haunting implicitness. The scene in which Birkut’s coworker Witek walks into an authority’s office and is followed by Birkut, who is then faced with Witek’s abrupt absence, is emblematic of this. Witek (Michal Tarkowski) has been disappeared on suspicion of sabotaging Birkut’s operation. To reveal this outright might show admirable chutzpah to those who dare oppress art, but it might also ruin the harrowing, Hitchcockian effect that Wajda aims for and accomplishes through silence and suggestion. Likewise, the film’s third act screeches it into a stonewall, when Agnieszka’s project loses funding at the very moment she arrives on the cusp of learning Birkut’s fate, the exposure of which would be Wajda’s political damnation. How the film ends—which is in essence a cliffhanger to the sequel Man of Iron, made in an era of greater political liberties than this—does not demonstrate cowardice on the auteur’s part. It is a calculated decision that trusts the audience to be intelligent enough to figure out what’s going on without the sentiment inherent in bluntness, and to have the integrity to empathize with Birkut and Agnieszka and rally against the socialist screeds embedded into the film, which appear as false and fictional as the marble statues of Birkut that name the film. Godard, while we are still on that subject, once said, “A film is always a compromise.” I used to hate that notion, convinced that permitting corporate and sociopolitical interests to alter my artistic visions would make me a sell-out. Having now seen Man of Marble, I’m no longer so sure.

Grade: A

Tomorrow: We hop across Europe to Portugal and take a walk In[to] Vanda’s Room.

31 Days of Cinema, Day Three: “Man of Marble”