Films for Class: Yo Soy Cuba

shot3oi1Crying foul on director Mikhail Kalatozov’s deliriously unhinged, masterful slice of post-Bay of Pigs agitprop for its unapologetic commitment to ideology would be tantamount to artistic heresy and limpid emphasis on the political over the artistic if the film weren’t such a bold and brazen reclamation of that age-old fact that art is innately political no matter what. Plunging into the revelry of fantastical space as obviously euphoric as Lang’s Metropolis city was demonic, and as bodaciously animated as Lang’s vision to boot, Yo Soy Cuba is an aesthetic vision primarily. But with these aesthetics, the proof is in the proverbial politics to begin with. Separating this far-out vision of a largely fictive representation of Cuban life from its animated muse – its Soviet morality – is at some level impossible: like Eisenstein’s utilization of montage to stage ideas of collective conflict, cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky’s aesthetic revolutions aren’t apolitical. Yo Soy Cuba is a vivacious workout, a Communist high palpably star-struck by the wave of political revolution it presumed (or hoped) was on the horizon, a film bathed in all the passions genuine belief can muster, and a work that marshals an unmediated, even crazed support for Cuban life into a catalyst for unbridled cinematic experimentation positively running wild with screw-loose charisma.

Revolutionary cinema, Yo Soy Cuba isn’t merely a narrative of communist propaganda or a neutered, neutral-styled narrative of social upheaval that still caters (like almost all politically “radical” American films) to the broadly individualistic cinematic style it purports to redress. Instead, Cuba is a unilaterally adventurous, fiercely aestheticized, stylistically contentious rebuttal to the staid capitalist style of production-line American cinema. It’s a glove to the face of not only American politics but American film, weaving between and fluidly intermingling people, places, and objects without privileging any in a distinctly anti-capitalist milieu. Wryly anthropomorphizing the angry island itself with a deadpan melodrama voiceover from the island’s perspective (a voice that cheekily pays homage to Columbus and then throws him to the wolves within seconds) is an early key-in to the film’s desire to explore space rather than simply depict it like most Hollywood pictures. From there, the luxuriant whirlpool of mise-en-scene and cinematography suggests a subjective, revisable sense of place that defies and defeats Hollywood understandings of a stable world sitting by so only people can focus our attention. The camera exhibits a runner’s high, except it doesn’t run so much as glide and saunter through a locale it observes like the camera is one of the island’s limbs. Ultimately, the ever-motile camera adopts a rapturous search for new meaning more akin to a documentary’s active, present-tense quest to brave the unexplored caverns of the world with every shot.

Unlike most American films, where locations and material items are background props – manufactured objects utilized only for protagonists to conquer or otherwise pay no attention to – the frames of Yo Soy Cuba cannot so easily be compartmentalized into “focus” and “backdrop”. The camera doesn’t center lone people, individualized in the frame as foregrounded subjects for whom the rest of the world is merely an obstacle to triumph (thus feeding into the Western liberalist logic of individualism). Instead, Kalatozov comingles not only individual stories of different people but interweaves people with environment in deep-focus shots to tie humanity to the land and individuals to their broader social contexts, to the collective. In contrast to the hyper-directed, linear, pseudo-objective Western film style of America at the time, Cuba borrows French poetic realism and German Expressionism along with Soviet realism to brew up a reflexive, subjective head-space where people are if not one with the world at least part of it rather than totems who rise above it; the way the camera flows between people and moments is a visual approximation, in spirit, of that oft-unclarifiable idea of “collective consciousness” trumpeted by leftist scholars. Like the early Soviet epics of the ‘20s, Yo Soy Cuba is fiercely reticent to accept the American narrativization of cinema; rather than wrapping around the world of an individual in conflict, the film shifts with almost free-wheeling, baroque abandon between stories and angles to suggest, like Eisenstein, that the world is too messy and bedeviling to be compartmentalized into a concise narrative of personal, individual psychology and progress.

All these years later, Kalatozov’s cauldron of political and cinematic radicalism feels less like a hopelessly naïve account of the present than an embittered, poetically realized reflection of a collective, possibly narcotic, dream of a better life. Certainly, as cinema, this rebellious polemical is never complacent to traditional edicts of “realist” storytelling, kindling inveterate passion into visual poetry and a kind of misty vision of desire and possibility. Not a wholly idealized vision either, as a harsh melancholy is inscribed not only into the camera but the characters. The human faces aren’t pristine or smoothed but roughed-edged, bearing the weight of turmoil in the craggy contours of their faces that betray the embattled topography of Cuban life.

The heroes here are fleeting and tentative, all temporally bound by the reality that the film is simply eavesdropping on their lives, destined to move away soon after. A student protester kindles into full-throated zest and then explodes into a parade of death as he becomes a martyr. A pair of farmers brandish rebellion in their own ways: one becomes a freedom fighter stoked in the fires of familial loss and another is heartbreakingly coaxed into burning his life-worth rather than sell his sugarcane farm to an American company. Most pressing of all though may be an impoverished woman resigned to selling herself to a wealthy American (a sequence that conveniently provides an excuse for the film to prowl around the darker corners of Cuban life in a self-critical backhand to its otherwise tourist-bait resplendence). Each sequence in its own way interrogates the supposed fading away of slavery, proposing that, rather than being explicitly forced into slavery, non-whites are now often coerced by necessity into selling their selves.

Each tale is not simply hyperbolically exuberant but lyrical, not to mention anxiously worried about the future of Cuban life, which makes it fitting that the real story of Yo Soy Cuba elides any singular person or meaning. The camera sways with the tempo of Cuban life in all its contradictions and fixations, moving with less a sense of America continuity and contiguous space than a feeling or intuition of rhythm, as though the camera isn’t so much capturing or depicting Cuba as embodying its confusion by remaining unable to stick to a single tone or reality. The boozy, hypnotically inebriated camera seems alternately drunk on hope, lost in a desire to escape the world and imagine a better one, or raving and pummeling the frame as though fueled in the spitfire of caustic disdain for capitalist infestation. Whether it’s sidling down the side of a modernist building to perilously induce anxiety about the modern world or imbibing in the enchanted but mysterious jungles of the Cuban nature that must always exist with melancholic awareness of capitalist intrusion on its outskirts, the camera seems to ingest the seething turmoil and tyranny of Cuban life in its very movement. The camera both cackles with Cuba and frowns for it, all the while invested in the exterior world rather than simply any one character.

Ultimately, this film is a state of the union address about Cuban life that, even in avoiding many of the realities of day to day life in Cuba, vividly recalls the fracture and fragmentation of a life it won’t deign to depict in full-on rosiness. Although the sheer luxuriance of the style registers jubilance and rapture, the film’s rebel charge is more stylistically disruptive still. A potentially delectable nightclub fantasia populated by wealthy bystanders traveling through the country(or exploiting it for their own exoticist fantasies) is shrouded in threatening shadows and doused in ghoulishly subversive, askew camerawork to suggest playtime descending into the mire of hell. This sequence is a vault of clandestine nightmares, American tourists rejoicing in presumed excess while the film matches and perverts their excess: Cuban culture – vertical bamboo poles and pained, expressive, ever-still totems – seem to throttle the Americans into an expressionistic prison.

The emphasis on worried emblems of Cuban culture, less symbols than poetic evocations of life trapped in the sidelines of America’s drive to treat Cuba as an object for its own amusement, invoke rage. The kinesis of partygoing (tourist) motion is undercut by the perpetual stasis of the poverty that such tourism is conditioned on, a combustible mixture of harried movement and immobility perched at the gaping maw of rebellion. Even the piercing-bright trees, dwarfing the frame in frequently low angles and filmed in infrared light to make them white-hot flares of pulsing energy, almost scratch the frame – scratch the modern celluloid – like natural wildfire from a primordial origin reacting against the modern world.

To the point of madness, the film is totally confounding, always reconsidering itself to suggest the forced and possibly unresolvable ironies of a life dedicated as a bulwark against capitalist encroachment that is nonetheless infused with capitalist iconography and the material products of the capitalist ethos. Without blinking, the film reminds that even the Cuban poor are shown brandishing products of the very companies that oppress them. Even the Eisensteinian stylistic comparisons hardly hold sway in a film that is smitten with Eisenstein’s ideas of sensual overload and subversive use of contrast-focused editing but hardly as “mechanically” constructed as Eisenstein’s films (meaning that his films function like punctilious clockwork, rather than that they are overly obvious or turgid). Eisenstein maximally focused every moment, every shot, for concentrated impact, staging events like activist-hurled Molotovs of quick-fire editing spreading into increasingly tympanic, staccato frenzies of motion and kinesis. Cuba, while borrowing the non-narrative focus and emphasis on form and movement to convey what narrative content does exist, is less of a balancing act between hundreds of rapid images and themes in contest with one another and more of a day-dreamer, floating freely as its mind cascades through the world around it.

Still, Yo Soy Cuba understands Eisenstein’s notions of visual collision. Although the mechanisms are different, this film is troubling and inviting in equal measure because of how irreconcilable its images are, how much they evoke a contested landscape that elides easy completion. The film barrels from an almost impressionistic opening passage, massaging nature, toward a hedonistic, sex-crazed Western party in a pool that cheekily, perversely fetishizes female flesh in the manner (one presumes the film thinks) of decadent Western lifestyle. And then, the film proceeds to not only engage with but adopt such decadence for a smorgasbord of chiaroscuro lighting, angles as Dutch as Rembrandt, and booming wide-angle lenses that warp the foreground to focus instead on the totality of the frame, the voluminous depth of the background world that contrasts with the typical Hollywood impulse for single-minded focus on the easily controlled foreground without letting any of the background chaos in. Associative editing marshals the seemingly disparate impulses and fronts of life in Cuba into an assemblage of assaultive motion and a tapestry of restless sonic disobedience. As a film, it doesn’t simply grasp at political straws but rock the boat of filmic language. It showcases the divine and the demonic in equal measure.

Yo Soy Cuba is emphatically, almost ritualistically inventive, except nothing about this work – always reconsidering itself in the moment – could ever be so staid and routine to qualify as mere ritual. Imperfect though it is, it also disdains and renders illusory the idea of a stable “perfection”;  a surge of pure cinema, it is a statement to not only a  way of social life but, importantly, a brave new world of cinematic style and aesthetic abandon manifestly untethered from the capitalist continuity and rationalist cause-and-effect logic of American cinema. A sideways tangent to the rest of cinema, Yo Soy Cuba’s narrative arguments may seem naïve, but its cinematic polemic is astute and primed to corrode its antithesis – capitalist life – in the very brick and mortar of how the camera moves, of how the aesthetic functions. Like Eisenstein’s montage, Yo Soy Cuba’s real argument isn’t its characters but the film itself. This isn’t a film that merely contains a narrative argument about the supremacy of Soviet life; rather, the film is, in its very essence of visual and aural being, an embodiment of the palpable rebel impulse to create an alternative way of life, an alternative style of art inflected with exultancy, melancholy, and morbidity. Sure, it’s fever dream communism rather than the real McCoy, but just try watching and not picking up the pitchfork.

Score: 10/10


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