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Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Art of History

posted by on November 15 at 11:54 AM

I watched I Am Cuba again last night, and what I loved about it when I wrote this review two or so years ago (the national feeling, cinema as a unified expression, the lack of individuals, the long march of history) is what I love about it now. It is the greatest movie ever made.


I Am Cuba is an epic that contains neither hard individuals nor personal experiences, but only subjects of a world-historical movement, a mass advancement, a triumphant (and bloody) march from a state of raw economic exploitation by multinational corporations and the American tourist industry to a new state of socialized production, education, transportation, and health.


The subjects in the movie are wired to the spirit of the times. The melancholy prostitute, the severe soul singer, the serious student, the mountain peasant, the sugarcane farmer, his beautiful children, even his horse—from within each the whole idea of freedom is emerging.


And the greatness of the revolution is matched by the greatness of the film’s form. Cinema rarely gets as pure as I Am Cuba. Shot by Sergei Urusevsky and Alexander Calzatti, the camera’s essential, superhuman achievement is the near total unification of the internal condition of the film’s subjects with their surroundings. The camera comes close to their bodies and then suddenly pans up to view the rich landscape, the body of their country. The camera is fluid and moves almost as though it has no operator. At one point, it flies out of a window and glides above the funeral procession of a young martyr—the will of the people defies gravity in the same way that it defies the global market system.


The camera is the mind of the people. This is why the movie has very little dialogue. The subjects of history do not have to say very much: We see who they are, what they are thinking, what they desire. We watch them labor, suffer, and struggle with the forces of capital. I Am Cuba also gets to the heart of work, the beauty of cutting sugarcane, the glory of sweat. I absolutely love this movie.

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I love the fact that you can hit pause at any given moment during this film and see the most stunning photograph... every time! thanks for reminding me to see this again charles!

Posted by sarah | November 15, 2007 11:50 AM

Yes, Cuba is so much better off as a murderous police state whose citizens are so desperate to get away from it they take small boats and rafts into the sea. Cuba is a basket case.

Posted by Fnarf | November 15, 2007 12:07 PM

You forgot to mention that it has arguably the greatest tracking shot of all-time, the opening scene where the camera somehow goes through the floor of a balcony and eventually ends up under water. Only Touch of Evil comes close.

Posted by Joselito | November 15, 2007 12:27 PM

I was just poking around to see if it is available on DVD and apparently some super duper fancy version is coming out next week. If you like super duper fancy versions of things.

Posted by rubyred | November 15, 2007 12:38 PM


The opening shot of Psycho is pretty cool too.

Posted by keshmeshi | November 15, 2007 1:20 PM

The other thing it illustrates is how unbearably tedious even pictorial didacticism can be.

Posted by MvB | November 15, 2007 1:23 PM

try watching the film before making pointless comments Fnarf

Posted by darkelf | November 15, 2007 1:28 PM

@7: Actually, I think Fnarf has a point. Have you seen Triumph of the Will?

Posted by Greg | November 15, 2007 1:34 PM

uh, was the point of this post to say, essentially, "What's more I agree with everything I just said" - Yogi Bera?

just... wondering.

Posted by Dee in SF | November 15, 2007 1:35 PM

Yeah, Fnarf, if you watch the film then you will realize that having no elections, jailing dissidents, and harassing gays is well worth it if your country can produce 3 or 4 artworks of note in the last 45 years.

How dare you try to impeach this film by bringing up reality and negative things -- that are not even in the film you dindn't watch!

Posted by unPC | November 15, 2007 1:36 PM

Wow. It took me a minute to realize those weren't screencaps from Under the Cherry Moon.

Posted by Ryan | November 15, 2007 1:46 PM

There are countless instances of Soviet/Cuban influence in Prince's body of work.

Posted by The Artist | November 15, 2007 1:52 PM

Fnarf is always right. Unless I disagree. I agree. Here.

Posted by Mr. Poe | November 15, 2007 1:56 PM

When this film was filmed, Cuba was a different country, and the film captures that moment in time. Cuba might or might not be a basket case, it is certainly no socialist paradise, but its infant mortality rate, crime rate is lower than any "democratic" Latin America country. Yes, Cuba has huge problems, many of which can be solved by ending the silly blockade, but its literacy rate is higher than any "democratic" Latin American country. To be fair, Millions of Latin Americans flee non communist countries as well.

When this film was made Cuba was full of idealism and promise, and Castro, despite what people say, was extremely popular. The things that were coming, the police state, the wars in Angola and Ethiopia, the long lines for bread, was still not what was felt. Cuba was basket case under Batista which allowed for la revolucion. The early years of the revolution did have a lot of promise and this is what this film captures. You can not compare Cuba then to Cuba now. Cuba now is meither socialist nor capitalist, but an island nation barely surviving. This film captures that moment which is long gone and all that remains is an old man holding on to some semblance of power. People back then didnt take to rafts and hit the waters. Most of the future republican nut jobs that now live and are dying in Miami were the upper classess and the Batista cronies.

Posted by SeMe | November 15, 2007 2:07 PM

Yes, yes, SeMe, I am aware of all that. There are other alternatives on this earth besides Batista and Castro. But there was nothing glorious about the Cuban revolution; Castro and his army were thugs, and average Cubans -- despite some statistics that are carefully orchestrated to look good in a few selected areas -- are in bad shape, and getting worse.

Removing the fucking stupid embargo is only sensible, but it's ridiculous to say that lifting it would make Cuba a paradise again. The money goes to the leadership at the top, just like the old days. Notice that what little economy they have left is based on providing the "decadent" beach travel experience that was supposedly one of Batista's chief evils.

I'm not talking from the perspective of the shitheads in Miami. But the perspective of dreamy-eyed cod-revolutionaries is just as bad. Che was a murderer and a thug.

Posted by Fnarf | November 15, 2007 2:22 PM

well unPC, if you could even bother to read this post you would have learned that this was not a film produced by CUBA but by the Soviet Union... so Way to go, keep up the good work :) I don't think this post was intended to be a political commentary on the country that Cuba has become. I think SeMe has done a great job of stressing these points.

Posted by darkelf | November 15, 2007 2:27 PM

Fnarf, I am no fan of Fidel, I do hope that came through in my original post, but it is just not right to say that at the time of this film, the revolution had no support, it had plenty of it and people did feel the revolution, certainly not all Cubans, but a lot did. You get no argument from me that Cubans are in bad shape today, but so are Brazilians, Peruvians, Central Americans and the majority of Mexicans, Democracies without hope for the vast majorities. I think the film does show that era, remember this was the era that things were heavily subsidized by the soviet Union so the shortages and decay that people experience today was not happening back then.

Che a murderer? I dont know. Maybe. He certainly was a lousy military strategist who almost certainly doomed most of his troops on the assault on Santa Clara, but I dont know of records that show his atrocities. Links would be helpful. But I am going to have to agree with Mudede,this is one of the most important films. I have it up there with Lumet's The Prince of the city.

Posted by SeMe | November 15, 2007 3:02 PM

SeMe- there are many links, so since the spam filter will not allow two or more links here is just one, a list of people sentenced to death by Che.

Posted by aarons | November 15, 2007 3:51 PM

Che shot a good number of those people himself, frequently at random -- nothing inculcates obedience quite like a guy walking around dropping a few random people with shots to the head. He was also a big fan of having boys shot to death in front of their mothers, pets in front of their owners, etc.

Posted by Fnarf | November 15, 2007 3:59 PM

The opening shot is amazing. I want to be on that rooftop! The rest of the movie is great too.

It also has a great party scene. I wish I could have attended the best parties you see in movies from 1930-1970.

Posted by DDT | November 15, 2007 6:36 PM

I dont know guys, The Cuban archive is a project of the free society project, an organization that promotes the veterans of the bay of pigs and is composed of Mas Canosa Cuban miami exile types. If you have links from other folks Id gladly take a look at em. These folks have very lil credibility. Im sure Guevara was no saint, but in this archive they even say the people he killed in combat, constitute a war crime. i dont know, if u beleive that than all the US generals and colonels and captains of the Vietnam era are war criminals. I would like to see some proof of Guevara's murderous ways. If he killed people during combat than I dont know if we can say he is war criminal. Other sources other than Cuban exiles with non backed documentation, if you go to the CUBAN ARCHIVE site they actually say that their info is not verified. Oh well, like I said, I am not defending tirany, but proof would be nice.

Posted by SeMe | November 15, 2007 7:05 PM

Nothing can be accepted as a document of it time, or an artwork in its context. Somehow, even great work has to be subjected to the stupid shrill debates of our time, a debate that only exists because of a vocal (and aging) exile community. This grudge is what's keeping Cuba poor, isolated, and undemocratic. The US is simply incapable of getting past the fact that a developing country managed to defy it within 90 miles of its coast. Get over it already. To those of you who have to besmirch everything, including one of the most important films of all time (and don't compare it to "Triumph of the Will" because the films bear no similarity except for in the broadest way imaginable: both have a point of view) Your inept and impotent rage isn't doing anyone any favors.

Revolution was a staple of the 19th and 20th centuries, and yes, revolution is violent and merciless. Just like the American Revolution and the American Civil War. Is Sherman any better than Che Guevara? Nope. Somehow the American mind can create thousands of subcategories of the same behavior to make itself look good and its enemies look bad.

Cuba will become a free society, and it will do so when the US relinquishes its deathgrip on the country. Once the older Cuban exile community is dead, this stupid and pointless debate can be buried and "I am Cuba" can once more be judged on its own merits.

Posted by Jay | November 15, 2007 8:04 PM

SeMe the biography by Jon Lee Anderson is worth looking into. Che certainly ain't no saint...but, you're right to question that he's also not quite the devil that lots of folks would have. A much more complex and complicated person.

Having lived in a S. Florida for a wee spell I tend to tune out anytime I hear someone go on an anti-Castro or Che rant. Probably a bad habit, but it's the only way to stay sane down there. Those people define batshit crazy.

Posted by gnossos | November 15, 2007 9:47 PM

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