Obscure Objects of Desire

The contradictions of Cuba in the work of Nicolás Guillén Landrián
by Chris Fujiwara  posted December 19, 2011
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In its survey of Cuban documentary from the revolution to the present, "Islands/I Lands, NOW—Vista de Cuba," a program at the 2011 Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival (which took place in October), revealed as many discontinuities as continuities. The most interesting of the discontinuities could be found in the short films of Nicolás Guillén Landrián, a filmmaker previously unknown to me. Adopting montage techniques made famous by Santiago Álvarez, the preeminent figure in Cuban documentary, Landrián turns them both to poetic uses and to those of an anthropological/archaeological critique of a post-revolutionary Cuba that has retained the social stratification and cultural contradictions of the pre-revolutionary period.

Ociel of the Toa River (Ociel del Toa, 1965) and Return to Baracoa (Retornar a Baracoa, 1966) are astringent and lyrical studies of the underdeveloped Oriente province of Cuba. Named after a boy who spends his days rowing a log boat on a river, Ociel fluctuates among several rhetorical modes, including the lament and the political protest ("It's good that they see this in Havana"), opening into a strain of Renoirian/Rossellinian poetry based on the river, on continuity and the ambiguity of what continues ("Have you seen death?"/Ociel: "Death cannot be seen"). Instead of participating in the community's Saturday night dance, a young wife pounds a mortar and watches from her housewife's post, a proprietary male hand on her shoulder. When Landrián's camera pans up quickly to her husband's glaring face ("Tomás doesn't like it when his wife dances," explains an intertitle), the pan itself carries the threat of violence that comes out of the institution of marriage and out of immemorial religious and social practices that modernization has not started to touch.

The shots of a plane landing that begin and end Return to Baracoa (intertitle: "Baracoa is a prison with a park") signify a historical perspective and a modernity that cannot belong to the place that the airplane, like the film, merely visits. Again, Landrián is fascinated by women, who for him carry both the greater burden and the greater revolutionary power, though they remain trapped in a transitional phase haunted by ghosts of the past. Photographs of a black woman in a chair curling her hair are accompanied by the commercialized romanticism of a silly light-orchestral tune and a male radio announcer's voice: majoritarian signifiers imposed on the minoritarian. Meanwhile, Castro's image is denied: we hear one of his speeches over black frames.

Reportage (Reportaje, 1966) is one of Landrián's most ambiguous works, starting with the title. What is being reported? At first it appears to be a funeral procession. Appearances subvert themselves: some women in the procession are not grieving, but laughing. When Landrián next cuts to a woman covering her mouth with her handkerchief, we suppose she is probably laughing, too. The coffin turns out to be made of cardboard, with a cut-out flap over the face of the corpse. The corpse is burned then, seemingly, eaten. Drinks are poured into cups and drunk. The ceremony shifts; the insistent modern music gives way to an Afro-Cuban dance rhythm. Dancing girls eye the camera steadily in undercranked shots, their gaze bland and self-sufficient. The film ends.

What has been reported? The title might suggest a state ceremony, an official function, the burial of an important person. But we have seen a popular ritual, a mockery of importance. Can what the film is doing be called reporting? In the trance of the final dance scenes, the gazes of women, returning that of the camera, transform the film into a forced meditation on itself and on its own position, neither inside nor outside what it films.

Throughout his work, Landrián confronts the contradictions of his country, its people, and its history. Under his view, nothing remains innocent, and nothing is idealized, though neither is it purely material: in Reportage, it is difficult to tell what is contained in the coffin. The parody, subversion, or literalization of Catholic ritual in Reportage links the film to Landrián's ongoing study of Christianity in Cuba, its absorption and its transmutation into something different. A Christian ceremony becomes a lizard dance in In an Old Neighborhood (En un barrio viejo, 1963). Landrián lingers over gestures and gazes that suggest blocked potential, revolutions not yet begun, transformations halted in time. A memorable image of a chocolate factory in Return to Baracoa: a woman working with nearly shut eyes over a conveyor belt covered with small black drops... The mass production of experience stifles longings that turn inward, away from history, toward a haunted zone where they are pursued by Landrián's camera.

Coffea Arabica (Coffea Arábiga, 1968), a celebration of Cuba's coffee industry, systematically undermines its own ostensible propaganda function in a bleak ecstasy of revolted images. The film becomes a discourse on propaganda, as, under Landrián's eye, Cuban society is revealed as thoroughly imbued with the values of the society of the spectacle. In a key scene, a chic, sunglasses-wearing, parasol-sporting woman is accosted by the camera on a Havana street and asked for her views on coffee production. Seized by both an erotic and a critical impulse, Landrián is unable to let this encounter pass without creating a photomontage of still fragments of the advertisement-like surface of the woman's face, under the Supremes' "You Keep Me Hangin' On." The lyrics no doubt are to be heard in a political sense: "Set me free why don't you babe/Get out of my life why don't you babe." The photomontage marks an impasse in the film, a place where it speaks too freely for its own good about its own intentions. The woman's white skin, her clothes, her manner make her a target of Landrián's criticism of racial and class hierarchy in Cuba. Even broken down by photomontage, her face remains an unassailable barrier before which the film must retreat.

Cuban Communism's fetishization of the masses and of the military is placed within the film in the context of consumption: mass man is consumer and consumes himself as mass. Coffea Arabica incorporates a rhetoric and a worldview based on the increase of production and consumption only to let them undercut themselves immediately, because the overall point of view and structure of the film put everything at a skeptical distance. Landrián's montages of the woman in the street, of the skin diseases that afflict coffee-plantation workers, of a black woman curling her hair (the same sequence from Return to Baracoa) block the narrative of progress that founds the overt project of the film. The dominant tone of Coffea Arabica is a brisk, ironic playfulness capable of identifying Castro with the Beatles' "Fool on the Hill."

Repeatedly harassed and persecuted by the authorities (who subjected him to electroshock treatment in prison, before releasing him and permitting him to make Coffea Arabica), Landrián was eventually exiled from Cuba. He died in Miami in 2003, after expressing the wish to be buried in Havana. 

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Nicolás Guillén Landrián
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THE AUTHOR

Chris Fujiwara's latest book, Jerry Lewis, is published by University of Illinois Press.

More articles by Chris Fujiwara
Author's Website: insanemute.com