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Movies Another Counter-Revolutionary Film Bites the Dust

By Mike Prokosch

LEE LOCKWOOD, the photojournalist who did interview books with Fidel Castro and Eldridge Cleaver, will run a benefit show at the Harvard Square Theatre this Sunday at 12:30 p.m. Proceeds go to a worthy cause, the Cuban Study Center, which will help support such beloved leftist writers as Lockwood, Jason Epstein, Sal Landau, and Jose Yglesias. The film is Tomas G. Alea's Memories of Underdevelopment, the first post-Revolutionary Cuban dramatic feature to be shown in this country.

For those who want to see Cuba today, Memories does contain pictures and sounds recorded in 1966-67. If you have a need for crude "documentary" evidence, I can assure you that you will see and hear Cuban faces and voices. But if you want some kind of understanding -of Cuba, of post-revolutionary societies, of women and men within them, or even of capitalism and yourself-this film won't help you at all.

It's very surprising, not to say disheartening, to see an imitation New Wave film coming out of the state film institute of a Communist country. True, it's evidence that Cuba's cultural and ideological policies aren't Stalinist- Memories, far from being Marxist, is a movie made about a bourgeois consciousness by bourgeois consciusnesses for bourgeois consciousnesses. So one could try to explain it as an attempt to help the bourgeoisie understand socialist Cuba, or vice versa. But there it certainly fails.

We could start anywhere; let's start concretely. The hero is a landlord still living off rents; he does not work. He keeps a huge modern apartment full of luxury items which obsess him more than they divert him. He is imprisoned by conspicuously useless memory-laden objects-his wife's dresses, his own collection of sculpture and painting, the very size of his rooms. These keep him from understanding his life: they keep him thinking about surplus value subjectively and purely in itself, as Scott Fitzgerald might have said in a drunken Marxist moment.

This explanation of the hero's inability to understand and change himself is purely idealistic. It assumes that the causes of people's ideas about the world are other ideas; that myths and obsessions regenerate themselves endlessly. It doesn't tell the other half of the story-the objective half which complements this detailing of the hero's subjective state.

Memories takes the hero's consciousness and treats it as something inescapable. It is made from inside the hero's consciousness, or from inside a consciousness so like his as to be virtually indistinguishable. No revolutionary values or Marxist ideas are advanced anywhere in the film. Nothing is opposed objectively to the hero's point of view. The ideas in the film do not cut open society or analyze men's situations; they remain subjective and evocative.

The hero's feelings mediate all relationships between him and the world. Cuba's historical development is treated as a succession of momentary impressions and memories; society is something that gives an individual consciousness "a sense of his situation" and nothing more. When the hero goes for a walk, the film bits you with a feeling of life and action, of the vitality of all the people on the street, quite at odds with the deadness of his apartment and Hemingway's villa, both of which are choked by memories and functionless objects. And that's as far as the film goes. It fails to think beyond its evocation of a middle-class man's moods.

The film does not try to develop ideas about its subject. It lacks any stylistic will to lay things open, to cut apart fictional characters or real societies so we can see better what they are made of. The Cuban Revolution, for example, is presented as the hero's "revenge on the stupid Cuban bourgoisie-everything I don't want to be." It has no direct presence in his life; he is always buffered from it by this sense or that feeling. Even when the Cuban legal system intervenes in his life, and puts him on trial for rape. Alea presents the whole situation through his eyes-along with his voiceover judgments of the poor people accusing him, judgments from a highly bigoted upper-class perspective. The hero's generalizations about national character, his sense of the country, the Cuban soul, his generally useless impressions of social events, all run through the film and stand as a description of Cuba which the film nowhere objectively opposes. His oppressive sense of the alien city with its crowds, characteristic of the most hackneyed modern Western fiction, stands unchallenged as a description of Havana under socialism. Progressive film-makers do better than that: take Louis Malle, whose recent Calcutta tries to understand great masses of people instead of shying away from them.

I know the film's admirers will attack this description on the grounds that Memories gives an accurate picture of bourgeois consciousness. Accurate, yes, but incomplete. And the ways in which it is incomplete are the ways that would most help us to understand the causes of that consciousness and the way to change it. For example Elena, a one-dimensional woman the hero picks up one day, keeps being described as "underdeveloped," unable to sustain an idea or feeling, erratic, skittish-chauvinist cliches which the film gravely takes for a personality condition that fell from the sky. That's the way she acts, period; that's her given personality, not a product of the specific material conditions and social developments which she's experienced all her life. Like the hero's, Elena's consciousness is beyond analysis.

MEMORIES of Underdevelopment tries to save itself by criticizing Hollywood narratives: they show the same sounds and actions over and over again "like a broken record," the same scenes of sexual play, the same sentimental notions. But Memories has been copied from the same record. There's no need to make that kind of movie in a revolutionary society. If you want to show people how bourgeois protagonists act, or demonstrate the circularity of bourgeois idealism and the paralyzing nature of sentimental conceptions of life, you can run old Hollywood movies for them. In fact that's preferable because it avoids the waste of people's time and capital in planning, making, and publicizing the damn thing. To make a film like Memories is an incredible waste of human resources. It's exactly this waste of people that characterizes capitalist economies.

Formally, too, Memories does lip service to progressive film-making; and there too it cops out. It includes phony pieces of self-criticism: a pseudo-reflexive section wherein Elena, wanting to become an actress, has the hero take her to ICAIC, the Cuban film institute, where he just happens to know a director who has found some pieces of old Hollywood films cut out by Battista's censors, and who wants to incorporate them into a new film he's making-he doesn't know quite how, his film will be a "collage" of social bits and pieces; and thus Alea manages to slip in a description of his own film. This is scarcely cinema criticizing its own ideas. It is rather a shoddy narrative device for making self-conscious remarks. Elsewhere, too, Elea shows himself unprepared to address his audience directly: a revolutionary speech has to be established as coming from a radio in a room. Alea isn't willing to break the narrative line, the fictional continuity, of his film so as to communicate an idea directly. Ideas have to take a back seat to fictional characters and narrative conventions in Memories of Underdevelopment.

One of the film's most interesting undeveloped ideas is its description of underdevelopment as a condition which makes people unable to relate things, to sustain ideas and feelings. But that's the condition and the effect more of bourgeois culture than of underdevelopment, and that's the condition of Memories. And that's why it's reactionary: it doesn't take an approach that would help its designers or its audience understand its subject and change it; it makes personal and social conditions instead of laying them open. It is, in fact, another Hollywood film.

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