Archive for November, 2010
Funeral Scene, I am Cuba (Soy Cuba), directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, 1964
This is a monumental scene from the Russian-Cuban film I am Cuba, or Soy Cuba, telling the tale of four ordinary Cubans caught up in the economic, ideological and political struggle of their country previous to the 1959 revolution. Although the film was released in 1964, shooting began as early as 1962, thus barely two years after the revolution and the emergence of Fidel Castro, but also, during a time of mounting tension between the US following the Cuban Missile Crisis in October that year. The film itself was thus made during a time when Cuba was in a rapid state of transformation.
I am Cuba is widely praised for being one of the most innovatively shot movies of global cinema. The Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov and his cameraman Sergei Urusevsky appear to use every trick of cinematography and mise-en-scène. This innovative approach is particularly apparent in a scene in which the body of a student protester, shot dead by the police moments earlier, is carried through the streets of Havana. The scene begins at the bottom of the stairs leading to Havana University – a symbolically relevant location since this was also a central axis point in the revolution. In commomeroration of the dead, there is absolute silence when the body is covered with the Cuban flag. As a group of fellow students carry the body away from the University Square, the camera rises above them. In the background there are cars burning, the university can be seen on the top of the hill, the water on the ground signifies the sacrificial blood of the revolution.
The next shot is taken from the top of a nearby church, the bells are ringing and Sergei Urusevsky’s camera makes four quick movements, to depict four bells ringing on four sides of the church tower. The emphasis on the number four mirrors the very format of the movie, telling four seperate, but interrelated, stories. The camera pans down, and what was at first only a handful of students, turned into a growing crowd. People throw flowers from the buildings nearby, as the procession of mourners navigates the narrow streets.
Then the magic begins. The camera is back on ground level as it focuses on Gloria and Enrique who the viewer has encountered in the first part of the movie. Enrique starts carrying the body of he dead student as the camera is moving upwards, to the top of a nearby building. As the camera is moving up, the volume of the music rises. The crowd meanwhile has turned into a mass of people. At this stage, the camera appears to defy gravity, as it hovers over the street into a cigar shop. The symbolism here is also important: the cigar being a locally produced Cuban product, not yet overtaken by the might of American cultural and economic imperialism. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara themselves famously made use of the cigar as a (phallic) signifier for national pride and independence.
In a carefully choreographed mise-en-scène, the camera then follows the workers in the cigar manufactory, as they hold the Cuban flag out of the window. As the music soars to a crescendo, the camera flys above the crowds in an awe-inspiring climax of cinematographic ingenuity. Only then, does the cameraman Sergei Urusevsky reveal the tricks of his cinematography: there are four wires hanging above the window that lead across to another building. It is to these wires that the camera gets attached and then pulled with. The use of an extreme wide angle lens helps to reduce the shaking and smoothens out any movements.
Mural depicting the ensuing execution of Eight Medical Students in 1871, Havana.
Here too, as the funeral procession walks down the narrow street, the scene is greatly symbolical of Cuban visual culture and politics. Every year, Cubans commemorate the 27th of November, mourning the lives of eight medical students who were wrongly sentenced to death and executed by Spanish colonizers in 1871. After the revolution in 1959, the 27th of November had a regained symbolical relevance: while it originally recognized the brutality of Spanish colonial rule, the 27th of November became a metaphor for the struggle for equality of Cubans under an American hegemony. The photograph below shows, in comparison with the famous funeral scene in I am Cuba, an uncanny similarity with how the 27th of November was commemorated in 1960. The sign on the top left reading ‘Miami Car Parts’ remains as an almost comical symbol for Anglo-Saxon style capitalism.
Photograph showing the 27th of November commemoration on Calle San Lazaro, Havana, 1960.
Photograph showing the 27th of November commemoration on Calle San Lazaro, Havana, 2009.
Another important aspect in the 27th of November processions is that like, like in the film I am Cuba, it begins at Havana University where the eight executed students used to study medicine. While the actual location for the film might be elsewhere, the procession, as it is still acted out today, then continues along Calle San Lazaro down to the shores of Havana. Lazarus of Bethany, as it says in the New Testament, is the subject of a miracle in which Jesus restores Lazarus to life after four days dead. The procession along Calle San Lazaro on the 27th of November therefore becomes the allegorical restoration of life and memory in light of suffering under colonial rule. I am Cuba masterfully borrows these signifiers of national pride and mourning: from the university to Havana’s narrow streets, from the omnipresent Cuban flag to the masses of people, from the fallen protester to the rise of the revolution, the funeral scene signifies that revolutions come at a human cost, and the only way to recover the dead is by remembering them.
These are the last few minutes in the movie ‘Flashbacks of a Fool’ directed by Baillie Walsh and featuring Daniel Craig. With a small degree of self-referentiality, Craig plays Joe, a washed up, alcoholic and drug addicted Hollywood actor who is nearing a mental breakdown. A prolonged flashback brings him back to his youth, 25 years earlier, when he was sixteen years old growing up in a British seaside town. There, as Joe remembers, he meets Ruth, a quirky and eccentric girl, who shares his passion for music. They hang out in Ruth’s parents lavishly decorated living room and listen to Bryan Ferry’s song ‘If There Is Something’. In a memorable and visually extremely stimulating mise-en-scène, Ruth mimics the lyrics of the song, and flirts with a phantom audience to the back of the room, while she has delegated Joe to perform the background vocals. Filmed in slow-motion, the scene first appears in the middle of the movie, as Joe is starting to fall in love with Ruth. The re-appearance of the scene at the end underlines the central trope of the movie: while Joe has a flashback of his youth, the viewer, equally, has a flashback of a scene already encountered earlier. Also, in the song ‘If There Is Something’, the central theme is remembering: the first part of the song is about wondering about love as a youth, the second part is about passion experienced as an adult and the third part depicts someone thinking about their past love. The visual flashback for the viewer and Joe alike is thus underlined by the message evoked by the song.
But what makes this scene so powerful? No doubt that the song has a large part to play in this. Bryan Ferry’s voice, almost breaking up from the intensity of his emotion, periodically reminds the viewer ‘when you were young’. As Ruth can be seen pointing towards the phantom audience in the back of the room, she is metaphorically pointing at the viewer to remind him or her of this time ‘when you were young’. Ferry’s strained voice is reminiscent of a teenage boy growing into an adult, and coupled with the song’s lyrics, the emotional response is that of teenage memories. It is me dancing with Ruth. I am becoming Joe. The scene brings back feeling of nostalgia – to a more innocent and carefree time. As the slow-motion cinematography suggests, to a time when you were floating. The scene is therefore so effective because it evokes memories that transcend the specificities of Joe’s flashback itself. It communicates to everyone.
Although they are the same age, Ruth appears far more mature than Joe, guiding him in his actions, and at the same time, taking the lead. Just as the she begins to mimic the lyrics, Ruth says ‘I will be Bryan’ while she instructs Joe to dance in the background. Joe meanwhile, is clearly taken by Ruth’s maturity and looks at here in awe. The scene thus incorporates an intriguing level of performed gender identity: while Ruth assumes the male role of Bryan Ferry, she is also wearing a tie, tucked into her trousers. Joe meanwhile assumes the role of a background singer, and wearing eye make up, evoking a time when the very definition of gender wasn’t as clear cut. By placing such emphasis on this scene, and indeed, by filming it with such visual appeal, the filmmaker and cinematographer point out that this very moment in Joe’s life is one that he will always remember and form him for the rest of his life. The brief performance alongside Ruth in her parent’s living room would eventually bring him to perform as an actor in Hollywood. The uncanny reference to Daniel Craig’s own experience as a British actor in Hollywood just underlines the filmmaker’s attempt to evoke an emotional response that transcends the fictitiousness of the film itself.
But the scene, despite all its beauty and appeal, is ultimately also about pain. Pain in the realization that these moments will remain memories and they will never happen again. As the word nostalgia already suggests, the metaphorical ‘returning home’ (nostos) via the memory is also filled with ‘pain’ (algos). It is maybe for that reason that the last moments in ‘Flashbacks of a Fool’ evoke such an emotional response from the viewer: the dawning realization that ‘when you were young’ is a moment you cannot return back to … except in your memory.
This is the moment when Aung San Suu Kyi emerges from her compound after spending the last 15 out of 20 years under house arrest imposed by the military dictatorship in Burma. Suu Kyi’s supporters and the press have gathered at the gates in anticipation after the Junta opened a checkpoint to allow access to her quasi-prison located on 54 University Avenue in Rangoon. The shaky amateur video footage broadcast all over the world is a sign for the chaos unfolding in front of the famous metal gates. And then, after a few minutes of uncertainty, Suu Kyi emerges, standing maybe one meter above the crowd, which erupts in cries of joy. A remarkable detail in the footage shows Suu Kyi resting her hands, almost immediately, on the sharp spikes of the gates, as if she is reaching out to her people. With a short but measured delay, she is flanked by two men who also wave to the crowd. All of them wear white clothing, signifying their innocence and unjust imprisonment under a brutal regime. The brightness and the simplicity of their clothing stands in stark contrast to the intricate uniforms of the military leadership. This contrast is is further emphasized when Suu Kyi accepts a flower given to her by a supporter and ties it into her hair. Suu Kyi and the flower, a beacon of beauty and light, in an otherwise murky world of brutality and oppression.
On closer inspection, the remarkable footage emerging out of Burma throws up a number of problems. The sharp spikes separating Suu Kyi from the crowd are not pointing inward to the compound, but rather, they are pointing to the people. In other words, in the footage it is the people, still, who appear imprisoned despite the perception of their leader being freed. Also, the gates which separate Suu Kyi from her people remains shut. So while the global news networks report on “Suu Kyi in freedom”, or “Suu Kyi released from house arrest”, the visual representation of her so-called release tell an entirely different story. She, and the Burmese people, continue to be separated by a metal gate, which, in this case, signifies the rule of the military.
We have been here before. Almost exactly the same kind of footage of a Suu Kyi release already exists from previous years. The same gates, the same metal spikes, and the same ageless woman. The footage of Suu Kyi’s release is caught up in a repetitive cycle of representation. It’s what you might call a semiotic trap. We look at her recent release, and we wonder, if we have not already seen this exact image before. This very question dampens the power of the most recent release footage, because, rather than documenting a unique moment in time, it documents a recurring event played out in front of the assembled global media networks. The ‘release’ becomes a performance that brings up more questions that it brings answers. Here, the metal gate not only acts to separate Suu Kyi from her people, but it also hides what is going on behind them. The footage of her release looses its power because the secretive operations of the Junta are further manifested in that which is hidden from the viewer. In a sense, all the connotations of imprisonment become irrelevant because rather than signifying freedom or liberty, Aung San Suu Kyi signifies hope – the hope that the latest footage of her conditional release, might, just, also be the last.
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