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The Siberian Mammoth: An Unexpected Guide to Cuba’s Revolutionary Past

January 14, 2013 in Cuba, Film, History, Movies, Political History, Politics

The title of the documentary about the making of I Am Cuba doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue: I am Cuba, The Siberian Mammoth seems to bear an especially obscure relationship with the country. For the puzzled traveler or movie fan, it’s enough to be aware that this Italian film explores a culture clash between the Soviet film-makers who went to the country to make a propaganda film on behalf of Castro’s new regime and the Cubans who were their audience.

The 2005 documentary The Siberian Mammoth opened up the processes behind the making of the mysteriously beautiful propaganda film I am Cuba, after it had been rediscovered by directors such as Francis Ford Coppola. In a time before Cuban tourism had become an option for the offbeat traveler, I am Cuba was a brochure of a political rather than commercial kind. In the 90s, it was easier for hip audiences to enjoy it for its unreal beauty rather than its uncomfortable revolutionary propaganda. The film was directed by a well-known Soviet film-director who ended up alienating Soviets and Cubans both. Kalaznov had worked for Soviet authorities who were impossible to please for long. Before making I am Cuba, he had been banned for several years by the authorities from film-making due to “negativism.” Given these competing demands it’s difficult to know what audience this film was really aimed at. It was described by the film critic J. Hoberman as a “Bolshevik hallucination”. For the contemporary viewer, its beautiful imagery is confusing. Each shot wistfully points to some greater ideal, so that the pace is both slow and hard to follow, like melting ice—first static, then rapidly slipping into the sublimated, altered reality of the triumphant people’s revolution. The inevitable revolutionary sacrifice portrays Cubans as suffering idealists drawn towards action in a dreamlike state. This is a film that shows a Cuba of great natural beauty, but just like an advertisement, it has no real use for the reality of the place and its inhabitants. What’s stranger still is how the actors conform to its artificial purpose. The explanation behind this is that they were untrained Cuban actors selected by the Soviet Directors.

Cuba is a place that has been draped in romantic mystery for many reasons; often literary and cultural, but mostly political. Now that the country is open to tourists, it would be an interesting piece of homework for a traveler to watch this film along with its documentary counterpart as preparation for a visit. At this point the writer has a confession to make: I have seen I Am Cuba, but I have not seen The Siberian Mammoth. Nor have I seen Cuba. If I’m ever lucky enough to visit, I’d like to sharpen my memories of that beautifully shot propaganda film with this documentary about the culture clash between the foreign film-makers and their subjects.

Fauxscar Nominee: Les Misérables

January 7, 2013 in Classic Literature, Classic Writers, European Writers, Fauxscars, Film, French Authors, History, Literary Movies, Literature, Movies, Political History

Strictly speaking, Les Misérables is not a Literary Adaption; it’s based on the musical, not the Victor Hugo novel. The story has traveled far since it was first published in France. It’s always been a big, hulking phenomenon, and it’s always had its critics. What demolishes the criticism, however, is its emotional forcefulness. And the funny thing about the criticism of each successive adaption, is that it tends to focus on the new version’s faithfulness to the original, despite the fact that the novel was criticized at the time for being sentimental – unfaithful to reality itself. Flaubert deemed it “infantile” and Baudelaire privately called it “tasteless and inept.” But in the preface, Hugo outlined a social purpose for his book that was greater than literary accomplishment:

So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.

In 1862 when Les Misérables was published, the American civil war was being fought over the emancipation of slaves. The noble hero of the book, Jean Valjean, is an ex-convict whose unnatural strength reveals his identity as a former galley slave. He is on the run for most of the film, trying to build a better life as a factory owner, and then stepping up to the role of adopted papa of the orphaned child Cosette. The film of Les Misérables, though based on the musical (it uses all the songs from the 1985 musical bar two) goes where the stage production cannot in portraying the misery of the poor peasants – and in this it rejoins the book. I’ve rarely seen a ‘costume’ production, where the cast is made to look as filthy and downtrodden as this. Most of the characters’ teeth are blackened – though I did notice that Hathaway’s angelic Fantine flashes a cleaner set than some of the lesser cast members. Also Helena Bonham Carter is allowed to get away with her usual steampunk, hallucinatory version of historical costume. This role finds her once again as a flouncy, amoral proprietress of a low dive establishment, even making sausages out of suspect bits of meat, just as she did in Sweeny Todd.

Aside from the comic filthiness of Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, there’s no getting around the sentimentality of the movie and its antecendents, the musical, the book, and numerous film adaptions. But because it’s a musical, a version of willing suspension of disbelief sets in. Call it, “willing suspension of cynical running commentary” (we’ll wait ‘til the movie’s out on Netflix to relax our standards on that). But it’s more than that. The movie packs real emotional weight, especially through the performances of the leads. No one could fail to be moved by Anne Hathaway’s performance of “I Dreamed a Dream.” While they’re delivering their soliloquys, the shots are trained on the characters’ faces – often from above, as if to capture the desperation and abandonment which makes them invoke a higher power. By the time Hathaway’s Fantine bows out of the film, she is a broken woman, shorn of her locks and her dignity; the camera does not flinch from describing the dirt and tears on her face.

Hugh Jackman is also a great, sympathetic lead as Jean Valjean, and Samantha Barks is a sad, forlorn Eponine.  Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried are fairly wooden, but as the fairy prince and princess characters, they don’t have much to do besides adorn the happy ending.

Overall ‘Les Miz’ works because of its great cast rather than originality – but really, who was looking for that? It manages to stay true to the form of the musical - and to the intentions of the book: to portray the victims of poverty. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of those soliloquys bag a few Oscars for the leads.

Fauxscar Nominee: The Hunger Games

January 2, 2013 in American Authors, children's literature, Contemporary Literature, Fauxscars, Fiction, Film, Literary Movies, Movies, YA Fiction, Young Adult Literature

I will clear the air right away and say, I was a fan of Twilight.  It seems that this question has been on the tip of bibliophilic tongues everywhere and a pro-vampire stance confessed to the wrong person will have you ostracized to a community of lowbrow lepers doomed to wander the colony with a scarlet V on your chest.  Many a debate has been had amongst readers over the merits of these now iconic young adult novels.  Are they literary? Are they well-written?  I typically shy away from this line of questioning the same way I shy away from talking politics or religion on a first date.  Nothing good can come from it.  Maybe they aren’t literary, but they are addictive and a fine guilty pleasure.  Actually, my only problem with the series is its protagonist Bella. A hormonal teenage girl mooning over the emotionally unavailable bad boy is nothing new to literature, film, or life for that matter, but to have said character mope about for the span of an entire novel, acquiesce to Edward’s every overbearing whim and ultimately sacrifice her human life to be more compatible with him? As a role model for the novels’ target audience, Bella is lacking in a seriously unhealthy way.  Regardless to say, I was “Team Jacob” and doomed to be disappointed.

Despite my obvious bitterness over the outcome of the series, however, there were more important things at stake. If Twilight was to be indicative of today’s youth, I felt that we were certainly in trouble. How do we reconcile a world where girls look up to a character like Bella, who spends most of New Moon despondent, only prying herself away from her armchair to attempt personal injury in hopes that she might glimpse a hallucination of Edward?  My friends, don’t fret, the future of female empowerment in not doomed. It can be found in a dark corner of a distant post-apocalyptic universe. Enter Katniss Everdeen.

Katniss is powerful, responsible, knows her way around a bow and arrow, and doesn’t need protection from either of the strapping gentlemen who make up her very own Twilight-esque love triangle.  The difference between the two young women: Katniss doesn’t really care about hers.  Not initially, anyway.  She has bigger things to do, like save her sister…and save the world.

Suzanne Collins’ novel is set in a dystopic future where the United States has become the twelve districts of Panem.  There were originally thirteen, but a failed mutiny left District 13 to serve as a cautionary tale to those remaining.  As a punishment and reminder, each year the districts must send two children to “The Hunger Games” – a Survivor type reality show where only one victor comes out alive.  While the subject matter is disturbing, the story quickly grabs hold of readers.  It is almost impossible to stop reading until you have gone straight through to the end of the third book.  And despite its morbid undertones, it presents a powerful story of hope.  As the evil President Snow states in the filmic version: “Hope, it is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective, a lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine, as long as it’s contained.”  The viewers quickly learn, as does the villainous Snow, that Katniss’ fire cannot be contained.

Her male counterpart in the Hunger Games, and one third of the aforementioned love triangle, is Peeta Mellark. I loved the character of Peeta for every reason I loved Jacob, and every reason I couldn’t stand Edward.  Peeta might not sparkle, but he also won’t climb through your bedroom window and hover over you while you sleep.  He compliments Katniss in the best ways, and their relationship is one of genuine adoration and respect; it’s believable, real, and something we can all aspire to, whether we are 15 or 65.

For these reasons and more, I was ecstatic to find out a movie was being made based on the books. While adaptations can cause the original material to get lost in translation, this was not the case for The Hunger Games.  This book, full of eerie landscapes, futuristic inhabitants, and an arena where no one is safe, was begging to be adapted for the screen.  Between the elaborate costumes and the incredible settings, the faultless casting was the cherry on the sundae.  Jennifer Lawrence easily slides into the role of Katniss, a strong, capable character whose healthy body is a refreshing alternative to the stick-thin waif.  (Bella, just because Edward can’t eat food, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t).  The role of Peeta seems as though it was written especially for Josh Hutcherson; his flawless blend of self-deprecating humor, charm, and authenticity is unparalleled.  But the absolute scene-stealer of the movie has to be the unexpected, yet perfectly executed performance, of Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy, the alcoholic former Hunger Games victor-turned-mentor.  Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, and Stanley Tucci round out an ensemble cast that cannot be beat.

I recommend the books to anyone with a taste for well-written YA Fiction—I recommend the film to anyone, period.  There isn’t much from the book left on the cutting room floor, and the plot is easy to follow without any prior knowledge of it.  Male, female, teen or adult, The Hunger Games has something for everyone and will surely provoke discussion about our culture’s disturbing fascination with reality television, among other topics usually reserved for the second date.

As we begin to choose nominees for our 2013 Fauxscars, I say to The Hunger Games: “May the odds be ever in your favor!”

Post originally published here on the Literary Traveler website, in the Books section.

Get Your Sparkles Here!

November 19, 2012 in Book Series, Literary Movies, Movies, Young Adult Literature

Hi Literary Travelers,

What do you think about Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight? Is the series “literary”? Are the movies any good?

Today’s article, How Twilight Took Me Places I Never Thought I’d Go, asks whether Bella’s “sole ambition was to spend eternity in her vampire-boyfriend Edward’s sparkly presence”, and, if so,  ”What kind of message does that send young readers, especially girls”? And, does traveling to places of fiction “cheapen” the experience?

Read the article and let us know! Or post on LT’s Facebook page.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

The Master: a Peculiar Bromance

September 28, 2012 in American History, Movies

By Melissa Mapes

A winning film must succeed in three essential categories: production, performance, and plot. The Master scores highly in first two categories, but falters in the third. Surely, one may ask, a nomadic cult, a disturbed World War II veteran, and a lost love create the perfect recipe for an enthralling story? The answer should be yes – I wanted it to be yes – but the payoff never came.

The plot instead meanders like its erratic man-child lead, Freddie Quell, whose issues extend well beyond his time at war. Joaquin Phoenix seems an odd choice for the character. Many times throughout the film he is referred to as “boy,” and the love of his life is a 16-year-old girl. But Joaquin appears to be well-weathered forty, and, unfortunately, the suspension of disbelief can only extend so far when it comes to age. He needed to be twenty years younger for the audience to sympathize with Freddie’s romance rather than feel relief at his failure to consummate it.

Joaquin’s exaggerated body language does not help. He hunches over with severe scoliosis and juts his elbows out at his sides with his hands on his hips – thumbs placed in an unnatural forward position. The camera often locks on the sharp edges of his shoulder blades and bumps of his spine. His teeth are brown from neglect. Despite apparent deterioration of mind and body, he wins numerous fights and outruns adversaries with ease. We see one or two fleeting glimpses of wit, but the vast majority of the time Freddie seems to suffer from a severe mental handicap rather than PTSD.

Lancaster Dodd, the leader of a Scientology-esque cult, sees Freddie as the endearing embodiment of the animal in us all, and takes him on as a pet. Philip Seymour Hoffman channels the narcissistic Master with ease. The chemistry between Hoffman and Phoenix is extraordinary, and makes the film worth watching. Their relationship in the film vacillates between heartwarming and sadistic. Dodd is the only person in the world with an affinity for Freddie Quell, despite his family’s strong misgivings, and Quell is willing to do (quite literally) anything to please and protect him.

Though the visuals are beautiful and acting is exceptional, the audience is left waiting for it to all come together. While exiting the theater, I heard a young man say, “I’ll need someone a lot smarter than me to explain it later.” But quite honestly, I don’t think the issue was with him. The audience knows that the story is about re-assimilation after war, as told by an unreliable narrator. It is also about our baser instincts and our ability to control them. And lastly, it is about bromance. Despite heading down all of these roads, it never quite reaches a destination – at least not a satisfying one – leaving the audience to wonder, “Did I miss something?”

The director, it seems, was in love with his actors and the post-war era and did not wish to distract with a big plot. If his goal was to compile over 2 hours of beautiful images of some of the most talented actors in existence, then he succeeded. But, if his goal was to make the audience feel something, I hope that feeling was confusion.