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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.

Behind The Article: Karl Marx's Communist Roots

March 1, 2011 in European Writers, Political History, Political Writing

Karl Marx in BrusselsKarl Marx is a controversial figure.  Some people grimace with the mention of his name while others celebrate his contributions to political history.  Marxism was a political ideology that swept through Europe and still exists today in some forms, even in democracy.  We may not embrace Marxism fully, but whether or not you realize it, you may be engaging in a Marxist principle … and liking it!

For this installment of “Behind The Article,” we asked Steven Hermans, writer of our latest article entitled Karl Marx’s Revolutionary Brussels, about Marxism today and politics in Belgium:

Literary Traveler: As you discussed in the article, Karl Marx’s communist vision had appeal with the poor masses.  In this deep recession, do you think communism will have a comeback?

Steven Hermans: Having traveled extensively in the former Soviet Union, I can safely say that communism is well and truly dead. Although the good sides of communist society are underreported in the West, I don’t think the idea of a dictatorial rule is appealing to anyone anymore, not to mention communism’s economic and environmental problems. Marxism however is alive more than ever, as we can see in the global protests against bankers, stock traders and multinationals, and with the demise of capitalism as we know it I see socialism making a comeback.

LT: How do Belgians view their current political system?

SH: It’s always tricky to speak about Belgians, since the country is so deeply divided between the Dutch-speaking and the French-speaking part. To generalize, I think most Belgians look at the current anarchy with apathy. Belgians are not patriotic people: as long as they and their families are doing fine, the state’s wounds can continue to fester.

LT: Since you live in Brussels, are there any literary sites you would recommend?

SH: I recommend the Comic Strip Museum. Belgium has a long and rich history of comics and graphic novels, and it is often referred to as the ninth art in Belgium and France. If you are not interested in comics, you can still admire the magnificent building: the Wacquez warehouse built by the famous architect Victor Horta in 1906. It’s the most beautiful Art Nouveau building in Brussels in my opinion.

Please continue reading Karl Marx’s Revolutionary Brussels.