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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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There is a moment in Apocalypse Now when Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) is describing the crew of the river patrol boat he is on. He comes to Gunners Mate Miller (Lawrence Fishburn ) and says that Miller had come from some South Bronx shit-hole and the space and light of Viet Nam had zapped his head. This concept of being overwhelmed by tropical beauty came to mind as I was watching I Am Cuba and I wondered if the same thing hadn’t happened to the Soviet film crew that gone to Cuba to make a film about the recent revolution. From the opening shot, it’s apparent that the Soviets had been zapped by Cuba... and who wouldn’t be?

Director Mikhail Kalatozov, along with cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky and poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko were tasked with making what Kalatozov hoped would be the Cuban Battleship Potemkin... a film monument to the Cuban Revolution. Sadly this did not happen. One wonders if any Russian film crew — even what may have been the best one at the time — could ever get Cuba right. What they did make is an incredible visual feast that left me with my jaw on the ground more than once. All this despite a boat anchor of a story hung around the film’s neck like a 2-ton albatross.

Soviet Invasion of Cuba

Packaging in the form of a Cuban cigar box delivers the set with much love
Packaging in the form of a Cuban cigar box delivers the set with much love

How can a film be so brilliant and a failure at the same time? On paper it all looked so good.

Kalatozov and Urusevsky had teamed up to make The Cranes Are Flying, which some credit as being the first Soviet film to break out from behind the Iron Curtain when it won the Palme d’Or in 1958 (it’s also the last Russian film to have won, but who’s counting?).

One year later, the Cuban Revolution took a hard Left turn. Cuba was then spurned by the USA and slid into the Soviet camp. The Soviets decided to put their best people on a Cuban film project. The Soviet team arrived in Cuba with a bloody civil war, Stalin and WWII under their belts whereas the Cubans were still back at the first blush of their revolution.... about where the Russians were after taking the Winter Palace. It was the intersection of cold, wet cardboard and a hot roman candle. And then there was the simple fact of filmmakers from frozen Russia being plopped down in lush tropical Cuba... a country where Florida is their Canada. In the end, the place and time defeated the Russians’ attempt to capture the spirt of the Cubans or their revolution.

Unappreciated In Its Time

Kalatozov and Urusevsky created an astounding work of visual art. But when the film premiered, the Cubans didn’t like what they saw and the Russians didn’t like what it said. After a lackluster reception and short run in both countries, it was put on the shelf and forgotten.

Fortunately for I Am Cuba, time has been kind and the story has little if any meaning anymore, at least in the States where I Am Cuba had a snatched-from-the edge-of-oblivion revival in the early 1990s. (It is interesting to note that the first showings in the USA were without subtitles, so the Anglophone audience were spared the lame verbal message.)

Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese are adding their considerable prestige to this DVD release, and as Scorsese says in his interview on the I Am Cuba disk, if he had seen this film when it first came out, he would be making his films differently today, although I disagree — there is a lot of handheld work in I Am Cuba that reminds me of Scorsese’s dynamic cameras in, say for instance Goodfellas. Scorsese may be predisposed to sympathetic appreciation. There are also scenes that will remind you of Eisentstein and scenes that prefigure Tarkovsky.

Camera Ballet

There are two scenes in I Am Cuba that I think are, as the film gets to be better known, destined to become as iconic as any in film history. Both are meticulously choreographed ballets of the camera.

The first starts on a building roof in a long tracking shot that’s pretty good in and of itself, but then the camera descends several stories down the side of the building to a swimming pool terrace below. It then continues along among the pool-side crowd and ultimately gets into the pool with the swimmers. A similar pool-diving scene in Boogie Nights is noted in the additional disks.

The second astounding scene starts at street level beside a casket in a funeral procession in downtown Havana. The camera follows for a few paces and then ascends several stories to a roof top then goes across the street to the adjacent building, passes through a window then moves to the other side of a large room where it exits out another window and flies down the middle of the street four stories over where the procession has now advanced. I was so amazed by this the first time I saw it, I had to pause and go back to see it again just to confirm what I had seen had really happened. It would be a valid criticism of the film to say that such visual grandstanding detracts from the story, but as noted above, you want to be distracted from the story. I wonder if that’s what Kalatozov and Urusevsky thought too.

There is another major visual aspect of this film that is briefly noted in the additional disks but I wonder if it doesn’t have some greater and deeper meaning. Throughout I Am Cuba, from the opening shot to the last triumphant march, there are scenes where Kalatozov and Urusevsky used infrared film stock. This makes the lush dark Cuban foliage look frosty white. It’s a bold, inventive, and fantastic decision, but it’s not very Cuban. I wonder if they weren’t trying (on some level) to make Cuba look like snowy Russia. Or, better still, by shooting through a “Red” filter they were twisting reality into yet another Soviet illusion... dangerous stuff for a Russian director to do in 1963.

I once had a musician friend who said that a one-word definition of music could be “joy.” That definition would apply to Kalatozov’s use of a movie camera. After you see I Am Cuba, you just want to go out and shoot a film too. Great art is like that.

DVD Extras

Milestone has done a great job bringing this set to market in a way that is worthy of I Am Cuba. Notable is the clever packaging in the form of a Cuban cigar box. I think that is a gentle way of saying not to take the message of I Am Cuba too seriously, yet still delivers the set with much love.

In a way, this whole set is one big extra and it’s all worth watching. Indeed, once you have seen I Am Cuba, you have to watch everything else. Notable is the introduction by Martin Scorsese on the I Am Cuba disk. If you need official validation of the film, this should do the trick.

The Siberian Mammoth, a Brazilian documentary made in 2005 is necessary for American audiences to get a sense of how little the Cubans and Russians think of the film today. I believe it is Cuban screenwriter Enrique Pineda Barnet who says that, now that Coppola and Scorsese are backing the film, it will become famous. At the time the film was first released, a Cuban critic renamed it “I Am Not Cuba,” and from their point of view, that’s still true. Nevertheless, the cast and crew are tracked down and interviewed and most are bemused to see a smartly packaged copy of the VHS tape handed to them.

A Film About Mikhail Kalatozov is a 2006 Russian documentary made by the director’s grandson. This will give you a good feel for where Kalatozov was coming from when he directed I Am Cuba. For instance, we see in clips from The Letter That Was Never Sent (the film that followed The Cranes Are Flying ) the use of infrared film stock, only this time it’s in the Siberian taiga. Kalatozov’s swooping crane shots and frenetic hand held camerawork in crowds in Cranes will be familiar too. A thing that really caught my eye were scenes from his silent-era film Salt For Svanetia. It is no wonder that the Soviet’s criticized Salt For Svanetia for not being a proper socialist film. It is its un-Soviet impropriety and exuberance that makes it so good.

Picture and Sound

Picture and sound are very good. The subtitles are clean, legible and grammatical.

How to Use this DVD

Watch it or get left behind.