Cuba (USA, 1979)

cuba_sean_connery_richard_lester_003_jpg_prneDirected by: Richard Lester. Some movies really come out of left field for me, calling out to me out of complete obscurity, usually with a combination of personal caprice and some quirk, some potential for absurdity or brilliance, or at least general interest. In this case: a movie I didn’t know existed, called Cuba, about a romance set in the Cuban Revolution, with Martin Balsam as a Cuban general, and Sean Connery in a pencil moustache (erroneously, I assumed, meaning that he was playing brownface à la Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil), and it’s directed by Richard Lester, the guy who did the Beatles movies and co-directed Superman II. To be honest, the chances were slim that this would actually be a legit, enjoyable, intelligent movie, but I was tempted by the potential for this being a skewed, hilarious, racially backwards train wreck. Turns out Sean Connery is not in brownface, his moustache is just a plain old Sean Connery British guy moustache, and this movie is pretty interesting. This is the first time I’ve seen Richard Lester actually just be a director, without the distraction of a built-in franchise or the overshadowing gravity of the world’s biggest pop band, and—turns out—he’s actually a pretty smart director. His voice really comes out in his editing; the threat of abstract, nondiegetic inserts intruding into the narrative keeps the whole thing really fresh, and keeps what could be a boring, predictable historical romance from forgetting its role as a filmic construction. There’s a scene where Connery confronts his old flame as she’s playing tennis, and when she rebukes him, he drives away and goes to another scene, in an army barracks, where the soldiers are watching a cockfight, but the scene cuts to the birds fighting, without any context, while the tennis scene is still finishing, showing us these rich people playing tennis back and forth, perturbed by Connery’s interruption, and cross-cutting with a seemingly random and therefore allegorical or metaphorical shot of a cockfight, until finally lingering on the cockfight until the camera pulls back and reveals that it’s an army barracks and that it’s the next location that Connery visits after the tennis game. Unfortunately, my memory isn’t great, but the film is full of shit like that—unexpected choices that keep the film feeling fresh, that keep us from getting really complacent in this complacent genre. It’s because of that smart, disjointed, faux-Godardian style of Lester’s that the more traditional stuff—the romantic subplot, the outsider’s character arc in his relationship to the revolution, and the woman’s relationship to her husband—feels much more exciting. Although, to be fair, all of that stuff is pretty fresh and nonconventional too. Connery’s role as the mercenary helping the Bautista regime to defeat the rebels is a pretty interesting arc that you don’t see that often: you’re expecting him to fulfil his initial skepticism and to come full circle, like an exaggerated Rick Blaine from Casablanca, to witness the corruption of the Bautista regime and go to fight for the rebellion instead. But he’s not that kind of guy, and even though he hates the slimy nature of the regime he’s working for, at the end, he’s a (more believably) selfish person who sees the writing on the wall as an excuse to flee the situation, to abscond with his lost love, and leave the whole thing behind. What makes the female lead, Brooke Adams, so amazing is that her character is similarly believable, and she won’t instantly leave her homeland and her husband behind just because she’s found this old flame again. The gender dynamics in this thing are fucking lightyears ahead of most stuff you still see in major Hollywood movies, much less for 1979. Her husband is a weak shitbag, a slimy, cheating, pampered rich boy who can’t do anything, but she finds him attractive, and she loves him for him weakness, she loves the strange dynamic they have. She is no passive victim here, she really likes her position, and she’s good at running the factory, at handling money, at being the actual brains behind the operation. She loved Connery when they had their fling in the past (she reminisces how she was young and foolish—“only 15”, and he corrects her “17”, and she corrects him, “15”, and the look on both of their faces is fucking priceless), and she loves him in the moment, for that day that they fool around again. But man oh man, that scene where they have their falling out is miles ahead of anything Hollywood has these days. Connery, like all of us trained on Hollywood gender roles, thinks that the fact that she went to bed with him means that their love is rekindled and she’s going to abscond to the States with him and leave her entire world behind, because what could compete with the love of a strong moustachioed leading man like Sean Connery? And she very matter-of-factly (in a way that the film doesn’t hate her for, but really sides with her on) explains to him how adults function, that she is Cuban and she’s going to stay here, no matter what happens to her, that this was fun, but it’s only fun, and that it was a great time in the past, but it was the past. And the film doesn’t really seem to side with Connery, his bitterness about the whole thing doesn’t really overtake the film in my opinion, it remains just one of the emotional elements in the film that you’re left to kind of deal with.

And maybe that’s what I really love about this film: unlike most films with an emotional and sympathetic “centre”, the one person with easily morally superior motivations and emotions with whom you’re supposed to “identify” and through whose eyes you’re meant to interpret all of the events from fade in to fade out, this movie goes for a more detached, multiple, complex constellation of emotions and motivations kind of hanging in the air, rotating, allowing you to feel out each one and make sense of it yourself. The British mercenary, the corrupt generals, the rich factory owner, her pampered husband, the patriarchal head of the rich family, the British airplane tycoon (played amazingly by Denholm Elliot from Indian Jones), the greasy, moneygrubbing American industrialist looking to squeeze everything he can before the revolution hits, the Cuban mistress, her brother the revolutionary, and the guerilla leader who kind of serves as a stand-in for Castro. All of these characters and more, all of them populating the world of the film, and illustrating the conflicting interests of the actual historical revolution. One of my favourite moments is when Connery, frustrated that Brooke Adams won’t come with him to the airport, bosses the chauffer into the car to drive the car back from the airport, and Connery says something disparaging about the revolution and his place in it, and the chauffer, silent up to that point, says something like “Shut your mouth about things that don’t concern you”, putting him in his place as a foreigner. The biggest revelation in this movie for me is the discovery of Brooke Adams, who I didn’t recognize, and whose tremendous talent here, her charm, her energy, that multi-layered intelligence and world-weariness packed under what could be just a pretty face is absolutely staggering. Look at her filmography and tell me it’s not depressing to see how under-utilized she was even in her youth, and especially now. Hollywood, you dropped the fucking ball on this one, as with so many ones. What a fucking gem of a movie, I’m so glad I took a chance on it. Go see this movie! More importantly, go take chances on things you’ve never heard of, new or old, American or foreign, with known or unknown actors, moustache or no moustache.

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2 responses to “Cuba (USA, 1979)

  1. Pingback: List of Judgements, Anno Domini 2015 | Offhand Reviews·

  2. Pingback: Days of Heaven (USA, 1978) | Offhand Reviews·

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