Memorias del Subdesarrollo and Lucia were not necessarily the best choices to represent the heteropatriarchical assumptions of Third Cinema. While they feature the anti-colonial, nationalist spirit of revolution during the move for independence in many Latin American countries, they are more nuanced than other films that might feature the comparison of revolution to heterosexual male virility. They give some space within their narratives to consider questions that are left unanswered by revolution. So in many ways they are aware that independence and revolution did not answer the call and needs of queer people and women. However, these films did not feature their stories at all. In fact, Memorias very consciously objectified women. Part of the film’s failure is in that it raises a lot of questions about the state of revolution, but is content to leave them unanswered, and have the audience, like Sergio, immerse itself completely in political apathy. Lucia at the very least deals momentarily with the question of women in the revolution, but they are only talked about in reference to it, and serve as a conduit to discuss the larger issues of Cuba’s political standing.
Fresa y Chocolate and Kiss of the Spider Woman take off from the point of the departure of these last two films, finally making queer people more transparent in the Latin American context. They are no longer omitted from the story. These two films talk very openly about the role that a queer person has within the confines of a revolution that is mainly heteropatriarchical. Diego and Luis help to blur the lines of what political commitment and nationalism mean. They assimilate into the narrative of revolution, but in a very complex way. The question of mere survival in this revolutionary system is also crucial to them. Though it may seem that they are merely seeking to stay alive, the system is made so as to be inherently exclusionary, and so their political devotion must be manifested through their enduring desire to survive and stay way from persecution.
XXY takes a completely divergent approach from the assimilationist view that Fresa and Kiss exemplify. The struggle of an intersex teenager is confined to that of zir personal home and nuclear family. Zir world is not something that is directly tied to politics, nor is her struggle merely a reflection or reaction to the revolutionary process. The question remains, is this the way that LGBT visibility will continue to be created in Latin American films? It seems that featuring the micro-political movements and everyday actions of queer people on screen is, it itself, a revolutionary act for contemporary Latin American film. The fabric of Latin American society is at the very least disrupted and teased apart by the presence of queer people on screen, and it does so in a way that is very complicated, never adhering to the notion that Latin America is negatively “languaged by sex.”
Thursday, December 15, 2011
XXY is an Argentine film about an intersex pre-teen and zir struggle with coming to terms with zir sexuality. Ze is addressed as “she” in the film, because ze has been living as a girl named Alex. Alex’s mother invites friends from Argentina, where the family used to live, to their home in Uruguay. One of the family friends is a surgeon with whom Alex’s mother wants to discuss the possibilities of a sex operation. Alex is also taking hormonal medicine. Throughout the course of the film Alex realizes that ze does not want to undergo any of these socially-imposed procedures. Alex has penetrative sex with the family friends’ son, Álvaro, and they later express their desire for each other but Álvaro’s parents reject. Later on, a throng of teenagers force Alex to take off zir pants and reveal zir genitals.
The story of Alex – while it straddles between zir parents’ hope for normalcy and Alex’s need for choice – asks ultimately if this disheartening decision needs to be made in the first place. Parents are often forced to make a decision about the sex of their child when they give birth to intersex babies. However, the basis for sex cannot be solely determined by biology, and this is what XXY questions the entire time. Alex’s life is from the very beginning labeled by all these medical and biological demands, but the film enters zir life narrative when ze rejects this approach and makes a choice for zir identity. Alex makes a decision about zir life that is often not a part of an intersex person’s life until much later. Intersex people are thought to be incomplete from birth, their parents are forced into a life of secrecy and exile like Alex’s parents so that they can live in some kind of in-between state until the crucial box of “girl” or “boy” is checked off. XXY shows through Alex’s life story that it does not have to be a life like this. Alex’s father in particular is extremely supportive of his child’s decisions, and that is the most important of all sentiments that Alex needs. Zir sexuality is still ambiguous towards the end, but this is not what matters, the film seems to say.
XXY is not like the other films. The film is one of the very first to feature an intersex person in a Latin American film, and consider the themes in a truly mature way. The issues of sex, sexuality and gender expression are not even considered in opposition to wider issues of revolutionary politics. They are dealt with very individually, and within the confines of the nuclear family. Is this the direction in which queer movies are headed in the Latin America? Is this the only way that LGBT politics can be expressed in the public sphere – through a look into the personal lives of the people on the screen?
Kiss of the Spider Woman primarily takes place in a jail cell in what looks like a Brazilian town. But it also oscillates between this location and fantasy sequences that are narrated by Luis, a gay man who is in prison because of “sex offenses.” He tells these stories to a one-man audience – Valentin, who is a stoic political prisoner involved in some resistance movement against the government. Nevertheless, the stories are for his own benefit. When Valentin complains about the ongoing narration of one of Luis’ favorite movies – a Nazi propaganda film from the 1940s – Luis replies that he will continue to escape the jail cell however he can, unless someone brings the keys to allow him to physically abandon his condition. Luis’ escapism becomes a central theme of the movie, and one of the main reasons that Valentin has to despise his cellmate. As more details about the movie reveal themselves, however, Luis’ escapism manifests itself as something more complicated than what is originally perceived. It is an escapism that originally comments on his desire for survival, and later demonstrates his commitment to a political cause.
Initially, the plot of the (Nazi) film within the film does not seem to be significant to Luis. He is simply interested in the romantic element of the film, where a French woman falls in love with one of the head officials of the Nazi occupation there. This insistence on his mental survival is important for him. Valentin acknowledges that out in the world, Luis is at risk from persecution and discrimination. While he does not get physically tortured and beaten as Valentin is for his political beliefs, Luis is nevertheless just another marginalized person that will continue to be enmeshed in the political oppression of his native country. Thus, as the film develops, the stark contrast between Luis – the escapist – and Valentin – the political agent – is muddled. The plot of the film within the film comes to comment on the film itself, because Luis becomes the political agent and emulates the protagonist female lead in the Nazi film, in that he acts as a spy, but unlike her, he actually serves a noble cause and does not end up betraying it. It is interesting to see how the queer figure in each film plays into this escapist stereotype, as if his/her political involvement were only secondary to his need for mental survival in a discriminatory atmosphere. Nevertheless, Kiss of the Spider Woman definitely redeems itself by blurring these stereotypes. Even Valentin is transformed. He is originally an emblem of resistance to the government, but is nevertheless representative of the rigid heteropatriarchy that comes along with his nationalism. By the end of the movie, however, Luis is the one that questions and softens this rigidity.
Fresa y Chocolate is in many ways the continuation of Memorias del Subdesarrollo. The Cuban intellectual figure lives on with Diego, though always in reference to Sergio. To some extent, the questions of indecision and intellectual alienation are eliminated, but there is still a sort of violence that lives on in this era, that has little to do with the luxury of choice that Sergio had in Memorias. Diego is much more decisive and sure of himself as a revolutionary and an intellectual, but Cuba has no space for this gay man even if he chose to stay. The silent violence that remains when the film ends – a moment that is ostensibly the joyous embrace between two friends – is very troubling, and it seems eternally more grounded in the real than any of Sergio’s problems ever could have been. The issue that kept resurfacing for me was that of the “insult.” How could Diego be so willing to keep living in a country that insulted his very existence? What could bring about the obvious passion with which he led his life? Art seemed to be a force that Sergio lived for, something that grounded him at the same time that it elevated him as an intellectual. His distinction between art and propaganda is very important. It speaks of this notion of embodied knowledge – knowledge that cannot be “transmitted” in words through the radio waves – but rather, is profoundly “felt,” as Diego testifies. The presence of art throughout the film is also a reference to the cinematic medium itself. Alea seems to be pointing to the fact that he is not so interested in making propaganda films anymore. Though Alea is still funded by the ICAIC for this film, Fresa y Chocolate is not a movie that cares much for censorship.
David is such an important addition to this story. Memorias del Subdesarrollo never addressed the “militant” revolutionaries in Sergio’s world – they were merely background elements whenever he roamed the streets of Havana. On the other hand, Fresa y Chocolate has the audience confront the very bodies that are involved in revolution. They are not objectified, as the women were in Memorias. Sergio even thinks originally of David in a merely physical way, but eventually the film asks us to look deeper, just as Sergio has to. The audience also has to engage with the journey that David’s mind had to go through. Up until the very end he was in denial that Sergio’s exile was a forced one. He too must immerse himself in an artistic world beyond that of propaganda in order to realize that his friend is incapacitated from action because of the very system that sustains his life.
Fresa y Chocolate was a valuable film for Alea to have made. It might be a little bit more simplistic than desired – the choice of genre certainly contributed to this – but as I have mentioned before, the silent violence of the end is what remains captivating. The film is not as lighthearted as it seems. I do wish that it had engaged more with issues of race and gender, especially because in the end the embrace between Diego and David seemed to represent an idealized sense of fraternity that is definitely part of the rhetoric of the nationalist revolution.
Lucia is a film about three different stages in Cuba’s history, told through the experiences of three women named Lucia in each time period. The first is situated in 1895 when Cuba was trying to gain independence from Spain – this Lucia is aristocratic and tied to the concerns of her bourgeoisie family. She falls in love with a Spanish soldier, in spite of her ties to the Cuban cause for independence. The second Lucia lives in 1933 when there was a failed attempt on the part of a popular resistance movement to overthrow dictator Geraldo Machado. She falls in love with a man in the resistance movement, who is soon to be murdered. The last Lucia is a working-class woman who lives during the 1960s, in the wake of the communist revolution. She lives with an extremely misogynist man who will not let her out of the house.
Like Memorias, Lucia represents the films of the revolutionary period. However, it engages on a more committed level to the issue of history. The film literally features the trajectory of Cuba’s history, and grounds it very stably to women during these historical periods. Nevertheless, Humberto Solas, the filmmaker, said about the film: “Lucia is not a film about women; it’s a film about society. But within that society, I chose the most vulnerable character, the one who is most transcendentally affected at any given moment by contradictions and change.” As such, the lead women in all three segments of the film are only segments of the larger fabric of society – they either serve or betray the revolutionary fervor of a particular historical moment. This is why there is such an emphasis on the love plots of the episodes. The story is primarily about Cuba, and it is hard to see the potential liberation of women within the rigid structures of revolution. The “woman question” remains marginal and unanswered at the end of the film. While Solas may be actively acknowledging that the revolution needs a lot of help, his attempt at the very end to bring women to a space of liberation by having the last Lucia learn to read and write is not sufficient. After all, the last Lucia only learns to read and write because of Castro’s literacy campaign. The literacy campaign is indicative of the revolution’s partial progress that Cuba has in mind for its entire population. Here, the question of agency is most present. Is 1960s Lucia the one who has the most agency? Is this agency not endowed to her through the very system that oppresses her? Women seem to exist only in reference to the revolution, and never on their own. For this reason, Lucia leaves many questions to be answered, even though the filmmaker is one of the very few to even pose the question of marginalized citizens in Cuba’s populace. Next to Memorias, it stands as a more valiant confrontation with the issues left behind by nationalist Latin American movements.
Memorias del Subdesarrollo is one of the seminal films of Latin America, and still amongst people’s favorites. However, it takes on many patriarchical elements of nationalist revolution. The first scene of the film is critical for this analysis. Memorias opens with a crowd of people dancing at night, outside. A point-of-view shot, through a handheld camera directs the viewer along the crowd of sweaty, ecstatic bodies. Several jump cuts are made to the instruments being played; the song is of an Afro-Cuban flavor: Donde esta Teresa? by Pello “el Afrokán.” A gunshot goes off. A long shot, bird’s eye view, displays the crowd dispersing. After a brief moment of chaos, the camera returns to the face of an Afro-Cuban woman with an intense gaze, who could be said to be the incarnation of the “Teresa” the song is asking the audience to search for. An extreme close up of her face is shown, frozen, as the scene ends.
This scene, and in particular, this last shot, is meant to capture the attention of the audience. The spectator’s eyes cannot avert from the woman’s stare, and so the implication follows that the spectator has been transported from a position of aloof voyeurism to one of active participation. But what is meant by the absolute indifference to the eruption of violence that took place just a second before the spectator was transfixed by this woman’s gaze? The attention of the audience is directed solely at this woman. The impact of this neglect is doubly magnified when the scene repeats again in the film. In this second scene, the audience understands that Sergio was present during the first scene, and so this second one is to serve as a flashback. The point-of-view shot, then, is transferred to his very eyes, witnessing this scene. Thus, if the gunshot in the first scene triggered merely a brief, inattentive glance from the camera, the gunshot in the second scene is nothing but a sign of comfort. Furthermore, the change of music to Leo Brouwer’s inharmonious melody in this repeated sequence betrays a completely different mood altogether. Namely, the scene truly becomes a double act of detachment: that of Sergio from the crowd, and that of the audience from the scene/Sergio. The process of de-alienation is not at all functioning as it was intended: firstly, the scene was meant to do the opposite (capture our attention, prompt identification with the characters), and secondly, it is desensitizing the audience to the effects of climactic moments of violence.
Another point in Memorias that is inundated with meaning because of its employment of repetition is the scene with recurrent clips taken right out of Hollywood, where women are shown either in the nude or yielding to men’s seduction. Prior to this montage and this scene, Sergio had been in his apartment watching television, where a clip of Marilyn Monroe singing and Guantánamo Bay are juxtaposed. He turns off the TV. Later, during the scene of the montage, Sergio is actively courting Elena, a girl of a working class background who yearns to act for the ICAIC. They have the following dialogue:
Sergio: Why do you want to be in films?
Elena: Because I’m tried of always being the same. That way I can be someone else without people thinking I’m crazy. I want to be able to unfold my personality.
Sergio: But all those characters in theatre and film are like broken records. The only thing an actress does it to repeat the same gestures and the same words a thousand times. The same gestures and the same words…the same gestures and the same words…
It is from here that the montage is unleashed. The problem here arises on several levels, and it is particularly menacing because of what the sequence can suggest about women and sex. Namely, Gutiérrez Alea, like Sergio, is stripping these images of their erotic charge by repeating them – flattening their meaning and annihilating their potential to be described as sexist. Not only that, but Elena comes to be represented by those nude and obsequious women. Therefore, the scene can only be judged as a confirmation of the Hollywood model: capitalist and patriarchic in nature.
In order to narrow down the focus of this final project, I will only take a look at five different films and no books at all. I know this is not the ideal amount to be dealing with, but it is what is realistic for me right now. The five films are: Memorias del Subdesarrollo, Lucia, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Fresa y Chocolate, and XXY.