Screening Cuba: Film Criticism as Political Performance during the Cold War

Screening Cuba: Film Criticism as Political Performance during the Cold War

by Hector Amaya

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Hector Amaya advances into new territory in Latin American and U.S. cinema studies in this innovative analysis of the differing critical receptions of Cuban film in Cuba and the United States during the Cold War. Synthesizing film reviews, magazine articles, and other primary documents, Screening Cuba compares Cuban and U.S. reactions to four Cuban films: Memories of Underdevelopment, Lucia, One Way or Another, and Portrait of Teresa.   In examining cultural production through the lens of the Cold War, Amaya reveals how contrasting interpretations of Cuban and U.S. critics are the result of the political cultures in which they operated. While Cuban critics viewed the films as powerful symbols of the social promises of the Cuban revolution, liberal and leftist American critics found meaning in the films as representations of anti-establishment progressive values and Cold War discourses. By contrasting the hermeneutics of Cuban and U.S. culture, criticism, and citizenship, Amaya argues that critical receptions of political films constitute a kind of civic public behavior.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252090028
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 10/01/2010
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 248
File size: 715 KB

About the Author

Hector Amaya is an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia.

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Screening Cuba

Film Criticism as Political Performance during the Cold War
By Hector Amaya

University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-07748-7


The venue for the first Festival of Cuban Film in the United States was the Olympia Theatre in New York City where, from March 24 to April 2, 1972, seven feature films and fifteen documentaries, all of which had received international prizes and acclaim, would be exhibited for the first time in the United States. The event was noteworthy not only because it marked the debut of Cuban film in U.S. theaters, but also because it signaled a potential shift in the strained cultural exchanges between Cuba and the United States. According to the film critic of the New York Times, "the Festival promised to be 'the most important film retrospective of the year'" (Myerson 1973, 27). Instead, it became the stage for deeply anti-Cuban sentiments by social, political, and governmental forces. The Cuban filmmakers were denied visas; the Olympia Theatre was stoned and threatened with bombs; and during the exhibit of the first and only film that was eventually shown (Lucía 1968, d. Humberto Solás), anti-Castro agents released white mice, interrupting the event and marking it with a sense of mockery. The next day, newspapers mentioned the disturbances caused by the mice but failed to mention that ambassadors from twenty-two nations attended the festival.

Although a number of the films later gained distribution in the United States, these events demonstrate how national animosities affected cultural exchange between the two nations. Yet, the events also show how citizens (involved in cultural activities) in both nations attempted, and often succeeded, at establishing cultural links, even if this required defying their own governments. I refer to citizenship in its social manifestations, as a composite of public behaviors that are socially interpreted as civic and political. On the American side, leftist individuals, intellectuals, and critics challenged the American government, embracing a counter-hegemonic style of citizenship. On the Cuban side, directors and officials tried to travel to New York to show postrevolutionary Cuban culture; in doing so, they were embracing a socialist-revolutionary style of citizenship that supported the Cuban government. These two styles of citizenship in cultural workers (directors, writers, film festival organizers, and critics) are a central theme in this book. Both are leftist, both are active, both are professional, and both embody a civics in which culture plays a central role.

This book examines and compares the critical reception of four Cuban films in Cuba and the United States. I propose that certain film criticism is civic public behavior and a way of performing citizenship when criticism is prompted by what is recognized as a "political film." In the following chapters, I show two ways of doing criticism that fitted two institutional structures and two discursive practices that fitted the different political and critical traditions of the United States and Cuba. The films are: Memories of Underdevelopment (1968), directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea; Lucia (1968), directed by Humberto Solás (both Memories and Lucia were released in the United States in the early 1970s); One Way or Another (1974), directed by Sara Gómez; and Portrait of Teresa (1979), directed by Pastor Vega. The period covered in my investigation roughly spans 1968 to 1985. These years in Cuba coincide with the first two decades of the revolution and the maturation of revolutionary cultural (film and criticism) practices. In the United States, this period is shaped by the political and cultural struggles of the 1960s and the politicization of foreign film consumption. For the Cuban cases, I concentrate on people (from here on, cultural workers) working for official cultural institutions (for example, ICAIC), magazines (for example, Bohemia), journals (for example, Cine Cubano), and newspapers (for example, Granma). For the United States, the cultural workers I analyze were also part of cultural institutions (for example, American Documentary Films [ADF]), magazines (for example, The Nation), journals (for example, Cineaste), and newspapers (for example, the New York Times), where political writing is not only permitted but also encouraged. These institutional venues are either centrist or leftist, which allows me to compare them with the leftist Cuban sites.

Although legal aspects of citizenship are important, in this book I make no attempt at theorizing Cuban and American legal aspects of citizenship. I remain at the level of the social and the cultural. At this level, citizenship is contingent, historically specific, and pluralistic. Different public behaviors are civic in different nations and political communities. Moreover, these behaviors are "learned" and their public performance is what specific political communities recognize as a "political identity" and "good citizenship." Although the political field is the source of many ideas about citizenship, all aspects of social life contribute to the understandings of citizenship. The cultural field is a prime contributor to citizenship, because it mediates between political lingo and structures, and popular ideas and the people. Because of the power associated with mediation, the cultural field is a place for debate and struggles over the meanings, and proper displays of, citizenship. It is thus never a unified field, but fragmented and rich.

Characteristics of the Study

From the 1960s to the 1980s, Cuba had roughly ten million people and the United States around 250 million. Cuba was organized politically and economically as a socialist nation with a centralized planned economy, a single leader, and a single official political party, the Cuban Communist Party (PCC). The United States, a symbol of capitalism, was also a symbol of democracy, with more than two centuries of a bipartisan, electoral system of government. Cuba's underdeveloped status and its Latin and African ancestry opposed the United States' developed Anglo-Saxon self-image. The list of differences between the nations could go on, and the obvious question is: if comparing assumes similarities, given that the differences between these nations are so stark, how can they be compared? This question is particularly relevant to social and cultural comparisons, because most social and cultural theories are built on the basic assumption that social, economic, historical, cultural, and political contexts determine societal phenomena. "Class," for instance, a basic unit of analysis for capitalist societies, has had a very different meaning in Cuba, where the leadership has tried to construct a classless society. Private ownership and capital, two key elements of Marxist theories of reification, ideology, and hegemony, are also manifested differently in the Cuban and U.S. contexts. Arguably, even the most basic notions of stratification in these nations may very well be incomparable. Yet, this study is built on the theoretical and methodological assumption that comparisons are not only possible but also reasonable. Certain similarities allow me to assume this. Both are nation-states partly defined by discourses of nation and citizenship. Both are societies that use culture to exercise social and political control. Leftist, Marxist, and feminist identities and communities, though differently expressed, have existed in both nations. Finally, both nations have strong discourses linking culture, including film and criticism, to identity, politics, and ethics. All of these factors make some comparisons reasonable.

In the following chapters, I elaborate on four areas that are basic to the constitution of criticism and criticism's politicized mode of film reception. 1) The first is the institutional contexts, particularly as they relate to the political fields. Here, political criticism is constituted through social, organizational, and political coordinates, which determine criticism's institutional location. The site of political criticism also exists in three other cartographic dimensions. 2) Political criticism is determined by the contingent way cultural work becomes politicized. 3) Political criticism is also located in the map of ideas, theories, and discourses that explain criticism in relation to its purported social role, namely, to provide the proper understanding of politicized cultural texts. 4) Finally, political criticism has a place in the map of self-identities and is thus an expression of ideas about selfhood, politics, and public performances of citizenship. These four social maps come together in the practice of political criticism, and although each can help explain the other three, each has its own rules that are the result of specific histories, discourses, and practices. Following Erving Goffman (1959), I refer to "performance" as "all the activity of a given participant on a give occasion which serves to influence in any way any of the other participants" (15). In his theories on performance, social actors behave according to specific rules to have the desired effect on others. Criticism as political performance is a practice that obeys staging cues provided by social norms and historical contexts. The goal is not only to be political, but also to appear political.

Given the complexity of these four social maps, I heavily rely on secondary sources to draw the institutional and historical contexts. I am indebted to the work on Cuban film and culture of Michael Chanan, Julianne Burton, Paul Julian Smith, Ana López, Marvin D'Lugo, John Downing, and others. I add to these an emphasis on cultural policy, which is key to linking criticism to Cuban official cultural institutions. On the American side, I am indebted to the cultural historical works of Todd Gitlin, Michael Denning, Barbara Wilinsky, Arthur Marwick, Winifred D. Wandersee, and Andrew Ross, among others. I draw the other three areas of argumentation using primary and secondary research that includes archival evidence, reviews, articles, essays, interviews, cultural policies, aesthetic treaties, declarations of intent, and other historical evidence.

Theoretical Contexts

It is safe to say that Cuban film was experienced differently by Cuban and American critics. For Cuban cultural workers, the films' power to signify was an expansion of the social promises of the Cuban Revolution. For liberal and leftist American cultural workers, the same films were rendered meaningful by cold war discourses and by socialist, revolutionary, and antiestablishment values common among progressive Americans. Both sets of viewers experienced Cuban films as political, and to view them, to enjoy them, or to hate them was a way of being political, a way for these citizens to perform their respective political identities.

There is nothing random about properly performing a political identity. These performances are embedded in contingent social and discursive traditions, with their respective histories and sets of knowledge that serve to legitimize, explain, and reproduce political behavior. Voting, for instance, is a recognizable political behavior and a way of performing a political identity in the United States and Cuba. Political theories about democracy, psychology, and social behavior render it possible to argue that, in contemporary society, a person's politics can indeed be represented by a vote. Practices, discourses, and knowledge sets come together to give a political identity a discernable shape that can be identified and imitated. By extension, when I claim that this particular set of cultural workers enacted their political identities via film criticism, I am thus hypothesizing that there is nothing random about the way film reception relates to one's political identity. This book explores this hypothesis by examining the social and discursive traditions, sets of knowledge, and historical events that made the critical reception of these Cuban films performances of discrete political identities. In doing so, I am also claiming that the hermeneutic and textual processes involved in viewing, interpreting, and evaluating the films are part of the discernable shape of American and Cuban cultural workers.


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Table of Contents

Cover Title Page Copyright Table of Contents Preface Introduction Part I: Staging Film Criticism: The Cuban and American Historical and Political Backgrounds 1. Cuban Culture, Institutions, Policies, and Citizens 2. The Cuban Revolutionary Hermeneutics: Criticism and Citizenship 3. The U.S. Field of Culture 4. U.S. Criticism, Dissent, and Hermeneutics Part II: Performing Film Criticism 5. Memories of Underdevelopment 6. Lucia 7. One Way or Another 8. Portrait of Teresa Conclusion: Film Criticism in Cuba and the United States Notes Bibliography Index

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