Memories of Memories

With Memories of Overdevelopment the young Cuba film-maker Miguel Coyula has made a remarkable sequel to one of the classic films of the Cuban Revolution, Memories of Underdevelopment by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. Intriguingly, the new film, like the old, is based on a novel by the Cuban author Edmundo Desnoes—who settled in New York after quitting Cuba in 1979—which itself is a sequel to the first novel. Coyula himself is one of the new wave of independent Cuban film-makers, born in Havana in 1977, graduate of Cuba’s international film school in San Antonio de los Baños, who went to show his highly experimental digital shorts in New York in 1999, where he was offered an acting scholarship and stayed. This would seem to place him closer to Desnoes than Alea, who remained in Cuba where he died in 1996, but it’s still surprising: an avant garde film by a 33-year-old in collaboration with an eminance grise of 80.

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Showing at Riverside Studios, Monday 22 Nov 2010

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Desnoes writes in the first person, a trope reproduced in both films by an elliptical first-person narrator on the soundtrack called Sergio. But Coyula’s Sergio comes between the Sergio of Underdevelopment and himself. Sergio I was a grown man when the Revolution takes power in 1959; we leave him to an uncertain future at the moment of the 1962 Missile Crisis. Sergio II was born in the mid-50s and lives his formative years in the twists and turns of revolutionary politics and culture; he becomes a journalist but quits the country after the Mariel boatlift of 1981. But whatever he’s looking for, he doesn’t find it in New York. In Coyula’s own description, he’s a character who fits in neither in Cuba nor the US, neither in communism nor capitalism.

Memories of Overdevelopment, Coyula’s second feature, is a dazzling and disconcerting work of great bravado—as it must be to seek to emulate Alea’s masterpiece. Alea’s film was a brilliant contribution from an unexpected source to 1960s new wave cinema, but a very odd film to come out of a third world revolution, since the protagonist is not a revolutionary, but a bourgeois misfit. Taking the form of a diary-cum-scrapbook by a would-be writer, Memories of Underdevelopment incorporates newsreel, photos, tape recordings, scenes where fictional characters turn up at actually occurring events—in the words of the film itself, ‘a collage with a little bit of everything’. Coyula’s film is the same but even more so—the same disarticulated language, the same arresting dialectic between Sergio’s subjectivity and historical reality—amplified and augmented by Coyula’s impressive digital dexterity.

Allusions to Alea are numerous and constant—in particular images, in the speech of the narrator, in the episodic narrative structure, even more fragmented in Coyula than Alea, in which incidents in the second film parallel incidents in the first. One can easily imagine Sergios I and II as the same person forced to repeat the sins of one life in the sins of another, where they become increasingly exaggerated—Sergio I’s macho womanising, for example, turning into Sergio II’s misogynist perversions. Persuasively played by Ron Blair, an expatriate Cuban actor with an American name, Sergio II earns his keep by lecturing on Latin America, until he’s sacked for giving a student he’s sleeping with a pornographic collage; thereafter he joins the international tour circuit talking about the Cuban Revolution while growing increasingly disenchanted with his adoptive country. He knows he is inescapably marked by the intensity he experienced in his Revolutionary youth, and now perceives only illusion in the ‘happiness’ marketed by American consumerism. The trouble is not that his existential comprehension of revolution is mistaken, but it has left him a displaced person. In tracking his odyssey towards social withdrawal, Overdevelopment becomes the very epitome of our modern disenchantment and melancholy.

Where Coyula parts company with Alea is in abandoning Alea’s commitment to narrative realism. Underdevelopment maintained a fine balance between subjectivity and historical reality, by setting off Sergio I’s voice against the incorporation of newsreel, reportage and cinéma vérité. Overdevelopment crosses over almost entirely into the subjectivity of Sergio II’s digital scrapbook, a frenetically kinetic montage set in motion by free association, which (as Bérénice Reynaud puts it over on Senses of Cinema) blurs the lines between actual events, memories, imaginings and projections. Ranging from the political to the sexual, from irritation at American pop culture to private resentments, the effect is indicated by another blogger, Carlos Velazco, who calls the film a fiction-essay to compare with Chris Marker’s documentary-essays.

Coyula has taken the principle of collage not only from Alea (and other Cuban film-makers: Santiago Alvarez and the forgotten Nicolás Guillén Landrián) but also Desnoes himself. Interviewed by Velazco, Coyula explains that the paper cut-out collages we see at the beginning of the film were nearly all made by Desnoes, who does them as a hobby. Coyula took them and animated them, adding more of his own as he went along. This technique of recombination not only emulates the fragmentariness of personal memory but also evokes Sergio II’s cultural disorientation and confusion. It is also, says Coyula, the way in which his own generation sees history.

There is a telling moment, however, an image of strange oneiric power, as Sergio begins his descent into emotional barrenness, when he finds a walking stick with an ornamented handle in the shape of an animal head which he adopts as his own, addressing it as ‘Fiddle’ and conversing with it. Because if the Sergios of the world cannot escape the conversations with the Big Other which inhabit their dreams, nor it seems can Coyula himself (and presumably the generation he belongs to).

Like Marker, Coyula is a true independent and this is a low-budget effort which took five years to make, with Coyula himself writing, directing, photographing, editing and designing the sound (supported by the likewise versatile independent producer David Leitner). The result is a film which seems at times to be overwhelmed by its own excess, but true to its postmodern stance, playful and sown with sardonic humour. A paradigm for a new digital cinema beholden to no orthodoxy, and therefore a fitting tribute to Alea’s continuing example.

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