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Memories of a Revolutionary Cinema

by Allison Arnold Helminski

Allison Arnold Helminski is a media information designer and writer in Washington DC, and her interests include Latin American Cinema and feminist theory.

A new poetics for the cinema will, above all, be a
"partisan" and "committed" poetics, a "committed" art, a consciously and resolutely "committed" cinema - that is to say, an "imperfect" cinema… Imperfect cinema can make use of the documentary or the fictional mode, or both. It can use whatever genre, or all genres.
Julio Garcia Espinosa
(Cuban filmmaker)


Cuban cinema bears distinct aesthetic forms that differ significantly from those of other third world cinemas. Although this cinema experienced various evolutionary phases throughout the twentieth century, it was the influence of Nuestro Tempo and Italian neo-realism during the 1950s that made a particular impact and left imprints still recognizable by the late 1960s.

According it its president, Harold Gramatages, Nuestro Tempo, a Society that played a large role in the rise of Communism during the 1950s,"…brought together young people who were pursuing their artistic or cultural activities in dispersal and in hostile surroundings…We organized ourselves into sections: film, theatre, puppetry, music, dance, plastic arts and literature" (1). Fulgencio Batista (the Cuban president at the time) tolerated this Society although he did organize an exhibition in 1954 meant to subsume its members under a vastly Hispanic (i.e., undesirable) rubric of Cuban culture. His failure to exert control over the Society, coupled with its splintering, and subsequent proliferation of other art and cinema clubs, came to solidify film’s "key position in radical cultural consciousness in Cuba" (2). Accordingly, Nuestro Tempo served as the source for future members of the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC), which formed in 1959 three months after the Revolution.

Tomas Gutierrez Alea was a member of the ICAIC; he, along with some of his contemporaries, trained in Rome at the Centro Sperimentale during the 1950s (3). Thus, Italian neo-realism became the basis which, in 1964 (marked by Alea’s Cumbite [1964]), was superseded by the application of a specifically Cuban cinema style of theoretical revolutionary Marxism.

Alea has stated:

Though certainly not the same as that which occurred in post-war Italy, the meaning of external events began to become less obvious…more profound. That process forced us to adopt an analytical attitude towards the reality which surrounded us. A greater discipline, a much more exact theoretical criterion was then required of us in order to be able properly to analyze and interpret what we were living through (4).

This shift marks a turning point in Cuban cinema, a movement from mimesis (of Italian forms) to a search for cultural-specific re-presentations of reality. Hence, although neo-realism remains influential throughout Alea’s career, cinéma vérité becomes a potent force as well.

This newly born cinema attempted to "[liberate] documentary from the conventions of commercial film, such as insistent but insensitive background music, swish editing based on misplaced codes of fictional narrative, the alienation and paternalism of the commentary" as well as from the (mistaken) belief that reality is readily graspable and presentable (5). Alea, both a theorist and an artist, reached his apogee of expression in his Memories del subdearrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment) (1968). This film unites various narrational strategies.

Memories’ narrational strategies create a complex film, both entertaining and didactic. It cannot be imagined that such a film would have been born in America - as Alea states, "[Cuban cinema] is a kind of light, agile cinema, one that is very directly founded on our own reality" (6). In Cuba, this film was so popular that "many people went to see Memories more than once, and some returned as many as four and five times" (7). It is my contention that such popularity depended not only upon pleasure, but also upon the challenges posed to the viewer by such a film: "Cuban filmmakers have used many formal devices in their attempt to convert the audience from passive consumer into active participant" (8).

That is, unlike most films, which fit into only one narrational mode, Memories borrows from all five narrative modes as enumerated by David Bordwell in Narration in the Fiction Film. The film primarily utilizes techniques belonging to the parametric, art cinema, palimpsest and historical-materialist narrative modes, and secondarily, the classical tradition. The difficulty and allure of Memories, for me, lies in the various cognitive frameworks that the spectator is required to utilize throughout the course of the film. The spectator’s cognitive framework is endlessly shifting in order to avoid becoming lost within narrational pattern shifts. During the elucidation of these frameworks, I will also refer to a particular spectatorial position - one that is in opposition to Bordwell’s hypothetical, unexamined, and ‘ideal’ spectator.

Bordwellian Theory

Before moving to specific discussions of narrative modes, a gloss of Bordwellian cognitive theory is necessary. The term fabula refers to the "imaginary construct" created "progressively and retroactively" by the spectator (effectively, the spectator engaged in an active engagement and construction of the story through applying schemata, testing hypotheses, making inferences etc.) (9). While syuzhet refers to what is "phenomenally present", the "actual arrangement and presentation of the fabula in the film", the presentation of events, actions, etc, that is, the plot.(10)  So the fabula, although not present in the film, is built out of the syuzhet, that which is 'present'. For Memories, the fabula is the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and its subsequent effects (particularly in regards to American cultural imperialism) and the syuzhet is the protagonist’s (Sergio) life within the new regime. Although the syuzhet (plot) takes place well after the Revolution, the Revolution (and all that it means, its subsequent effects for Cuba and Cuban people) is the fabula of the film in the sense that it pervades the motivation of characters and the tenor and sensibility of the film. The Revolution is omnipresent for spectators in their construction of the story (i.e. the fabula).

The spectator constructs the story via perception-based inferential judgments according to schemata that have been formed from one’s own empirical and intellectual experiences in the world. Additionally, a film’s particular style (techniques which each act as "ingredient to this medium") supports one’s construction of the story, by means of facilitating the application of schemata (also known as templates), as style exposes "gaps" that inhere within the story that we are given (11).

Whether or not a film’s narration is subjective is also relevant. For example, the narration (given by Sergio) in Memories is extremely knowledgeable (that is, he speaks from a position of authority); he faces us while his voiceovers serve as a "codified cue for subjectivity" (93). Yet, the camera may also be judgmental; as subjective point of view shots indicate a story’s duration, the focus of attention and camera angle can imply an evaluative view contrary to that indicated by the subjective (61, 94). This is evident in Sergio’s constant devaluation of Cuban women, both verbally articulated and visually translated by low camera positions that capture slow moving female bodies and close-ups of disinterested, blank female faces.

Parametric Narration

Parametric narration, that which "points up the limits upon the art film’s extrinsic norms - limits, we have seen, of insipidity and banality - and lets us acknowledge a richness of texture that resists interpretation" (289), is the first mode applicable to Memories. I will reveal how the film draws on the characteristics of this narrative mode, and then argue that it cannot encapsulate the film alone.

The "syuzhet and fabula shift in importance" (288) in a parametric film. This is certainly the case in Memories since Sergio’s personal life is inextricably linked to Cuban social conditions as both microcosm and macrocosm are subject to the political and economic changes brought about by Castro’s Revolution.

A second attribute of parametric narration is that "style must create its own temporal logic" (286). A film’s style is developed for the viewer by "intrinsic" norms within a set of criterion: adequate redundancy, core internal unity, naturalized diegetic space and/or sound, all couched within comprehensible schemata (284-85). This simply means that a viewer comes to recognize certain cues in a film that are repeated just enough, and are not perceptible as artifice (any more than the filmic medium itself of course). Such naturalization of various forms and devices then allows the style, these techniques, to lead the spectator on a course that makes sense.

In Memories, Sergio’s ruminations allow us to follow him in various directions. To take an example, reverse chronology via photographs is used for both Elena and Sergio. In the former case, Sergio’s belief that Elena is 'underdeveloped' is illustrated by stills representing a cognitive and emotional deprecation of her as a subject. Alea then cuts to other Cuban women walking. The photographs are seen in reverse chronology and the women are moving towards the camera, visually progressing forward. The deliberate contrast between moving forward and moving backwards creates a clear juxtaposition. This juxtaposition effectively reverses the forward (progressive) motion of the women and, in the process, transforms their physical movement into figurative commentary - what looks to be progress is in fact decline.

Sergio comments on his own aging process, he is "like a piece of rotten fruit", a phrase whose tenor he had previously applied to Cuban women over the ages of thirty or thirty-five. He goes home and views his wedding picture, a series of baby pictures, and then, pictures of himself over the years until the present day. Thus, we leap nearly thirty-eight years backward, and next turn around to follow Sergio’s linear progression up to his living adult face, which, in his words, "[affects] a certain dignity". No filmic cut follows - Elena’s brother arrives to continue the action.

This differs from Elena’s series of stills in that Elena never moves forward, never progresses. She is instead relegated to the past and also suspended in a hazy temporal frame of 'underdevelopment' within which chronological age is unimportant as it does not effect stages of cultural development. Hence, the film’s style, as manifested in the examination of two series of stills and photographs, creates a logic of temporality specific to a message about the Cuban proletariat, those who, in Sergio’s words: "adapt self to every moment…are unable to relate to things". Yet, it is also suggested that Sergio too is underdeveloped; as he economically hovers between the two classes he also implicates himself via his alienation, boredom, and inability to adapt to the changing state.

Parametric narration’s temporality is also complicated by "story events [that] are buckled into loops"(290). Memories opens to a kinetic and rhythmic scene: a Black man plays a drum, some Black women sway their buttocks and sing, couples move with the musical energy. Suddenly, we hear a gunshot, but the music continues - Alea cuts to a group of women looking down upon a man shot on the ground. We watch what appears to be the killer fleeing the scene. The body is next picked up and carried, above everybody’s heads, out of the crowd and into a gleaming bright light, with indecipherable depth. The dancing continues. Then, the camera stops on a Black woman’s face, she stares at us with a serious and deeply pained expression. One asks why her? What is the significance of this woman?

This question is never answered: "by such gaps and equivocations, the narration maintains an overt communicativeness that provokes our curiosity about how the predicted events will occur"(291). Are we going to view a story of a wrongful death, a racist state, an unsympathetic bureaucracy? Unlike classical narration, this scene has no establishing shot and does not serve to orient the spectator as to the narrative about to unfold - it is followed by a cut to the Havana airport.

Yet, Memories "loops" back to this frenetic and enigmatic scene. Nearly eighty minutes into the film, the camera follows Sergio down the street as his voiceover explains that he cannot understand the Cuban people. There is a cut to this original scene. Yet, this time the camera is oriented by following Sergio’s movements and his point of view - the viewer can now infer the scene’s probable spatial configuration. Also, the music is now rather plaintive and haunting; the gunshot cannot be heard, the death only seen.

In the beginning, this scene seemed to represent a volatile political movement, a need for action - later, it comes to represent Sergio’s alienation, his inability to be affected beyond the level of mere spectacle. When this scene is repeated (albeit transfigured), and since it comments upon Sergio’s isolated and dying class position, it creates the expectation that the film is ending. It is a narrative circular convention that such repetition signals the film’s close, but here it is a trick that deliberately calls forth classical expectations only to dismiss them - we still have seventeen minutes left.

This type of trickery indicates that the parametric is detached, "which is to say that authorial presence was no more than a label for the shots, noises, voices, and music that gave their final effect as an impersonal stylistic system" (310). Sergio is often equated with the camera as many shots are taken from his point of view. I earlier spoke of the subjective camera codified by Sergio’s voiceovers - these personal observations are particular but quite analytic and detached. This is made especially clear when Sergio views Havana from his balcony through his telescope; the city looks as a cardboard backdrop as he twice states: "everything is the same."

His detachment extends beyond the ‘inferior’ Cuban people to his personal life - while tape recording the event, he sadistically torments Laura (his wife) and tells her that it is money and artifice that have made her a beauty. Later, while listening to this tape, he manifests her virtual presence by placing a panty hose on his head and drawing Picasso-esque facial characteristics on a mirror. His obscured face thus becomes a canvas for reflection; a reflection of Laura’s pain is the most intense emotional response that we ever receive from Sergio.

Following this intriguing scene, he sits somewhat pensively, or perhaps dejectedly, bored with his game. His distance from his wife is mimicked by his loosely veiled contempt for his former friends, all of whom are fleeing to America. When he takes a friend, Pablo, to the airport, and the two say goodbye, Sergio views Pablo through a sheet of protective glass and critically observes Pablo as if he were a zoo animal, deficient in faculties and thus a subject for contemplation. Sergio wonders: "Was I ever like him?" and then decides that Pablo is an idiot, revenged by the Revolution for belonging to the "stupid Cuban bourgeois". In disgust, Sergio departs, and does not realize that the glass also acts as a mirror, since Pablo is a reflection of Sergio’s cemented class ideology.

Memories, however, is ultimately not subsumed under the label of parametric narration because it does not satisfy other norms of parametric cinema. For one, it is not the case that "stylistic organization [achieves] formal saliency" and "aims to become palpable as such" (275, 280). Style does not transcend Memories’ narration; this could not be possible since Alea is trying to transcribe a specifically Cuban reality, to bring forth a somewhat elusive vision of reality. Sheer stylistic play thus has no role.

In this film, every movement and word has import for the viewer. What might seem to be "purely aesthetic choices" (281) always serve a purpose within the overall composition. That is, any elements that seem extraneous are in fact part of the compositional necessity; every single movement and all dialogue are included for a very specific reason. For example, when Sergio, Elena, and some ‘friends’ are revealed to be watching censored film clips at the ICAIC, each of these clips is repeated three or more times, which may seem to be meaningless. Yet, the repetition signals the proliferation of Western cultural imperialism, specifically via American norms of beauty and film (practically legislated by American advanced capital present during Batista’s regime).

Parametric narration is further characterized by a film whose "dialectic must also be justified by some systematic quality, by an overall structure possessing its own logic"(279). I believe that this statement can be applied to Memories, but argue that this is only true because of the melange of narrational structures utilized by Alea. In other words, this statement is applicable but only because of parametric narration’s failure to be the sole possessor of the entire structure.

Art Cinema

The lens of art cinema, constitutive of Italian neo-realism, is an additional model for Memories’ complexities, as it clearly influences Alea’s vision of film. Art cinema is often employed with the intent of creating more realism:

Of course the realism of the art cinema is no more "real" than that of the classical film; it is simply a different canon of realistic motivation, a new vraisemblance, justifying particular compositional options and effects. Specific sorts of realism motivate a loosening of cause and effect, an episodic construction of the syuzhet, and an enhancement of the film’s symbolic dimension through an emphasis on the fluctuations of character psychology. (206)

Memories satisfies many of the art film’s attributes, but also surpasses this structure in the final analysis.

The film is marked as art cinema because the spectator is immersed in Sergio’s particular responses to the reality surrounding him, rather than simply waiting for a plot (with its exposition and climax) to realize itself. In fact, the camera’s preoccupation with Sergio actually impedes the plot, evidenced by "fantasies and dreams" (208) unrelated to any action-based sequences and/or effects. He fantasizes about his cleaning woman, whose beauty is evaluated in Western terms: "as thin as a Vogue model".

She describes her Baptism to him, and we enter a meta-diegetic space in which Sergio is a ‘priest’ for whom ‘salvation’ is found through a ‘resurrection’ of the erotic self. This passionate scene jolts back to reality with Sergio caressing the belly button on Botticelli’s infamous Venus; this small detail (characteristic of ‘art house’ film) indicates that Sergio scorns the Christian ‘meta-narrative’ by intermingling religion and eros - interestingly enough, both the superficial bourgeois and the serious Marxist choose to dismiss religion as such. Sergio caresses that which, unlike Prelapsarian times, serves as a reminder that we are born in sin. He continues his sexual fantasies by imagining her as naked and kissing him; he has transfigured baptism’s 'death of sin' into a justification for indulgence.

Also characteristic is the way in which spectatorial identification is mostly guided via camera movement, particularly point of view shots. This has the additional effect of creating less spectacle and producing greater realism, while at other points, "[signaling] that the profilmic event is also a construct" (210). When Sergio first takes Elena to dinner, she tells him that she is "tired of always being the same"; for this reason, she wants to be an actress. Sergio retorts that actors are merely mimetic, unreflectively imitating - as he speaks, his voice is mumbled and proceeds to fade. The disjuncture between diegetic sound and the sound demanded by realism exhibits the artifice of the medium, a falsity soon followed by hyper-reality.

As earlier described, a group watches American clips at the ICAIC. The Hollywood scenes of sex and women stripping, repeated three or more times per shot, appear to parody (another art cinema attribute) the purported reality of such films. Yet, the power which these images hold, and the ridiculousness and offensiveness of their appeal, expose film as a presentation of reality that in fact infuses concrete life with its tenets. Viewers do mimic actors/actresses. This is seen during Elena and Sergio’s prelude to sexual intercourse - her excessively playful, and dangerous, behavior is an obvious imitation of the American soap opera clip, or perhaps even Mexican soap operas. She is the alluring but aloof beauty, who waits to be forcefully, albeit gently, overcome by the power of sensuality - a ‘benign’ rape fantasy, not atypical for patriarchal society’s representation of female sexuality.

Memories also contains both more extraneous elements and less redundancy (repeated clues that lead the viewer to an easily graspable understanding of the film) than a classically narrated film - "there are permanent and suppressed gaps; exposition is delayed and distributed to a greater degree; the narration tends to be less generically motivated"(205). One example of an extraneous element irrelevant to any story-based or character exposition occurs after Sergio returns from the airport.

As the camera pans the vast apartment, his voiceover commentary explains that he has been talking about writing for years, and now has the chance to test his potential. Next, he has a snack of buttered toast, coffee, and a cigarette; he sits at his kitchen table, in front of a blank wall, surrounded by total silence. The viewer watches him eat, at a pace that permits no temporal ellipses, no compression. When finished, Sergio goes out to his balcony. The ‘snacking scene’ adds a realistic component to the film, but bears no relation to the plot or the story.

Also, the absence of spoon-fed redundancy is first clear from the sheer breadth of the film’s narration - we are led through a life and a realized Revolution. Specifically, since one is always being asked to readjust one’s schemata, it would be impossible to consistently utilize redundant cues to orient one spatio-temporally in a new schemata within which a particular cue may have an altered effect. Further, certain diegetic frameworks are assumed for a Cuban audience and need not be replayed for their benefit. As for the story of the Cuban Revolution, it is a historical reality that needs no re-articulations although it is the backdrop to Sergio’s lament about his loss of property or claim that "this humanity has said enough and has begun to move."

The film closes with a long shot of tanks entering the city, which signals an additional art cinema attribute: the pensive ending. The minutes leading up to this rather anti-climactic (as regards Sergio) yet disturbing (as regards history) ending, contain the caption "Cuban Missile Crisis", that interrupts one of Sergio’s sexual fantasies. Sergio notes: "This island is a trap. We’re very small and too poor. It’s an expensive dignity". This is soon followed by footage of an incensed and manic Castro, detailing the fact that the U.S. will not be allowed to inspect Cuba. We then experience crosscutting between immense, loud tanks and Sergio’s private and extremely quiet apartment. The violent machinery’s actions are juxtaposed against Sergio’s mundane inactivity; he brushes his teeth and seems to wait for time, history, or life to imprint him in some way. Next, a pan of Havana leads to the aforementioned long shot, coupled with an ambiguous rise in sound, either the surf or the tanks’ engines - time is left open-ended, as taking its assigned place in history.

An art cinema film often expresses time as a continuum, refusing to constrain its finality to a readily answered conclusion: "In the art film, the very construction of the narration becomes the object of spectator hypothesis: how is the story being told? Why tell the story in this way?" (210). After the film ends, its real referents to a frightening moment are brought forth within the spectator as s/he is smoothly transported out of the film and back into material life.

Palimpsest Narration

Palimpsest narration, directly associated with Jean-Luc Godard, is, when compared to either parametric or art cinema narration, the most unusual, the most ‘opposed’ to a classical format. It is a mode that is specifically marked as contemporary. Bordwell’s elucidation of this mode is based entirely on Godard’s oeuvre, much of which flourished in the 1960s.

A palimpsest is literally "a document that has been written upon several times…but each inscription bears witness to one identifiable hand" (325, 332). Such a definition calls forth Maurice Blanchot, Jacques Derrida, and Julia Kristeva, among others, not to mention the perpetually debated monstrosity ‘postmodernism.’

This type of cinema is characterized by both 'transtextuality', via citations, allusions, documentary footage or other borrowings, and 'hypertextuality', via the derivation of one text from another effected by satire or parody. Transtextuality is most clearly evidenced by Alea’s "The Truth of the Group is in the Murderer" segment. In actual footage from the ICAIC archives, a scathing critique of the double logic of totality is presented: the individual absolves himself of responsibility; the group claims that only particulars are to blame.

The viewer is exposed to the captions "A cast of military types" and "The sons of good families" - which could perhaps at first appear benign to a non-Cuban viewer. This series of unreflective ‘performers’ however, is coupled with a narrative biting sarcasm achieved through crosscutting (coupled with dialectical montage from the historical-materialist tradition). What follows is spoken testimony about the ‘alleged’ atrocities, spoken indictments of those who profess themselves to be not guilty, pictures of dead bodies, and pictures of smiling soldiers. The voices and stories merge into a pastiche that destroys the illusion of an isolated incident, for which no person bears responsibility.

This complicated interplay of footage - pastiche - is one method that creates meaning for the viewer. Every object and image, however, indicate a vast connotative field - hence, Godard’s remark: "everything is a quotation"(312). This statement seems to tell us that every image, when employed within a film, must be ripped out of a previous context, and that this violence is then evident because one is conscious of ‘making sense’ of images due to prior contexts. This idea leads us to how Godardian cinema may be "spatialized" by an "unorthodox succession of items that implies alternative temporal arrangements" (317). The most important effect "of the process of spatialization is that an image or sound becomes evoked by its stressed absence" (318).

This attribute is evidenced by a small detail in Memories. When Sergio first returns from the Havana airport (riding a bus), and when he rides with Pablo to this same airport, the camera passes over a GIRON billboard. Cuban audiences would have not missed this small detail. Although the sign is not noted by any character, that to which it refers is portrayed via other images in Memories. GIRON names the beach that was invaded in April, 1961 - this moment is now known (in America) as The Bay of Pigs invasion (attempt). America trained Cuban expatriates and then sent these men into Cuba to overthrow Castro, to thus stop the spread of communism. This attempted enforcement of Western containment policy ultimately failed due to security leaks and became an international embarrassment. Rather than subverting Castro’s power, the failure only served to augment his positive image, as America willingly played the role of the cruel, imperialist superpower.

Alea’s inclusion of this reference differs from his other representations of captured soldiers and the like. The billboard returns the Cuban viewer to a time when GIRON was simply an enjoyable beach; now, such pleasure must remain ironic since memories of Cubans fighting Cubans, along with their blood, stain this formerly placid site.

Although Godard has effected Cuban cinema, Memories cannot be subsumed by this category since the palimpsest mode is constituted via only Godardian cinema. Alea has this to say about Godard:

What condemns Godardian cinema in the last analysis is its own incommunicability. If it doesn’t reach people, it’s of no use...However, as I’ve been saying, to the degree that Godard provoked the destruction of an entire series of models of bourgeois cinema, his work has been very valuable (12).

In Godard’s films, narration constantly makes its own presence known - in this sense, narration is characterized by the director, the camera: "In a Godard film, from the credit sequence on, we recognize a narration signaling its presence…And that presence is continuous: far from the occasional interventions of the art-film narration, Godard’s self-consciousness is pervasive" (322). This type of mark is not found in Memories. Rather than the palimpsest mode’s lack of a strongly characterized narrator (322), the film presents Sergio as our touchstone for the construction of the story and the plot. There is thus no overwhelming sense of an outside controlling force, except history of course.

A further disjuncture occurs when Bordwell speaks of a "grammar" for revolutionary cinema (333). He claims that, after 1968, Godard, in his search for a "revolutionary cinema", began combining various narrational modes and eschewing narration itself in favor of framing. Such a sampling, a melange, combined with the shared temporal frame of 1968, clearly coincides with Memories. Yet, it is my argument that Bordwell cannot expand the parameters of the palimpsest mode in order to allow Godard the luxury of characterizing this mode in many different directions. It would have to be argued that Godard’s films transfigured from the palimpsest to such a melange, in order to increase the complexity of responses demanded from the viewer. As it stands, Bordwell’s claim about Godard would be better served if it were admitted that the viewer is expected to entirely shift schematas as different modes manifest and are interchanged. And in fact, I believe that this is the way to understand Memories’ appeal and import.

Historical-materialist Narration

The techniques of Eisenstein’s innovative dialectical montage (the key element of the historical materialist mode) (238) can be seen in Memories. Historical-materialist narration is marked by a Marxist-Leninist political conviction whereby the aesthetic gains utilitarian purpose.

Alea’s film works in this spirit, but shares few of historical-materialist’s distinguishing techniques, for example, the refusal to portray fully developed characters. In Memories, characters do not "become prototypes of whole classes, milieux, or historical epochs" (235). Memories, however, is meant to affect social change: "Our goal is to be united with the revolutionary process. Thus our language as filmmakers has to evolve parallel with the Revolution" (13). This Revolution, however, is presented such that a spectator must choose to engage if s/he is to understand the political message - this is evidenced by the fact that Memories was little understood by European critics: "The tendency to interpret the film as a subversive act was not as manifest in the United States as, for example, in England" (116).

Soviet films require less critical thinking from the spectator, not because they are somehow less intelligently made, but rather because their narration "seldom creates connotative ambiguity" (262). We, as viewers, almost immediately know which characters are laudable, which despicable, and we do not waste our time trying to make these judgements. Aside from prototypical characters, these quick decisions are facilitated by rapid editing (251), which leave no room for hesitation by "[controlling] the pace of hypothesis formulation" (249). A further attribute of historical-materialist cinema is that it is completely omniscient, with clear linearity, redundancy, and a self-conscious narration (239, 240).

Conversely, the viewer’s limited knowledge in Memories is evidenced by the suspense created when Elena and her family bring Sergio to trial for rape, and manifest offense, humiliation, and anger about both the sexual liaison and the lack of a proper marriage. Sergio’s commentary tricks the viewer into believing that he will be found guilty; as the testimony begins, his voiceover states: "I was the only one who spoke with some coherence. That destroyed me". Yet, it does not destroy him, and this trickery reminds the viewer of earlier commentary about the unreliability of information and language: "Don’t you realize that words might be language traps…accomplices of an already wasted culture…a stratagem, a linguistic alibi…a linguistic-ideological arrangement…that might lead us to the mental peace of formulas?". Perhaps such possibilities for ambiguities and traps explain the sparse captions in early Soviet films.

As Memories aims to be an aesthetic product that satisfies political intent, it also bears some similarities to historical-materialist narration. At times, the narration can be extremely didactic: "openly and unequivocally judgmental, often satirically and ironically so" (240). Sergio’s judgments of the Cuban proletariat, particularly women, satisfy this condition by presenting a "scopophilic display of aliens as spectacle" (14). When he and Pablo are poolside, two women shown from the belly button down walk past them. Pablo comments: "Can you imagine Anita? So beautiful and yet her stomach is full of black beans". As earlier noted, this level of assumed superiority is duplicated by the ‘observation’ that "Cuban women rot between the ages of thirty and thirty-five". Sergio’s disdain for the decay of the body and the lower class - remember that he praises his wife’s artificial beauty - also extends to men. When viewing a myriad of Havana residents walking the streets, he asks: "what meaning has life for them?" - which is, of course, the bourgeois, or colonialist, position of ‘superiority’ revealed.

Further, Memories delves into specifically Marxist dialogues, such as an open political meeting, made ridiculous by an American’s (Jack Gelber) lighthearted remark that the discussions were "impotent," unrelated to the ‘real’ things happening in Cuba. Further, mentions of Batista’s regime, clips of Castro during the fiery prelude to the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as a picture of Vladimir Lenin displayed on a building are examples of images that indicate entire political histories.

It is also the case that Alea creates "an abstract space of spectacle," by which there is no establishing shot, and crosscutting is thus exploited (255): "the political efficacy of montage emerged in its ability to shatter the homogeneity of the spectacle" (271). As earlier described, during Memories’ opening scene, a young man is shot in a dizzying array of movement and images - spatio-temporal orientation is impossible to pinpoint. The spectacle loses its unerring power, however, by the fact that one cannot infer spatial schemata. Also, the fact that we do not know when this scene takes place, as it occurs twice, albeit from different viewpoints, is disruptive because the rest of the film is so clear about temporal framing, whether it be due to television news footage, a newspaper, or a caption.

Classical Narration

Classical narration, commonly referred to as the Hollywood mode, dominates American cinema , but figures little in Cuban cinema. It consists of a protagonist who is causally motivated to lead the exposition to a climax; the protagonist is always a recognizable star who, in addition to triumphing over his enemies, also secures the affections of a beautiful woman. The narrative is linear and redundant with well-executed sound cues to dictate mood. Space is also manipulated: "Most important is the tendency of the classical film to render narrational omnipresence as spatial omnipresence" (161). In other words, the director makes the camera into the ‘ideal’ observer, situated in the story and plot, but outside of these constraints and looking into a hermetic, consistent world.

A couple of these attributes apply to Memories; for example, the "recency effect" is used to qualify and even contradict one's first appearance of a character or situation (165). The viewer’s opinions of Laura and Elena are complicated by exposure to Sergio’s sadistic and exploitative behavior toward both of them; the viewer’s perception of Sergio shifts in degrees due to the complexity of his character, inevitable from the time spent with him as our guide. Also, shot-reverse shot combinations between Pablo and Sergio are consistent, and not spatially disorienting.

Of course, Memories cannot fit into the classical mode, but it certainly parodies some of its tenets. The parallel plot lines of the heterosexual romance and the successful action-packed climax and resolution are caricatured. Sergio is our mock protagonist; as Elena states: "you’re neither revolutionary nor a counter-revolutionary. [Then what am I?] You’re nothing". He has no quest, but to adapt to a changing regime. His absurd ladylove is Elena, a beautiful, but medicated, underage girl, to whom he has no real connection, and with whom he hopes to not be with. Thus, Sergio succeeds neither with her (except a fleeting sexual consummation) nor with realizing his nonexistent ambition in some way.

Theoretical Gaps

Bordwell’s cognitive theory is a useful tool for analytically examining Memories , yet, the theory has two problematic assumptions: the ideal spectator and the lack of spectatorial identification. Bordwell does not account for categories of gender, class, or race; the largely Marxist audience, for whom Alea made films, testifies to the importance of such distinctions. As noted earlier, this film was received differently in Cuba, Europe, and North America. Yet, I do not have the space to delineate the different responses that could be elicited by different particular subjects who form various combinations of the aforementioned categories.

Further, spectatorial identification, promulgated by psychoanalytic critics, accounts for various emotional responses to actions and attachments to characters. I believe that it too has a valid position within film theory; it ought not to be ignored simply because it is an extraneous variable, a category nearly impossible to assign to any broad number of viewing subjects for a given film.


I have shown how Alea’s brilliant film, Memories of Underdevelopment, refuses to be relegated to a single categorization of narrational mode. Norms, expectations, and style transgress categories and cannot be uniformly anticipated such that this entire film could be spoken of as occupying just one mode. An absent camera becomes self-conscious; an impersonal narrator becomes overtly judgmental. Style careens from high political seriousness to satire, to cruel humor.

When elucidating classical narration, Bordwell admits that:

No single film, or even a dozen films, can exhaustively characterize a narrational mode. Because particular devices vary across periods, and because norms tend to be organized paradigmatically, any film must choose only a few possibilities to actualize. (161)

From this, it is also logical that a film of sufficient complexity can inhabit many modes; Bordwell himself attempted to make this leap for Godardian cinema, but failed to recognize that it would destroy the palimpsest mode if its parameters no longer had an outside.

Yet, it is Bordwell’s quite comprehensive and engaging explication of these modes which allows for a new type of conceptualization; this facet of my argument does not critique, but merely expands, Bordwell’s original tenets. Cuban cinema, particularly Memories of Underdevelopment, demands a perspective that acknowledges the influence of the Revolution, and that strives for techniques able to re-present a specifically Cuban reality.


(1)  As quoted in M. Chanan, 1985, The Cuban Image:  Cinema and Cultural Politics in Cuba, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, pp. 79-80 
(2)  Ibid., p.81 
(3)  Ibid., p.19 
(4)  J. Burton, 1986, Cinema and Social Change in Latin America:  Conversations with Filmmakers, University of Texas Press, Austin, p. 124. 
(5)  M. Chanan, 1985, opcit., p.156. 
(6)  J. Burton, 1986, opcit., p.127. 
(7) Ibid., p.117. 
(8)  J. Burton, "Revolutionary Cuban Cinema, First Part", Jump Cut Special Section, 19: 19. 
(9)  D. Bordwell, opcit., p.49 
(10)  Ibid., p.50 
(11)  D. Bordwell, opcit., p. 50.  Hereafter, all page citations will simply appear in the text with no specification; citations from other sources will be footnoted accordingly. 
(12)  J. Burton, 1986, opcit., p. 127. 
(13)  Ibid., p.124. 
(14)  E. Shohat, and R. Stam, 1994, Unthinking Eurocentrism:  Multiculturalism and the Media, Routledge, London, p. 107.  Shohat and Stam argue that such an exploitative and ‘superior’ gaze is the look of an imperialist, a man with economic power who either dismisses or eroticizes the foreign and thus makes a country or its people subordinate to his personal desires and thereby less human.  In Memories, Ernest Hemingway is a fantastic example of such a man, who employs Cuba as a setting for his already established ‘Cuban’ world. 

Works Cited

Bordwell, David, 1985, Narration in the Fiction Film, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison

Burton, Julianne, 1986, Cinema and Social Change in Latin America: Conversations with Filmmakers, University of Texas Press, Austin, pp.115-132

"Revolutionary Cuban Cinema, First Part" in Jump Cut Special Section 19, pp.17-19

Chanan, Michael, 1985, The Cuban Image: Cinema and Cultural Politics in Cuba, Indiana University Press, Bloomington

Hunter, Mark, "The Bay of Pigs Invasion" in Alta Vista, Online, Internet, 20 April, 1998

Memories of Underdevelopment, Dir. Tomas Alea., With Sergio Corrieri, Daisy Granados, Cuban Institute of Cinematogaphic Art and Industry, 1968, New Yorker Films Video, 1971

Shohat, Ella, and Robert Stam,1994, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media, Routledge, London

© Allison Arnold Helminski 1999

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