Through the screen: Laughter’s many faces
Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara used to tell a joke about how he got the job of Minister of Finance and National Bank President in Cuba.
At a cabinet meeting to decide on a replacement of Bank President Felipe Pazos, Fidel Castro asked who among them was a ‘good economist’. Guevara raised his hand and was sworn in as Minister of Finance and head of the National Bank. Castro said: ‘Che, I didn’t know you were an economist.’ Che replied, ‘I’m not!’
Castro asked, “Then why did you raise your hand when I said I needed an economist?” To which Guevara replied, “Economist! I thought you asked for a communist.”
Cubans are famed for their sense of humour, which, in private, leaves no figure or institution untouched. This is probably just as well: whatever you might think of the revolution, the embargo or the Castro regime, it’s difficult to deny that the last 50 years have seen more than their fair share of absurdities.
Some of these don’t have much of a funny side: the persecution of homosexuals in the 1960s, or the dire privations of the 1990s’ ‘Special Period’, for instance. Yet the work of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, the island’s most renowned filmmaker, excels in finding the funny side to Cuba’s idiosyncrasies.
Gutiérrez Alea was by no means a purely comic director. His best-known films, Memorias del subdesarrollo and Fresa y chocolate, while including comic elements, provide serious, at times almost essayistic discussions of post-revolutionary life in Cuba at two very different points in history (1968 and 1994 respectively).
Two earlier films, however, take the opposite approach. In Las doce sillas (The Twelve Chairs, 1961) and La muerte de un burócrata (Death of a Bureaucrat, 1966) political discussion hides coquettishly behind the veil of farce.
The twelve chairs of the first film’s title are a set of antiques belonging to an aristocrat deprived of his goods and house after the 1959 revolution. In one of them, his aunt has hidden the family diamonds. The film is, consequently, a crazed chase across Havana, in which the aristocratic Señor Hipólito reluctantly enlists the services of his opportunistic former employee Óscar. There is plenty of slapstick, chair-switching and Kafka-esque bureaucratic tangles, all executed with impressive formal deftness.
Plenty of fun is poked at Hipólito’s obsession with his lost property and wealth, but Óscar’s apparent socialist ideals are also shown to be at times a mask for his own interest in personal gain. At one point, when the pair are discussing how to split the ever-elusive prize, Óscar demands 50% for himself, with the justification that it is ‘more revolutionary’.
La muerte de un burócrata expands, perhaps predictably, on the nightmarish aspects of Cuba’s bureaucratic system. There is little predictable about the film itself, however, which contains everything from Buñuel-esque dream sequences to a bun fight outside a cemetery. Juanchín’s fight to get the pension for his recently widowed aunt draws him, unwitting, into a series of ever more absurd situations.
The film is, in fact, the only successful cinematic attempt at magic realism that I have seen. Such is the absurdity of the ‘realist’ bits of the bureaucratic process that the more surrealist elements, placed cleverly by Gutiérrez Alea at the margins or in the background of shots, pass almost unnoticed.
It is the director’s technical prowess that allows this fusion of Buñuel, García Márquez and Monty Python to work. It is also what allows these films to both provide a questioning look at life in Cuba and also be laugh-out-loud funny. That the two should go together is perhaps not entirely surprising. Laughter is a form of subversion that does not speak its name, a way of criticising without being labelled ‘counter-revolutionary’.
Given the changes and challenges the island continues to face – from the apparently eternal embargo to the reappearance of a controlled sort of capitalism – that particularly Cuban double attitude will no doubt continue to come in handy.