Cut, no. 30, March 1985, pp.
RICHARD MADDEN: MERCANTILE CAPITALIST RATIONALISM
At times narrative tension is fully interrupted by long interviews, which the character Richard Madden conducts with other characters. These interviews are part of the narration in the way that the film narrator's questions and comments are not. As a diplomat Madden wants to know about slave conditions at that historical time; the characters respond "within character." We would hardly have heard these opinions had the film's narration of a love story been more linear. In that sense, these interviews make the film Brechtian. They interrupt a single style of characterization and allow different modes of presenting information.
Brecht wanted to expand the scope of spectators' curiosity. One tactic he advocated was to have tension be broken by summaries, so people could use these to check back on what went on before, as readers do with "footnotes." He said the story should develop by curves and jumps and that each scene should stand for itself, with its elements kept distinctly separate. One scene should not make another nor depend on an inevitable succession of events. Rather, scenes should be juxtaposed, the drama often switching drastically in tone and subject matter from one scene to the next. Sometimes Brecht used placards or slides, which presented details that referred to the historical moment or showed relations between the action and the world. In Brecht's plays, the distancing effects worked on several levels — distancing between realistic details and schematized history, between the scenes themselves (each one being neatly separated from the other), between the show and the spectators, and between human nature represented and human nature seen as a certain historical state. Brecht hoped to stimulate audiences to analyze phenomena critically, which they had previously absorbed in an unreflective, socially conditioned way. Breaking up the narrative like this, he thought, should keep spectators from becoming caught up inside a linearly developed emotional experience, which swept them to catharsis. People should not immerse themselves inside a representation without asking how representations are constructed and how they affect us. Brecht advocated juxtapositions, jumps, and switches in tone so as to provoke spectators to stop identifying with characters, which has been one of fiction's main pleasures. He wanted audiences to consider the fiction's source, which is the world itself, in a critical, contradictory, and detached way.
In THE OTHER FRANCISCO Richard Madden and his interviews provide Brechtian-style detachment. Madden is the rationalist, promoting an expanding mercantile capitalism. In real life, Richard Madden published a book on Cuba after he returned to England. Beyond that, he used the novel Francisco to document his investigation into Cuban slavery. The statistics which the film character Madden elicits about slavery were taken by Giral either from the real-life Madden's book or more likely from a contemporary Cuban study about the relation of mode of production to slave conditions in the sugar mills, The Sugarmill by Manual Moreno Fragonales.
The film's character Richard Madden parallels another cinematic villain, one developed as a romantic antihero in Gillo Pontecorvo's BURN! Pontecorvo's tactic of placing the skilled and attractive Marlon Brando in the role of the imperialist William Walker finally undercuts the film's political analysis. As Joan Mellen points out, BURN!'s drama hinges as much on the pathos of Walker's story as it does on the depiction of oppression. In contrast, in THE OTHER FRANCISCO Giral uses Madden only to represent a certain locus of power, a privileged access to information, and an advanced ideological position. THE OTHER FRANCISCO stands as a cinematic response to BURN! and counters BURN!'s mode of narration and characterization. The information in Madden's interviews is what is essential in THE OTHER FRANCISCO, not the "feelings" of the man.
In the sequence where a group of men are visiting Ricardo's plantation to see his new milling machine and have dinner, the priest blesses the mill with holy water. The film's narrator presents a key point:
At the banquet, the younger aristocrats put forth the main arguments for abolition but not on humanitarian grounds.
Following that sequence we see a repeated version of Francisco's suicide. The film's narrator questions the accuracy of thinking Francisco's motive was love. The film cuts to an interview between the blonde Madden and the young dark-haired Suarez y Romero in elegant surroundings. First, we discover that the novelist's family had lost their plantation to creditors. But the novelist had gone back to the old farm home with his family to write because he had personal economic difficulties. He said that is how he documented slave abuse. He reveals his unconscious role as petit bourgeois male intellectual, for he admits that Francisco does not realistically represent someone oppressed but rather someone "tame and peaceful." Suarez y Romero says,
At various moments in the film we see a high angle shot of Ricardo's plantation, the structure of which Giral learned from Moreno Fragonale's The Sugarmill. Giral himself had studied agricultural engineering in Cuba before joining the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC). His interest in slave economy and its shift to mercantile economy is borne out in the kinds of information he uses the character Madden's interviews to reveal.
For example, playing chess with Domingo del Monte, Madden hears about the illegal slave trade, the cost of slaves, the percentage of slave population to total population, and the whites' fear of slave rebellion. The liberal landowner del Monte suggests that Cuba "let slavery disappear gradually" as it seeks independence from Spain, not abolish slavery. The bourgeois novel Francisco repressed images of slaves' rage and freedom, just as the novelist's patron here advised the not-yet-born Cuban government to do.
Madden interviews the overseer in the overseer's house, a building with a straw roof where a black woman stands holding what is probably the overseer's child. The fact that Madden wishes to visit and interview this man sets Madden apart from the other aristocrats. As an agent of the British government, Madden understands that Spain has used whites' fear of freed slaves to stave off national revolution. It is in England's interest, therefore, to expose in Europe the cruelties of Spanish slavery so as to make room for British exports and to wean the Cuban aristocrats from Spain. He conducts these interviews so as to publish them abroad. His "larger" view as the proponent of a more advanced mechanical mode of production makes him take seriously a man like the overseer, who is responsible for production. From the overseer, Madden elicits facts about slave conditions. Slaves have been pushed to feed a constant supply of cane to the inexhaustible machines. They get only four hours of sleep a night and are forced to work too much, until a great percentage of them die. Madden points out the folly of keeping slaves in stocks when they could be working or of pushing them past human endurance. But the overseer only says he does what he is paid to do.
The film's narrator supersedes the points of view elicited by Madden, for the emotional and political conclusion of the film is about slave rebellion. Over images of collectively expressed emotion, looting and celebrating and running and escape, the narrator's voice lists Cuba's slave rebellions. The list has emotional force because it comes when we, the audience, have already been given an analysis and a fictional experience to weigh what that list means. In a sense, it is dryly rational but it is read over images of rage, drunkenness, and lease — and of the corresponding violence on the part of whites in response. The film has shown the brutal rationality of imperialist expansion moving in on a feudally organized, colonial slave economy. The brutality is embodied in Ricardo and the overseer, the rationality in del Monte and Madden. Now the film concludes with a vision of revolutionary rationalism. The list is no longer just a list. It recuperates national culture and does so in a feature film, which itself is a form that must be "recuperated" or taken over in a new way. In THE OTHER FRANCISCO priority becomes placed on creating knowledge, particularly knowledge about those groups historically oppressed.
Cuba and Nicaragua undertook literacy campaigns immediately after their revolutions. Those campaigns have a cultural significance for the Third World that goes beyond teaching people to read and write. Creating literacy in Cuba and Nicaragua has increased people's desire to know and interact with their own social reality, so the literacy campaigns have also created mass consciousness about how and why information becomes distorted and deformed.
As much as urban dwellers in Latin America have been surrounded by capitalist mass culture, the mass media in Latin America generally coexist with mass illiteracy. In such a case, television and film offer the only available, but an ideologically selective and grossly distorting, "window on the world." In these pre-revolutionary Third World cultures, large sectors of national culture remain invisible and an accurate national history has never been taught. As Eduardo Galeano writes in his analysis of the Nicaraguan literacy campaign:
Coinciding With Cuba and Nicaragua's literacy campaigns was the brigadistas' (the literary teachers') growth. Going out into remote rural areas young women brigadistas broke traditions about feminine roles and entered actively into political life. In this experience, the brigadistas learned about ways of life no one in the dominant cultural sphere had previously acknowledged. The literacy campaigns let the country learn about itself. And the brigadistas learned how intellect — theirs and the people's they worked with — blossomed with the desire to build a new way of life. As a group of young women brigadistas discussed women's roles in a seminar preparing them for Nicaragua's literary campaign (their literacy text, built on Paulo Freire's method, had a section on women):
Growing intellectually, changing one's own and others' social attitudes, and transforming the country characterize a Cuban's or Nicaraguan's active participation in "cultural" revolution. What is properly cultural spills over into other areas. In Nicaragua, for example, two years of the revolution have seen many diseases eradicated principally through mass participation and mass education. Managua's daily papers carry entomological reports about pests threatening the crops. Plagues of wholly new diseases, suspected to be U.S.-induced bacteriological warfare, are combated by mass education, so that in every workplace can be seen posters that teach people how to deal with an epidemic of otherwise incurable bloody conjunctivitis.
In Cuba and Nicaragua, that is, inside left revolutionary culture in Latin America, discourse has changed. The class nature of "educated" discourse has shifted so that educated discourse and popular discourse are more nearly coterminous. Education is now an ongoing process among people of all ages, conducted through new forms. At work, in work councils, and in the neighborhoods, through block committees, people whose voice previously carried no weight now expect to express criticisms that are acted upon and to receive all the information they need to be effective social agents. Film showings in Cuba take place as well in these mass organizations and generate an informed, popular criticism of the mass media. In Nicaragua, Managuans regularly listen to radio news for an hour in the morning before going to work and to television news at night for an hour; many people read three newspapers a day as well, including the conservative La Prensa. As a Sandinista banker put it to me, "You've gotta know what the enemy is up to," which characterizes the attitude of people in the Third World who understand the threat of U.S. intervention, both covert and through force of arms.
This new, revolutionary discourse is one of information, analysis, and action. The "news" often impels people in Cuba and Nicaragua to act. The mass media speak an enabling and capacitating voice. The media help create an articulate population and they also articulate the people's concerns. And this enabling process of intellectual analysis, developed partly through mass media, reaches into geographically remote areas neglected by all cultural and educational institutions in the past. An accountant and former war hero, Rosario Rivera, describes this combination of intellectual, personal, and social change in the small Nicaraguan village she came from,
It is in this context of providing a capacitating voice that THE OTHER FRANCISCO functions. It uses some tactics of Brechtian distanciation, in a way very close to Brecht's aesthetic and political concerns, but it also uses the emotions of the spectacle to represent the uprising of the oppressed. In terms of cinematic predecessors, in its voice-over narration and use of music, THE OTHER FRANCISCO reflects cinematic innovations introduced by Santiago Alvarez in Cuban newsreels.
Alvarez, working in a line from the Russian documentarist Dziga Vertov, emphasizes that a newsreel must not become stale with the passage of days. Partly this politicized aesthetic derives from ICAIC's limited resources and partly from the delay in distributing the weekly filmed news to all areas of the country. But Alvarez has also developed a style that has a political base: he understands how capitalist media's way of presenting social information also induces forgetfulness and impotence. People need an analysis that lets them connect information on their social reality and to remember and use that connection. Characteristically, Alvarez's newsreels, especially his early ones, provide this analysis through an emotionally coded use of indigenous music and a voice-over narration or intertitles. In THE OTHER FRANCISCO, the voice over analyzes the novel Francisco, the repression of information about slave rebellions, and the relation of abolition to Europe's expanding mercantile capitalism. However, THE OTHER FRANCISCO's analysis can also be applied by spectators to contemporary cinema and television — to the news and to Hollywood cinema's frequent reduction of stories of class oppression to stories about tragic love. The film does not just effect this operation rationally. It uses music and emotion to achieve these ends.
Giral's advisor on THE OTHER FRANCISCO, Tomás Gutierrez Alea, has written that film should have a concrete goal — it should be a factor in viewers' social, emotional, and cognitive development. If we compare THE OTHER FRANCISCO to its contemporary U.S. counterpart, the television serial Roots, a clear difference emerges between bourgeois and revolutionary media forms. In its form, THE OTHER FRANCISCO presupposes the spectators' need and willingness to experience more than pathos and more than just "being informed." It takes as reality race and class, and the consequent social formation of people's emotions, here the characters' emotions. It accepts the revolutionary responsibility of creating history, and it does so within the context of imperialism and revolution. THE OTHER FRANCISCO assumes that viewers have a collective need to recover their lost past, particularly that past lost through racism. It's a film in which the action does not stop with the action of watching it. It makes an implicit demand that its tactics of analysis be applied to other sources of knowledge. It combines a popular media form — the ninety-minute fictional film — with an historical examination of epistemology. It is, as Diderot advocated, a new form of utile dulce.
Cuban film stands in a new relation to spectators because it is a film movement within a revolution. It represents a new way of thinking about and constructing the feature fiction film, what Cohn McCabe has previously called the "classic realist text." As Tomás Guiterrez Alea writes in his study of film aesthetics, "The Viewer's Dialectic," ideally film should establish a tie between the viewers' desire for spectacle and the film's enabling or activating effect. As Alea writes about Cuban cinema's goals, he well understands how Cuban cinema, especially a film like THE OTHER FRANCISCO, stands as a model for the rest of Third Cinema, for the pleasure of learning is an integral part of Third Cinema's goals. Alea describes this new model of fictional film and its relation to the specator as follows:
1. Bertolt Brecht, The Messingkauf Dialogues, trans. John Willett (London: Methuen, 1965).
2. Teshome Gabriel, Third Cinema in the Third World: The Aesthetics of Liberation (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1982), p. 1.
3. This issue is taken up in the series of articles, "Toward a New Information Order," NACLA: Report on the Americas 16, no. 4 (July-August 1982).
4. Significantly, some of the most Brechtian Cuban films have been made by Tomás Gutierrez Alea and two young black directors whose projects he supervised, Giral and Sara Gomez. See my article on Sara Gomez's ONE WAY OR ANOTHER, "Dialectical, Revolutionary, Feminist," JUMP CUT no. 20 (May 1979).
5. Sergio Giral, "The Cuban Cinema and the Afro-Cuban Heritage," interview conducted by Julianne Burton and Gary Crowdus, The Black Scholar (Summer 1977): 64.
6. Ibid., p. 65.
7. Esteban Montejo, The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave, ed. Miguel Barnet, trans. Jocasta Innes (New York: Vintage-Random House, 1973).
8. Giral p. 69.
10. "THE OTHER FRANCISCO: Film Lessons on Novel Reading," Ideologies and Literature 1, no. 5 (January-February 1973).
11. Julia Lesage, The Film Career of Jean-Luc Godard: References and Resources (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979) and "The Films of Jean-Luc Godard and Their Use of Brechtian Dramatic Theory" (Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University, 1976).
12. Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1974), p. 8.
13. Bertold Brecht, "Thesen über die Aufgabe der Einfuhlung in den theatralischen Kunsten," Gesammelte Werke, vol. 15, ed. Elisabeth Hauptmann, (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1967), p. 246. Translation mine.
14. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, ed. C.V. Arthur (New York: International Publishers, 1973).
15. In general, as characters, elderly people, lesbians, and people of color are relegated to these minor, stereotyped, and easily "readable" roles.
16. Montejo, pp. 19, 21.
17. Angela Davis, "The Black Woman's Role in the Community of Slaves," The Black Scholar (December 1971), p. 5. Italics Davis'.
18. Dennis West, "THE OTHER FRANCISCO," Cineaste 8, no. 2 (1977), 47.
19. See Frantz Fanon, "Concerning Violence," The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (New York: Grove Press, 1968).
20. West, p. 47; Manual Moreno Fraginales, trans. Cedric Belfrage, The Sugarmill: The Socioeconomic Complex of Sugar in Cuba (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1976).
21. Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1849 obtained a concession from the Nicaraguan government for a canal and connecting river traffic. He was turned against, in ruthless competition, by his associates Morgan and Garrison, who equipped William Walker as mercenary to get these concessions. Walker had fought in Mexico trying to annex the territory of Sonora to the United States. He arrived in Nicaragua in 1956, built up his forces, and in 1856 proclaimed himself president of Nicaragua, gaining the immediate recognition of the United States. He made English the official language and reinstated slavery. These data are from an article in a Nicaraguan newspaper, El Nuevo Diario, 15 November 1981: "Breve Historia Contemporanea de Nicaragua," by Sergio Ramirez Mercado.
22. Joan Mellen, "A Reassessment of Gillo Pontecorvo's BURN!" Cinema 7, no. 3 (Winter 1972-1973).
23. Giral, p. 68.
24. Fanon, "Concerning Violence."
26. Eduardo Galeano, "The Revolution as Revelation," Socialist Review 65 (September-October 1982): 15-16.
27. LA MUJER EN LA REVOLUCTION NICARAGÜENSE, 16mm color film, directed Adrian Carrasco (Mexico, 1980). Translation mine.
28. Manuel Erazo, personal communication, Managua, November 1981
29. Rosario Rivera, personal communication, Managua, November 1981. This interview forms part of the sound track of a videotape I am making on women and daily life in Nicaragua, in which the words are those of Nicaraguan women; also the interview with Rosario Rivera and others has been published in the Spring 1983 issue of the magazine Voices of Nicaragua (3411 W. Diversey, Chicago, IL 60647) in its special issue on women in Nicaragua, which I co-edited with Carole Issacs.
30. Santiago Alvarez, "The Cuban Newsreel," interview with Susan Fanshell, A Decade of Cuban Documentary Film: 1972-1982, catalog for film series, November-December 1982 (Young Filmmakers Foundation, 4 Rivington St., New York, NY 10002).
31. Tomás Gutierrez Alea, Dialéctica del espectador, Cuadernos Union (Havana: Union of Cuban Artists and Writers, 1982), p. 27. Translation mine. [This book is published in translation across three issues of JUMP CUT, with the third installment in No. 32. It is also available from the Center for Cuban Studies, New York.]
Esther Parada, "Home Products: Notes on History, Photography, and Cultural Politics in Cuba," Afterimage (Rochester, N.Y.) 10, no. 5 (December 1982).
Julianne Burton, "Introduction — Revolutionary Cuban Cinema," JUMP CUT 19 (December 1978). JUMP CUT ran special sections on Cuban cinema in Nos. 20 and 22 as well. No. 22 (May 1980) contains a useful bibliography on Cuban cinema by Julianne Burton and John Hess.