- I am Cuba and the Space of Revolution
When the Soviet-Cuban co-production I Am Cuba opened for Soviet audiences in 1964, expectations were high: filmgoers and critics alike anticipated a cinematic success worthy of its triumphant subject, the 1959 Cuban Revolution. The film had been two years in the making, and its director and cinematographer were among the most celebrated figures of contemporary Soviet cinema: Mikhail Kalatozov and Sergei Urusevsky, who had also worked together on the war melodrama The Cranes Are Flying, winner of the 1958 Palm D’Or at Cannes. (This 1958 success marked the return of Soviet cinema to international attention after the limited production and aesthetic conservatism under which it had suffered for over a decade, and was a signal event of the cultural thaw that followed Nikita Khrushchev’s so-called “secret speech” at the 20th Party Congress in 1956.1) One of I am Cuba’s two scriptwriters, furthermore—Yevgeny Yevtushenko--was among the most prominent Soviet poets of his generation, even appearing as such on the cover of Time magazine in 1962. Despite the prominence of its makers and the initial enthusiasm surrounding its release, however, I am Cuba was nothing less than a complete popular and critical failure. It closed in the USSR after little more than a week, leaving a trail of critical attacks in its wake, and in Cuba it came to be dubbed “I am Not Cuba,” dismissed as both aesthetically pretentious and culturally distant.2 The film continued to live in archival obscurity until it was screened as part of a tribute to Kalatozov at the 1992 Telluride Film Festival, leading to an international re-release organized by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. For all its evident didacticism, I am Cuba finally achieved the critical success that had eluded the film thirty years before, hailed—in one typical phrase—as “one of the most stylistically vigorous films of all time.”3
Anchoring the initial critical dismissal of I am Cuba was a perception that the film’s formal and narrative means fundamentally undermined one another, that its extraordinary camerawork undercut the stories it told. Just this point was made time and again in a special discussion of the film in the March 1965 issue of Iskusstvo kino [The Art of Cinema], at the time the USSR’s leading film journal. While one Iskusstvo kino critic complained that “the possibilities of [camera] technique are used to such a degree that I stop noticing the content and observe the virtuosity of the operator,” another elaborated his disfavor as follows:
I remained cold to everything which took place on the screen—though, in essence, these were tragic events: people die, sugar cane burns down, policemen break up a demonstration with fire hoses—I look at all of these, but it doesn’t touch me. Why? My opinion is such: behind the frenzied dynamics of the spatially free camera hides a temporal stasis. Everything is emotionally dragged out. The episode is clear, it seems the meaning is revealed—but[,] no, one more run of the camera, one more panorama.4
The comments are typical of the Iskusstvo kino discussion not only for their criticism that the film’s formal experimentation overwhelmed its narrative content (the “frenzied” camera blocking any connection to the “tragic” events it records) but, more specifically, for the manner in which the comments map this form/content opposition as one of space/time.5 The critics complain, in essence, is that in I am Cuba space has defeated time: time drags on, seems endless, because of the “frenzied dynamics of the spatially free camera.” Other Iskusstvo kino commentators shared just this position: they repeatedly criticized the film’s narrative failings as a breakdown of temporal passage (“The emotional effect of the episode would have been stronger if it had a [End Page 4] prehistory, if we knew what kind of people these are”; “It looks like everything is done. But no…”; “Couldn’t such masters adapt a gripping—yet clearly formed, perhaps a detective—plot?”) while complaining that its spatial elaborations remained distractingly, destructively free (“the camera spins around, rotates, oscillates…so the...