A poster hangs blu-tacked upon my bedroom wall. I bought it as a souvenir in Havana, along with a few others which I gave as gifts – hand-printed replicas of original Cuban and Soviet film posters. One, El Arte del Tabaco, a classic and colourful image of a bouffanted Caribbean lady; another, La Muerte de un Burocrata, its juxtaposition of monotone and menacing birds. One was for a Polish film (una película polaca – I forget the name),which I sent to a good friend living in Poland at the time. And another a black-on-white print of the face of Alicia I sent to my fantastic friend of the same name, all the way off in Nebraska.
The one I kept was for Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba), a joint Soviet-Cuban production of 1964. It shows an abstract head – stark, surreal, in the style of the time – in bold colours, giving the impression of a being strong but complex and conflicted (the intended imagery, no doubt). I hadn’t seen nor heard of the film, but fancied myself as sympathising with the Lady Cubaportrayed in the image.
Of course I intended at some point after return to seek out this film (and the others) and watch them. I still haven’t. Having been away and returned again, I rediscovered the poster just the other week in my parents’ attic, brought it down and put it on the wall. Something made me look at it tonight and feel compelled to look it up.
The film was not considered a success at the time. In Cuba it was criticised as perpetuating stereotypes; in the USSR as naïve, unremarkable, not quite communist enough. And of course it was never seen by Western audiences. It was only after an obscure screening in the early 90s that the film came to light again, and was picked up on by directors such as Martin Scorsese (who lent his name to the re-release) and Francis Ford Coppola. The film was an example of some of the most innovative cinematography of its time (and ever, in fact).
After reading of a tracking shot where the camera begins at street level, slowly swoops a few storeys up, travels through a building and out the other side following a funeral procession, I had to see it. The shot begins after the bells toll, at around 1.40:
In 2005 a Brazilian director made a film documenting the making of Soy Cuba, in which the technical processes required to make a shot like this in 1964 are revealed, involving attaching a camera to a camera man, and attaching him to a hook attached to a series of pulleys and cables and complex mechanical things. Absolutely incredible.
Watching this non-stop shot put me in mind of another I had seen recently and been astounded by in Children of Men. Funnily enough, this scene popped up in YouTube’s suggestions to the right. The first time I watched this film was around the winter of 2006-7, when I was consumed with all kinds of morosities about post-apocalyptic societies and whatnot. I was really struck by it at the time but for this aspect, I was oblivious to the cinematography.
Back on the Island a few months ago, I entered my then boyfriend’s house and he was watching it, quite near the end. I was more-or-less in time for this scene. It went on for a couple of minutes and I thought, wait a minute, this hasn’t cut yet. And then it went on and on and on and I remember thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, when is this going to end? This is amazing.’ Even when some (presumably fake) blood splatters the lens the director keeps the shot going and it only adds to the tension-build, taking nothing away:
Even more funnily, there are some comments about how a Muse track should be put to this scene, and, again in the suggestions bar, somebody has done just that to a track from their most recent album. Back in that winter of ‘06-‘07, I was listening to Black Holes and Revelations which was contributing massively to my doomful state of mind…
This article includes the ‘Uprising’scene in a list of five similarly miraculously long tracking shots. Though of course they are all undoubtedly masterful accomplishments of cinematography, especially number one on the list – a 7:50 take from the opening of The Player (what a feat of co-ordination!), I think the technique really lends itself to the dark, intense nature of the scenes in Children of Men, Atonement, and Soy Cuba. The absence of dialogue and the resulting concentration on the visual create such intense atmosphere and a wonder in the viewer that I think can be missed in the scenes broken up with dialogue.
As an aside, I also came across this website, an anthology of independent / alternative / avant-garde directors and film (what made me think of Soy Cuba tonight in the first place). There’s so much, I have no idea where to even begin looking at this stuff…
Oh time, sometimes you love me, sometimes you don’t…