Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Memories of Underdevelopment

For those who saw Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment when it first was released back in l968, the movie is itself a memory. The Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, along with the Kennedy assassination were already history. . Now revisiting Memories, currently in revival at Film Forum, with its juxtaposition of the personal and the political (an almost schizophrenic bifurcation due to the revolutionary moment it describes), the layers of ambivalence may seem even more brilliantly apparent than when it first premiered. Modernism with its acute subjectivity has long been anathema in Communist and/or totalitarian societies which regard self-consciousness as apostasy, particularly in the underdeveloped third world context that Memories underscores (the Nazis famously promoted their shows of degenerate art). When the film came out, some might have looked at its protagonist, Sergio (Sergio Courriei) a wannabee writer in the early days of the revolution, who lives off the proceeds of some rentals and income he earned working in the furniture store he inherited, as a parasite. Sergio’s apartment is reminiscent of Bunuel with its expensive objects (particularly a pair of nude paintings) in disarray and its fetishism (Sergio rifles through the underwear of his ex-wife who has left for the States). Sergio himself is a relic, a bourgeois in a postcolonial society whose world weary conversation might include remarks about it being easier to be a millionaire Communist in Paris. One of the questions of the movie, of course, is why Sergio stays when many of others of his class are leaving and one clue lies in his own repugnance with the  milieu in which he was raised. Showing some degree of allegiance to the revolution is his revenge against complacency. One wonders what the Cuban censors were thinking since Sergio is an unequivocally appealing figure compared to some of the representatives of the common people who are portrayed (the family of a peasant girl he has seduced are portrayed, for example, as buffoons and blackmailers). On the film's 50th anniversary, the ideological complexity of the character is even more stark. Alea’s protagonist occupies a high-rise and one of the ways in which he engages the revolution is through his telescope. There isn’t even a pretense of connection between the sensibility of the highly interiorized narrator and that of the collectivity or crowd. And sadly or not that appears to be Alea’s ultimate point. Memories of Underdevelopment is a swan song for either agit prop or belly button gazing poetes maudites depending on which way you choose to see it.

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