By Humberto Fontova
Monday, May 1, 2006
Andy Garcia, right, during the filming of "The Lost City," a project about Cuba that he has been working on for the last 16 years.
Andy Garcia blew it big-time with his movie "The Lost City." He blew it with the mainstream critics, that is. Almost unanimously, they're ripping a movie 16 years in the making. In this engaging drama of a middle-class Cuban family crumbling during free Havana's last days, which he both directs and stars in, Garcia insisted on depicting some historical truth about Cuba – a grotesque and unforgivable blunder in his industry. He's now paying the price.
Earlier, many film festivals refused to screen it. Now many Latin American countries refuse to show it. The film's offenses are many and varied. Most unforgivable of all, Che Guevara is shown killing people in cold blood. Who ever heard of such nonsense? And just where does this uppity Andy Garcia get the effrontery to portray such things? The man obviously doesn't know his place.
And just where did Garcia get this preposterous notion of pre-Castro Cuba as a relatively prosperous but politically troubled place, they ask. All the Cubans he portrays seem middle class. Where in his movie is the tsunami of stooped and starving peasants that carried Fidel and Che into Havana on its crest, they ask. Where are all those diseased and illiterate laborers and peasants my professors, Dan Rather, CNN and Oliver Stone told me about, ask the critics.
Garcia – that cinematic bomb-thrower – has seriously jolted the mainstream media's fantasies and hallucinations of pre-Castro Cuba, of Che, of Fidel, and of Cubans in general. In consequence, the critics are unnerved and disoriented. Their annoyance and scorn are spewing forth in review after review.
Garcia blew it. If only his characters had spoken with accents like John Belushi's as a "Saturday Night Live" killer bee! If only they'd dressed like The Three Amigos! If only they'd behaved like Cheech and Chong! If only they'd mimicked the mannerisms and gait of Freddie Prinze in "Chico and the Man"! If only the women had piled a roadside fruit stand on their head like Carmen Miranda in "Road to Rio"! If only the cast had looked like the little guy who handles my luggage when I visit Cancun! Or the guys who do my lawn! Everybody knows that's what Hispanics look like!
If only masses of Cubans had been shown toiling in salt mines like Spartacus, or picking crops like Tom Joad, or getting lashed by a vicious landlord like Kunta Kinte, or hustling for a living like Ratso Rizzo!
"In a movie about the Cuban revolution, we almost never see any of the working poor for whom the revolution was supposedly fought," sniffs Peter Reiner in The Christian Science Monitor. "'The Lost City' misses historical complexity."
Actually, what's missing is Mr. Reiner's historical knowledge. Andy Garcia and screenwriter Guillermo Cabrera Infante knew full well that "the working poor" had no role in the stage of the Cuban revolution shown in the movie. The anti-Batista rebellion was led and staffed overwhelmingly by Cuba's middle and, especially, upper class. To wit: In August of 1957 Castro's rebel movement called for a "national strike" against the Batista dictatorship – and threatened to shoot workers who reported to work. The "national strike" was completely ignored.
Another was called for April 9, 1958. And again Cuban workers blew a loud and collective raspberry at their "liberators," reporting to work en masse."Garcia's tale bemoans the loss of easy wealth for a precious few," harrumphs Michael Atkinson in The Village Voice. "Poor people are absolutely absent; Garcia and Infante seem to have thought that peasant revolutions happen for no particular reason – or at least no reason the moneyed 1 percent should have to worry about."
What's "absolutely absent" is Mr. Atkinson's knowledge about the Cuba Garcia depicts in his movie. His crack about that "moneyed 1 percent" and especially his "peasant revolution" epitomize the cliched idiocies still parroted by the chattering classes about Cuba.
"The impoverished masses of Cubans who embraced Castro as a liberator appear only in grainy, black-and-white news clips," snorts Stephen Holden in The New York Times. "Political dialogue in the film is strictly of the junior high school variety."
It's Holden's education on the Cuban Revolution that's of the "junior high school variety." Actually it's Harvard Graduate School variety. Many more imbecilities about Cuba are heard in Ivy League classrooms than in any rural junior high school.
"It fails to focus on the poverty-stricken workers whose plight lit the fires of revolution," complains Rex Reed in the New York Observer.
You're better off attempting rational discourse with the Flat-Earth Society, but nonetheless I'll try to dispel the fantasies of pre-Castro Cuba still cherished by America's most prestigious academics and its most learned film critics.
I'll even stay away from those "crackpots" and "hotheads" in Miami. In place of those insufferable "revanchists" and "hard-liners" I'll use a source generally esteemed by liberal highbrow types: the United Nations.
Here's a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) report on Cuba circa 1957: "One feature of the Cuban social structure is a large middle class," it starts. "Cuban workers are more unionized (proportional to the population) than U.S. workers. The average wage for an 8-hour day in Cuba in 1957 is higher than for workers in Belgium, Denmark, France and Germany. Cuban labor receives 66.6 per cent of gross national income. In the U.S. the figure is 70 per cent, in Switzerland 64 per cent. 44 per cent of Cubans are covered by social legislation, a higher percentage than in the U.S."
In 1958 Cuba had a higher per-capita income than Austria and Japan. Cuban industrial workers had the eighth-highest wages in the world. In the 1950s Cuban stevedores earned more per hour than their counterparts in New Orleans and San Francisco. Cuba had established an eight-hour workday in 1933 – five years before FDR's New Dealers got around to it. Add to this a one-month paid vacation. The much-lauded (by liberals) social democracies of Western Europe didn't manage this till 30 years later.
And get this, Maxine Waters, Barbara Walters, Andrea Mitchell, Diane Sawyer and the rest of you feminist Castro groupies: Cuban women got three months of paid maternity leave. I repeat, this was in the 1930s. Cuba, a country 71 percent white in 1957, was completely desegregated 30 years before Rosa Parks was dragged off that Birmingham bus and handcuffed. In 1958 Cuba had more female college graduates per capita than the U.S.
The anti-Batista rebellion (not revolution) was staffed and led overwhelmingly by college students and professionals. Unemployed lawyers were prominent (take Fidel Castro himself). Here's the makeup of the "peasant revolution's" first Cabinet, drawn from the leaders in the anti-Batista fight: seven lawyers, two university professors, three university students, one doctor, one engineer, one architect, one former city mayor and a colonel who defected from the Batista army. A notoriously "bourgeois" bunch, as Che himself might have put it.
By 1961, however, workers and campesinos (country folk) made up the overwhelming bulk of the anti-Castroite rebels, especially the guerrillas in the Escambray mountains. And boy, would THAT rebellion make for an action-packed and gut-wrenching movie! If by some miracle it ever got made, you can bet these learned critics would pan it too. Who ever heard of poor country folk fighting against their benefactors Fidel and Che?
The New York Times' Stephen Holden also sneers at Garcia's implication that "life sure was peachy before Fidel Castro came to town and ruined everything."
In fact, Mr. Holden, before Castro "came to town," Cuba took in more immigrants (primarily from Europe) as a percentage of population than the U.S. And more Americans lived in Cuba than Cubans in the U.S. Furthermore, inner tubes were used in truck tires, oil drums for oil, and Styrofoam for insulation. None were cherished black market items for use as flotation devices to flee the glorious liberation while fighting off hammerheads and tiger sharks.
The learned Mr. Holden is also annoyed by "buffoonish parodies of sour Communist apparatchiks barking orders." Apparently, Communist apparatchiks should be properly depicted as somewhat misguided social workers, or as slightly overzealous Howard Dean campaign staffers.
It's no "parody," Mr. Holden, that the "apparatchiks" Garcia depicts in his movie incarcerated and executed a higher percentage of their countrymen in their first three months in power than Hitler and his apparatchiks jailed and executed in their first three years. As well complain that the guards and police in "Schindler's List," "Julia" or "The Diary of Anne Frank" come across as hackneyed caricatures. Instead let's portray them with more "complexity," as misguided idealists who followed a leader who unshackled the German working class from its subservience to snooty barons, who eradicated Germany's unemployment and who ended Germany's national humiliation at the hands of Europe's premier imperialist powers.
Andy Garcia shows it precisely right. In 1958 Cuba was undergoing a rebellion, not a revolution. Cubans expected political change, not a socioeconomic cataclysm and catastrophe. But I fully realize such distinctions are much too "complex" for a film critic to grasp. They prefer boneheaded cliches. Garcia might have followed the laudable examples of "historical complexity" and "accuracy" shown in previous movies on Cuba. Take two that these critics compare (favorably) to "The Lost City," "Havana" and "Godfather II."In "Havana," the brilliant director Sydney Pollack casts Fulgencio Batista with blond hair and blue eyes. In fact Batista was a black.
In "Godfather II," Francis Ford Coppola, to show Havana streets on New Year's Eve 1958, casts more people than marched in Los Angeles last week and depicts them in a battle scene right out of "Braveheart." In fact, Havana streets were deathly quiet that night.
I don't presume to the exalted position of a film critic. So I don't comment on the dramatic and cinematic criticisms made by these august critics. I'm not saying, or even implying, that "The Lost City" is a better movie than "Godfather II." I'm simply criticizing the critics on their criticism of the historical accuracy of "The Lost City." In these reviews we see – in all its classic splendor – the mainstream media's thundering and apparently incurable stupidity on matters Cuban.
Humberto Fontova is the author of "Fidel: Hollywood's Favorite Tyrant," described as "absolutely devastating. An enlightening read you'll never forget" by David Limbaugh. David Horowitz says: "Humberto has performed a valuable service to the cause of decency and human freedom. Every American should read this book."