By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “I Am Cuba,” Milestone Films]
Though only recently exhumed from the neverworld abyss of forgotten cinema it was 1992, in fact it does seem as if Mikhail Kalatozov’s “I Am Cuba” (1964) has always been with us, always staking out its small, idiosyncratic turf as Communist agitprop’s most unrestrained diva hymn, and one of the most visually titanic works in the century of movies. If you’ve managed to avoid it up to now, Milestone’s new bells-&-whistles DVD release is your present to yourself this Christmas newly struck from the original Russian master, and coming gift-wrapped in an almost absurdly lavish cigar-box case, accompanied by two supplementary documentary discs and a thorough booklet of explicative material. Still, in my experience, the movie bedazzles regardless of its condition or format there’s just no acclimating to, or being blasé about, the famously superhuman cinematographic stunt work and the unearthly white-wheat-dark-sky exposures (achieved with infra-red stock), all of it mated to an unfettered revolutionary outrage that abstractly details life before and during Castro’s rebel war, from decadent tourist pool parties to police brigade atrocities to guerrilla righteousness in the mountains.
The resulting assault seems at this remove to be less about Cuba per se than about the fusillade of movement, shadow, light and landscape on the viewer’s tender optic nerves. Indeed, this rare co-production between Mosfilm and Castro’s new state-run ICIAC tanked with its intended Communist audiences, proving too languid and impressionistic for the Cubans and too tropical-exotic for the Russians. No one else saw it. I’ve had suburban college students, otherwise prone to dozy dismissiveness at the very notion of a black-&-white, subtitled movie, weep openly at “I Am Cuba.” Once you’re confronted with the famous, two-and-a-half-minute one-shot funeral march sequence, in which seemingly the entirety of the city of Havana is participating, and in which the camera climbs buildings, passes over rooftops and through windows and finally flies out over the crowd in mid-air, without a single cut, you’ve begun to understand how the film certainly represented a kind of cinematic frontier for filmmakers like Miklós Jancsó, Andrei Tarkovsky, Alexander Sokurov and Theo Angelopoulos, and still does, in many ways, today.
It’s propaganda, of course, and fascinating for that but still, naïve as it seems, the film (co-written by poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko) makes a feverish case you can’t argue with, for the people and against state power. Kalatozov, a veteran from the silent days, made his global mark in 1957 with “The Cranes Are Flying” (an award-winner at Cannes), and along with “I Am Cuba” and 1959’s “The Letter Never Sent” (imagine a film that looks like Cuba butthat was shot entirely in the Siberian wilderness), his work with levitating cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky had a still-unacknowledged impact on international art cinema. (Note that before “The Cranes Are Flying” hit the festival circuit, Antonioni and Bergman were still making visually orthodox films.) Each Kalatozov/Urusevsky take is a trapeze stunt, an athletic exercise in seeing how much life can be crammed into a single, breath-holding camera take, and “I Am Cuba” may be their premier achievement (there’s at least one other we haven’t seen, 1955’s “The First Echelon”; Urusevsky also shot with Pudovkin, Donskoi and Grigori Chukrai). Once you’ve steeped yourself in the film’s magical waters, go to Vicente Ferraz’s “I Am Cuba The Siberian Mammoth” (2005), a new and addictive chronicle included in the cigar box, which returns to the places and personnel from the production, and tells us perhaps too much about how the film achieved its transcendent grandeur, amid the lingering vapors of the 1962 missile crisis the imported cranes, suspended cameras, chemical infusions, camera-operator relay races and a shooting period that lasted almost two years, lengthened by days spent waiting for “interesting” clouds. Kino, kino, kino!, as Guy Maddin has said.
Hunting little-publicized mammoths in its own way, Jennifer Baichwal’s “Manufactured Landscapes” is the year’s most chilling horror film, a cold-stare portrait of planetary waste that makes “An Inconvenient Truth” look like, well, an Al Gore lecture. Baichwal simply follows photographer Edward Burtynsky, documenting his process, showing his work and often dollying through the locations he’s studying which are all unimaginably huge, unfathomably grotesque and morally nauseating arenas of human industrial destruction, from dumping sites to decommissioned mines to dehumanized manufacturing operations to poisoned landscapes glowing with radioactive colors. Properly, Baichwal uses Burtynsky only as a guide into these circumstances; his art stands for itself, and so does Baichwal’s unnarrated footage, leaving it less a movie about an artist fine and good than about the world he struggles to depict. Numbers can bounce off of us, but these images don’t, resonating with guilt and culpability, and breathtaking in scale. It’s a new, freshly-sharpened effort to jostle us from our it’s-a-shame middle-class complacency, but that becomes part of the film’s subject, too, questioning without a word why some areas of the world sit under a billion tons of our industries’ toxic refuse and some don’t.
“I Am Cuba” (Milestone) and “Manufactured Landscapes” (Zeitgeist) will be available on DVD November 20th.