SOY CUBA (I AM CUBA)
Dir. Mikhail Kalatozov
Cuba/Soviet Union, 1964, 108 min., Spanish and English w/ English subtitles
The Steadicam [is] very much abused. But if you realize what it feels like, which is kind of dreamy, and kinda floaty, and you apply that and you know that that’s what it’s gonna do, then you’re using it well. – Paul Thomas Anderson
If the Cuban/Soviet Union Communist propaganda film Soy Cuba is recognized for one thing, it isn’t the politics… it’s the cinematography—specifically the mobile framing. The film predates the invention of the Steadicam by a decade but manages to showcase several incredibly fluid tracking shots and long takes that seem incomprehensible. Watching the film with PT Anderson’s statement in mind (and the recontextualization of the film as a midnight movie) the surreal, dreamlike quality that the moving camera lends to the film is elevated. Much of the film has an ethereal quality to it.
In addition to this specific trait, the moving camera also has the ability to visually present an artistic/expressive quality, something akin to a visible brush stroke—or maybe more specifically in this case, a gestural swath of paint flung against a canvas in a Jackson Pollock action painting. Like the application of paint, the camera’s movement emphasizes the physical act of moving through space as well as presents or conjures up an emotional or psychological state. The paint might reflect the state of the artist, but the camera movement reflects the state of the subject and/or elicits a specific emotional response from the viewer. When the camera is paired with a wide-angle lens the movement is emphasized to an even greater degree and the world of the film becomes even more distorted and otherworldly. The image isn’t directly representative of the world as we see it, but (hopefully) it is in service of achieving a visual representation of how we as viewers, subjects, artists, and humans feel. (In contemporary cinema, this seems to be what Emmanuel Lubezki is working toward. There are several noticeable similarities between camera movement, shot composition, and lens choice in Soy Cuba and The Revenant.) Interestingly, upon the film’s release, the Cuban public recognized these exaggerated qualities that the camerawork presents and were dissatisfied with the result, feeling that “the camera pyrotechnics overwhelmed and distorted the realities of the uprising, and leaned heavily on clichéd, simplistic portraits of their people” (AV Club).
While the film’s early tracking shot at the party and the funeral sequence in the third segment are likely the most referenced due their acrobatic nature and sheer technical prowess, the camerawork in the second segment, in which a sugarcane farmer descends into despair when the land and crops he has been cultivating are sold, is likely the most expressive and dreamlike/atmospheric. The camera is objective and subjective. It is the farmer’s perspective, the viewer’s perspective, a nation’s perspective, an idealist’s perspective. It is both limited and omniscient. It is the farmer’s nightmare and his blade. His hope, rage, and desperation.