Sunday, July 11, 2010
Andy Garcia's The Lost City: a philosophical meditation
This isn't a review, nor will this be an exposition of the rarely un-PC subtext of this fine movie which came out five years ago, directed and co-written by, as well as starring, Andy Garcia.
The un-PC subtext of The Lost City -- namely, its anti-Castro and anti-Che Guevara stance -- has been well covered by Humberto Fontova in his essay Andy Garcia's Thought Crime (who also elsewhere -- in his essay Che at the Oscars -- has noted the unfortunately all-too common Che chic among celebrities, including Carlos Santana who idiotically sported a Che t-shirt at the Oscars five years ago).
My essay will also not examine in detail the plot of the movie and its characters. For our purposes, the plot is simple: It's about the Cuban revolution of 1959 and its aftermath into the 1960s, and the effect this has on Fico Fellove, a Cuban nightclub owner, played by Andy Garcia -- a good and decent man, and yet a capitalist businessman and what is equally pernicious in the eyes of the Revolutionaries, a purveyor of musical entertainment in the form of Latin jazz and hot salsa dancing at his nightclub, El Tropico. In one trenchantly telling scene, a representative of the Revolution -- excellently portrayed by actress Elizabeth Peña (whose smugness-oozing nostrils and lips are put to good use here), accompanied by menacingly armed comrades constituting a "delegation from the Musician's Union", all in joylessly drab proletarian olive drab fatigues -- comes to Fico's nightclub during a rehearsal for a show and immediately commands in an imperious voice:
"Stop that music!"
Fico does not back down. He walks up and demands to know:
"By what authority do you have to come here and stop my rehearsal?"
The "delegate", aptly named Miliciana Muñoz, answers:
"The government gave me the the authority. You see, you own this beautiful cabaret, but we own this orchestra."
"Really. If I tell the orchestra not to play, they can't play."
Fico turns to his musicians, for confirmation.
"Is that so?"
They answer him, regretfully:
"Fico. We're in the Union: They control the Union."
Fico turns back to Miliciana:
"I see. Then on what grounds do you have to come here and stop my show?"
Then Miliciana makes an outrageously strange demand:
"You just can't use the saxophone in the orchestra anymore."
Fico is understandably taken aback.
"The saxophone is the instrument of the Imperialists."
Fico raises his voice in exasperation:
"The saxophone was invented by a man named 'Sax'! In Belgium!"
"Do you know..." Miliciana lectures him smugly, "...what the Belgian Imperialists are doing in the Congo!? They're a bunch of murderers!"
"You don't say...?"
Miliciana arches her back and barks out:
"NO -- I DO SAY! And I am saying that if you want the orchestra to play, then you have to go without the saxophone! Otherwise, I will stop the show!"
Fico looks at her incredulously, yet resigned, for now that the Revolution is in charge, he has no power.
In this wonderfully juicy scene of the confrontation between this representative of Castro's government and the capitalist nightclub owner, there is revealed a glimpse of the absurdly puritanical fanaticism -- and thuggery to back that fanaticism up -- in revolutionary Communism, interestingly consanguine with Islamic fanaticism.
There are many more scenes in the film nicely illustrating various dimensions of the Revolution, its aftermath and its effects upon various Cubans -- mostly as represented by Fico's family as a microcosm of Cuban society in general (albeit decidedly middle class -- though Humberto Fontova in the first-linked essay above reminds us that pre-Castro Cuba had a thriving middle class and was not quite the poverty-stricken society caricatured by pro-Castro propagandists). One of Fico's own brothers (well acted by Enrique Murciano) becomes a passionate convert to the Revolution -- inextricably linked, of course, in his deformed heart, to "justice" for "the people" -- and this division within Fico's own family is of course symbolic of the rift cutting through Cuban society that the Revolution exploited and monstrously aggrandized. The few choice scenes of Che and Castro (with the latter never shown on screen, wryly connoting an aura almost demi-divine) superbly capture the fusion of egoism and fanaticism in these anti-icons -- a fusion peculiar to the Leftist Revolutionary activist. Nor does Andy Garcia spare Batista -- the leader supposedly symbolic in his person and in his rule of all the evils of capitalism, deposed by the Revolution: from his depiction in the movie, one gets the sense that Batista was a vain figure in some ways pathetically out of touch with his own people and, as a consequence, grievously deficient in the prescience, and the moral resolve, that might have saved Cuba from the tragedy of the Revolution.
The scene I wish to focus on may easily be overlooked by viewers of this movie; indeed, I nearly missed it myself, as it appears to be a mere appendix to the movie, added to the very end, of no real substantive significance to the plot or the message of the movie itself. As it is choreographed, it is a stylistic departure from the rest of the movie. It resembles more a music video than a scene proper. Luckily, I watched it anyway, because I was drawn in by the infectious music -- basically a kind of love song to Cuba in hot and brassy Latin rhythms (Cuba Linda, performed by Alfredo "Chocolate" Armenteros and his band).
Just prior to that coda to the film, the final scene shows Fico sweeping up his modest restaurant & bar in New York City where as an expatriate he has relocated since fleeing Cuba. Suddenly, he is surprised by his ex-wife who walks in the door. Having become enamored with the Revolution, she had left him years before, and even worse, she had become Castro's personal mistress and associate. She tells Fico that she is in New York as part of a "U.N. delegation". They talk over coffee, then tearfully embrace and kiss one last time -- before she returns, as she must, to where her heart is, to Castro, and back to Cuba. As Andy Garcia noted in the interview section of the special features to the film, Fico's ex-wife (wonderfully acted by the "Lancolme lady" model, Inés Sastre) symbolizes Cuba itself -- beautiful, alluring, yet lost to a lost cause. One part of their final exchange goes thusly:
She asks him to come back to Cuba. He says he can't. She tells him he has no loyalty.
"I don't have a loyalty to lost causes; but I do have a loyalty to the lost city."
After she leaves the restaurant and walks out of Fico's life for good, the next scene shows him sitting in his back office -- is it Fico's back office of his New York restaurant? or is it Andy Garcia's office? in a sense, it is both -- watching home movies of himself and his wife back in Cuba. Happy scenes before the Revolution ruined everything. As he's watching, his voice is narrating the lyrics in Spanish of the song Guantanamera, translated in English subtitles on the screen (lyrics interestingly imbued with a social conscience easily amenable to socialism if not Communism).
This seamlessly segues to a scene that seems to be part of the home movie he's watching, of a man in a white suit playing a trumpet (played by Alfredo "Chocolate" Armenteros), walking toward a set of elegant palatial stairs structured like a two-pronged fork -- the founding stairs ascending to a platform, then branching off into two sets of stairs, one to the left, the other to the right, each of which then angle back at 45 degrees to continuing rising in the same direction as the founding stairs, each proceeding upward but ending in separate places at the top.
Fico, or Andy Garcia -- at that point it is difficult to tell whether we are watching the character of the preceding movie, or the actor himself in this coda to the film -- smiles at the trumpeter he sees on his screening of the home movie. Then the next thing we see is Andy Garcia himself walking into the home movie he was watching, toward the same palatial staircase. As he slowly walks up the initial set to the lower platform, a colorful salsa band of musicians and dancers on a balcony high overhead near the ceiling starts playing Cuba Linda, a lively rhythmic paean to Cuba:
As he listens to the music, Andy Garcia reclines on a stair to the left of the platform, leaning his left elbow on a higher stair to his left. He smiles, he nods to the rhythm if not also to some inner sense of satisfaction aroused by the music. Then he gets to his feet, does a spasm with his body difficult to describe -- his hand positioned somewhere between his gut and his heart executing a neat wrenching motion simultaneously reflected in his body. This is immediately followed by a strange yet cool bobbing/jiggling of his body in a bowed posture with his face leaning forward facing down at the stairs. Then, as though moved by a sudden inexorable decision, he runs up those same stairs, the ones on his left.
That is the description of what the viewer sees visually. Now it might be pertinent to adumbrate the complex meanings and paradoxes Andy Garcia seems to be symbolizing with this crucial nucleus of his postscript to the overall movie:
1) Andy Garcia -- the man, not the actor in a role -- emerging from the character watching the home movie, a scene tagged onto the end of the movie proper and already having the feel of lying outside of the movie proper, with the sense of merging into the closing credits.
2) Andy Garcia -- the man as spectator, as audience -- smiles as he recognizes, at the end of his home movie reel, a man with a trumpet walk toward, and up, a grand palatial staircase.
3) Andy Garcia the man steps into the home movie he’s watching, toward and then onto the same stairs. Has Andy Garcia become the character again? Or a fusion of the two now?
4) The stairs present as a tableau, a sort of stage; and yet Andy Garcia the man-actor, continues to affect the role of a spectator (as he had when watching the home movies -- movies of his character’s life), now watching a band up above him on the balcony playing Cuba Linda -- a band led by the same trumpet player he saw going up the stairs.
5) Nevertheless, it becomes clear that Andy Garcia the man-actor is still performing -- but what, exactly? The answer: a simple, elegant, profound and poignant mime (described above in the penultimate paragraph before this adumbration).
Let us now analyze this mime more closely:
a) The relaxed and casual repose which Andy Garcia affects on the stairs: a natural leaning to the “Left” -- echoed in the immediately preceding Guantanamo lyrics: e.g., “con los pobres de la tierra” and then “Stateless”; not to mention in the even-handed treatment of Batista in the movie as a vain and ineffectual leader; as well as in Andy Garcia’s life in Hollywood -- e.g., having to spend much of his life with George Clooney filming three movies (Ocean’s Eleven and its two sequels), who must assuredly share the “Che chic” that most other clueless actors and artists seem to in the West. Andy Garcia can’t be utterly miserable while spending all those months of working and socializing with types like Clooney, can he? There must be a part of him, as a modern Western actor and artist, that leans to the Left.
b) The smiling: enjoying the music, feeling fondness for the happiness of Cuba in the Golden Age before the Fall, a lost innocence -- reflecting the soul in him, el alma Cubano. As his character, Fico, told his ex in that final scene of the movie, he cannot return to Revolutionary Cuba, because it would be “bad for the soul”. So for now, he and his alter ego, Andy Garcia, leans nonchalantly relaxed, with an elbow on a stair, basking in what soul of Cuba still lives on despite its tragic diremption from itself. One cannot, however, quite disengage a sense of hypocrisy, nonetheless, from Andy Garcia's comfortable Leftism which allows him a detached enjoyment of the lost Cuba -- though this is considerably ameliorated by his lucid sense of the tragic in this dilemma: indeed, an essential constituent of that tragedy is precisely the Leftism in his soul he cannot wholly purge; rendered artistically tragic in his lucid self-consciousness (a degree of self-consciousness that seems lost on his peers in Hollywood).
c) The stairs divided into Right and Left: The staircase begins as a single set, then splits into Left and Right sets, each one angling back 45° to proceed straight up according to the same direction as the beginning single set -- thus overall resembling a vertical bifurcating fork. Right and Left sets are thus united by being prongs of the one overall set, both at least going in the same direction up, though remaining divided to the end. (Right and Left are also unified, yet simultaneously detached in the transcendence of Music, in the symbolism of the Cuban salsa band on the balcony elsewhere from the stairs, and far above, as though heavenly.) As presented, the total staircase in terms of its Left-Right structure functions as a mirror image, directly facilitated by the presentation as a filmed event with the camera (and us viewers) facing it. This mirror image -- where one’s own left and right become switched as an optical illusion in the mirror -- confounds, yet clarifies, the Left-Right symbolism. This in turn reflects the tragedy suffered by the Cubano, Andy Garcia and his alter ego, Fico Fellove: Losing his city is no mere expatriation: it is like losing his left leg or his left arm: and yet this is no amputation of physical appendages, for whose loss one can compensate over time: it is a deeper loss, a separation in and of the soul, the heart itself, which as an inherent whole paradoxically cannot be divided into parts. And yet such a breaking of the heart is experienced, and suffered. Fico’s comportment during the final, sad break-up between him and his ex-wife (who symbolizes Cuba) at the end of the movie indicates, in its quiet and calm dignity refusing to break down and cry or to beg her to return -- or worse yet, to accept her invitation to return with her -- that he has resolved to be as whole as he can, even with a broken Cuba -- even with a broken self. And to do this, he has no choice, paradoxically and painfully, but to be apart from object of his love.
d) The obvious corollary that to the spectator (us), the left stairs present as on our right (and vice versa) is simple, yet profound, for this mirror image effect in turn mirrors the Art-Life theme: What is Left in Art is Right in Life (and vice-versa): On one level, this could indicate that Andy Garcia the man and artist is using Art to demonstrate his choice to “go to the Right” -- as it appears to us, the audience of his Art. However, this is complicated by the aspect of his presentation of himself as Andy Garcia the man (hence, on his side of the looking-glass, Life -- not Art) and as spectator (like us) of the Art (music & dance) on the balcony (and let us not forget that the band on the balcony architecturally transcend the Left-Right dilemma of the stairs). Nevertheless, Andy Garcia’s non-Art reality in that scene unavoidably and indissolubly takes on the form of Art -- symbolizing the inescapable symbiosis and interpenetration of Art and Life.
e) Thus, the divinely impulsive decision of Andy Garcia -- the Man, the Artist, and the Character -- to run up the left stairs is simultaneously a choice to “go Right” (against the Revolution) as presented in Art, and a choice to “go Left” in Life in the sense that the values of the Revolution, while representing malignant wrong turns, grew originally out of the good soil of Cuba: Andy Garcia cannot deny his Cuban nature, but nevertheless he must choose to remain cut off from a Cuba that itself chose a catastrophically wrong turn.
f) Andy Garcia’s bodily spasm and bowing jiggle represent a momentary vacillation as he pauses for only an instant, on the brink of intending the Left: then with instinctively decisive impetuousness, he bolts up the left stairs.
g) Art itself is tragic: The tragedy of Art is the division that cuts through Life itself and through people’s hearts, in all manner of ways. Art is Life re-presenting and embodying that division and holding it up like a mirror to itself -- the Artist and his Audience reflecting both a separation from each other and a shared experience. In this particular, emblematic context, the Cuban Revolution is the tragic division. Andy Garcia’s movie (and the book by Guillermo Cabrera Infante upon which the movie was based) is the Art that holds up a mirror to that division (and to the divided self), faces it, palpates it, and suffers its ultimately unassuageable facticity. And yet: in that little pantomime of spasm, jiggle and run leftwards and upwards, Andy Garcia conveys that he surmounts the tragedy, through the sheer dint and resolve to move on -- and to join the infectiously happy transcendence of the Cuban music on the balcony above.
Perhaps “surmounts” is a bit too strong: “lives with” may be more pertinent. He has found a way to live with the tragedy -- with a smile, with a sway to the beat of Cuba Linda, with a momentary, indefinite pause of relaxation near the bottom of the stairs of life… And then -- with that calmly unsentimental equanimity which Andy Garcia evinces so masterfully as an actor, and seems to live as a man -- with a funky spasm and jiggle to ready himself for the run of life upward and onward.