He Who Strikes First, Hits Twice: The Urgent Cinema of Santiago Álvarez
I have often found that one can learn a lot about a film or television program by running it through at fast speed. This is especially true of the type of documentary that appears on the Biography or History TV channels nowadays. What particularly pops out from such fast-forward viewing is the manner in which still photographs (usually of an archival variety) are treated: the elegant zooms and pans that lead the eye to what is deemed the significant detail. Where hardline formalist filmmakers like Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet have no qualms about giving us a photo straight, without any elaborate reframing and for an extended period of time on screen, conventional television practice seems driven by a compulsion to animate any potentially boring (because static) visual material. More recent developments in mainstream documentary include the use of digital technology to discreetly set parts of a photo moving, or to create a 3D effect where the meaningful foreground is detached from the incidental background (as relentlessly used in, for example, The Kid Stays in the Picture ).
Another way – indirect but forceful – to become aware of this complicated, sometimes rather sinister visual rhetoric in contemporary documentary is watch the shorts of the great Cuban filmmaker Santiago Álvarez Román (1919-1998). The basic elements of an Álvarez film are, after all, essentially the same as in many television documentaries: still photos edited to a soundtrack. In fact, Álvarez announced his aesthetic credo in this way: “Give me two photos, music, and a moviola, and I’ll give you a movie”. But it would be hard to find a style of cinema more removed from the niceties of American television documentary than Álvarez’s remarkably dynamic and bracingly radical montage constructions.
Álvarez’s work, pursued for forty years within the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC) and its newsreel division Noticiero ICAIC, was a shining example of a poverty row aesthetic forged from necessity. His films were – as they are presented on this indispensable DVD compilation – an example of “urgent cinema”, keyed to raising public consciousness about current issues such as racism, housing conditions and police brutality in various parts of the world. They are also – in a reminder of the idealism that once accompanied cultural programs launched by socialist countries – devoted to optimistic, somewhat romantic visions of a “new society” with its re-educated and revitalised citizens.
However – and here the contrast to Straub & Huillet or Jean-Luc Godard & Jean-Pierre Gorin in the 1960s and ‘70s is extreme – there is nothing heavily theoretical or obscurantist about Álvarez’s work. Its appeal is direct and highly emotive. It is impossible to watch films like Hanoi Martes 13 (1967), L.B.J. (1968), or 79 Primaveras (1969) without being stirred by their appeals to justice and compassion. And the way in which Álvarez handles the combination of photos, newsreel footage, music and telegrammatic on-screen text (voice-over narration is generally eschewed) is unfailingly energetic and inventive – closer to the sensational, tabloid style of a Samuel Fuller than the often over-intellectualised assemblages of the contemporary essay-film.
Álvarez’s filmmaking sensibility is nowhere more evident than in the gleefully brutal way that he refilms still photographs, as in the classic Now (1965) – jerking us, for instance, from the face of a white cop to the ugly truth of his beating up a black man at the bottom of the frame. And all, in this case, cut to the swing of Lena Horne: Álvarez was a master at creating juxtapositions of image and sound that allowed for uplift, disquieting irony and biting wit – frequently all at once.
The genuinely independent American filmmaker Travis Wilkerson (An Injury to One, 2002) has gathered eight representative films by Álvarez on the first disc of a DVD, and added his own, invaluable documentary, Accelerated Under-Development: In the Idiom of Santiago Álvarez (1999), on the second. This essay-film is very much in the tradition of The Last Bolshevik (1993), Chris Marker’s account of the life and work of Soviet filmmaker Alexander Medvedkin.
All of Álvarez’s films were finished quickly, with the collaborators he trained and supervised. Wilkerson tells us in his documentary and liner notes: “They were never made with posterity in mind”. Is this why the print quality is sometimes glaringly poor (scratches, missing frames, some distorted sound)? Perhaps, with his own poverty row budgets, Wilkerson did not have the resources to digitally iron out these deficiencies, as more commercially-minded companies routinely do.
Almost inevitably, Wilkerson’s tribute to Álvarez has a mournful, nostalgic air – exactly like Marker’s excavation of Medvedkin. Is the charm of watching Álvarez in 2005 the charm of a Lost Cinema – not to mention the lost politics of a Socialist Utopia? As I watched, for the first time and in rapt amazement, El Tigre Salté y Maté … Pero Morirá … Morirá … !!(1973) – for me, the most wonderful offering on this DVD, with its heartbreaking footage of the great Chilean singer-songwriter Victor Jara performing “Te recuerdo Amanda” – I remembered the dinner-party gathering of old radicals in Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep (1996), drinking wine, laughing and dancing as they watched a Marker film of the ‘60s with another Jara song on the soundtrack. A certain kind of engaged, even intoxicated political cinema seems, in that scene, like a fallen fragment from some planet that is long ago and far away, utterly alien to the concerns and audiovisual language of a contemporary, postmodern culture.
But then I thought again of the enormous difference between these inspired Cuban newsreels and the documentaries on television today – and, more specifically, between the Great Forgotten Álvarez and the Great Overrated Ken Burns. Where Burns’ bloatedly epic, painfully lyricised photo-plus-voice-over pieces seem single-mindedly obsessed with rendering the all-American “soul” (even when dealing with a phenomenon as complex and world-wide as jazz!), Álvarez contributed to a vigorous internationalist vision in political cinema (think of Glauber Rocha and his colleagues in Brazil’s Cinema Novo, for instace, with their guiding dream of a Tricontinental Cinema spanning Asia, Africa and Latin America – latter reformulated by Fernando Solanas & Octvaio Getino as Third Cinema).
Álvarez’s films either leapt over language barriers (by using pure image and music), or incorporated numerous languages within their on-screen text. And it is precisely this multicultural spirit – the will to energetically forge connections across national boundaries – that calls to us, out of the past, as something worth rediscovering and, yes, even emulating today.