DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEW of Before Night Falls, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights; (Dirty Dancing); The Lost City; The Silly Age, The Agronomist

 

Title: Before Night Falls

Release Date:  2000

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: about 140 Minutes

MPAA Rating:  R

Distributor and Production Company:  Fine Line Features (Time Warner)

Director; Writer:Julian Schnabel, based on the works of Cyban novelist Reinaldo Arenas

Producer:

Cast:  Javier Nardem 

Technical:  1.8 to 1; digital

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Review:

Another epic “art film” is Before Night Falls (2000, from Fine Line Features), a biography of Cuban novelist Reinaldo Arenas, as played by Javier Bardem, directed by Julian Schnabel.  The story would fit any libertarian or more progressive conservative’s dream of freedom as it chronicles the descent of Cuba in Communism, with Arenas’s escape from it.  Arenas builds his career as a writer shortly after Castro, and in the beginning has surprising freedom to follow his instincts—both literary and homosexual--until left-wing mentality closes in upon him.  The government sets up a trumped up charge of “pedophilia” (it believes the accusations of a teenage boy thief), but its real “reason” for entrapping Arenas may have been his publishing one of his novels in France without permission from the “official” writers’ union.   The ideological explanations are simple.  “People who make art are dangerous to any dictatorship”   Think about it.  Totalitarian governments—even those predicated on the pretense of “social justice” or egalitarianism—have a vested interest in “licensing” speech through “the people.”  Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich would discover the same thing. I guess, if I lived in Cuba I would be thrown into prison for self-publishing Do Ask, Do Tell.

          The historical élan has the proper sweep of a big film, and Arenas’s vigorous character, carrying through the prison escape and then 1980 boat flotilla, give the film a rooting interest.  The scene where he demonstrates his claim of homosexuality when emigrating by pretending to satisfy a heterosexual fantasy of homosexuality is particularly cute.  The music score engages Hispanic rhythms in the style of Buena Vista Social Club or even Touch of Evil.   But in one scene, where the government is just starting to “crack down,” the music turns dead serious, with the Adagietto of Mahler’s 5th.

 

A seemingly more lightweight treatment of Cuba is offered by Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (Lions Gate; Miramax; Artisan, 2004, PG-13, 87 Min), which sounds first of all like a tortuously contrived title. (The film is a prequel to a 1987 film “Dirty Dancing” with Patrick Swayse and Jennifer Gray.) The setting is during the Christmas season in Havana in 1958, when an American family is living on the luxury Havana beachfront, and teenager Jane (Romola Garai) has befriended local street dancer Javier (Diego Luna). Here Patrick Swayse plays the hotel dance instructor, Johnny. These are the days just before the fall of Batista for Castro. Working class Cubans don’t look that bad off in capitalist pre-Castro Cuba, but they look forward to “freedom,” and the emerging love between Javier and Jane takes on the character of a Romeo and Juliet story. Of course, for an audience that “knows,” the political subtext is shattering. In less than four years, Fidel Castro will have hosted the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the living standards in Cuba will be horrible for a half century. Without that knowledge, the screenplay seems a bit dizzy and light. There are scenes that are out of place, such as putting ornaments on a Christmas tree after Christmas day.  The scene involving class conflict between well-to-do white Americans, and Cuban families, and their “blood loyalties,” however, have some impact.

 

But, then, there is also the dirty dancing itself. Today the intimate body explorations during disco (the tee-shirt lift offs, unbuttonings, and touching lower) dancing (to disco music rather than Latin—I’ve even heard the “Rendez-Vous” from the animated The Triplets of Belleville adapted to disco) are well known in gay venues—I like the Cobalt and Velvet Nation in Washington, DC or the Saloon in Minneapolis, or Village Station in Dallas. Sometimes this is called “break dancing” although that term also belongs to specialized styles of athletic oriental dancing.  Javier will teach Jane the dirty dancing, and Jane will reciprocate with some ballroom style, which brings me back to the Singles Social Club in Arlington in 1971, when a chain-smoking dance floor owner offered a package of dancing lessons (Fox Trot, Rimba) for $80.  The dancing in the film is a bit on the gentle side, even during the competitions. I’ve seen some pretty great movements (in terms of what judges would like) at the Saloon.

 

Dirty Dancing (1987, Artisan/Vestron, dir. Emile Ardolino, PG-13, 100 min) is an innocent enough film about “Baby” falling in love with her vacation camp’s (male) dance teacher (Patrick Swayse). Nevertheless, the term then was already referring to a style of very intimate yet athletic dancing popular in gay discos, with plenty of chest and other teasing. Sometimes it is called “break dancing” although that often refers to specific tumbling stunts in dancing.

 

The Lost City (2005, Magnolia/Cineson, dir. Andy Garcia, 143 min, R) effectively pits family loyalty against larger views (however flawed) of social justice. In 1958, a wealthy family in Havana contemplates its future, as its patriarch tries to reaffirm the loyalty of his sons, one of whom, Fico (Andy Garcia) runs a nightclub. The storm clouds of revolution against Batista’s right-wing regime are gathering, and one of the sons, to the horror of his father’s sense of family legacy, makes a plea for justice. There is discussion whether democracy can come before revolution, and fear of the redistribution of wealth by force. There are conversations to the effect that there friends and enemies, but no acquaintances. The son participates in a palace attack that resembles a similar scene in Saigon in The Killing Fields, and is killed; another son is taken prisoner. All of these “commie pinko  will soon happen in Cuba. Shortly after New Year’s, 1959, Batista is driven from power and Castro takes over. Soon the commies invade the nightclub, and make demands. The “Union” owns the orchestra and can no longer use the saxophone, because it was invented by a Belgian, and the Belgians are enemies of the people in the Congo. The family is grasping the indignation of the extreme Left, which regards family as a way to transmit unearned wealth, and views the rich and propertied people as parasites on the workers. Their wealth must be confiscated. One authoritarian regime is replaced by another, as is so often the case. Fico will leave, but have most of his personal effects confiscated before he can leave. He arrives in New York with no money, but his friends, including “The Writer” Bill Murray (who lounges around, despite coat and tie, in shorts revealing his hairless legs), will follow and help him re-establish the club in under freedom. At the end, Fico says he is no longer loyal to a lost cause, but he loyal to his Lost City (Havana). Dustin Hoffman also stars in another example of a politically charged film with a veteran all star cast using independent production and financing.

 

The Silly Age (“La edad de la peseto:, Mediapro, dir. Pavel Giroud, wr. Arturo Infante, Cuba, 90 min) is a fable set in Cuba just before Castro takes over. A boy Samuel (Ivan Carreria) lives with his demanding grandmother (Mercedes Sarnpietro), whose kitchen cupboard is like a fairytale kingdom, and has to work off a debt for breaking dishes. He sees all kinds of wondrous things (like a card with a cat on a human’s body) and makes love to a doll while real people make love in the next room. Black and white shots are shown of the revolution, which comes and ends their “privileged” lives with “the purification”. Filmed in Venezuela.

 

The Agronomist (2004, ThinkFilm, dir. Jonathan Demme, 90 min) is a documentary of agricultural scientist and radio journalist Jean Dominique in Haiti, up to his assassination in April 2000. Both Jean and his wife are interviewed separately (with the interviews of Jean obviously older). The political history of Haiti goes back to the Carter use through various coups and incidents. The original classification of Haitians as an AIDS risk group is not mentioned. This is plenty of discussion of how dangerous journalism can be in unstable or authoritarian countries.

 

Related reviews: Time Regained;  Sunshine The Dreamers    The Killing Fields

 

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