It started as a quiet weekday evening in Havana like any other, but on this night last November, the city was jolted into action. Squads of Cuban police suddenly began cordoning off La Rampa, the main drag in front of the Charlie Chaplin movie theater. Then they turned to the emergency at hand -- forcing back the volatile crowd of hundreds that surged around the theater itself, pressing up against its glass front doors in a desperate bid to gain entry.
What produced such a frenzied response -- the rumor of exit visas? No, it was merely director Steven Spielberg personally introducing his film Minority Report.
If they couldn't catch the film, at least those shut out could bask in Spielberg's postscreening remarks. "I feel so much at home here," he gushed to the Deutsche Presse-Agentur. His previous evening's all-night dinner with Castro was "the eight most important hours of my life." We'll leave aside where Spielberg's marriage vows or the birth of his children fit into that eight-hour equation.
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Spielberg is hardly the first American auteur floored by the enthusiasm of Cuban cinemagoers for U.S. films. And he has plenty of Hollywood company when it comes to issuing hosannas to el jefe. Just last week Oliver Stone reflected on shooting Comandante, his HBO Castro documentary, declaring, "We should look to [Castro] as one of the Earth's wisest people."
Perhaps there's just something in the Havana water. It would certainly explain the chutzpah of Julie Taymor, director of the Frida Kahlo biopic Frida. Down in Cuba for last December's Havana Film Festival, Taymor lectured a New York Times reporter on how much more sophisticated Cuban filmgoers were than the nudniks back in her native America: "We, as a country, don't have that understanding of the arts as a social movement that Communist countries do."
As for Frida, thanks to the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba -- which includes a ban on the commercial exhibition of films there -- Miramax head Harvey Weinstein had refused to foot the bill for Taymor's Havana junket. "I guess Miramax didn't see the value," she griped of her film distributor's decision. Apparently Weinstein felt that "there's no market -- you're not coming here to sell the film." Still, "a lot of Cubans have come up to me and said they saw Titus," Taymor's previous movie. "How? TV. Pirated versions."
Taymor might want to ask herself: Pirated by whom? If she strolled past any of the several dozen movie theaters around Havana, she'd discover that far from being deprived of Tinseltown's latest, Hollywood is about all Cubans are getting these days.
Embargoed or not, new American films are playing all over the city, all year round. Indeed on several of Kulchur's visits over the past year, there wasn't a single made-in-Cuba film to be seen on a Friday night. But Kulchur had a wide choice of American flicks, from the good (Ocean's Eleven) to the bad (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) to the downright ugly (Captain Corelli's Mandolin). The onscreen image was often fuzzy: The video projectors being used weren't designed to blow up images to a full-size cinema's screen. But with admission tickets costing only two pesos (about ten cents) -- one of the few things you can still buy without dollars -- patrons weren't too picky.
The machinery keeping Cuba's theaters stocked isn't a bootlegging gang. According to a source at ICAIC, the state-run Cuban Film Institute, government staffers simply bring the latest subtitled home video releases on the daily flights from Miami and Mexico. There's no word whether the videos are being bought outright or if Castro is risking some hefty Blockbuster late fees. And one wonders if Miramax has discovered that its films are being illegally shown there. Surely, if anyone's a match for Fidel, it's this hemisphere's other cigar-chomping titan, Harvey Weinstein.
What's been lost is Cuba's own film industry. Thanks to the decimations of the post-Soviet economy, ICAIC averages only two or three features a year; 2002 saw none completed.
In the wake of 1995's Strawberry and Chocolate from legendary director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, spirits had originally been high. That movie's Oscar nomination (a Cuban first), glowing critical reception, and encouraging U.S. box-office take for Miramax had many forecasting a creative rebirth for the island's film scene as well as a viable future at American art houses.
But after Alea's 1996 death, momentum slowed and Miramax lost interest. Despite the post-Buena Vista Social Club mania for all things cubano, Cuba's recent offerings to the foreign market have quickly sunk. Life Is to Whistle hit 2000's Miami International Film Festival with an encouraging whiff of headline frisson: Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas threatened to rescind a $50,000 public grant to the festival for showing the picture in violation of a (since repealed) county ordinance barring dealings with the island.
But Manhattan-based distributor New Yorker Films was unable to capitalize on that publicity. Life Is to Whistle's entire U.S. run grossed a disappointing $63,574 -- not exactly Daredevil money. With even the smallest acquisition agents turning wary, 2001's Waiting List and 2002's Honey for Oshún failed to gain distribution here at all.
This year's Cuban entry onto the world stage, Nada Más, is being looked at by many as a bellwether. A romantic comedy focused on a Havana mail clerk who steals and then rewrites letters sent from Miami exiles, Nada Más drew a buzz at Cannes. However, reviewers tended to highlight director Juan Carlos Cremata Malberti's use of surreal special effects, rolling their eyes at his stale riffs on the state bureaucracy. A U.S. distributor has yet to bite.
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To Alejandro Rios, director of Miami-Dade Community College's Cuban Cinema Series, the problem speaks to an "artistic crisis" common to many of the island's directors. "Cremata's work is too specific to Cuba," Rios tells Kulchur, and though he considers himself a fan, "an American distributor is looking for a universal point of view, not inside jokes and an obsession with Miami."
With tongue placed in cheek, he quips: "Only in Cuba could you make a love story out of felony mail fraud. If you did that in the United States, you'd spend your whole life in jail." Even more crushing for the film's commercial prospects, el exilio appears to have the same disregard for ICAIC's copyrights that Castro holds for those of Hollywood.
"You can rent a copy of Nada Más at any corner store in Little Havana," Rios chuckles.