Remembering Titón

by Michael Chanan

from Jump Cut, no. 41, May 1997, pp. 126-129
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1997, 2006

In the thirty-five years of Cuban cinema, since the Revolution created a film industry where previously there had only been a sporadic succession of individual films, no director has been as self-consistent an author as Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, yet no director conforms less to the conventional notion of what a cinematic author is.

Titón (his lifelong nickname) was not to be associated with any particular genre but encompassed many, though he had a special bent for satire — both dramatic as in LA ULTIMA CENA and comic as in LAS DOCE SILLAS, LA MUERTE DE UN BUROCRATA, LOS SOBREVIVIENTES and GUANTANAMERA. He is not associated with any particular stylistic tendency but again was master of many. All his films are shot through with an intense quality of documentary reality: he never forgot the lessons about neorealism that were taught at the Centro Sperimentale in Rome, where he studied film at the start of the 50s.

From the imperfect achievement of his first feature, HISTORIAS DE LA REVOLUCION, by way of contemporary reality in MEMORIAS DEL SUBDESARROLLO and HASTA CIERTO PUNTO and historical reality in UNA PELEA CUBANA CONTRA LOS DEMONIOS and LA ULTIMA CENA, to the comic but disconcerting vision of his last film, GUANTANAMERA, the stories he tells belong in a social world in which the camera, like the protagonists, is enveloped. Above all, his films are not like those of, say, Hitchcock or Antonioni, a steady progression towards total mastery which eventually plays itself out. His last two films, FRESA Y CHOCOLATE and GUANTANAMERA, are original artistic creations which break new ground and are also quite different from each other in ways which evoke, but do not repeat, earlier films (like MEMORIAS DEL SUBDESARROLLO and LA MUERTE DE UN BUROCRATA).

The idea of the author in cinema is a slippery one. It was proposed after the Second World War by the French New Wave directors — the same generation as Titón — when they were militant young film critics before they became directors in order to reclaim for their own the Hollywood film makers whom they most admired. According to the future directors of the French New Wave, certain Hollywood directors were not just craftsmen of commercial entertainment genres, but they had the same concerns as the literary author, the same right to serious consideration. Others responded that it isn't always the director who was the author of the film in this sense; it might be the cinematographer or scriptwriter or maybe the producer, or else a combination of them. After all, cinema is a collaborative art. Yet other writers pointed out that it might also be the producer in the industrial sense — not the individual but the studio. Actually, all these variations on the theme of authorship are relevant to Titon's case. He shared his authorship gladly with his collaborators and was happy that this included the Cuban film institute, ICAIC, which he saw not as an impersonal production house which happened to be his employer but as an artistic community to which he owed the very possibility of making films.

Nor did he regard the political nature of cinema in Cuba, with the complex demands this makes on the individual, as an unwelcome element in this equation. On the contrary, Titón was a deeply political being who not only embraced the political domain but turned the camera on the very problems in which he felt himself to be immersed (implicitly in MEMORlAS DE SUBDESARROLLO, explicitly in HASTA CIERTO PUNTO, where the protagonists are filmmakers). To do this and get away with it, you need detachment; otherwise the viewer is likely to smell insincerity. This detachment is the key to both Titón's aesthetics and his politics. In other words, his politics were those of a committed but independent spirit, while his aesthetics leaned towards humor, reason and objectivity. Titón prized neither emotive self-expression nor providing the viewer with an emotional bath.[1][open notes in new window] His films function like the writings of a contemporary historian who does not know the outcome of the history he is writing but constantly delves back into the past in order to try and understand its nature. In his vision of the past he sees an allegory of what things have become.

It was such a film, UNA PELEA CUBANA CONTRA LOS DEMONIOS, the furthest back in historical reconstruction that has been undertaken by any Cuban film, which gave me the idea that I proposed to him in 1982. He thought about it for a year and then decided that yes, it was for him: an adaptation of Shakespeare's last play, THE TEMPEST, which would be turned inside out and told from the point of view of Caliban, Prospero's slave and the first black character in the history of English theatre. We followed Woody Allen's advice, that you have to have more than an idea for a film, you have to have a concept. This film, entitled CALIBAN, would be an historical costume drama shot on a tropical island, Cuba, but in English, with English and Caribbean actors. And we almost got to make it too!

We obtained joint support for script development from Channel Four in London and ICAIC in Havana, and then found an independent European producer — a Norwegian — who was ready to put up what we needed to make up the budget (which worked out in sterling to £l.5m, or around $2.6m at the time). An English colleague, Holly Aylett, joined me to produce the film. I went to Havana in mid-1984 to write the script with Titón and the playwright Eugenio Hernandez. We quickly agreed on the outline. We analyzed both the play and Aimée Cesaire's twentieth century version and decided that in our case, Caliban and Ariel would both be black. They would meet — which they never do in the original — and argue about how best to deal with Prospero, their master and oppressor.

There were two or three other elements in the adaptation. First, we would redo the masque; instead of drawing on characters taken from Latin mythology, it would become a convocation of the gods of the Island, which in this version means the Afro-Cuban mythology of Yoruba origin. This scene was written by Eugenio in Spanish and gave me hell trying to translate it. The dialogue between Caliban and Ariel, on the other hand, was written in contemporary Caribbean English. This let me off the hook in the face of the enormous difficulty of writing contemporary speech to fit around Shakespeare's poetry, but as I also told Titón, I had recently seen Shakespearean productions in England in which black actors spoke the verse in a Caribbean lilt, and it sounded wonderful. We agreed that it would be the music of the actors' speech that would carry the film across the gap between Shakespeare's language and ours. To prepare myself for this enormous task, I spent a week immersed in the poems of Linton Kwesi Johnson and others. I then had the benefit of advice from George Lamming, who was happily on a visit to Cuba, and kindly went through the script with me.

We also sought to keep the ending open by having alternative, parallel conclusions. There was a problem here: you have to end on Prospero's final speech. We thought it might work if we transported him to present day Cuba and he delivered it walking along the Malecón, but Titón wasn't sure. The key, as Titón put it, was that our Caliban was not a monster but a human being; the true monster was Prospero, who enslaved Caliban. From the very beginning, Titón was very clear about the enormous sense of malevolence which an actor needed in order to play Prospero's part as he saw it, but his first choice surprised me: Michael Caine. I had to tell him it was impossible. Caine is a political reactionary who lives in Los Angeles and would cost millions. Taking the point without demur, he immediately came up instead with the name of Robert de Niro. De Niro, who obligingly turned up on a trip to London, expressed polite interest. He never actually said no, and we knew his agreement would solve all our financial problems. Who wouldn't stump up the cash to have him play a character out of Shakespeare?

When we decided we couldn't wait for DeNiro's decision any longer, Titón paid a memorable visit to London to begin serious casting. Among the actors we were considering for the part of Prospero, Titón met Anthony Hopkins, Steven Berkoff and Jonathan Price. And then the project fell through. Our backer had also put up half the money for Hugh Hudson's epic REVOLUTION, produced by David Puttnam's company Goldcrest, which had taken upon its shoulders the renaissance of British cinema. When Hudson's picture went over budget — by fully three times the amount we needed for CALIBAN — it not only contributed to Goldcrest's subsequent downfall when the film flopped, but our backer pulled out. At such a late stage, no one else could be found to step in. Film financiers are suspicious bastards.

We also planned, at the beginning of the film, a short documentary sequence which recounted the origins of Shakespeare's play: how he turned for the first time to a contemporary source and drew on first-hand accounts of people he knew who were involved in financing Sir Walter Raleigh's first voyage of exploration to Virginia — that voyage ended in disaster when some of the ships were wrecked in the Bermudas ("the sweet-vexed Bermoothes" in the play). We would also mention the historical evidence that some of the crew on the ships were black Africans. To gather ideas for this sequence we took a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, passing through Oxford on the way back, which Titón enjoyed enormously. On this trip he had the idea for this opening sequence of a little piece of self-satire: as with the Jose Martí busts at the opening of LA MUERTE DE UN BUROCRATA, we would show the manufacture of Shakespeare busts and other touristic knick-knacks.

I do not remember talking about it, but it was clear to me that we shared a vision of a kind of Brechtian cinema. Despite the appearance of a costume piece, CALIBAN was conceived in the spirit of Brecht's own rewriting of Shakespeare combined with Jan Kott's idea of "Shakespeare, Our Contemporary." What we did talk about a lot was the music, which was obviously critical. We agreed we didn't want to use the original settings of the songs nor anything that smacked of soupy violins and sentimentality. Of course, Titón just laughed at the record I played him of incidental music for the play written by the English Victorian composer Sullivan. I was delighted when he was much taken by the music of one of our leading British composers, Peter Maxwell Davies, who had once generously written some music for a short campaign documentary which I had made more than ten years earlier. I asked Davies if it would interest him and he said in theory yes, but his diary was full with commissions for at least two years. The question of a composer was still wide open when the project collapsed.

Titón took it philosophically. He had no illusions about the degree to which, as a Latin American and a Cuban, the odds were stacked against him. In the same way he was philosophical about misinterpretations of his work which regularly cropped up — when Andrew Sarris, for example, described him as a dissident, a kind of Cuban Solzhenitsin, for MEMORIAS DEL SUBDESARROLLO; or he was criticized for LA ULTIMA CENA because it wasn't a contemporary subject; or for not being political when he chose to make a simple love story in CARTAS DEL PARQUE. What such critics — left or right as the case may be — would have made of CALIBAN one can only guess.

For Titón, I am sure, one of the enticing prospects of the project was the opportunity to work with leading Anglo-American actors. Of those we saw, his preferred Prospero was Anthony Hopkins (though Hopkins turned it down), in whom Titón envisaged something of the same character that Hopkins brought to the screen a few years later in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Looking back I realize that it was primarily through his conceptualization of the characters that the film took shape in Titón's mind. Another key decision concerned Miranda. The one thing she would not be was anything like Hollywood's idea of young virginity, nor would she be an "English Rose" type. This was to be a girl on the brink of puberty, puzzled and awkward at her discoveries. I realized that Titón did not think in stereotypical characters or situations, any more than he simply told stories, but rather he analyzed them in the telling. He always sought actors with the complex understanding of character which is needed in order to pull this off. Together with them he created some of the most remarkable and memorable characters to be found not just in Cuban but also Latin American cinema: Sergio Corrieri in MEMORIAS DE SUBDESARROLLO, José Antonio Rodriguez in UNA PELEA CUBANA CONTRA LOS DEMONIOS, Nelson Villagra in LA ULTIMA CENA, Mirta Ibarra in HASTA CIERTO PUNTO, Jorge Perugorria in FRESA Y CHOCOLATE. I am sure that the power of characters like these is also one of the reasons for the popularity which Titón's films have often enjoyed, some of them abroad as well as in Cuba.

If some of these films were denied such success, it is not necessarily a mark of aesthetic failure but primarily a certain truth about films and audiences: sometimes one makes the other, but at other times the lines of communication are not so direct. This is inevitable if your aim is to make films about ideas, which is a constant in Titón's career. The mark of his achievement is that in films like MEMORIAS DE SUBDESARROLLO, LA ULTIMA CENA and FRESA Y CHOCOLATE, he not only pulls the audience into a film of ideas on the hook of the central protagonist, but he does this through a character whom he doesn't actually expect them to like, given the nature of popular social prejudices. Sergio is a white petit-bourgeois dilettante in the middle of a popular socialist revolution; the Count in LA ULTIMA CENA is an imperious land- and slaveowner; Diego is a gay intellectual, although in this case the problem is with official rather than popular prejudice. These characters are so fully and intensely drawn that honest human sympathy sucks the viewer along.

Titón uses this trait, which everyone brings with them into the cinema, to make demands on the spectators, to induce them to think as well as to surrender to the screen. When I asked him once how MEMORIAS DE SUBDESARROLLO, a film of enormous narrative sophistication, became such a success with Cuban audiences, which were brought up on Hollywood, he said it was because it intrigued them. He always made it his habit to go and watch his films in the cinemas anonymously to learn about audiences' responses to them. By this means, he told me, he discovered that people were going back to see the film a second and third time because it stuck in their minds, which pulled them back to the cinema. This is the kind of cinema we all need.

Titón's cinema is also one of personal exorcism played out through satire. He told me he made LA MUERTE DE UN BUROCRATA because he sometimes used to shake with anger at the stupidities of the new bureaucracy which the Revolution itself had created; he needed to work it through. Sergio in MEMORIAS DE SUBDESARROLLO is obviously his own alter ego. And in his last film, GUANTANAMERA, the private subject of the film is clearly his own approaching death. But one feels that he chose these subjects within himself because he sensed that they coincided with popular experience. No comment is needed on the experience of bureaucratic muddles, except to recount another personal memory. I once went with him on one of his anonymous forays to the cinema to see LA MUERTE DE UN BUROCRATA in Old Havana. He told me that at one of the film's first showings a woman had run out in the middle in tears. Following her to find out what had upset her, he discovered that the joke he thought he had invented — a body which has to be exhumed to recover the man's labor card so his widow can claim her pension — was something that had actually happened.

In MEMORIAS DE SUBDESARROLLO popular interest came from the fact that what intellectuals in Latin America call the "desgarramiento," the rupture, a breakdown of the familiar vocabulary of existence in the face of revolutionary change, is not their monopoly; everyone is confronted with the same problem of the need for the personal reconstruction of values. In FRESA Y CHOCOLATE and GUANTANAMERA, without pulling any punches Titón succeeded in articulating the popular experience of the Revolution in the more difficult times of the 1990s.

A process of aesthetic exorcism and working through also traverses these films. CUMBITE, which I know Titón liked the least among his oeuvre, seems to me a kind of farewell to neorealism, a cool, almost anthropological vision of Haiti, which in Cuba was hardly possible any longer because the society was changing so dramatically and rapidly. Half the pleasure of LA MUERTE DE UN BUROCRATA is its homage to U.S. comedy, which has always, of course, constituted a tradition of subversion. If the country where these events take place is thus a hilarious mixture of revolutionary Cuba and the Hollywood land of comedy, it is also Kafkaesque territory.[2] MEMORIAS DE SUBDESARROLLO is a film which clearly talks back to the cinema of Titón's own generation in the French New Wave about the dangers of literary self-consciousness; and Edmundo Desnoës, author of the novella on which it was based, significantly called it a "creative betrayal" of its source.

UNA PELEA CUBANA is in dialogue, on a conscious level Titón told me, with Glauber Rocha. Unwittingly it also addresses the film by Nelson Pereira dos Santos which is the furthest back in historical reconstruction that has been attempted in Brazilian cinema, COMO ERA GOSTOZO O MEU FRANCES. The two films were shot around the same time, each unknown to the other. Between them they represent by far the most imaginative visualizations of the origins of modern Latin America to be found in Latin American cinema. LA ULTIMA CENA completes the work on the history of slavery in which Titón was engaged when he collaborated with Sergio Giral on EL OTRO FRANCISCO, bringing LA ULTIMA CENA together with his life-long admiration for Luis Buñuel's black humor and anti-clericalism. Then there was his support for Sara Gómez, first, when he worked together with Julio García Espinosa to complete her film DE CIERTA MANERA after she died during the editing, and then, speaking to Gómez' film in his own HASTA CIERTO PUNTO. In FRESA Y CHOCOLATE, the dialogue is with Nestor Almendros, with whom he made amateur 8mm films in his university days; it is an answer to the latter's IMPROPER CONDUCT, which Titón called "a piece of socialist realism in reverse, a manipulation of reality in the service of political propaganda."[3]

Like all his films, this sense of dialogue with others is not preconceived and is sometimes only partly conscious, except that Titón knew perfectly well it is always going on, and that this is what the artist's speech is about, for he found himself doing it to himself — making impromptu self-allusions. These self-references are not deliberate, he said when an interviewer drew his attention to the phenomenon, they arise spontaneously in the same way certain ideas come up in the course of a conversation.[4] The conversation may be with others or with your own inner voice — the effect is the same.

Nevertheless, in FRESA Y CHOCOLATE, the conversation with Almendros was, as Titón admitted, inevitable. Almendros died shortly before the film began shooting; he died of cancer, and Titón had just been diagnosed with the same disease. After the huge effort, under these circumstances, of shooting what was clearly a very demanding film (with the help of Juan Carlos Tabío, the most selfless of all Titón's collaborators), the huge success it met with both at home and abroad gave him the chance for one last shot. Returning to a script he had put aside a couple of years earlier, he seized the moment to exorcise his private experience one last time, to joke about death in the teeth of it. If this, once again, requires detachment and a proper sense of proportion, GUANTANAMERA (with Tabío again as his co-director) is not about his private death but a death which everyone in Cuba is afraid of going through: the threat of the demise of the socialist dream, which somehow miraculously has survived the collapse of the Communist states of Eastern Europe. Unquestionably a wistful film but not one of resignation and negativity, the dialogue with death turns into a dialogue with a dream of life: at its heart is a popular legend, speaking of mortality and the vigor of the young, to whom the old must learn to give way. The legend is at the same time Titón's own farewell to life.


1. He was not at all an unemotional person but never wore his heart on his sleeve; characteristically, the music he liked best is emotionally discreet and controlled, though very intense.

2. According to Jose Antonio Evora, Virgilio Piñera is credited with the observation: "If Kafka had been a Cuban, instead of a writer of the absurd, he would have been 'un escritor costumbrista.'" Jose Antonio Evora, ed., Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Colección Huesca de Cine, 6, 1994, p.156.

3. This observation comes from an interview with Titón which I recorded in Madrid in 1994, for a book on his work to be published by Flicks Books. Almendros came to Cuba with his parents as political refugees from Spain but abandoned Cuba very soon after the Revolution came to power; he used his reputation as a cinematographer to produce a documentary on gay repression in Cuba, which presented a highly tendentious version of the truth. In England, Channel Four declined to buy the film because, as I was privately told, they believed it had been partly funded by the CIA.

4. In Evora, op.cit., p.57.