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Still Krazy After All These Years

Of all classic comic strips, George Her­riman’s Krazy Kat was the most bril­liantly formulaic. For over 30 years, the daily installment climaxed more often than not wi1h the strip’s eponymous star taking a well aimed brick on the head. You might call it a “riff” if you were inclined to be musical.

Krazy Kat — which ended as a strip during World War II and has now been anthologized for the first time in decades by the team of Patrick McDonnell, Karen O’Connell, and Georgia Riley de Have­non — is based on an eternal triangle, a setup that confounds conventional animal (if not necessarily human) behavior. Kat loves mouse and is, in turn, adored by dog — thus establishing an equilibrium based on longstanding obsession and mu­tual misunderstanding.

The strip is a rondo of unrequited love. Ignatz, a spindly splenetic mouse, despises Krazy; his greatest pleasure is beaning the hapless Kat with a brick. For Krazy, however, the brick is proof that Ignatz cares: “L’il ainjil, he has rewarded my watchful waiting,” Krazy beams after being conked. The doggedly faithful Of­fissa Pupp, hopelessly in love with the oblivious Kat, jails Ignatz after each assault. Thus, in a sense, every cliché comes true and all the characters get what they want. Krazy Kat, many commentators feel obliged to observe (as they don’t, for example, of War and Peace), is a fantasy.

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No less than Charlie Chaplin, its only pop rival for the affection of Jazz Age aesthetes, Krazy Kat synthesized a particular mixture of sweetness and slapstick, playful fantasy and emotional brutality. The strip acknowledges life’s school of hard knocks and then negates it. Herriman’s quintessential image is Ignatz crowning Krazy with a brick — the trajectory marked “zip,” then “pow” (or sometimes “bop”) as the missile bounces upwards off the back of Krazy’s head. The image is as visceral as a drawing can get — the monomaniacal mouse is into his Walter Johnson-like follow-through, while Krazy is knocked forward at a 45-degree angle by the force of the blow. A bump is never raised, yet as Krazy pitch­es stiffly toward the earth, a dotted line culminating in a little heart issues from the Kat’s forehead. Usually, the fantastic vista of Coconino County, Herriman’s version of Monument Valley, can be glimpsed in the background.

If Krazy Kat was one strip that never ducked the violence inherent in the term “punch line,” it owed considerable charm to its subject’s personality — the Kat’s ro­mantic optimism, philosophical ram­blings, amiable propensity for ukulele-­accompanied song (“There is a heppy lend, fur, fur a-wa-a-ay”). The strip has no mystery greater than that of Krazy’s sex. Most observers assume it is female. In one 1920 Sunday page, the Kat even carries a banner for women’s suffrage (Ig­natz is thinking he’ll support the movement until he discovers who holds the placard aloft: “I’m for no ‘party’ that has that ‘Krazy Kat’ in it”).

Unlike Krazy, Herriman refused to commit himself. “I don’t know. I fooled around with it once; began to think the Kat is a girl — even drew up some strips with her being pregnant,” he wrote. “It wasn’t the Kat any longer; too much con­cerned with her own problems — like a soap opera. Know what I mean? Then I realized Krazy was something like a sprite, an elf. They have no sex. So that Kat can’t be a he or a she. The Kat’s a spirit — a pixie — free to butt into anything. Don’t you think so?” His certainty is less than overwhelming.

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Herriman’s mystical sense of his cre­ation is epitomized by a 1917 Sunday page in which the Kat asks a Ouija board who his enemy is, receives the answer I-G-N-A-T-Z, and refuses to believe it, stomping the Ouija board (which, of course, turns out to belong to Ignatz) into a crumpled accordion. In an often reprinted box at the bottom of the page, Herriman apologizes to the spirits on Krazy’s behalf: “You have written truth, you friends of the shadows. Yet, be not harsh with Krazy. He [sic] is but a shad­ow himself, caught in the web of this mortal skein. We call him ‘cat,’ we call him ‘crazy’ yet he is neither.” Herriman goes on to conclude that even after Krazy passes into the shadows, “you will under­stand him no better than we who linger on this side of the pale.” Is Krazy then a sphinx without a secret?

This spirit of Krazy-ness governs every aspect of Coconino County. In marked counterpoint to the strip’s rigorous for­mula is its delirious, insistent flux. Herri­man’s attitude toward his graphic details was one of jazzy insouciance. Not only was the Krazy Kat logo a mutable, unsta­ble design but, in blatant contradiction of the continuous action, panels typically alternate between day and night (the lat­ter often signified by a crescent moon resembling a decrepit mobile fashioned from a warped Frisbee).

Albeit taken literally from Monument Valley (where Herriman spent much time after the mid-’20s), the landscape of Co­conino County was wildly fluid, shimmer­ing more drastically than the most extravagant mirage: One typical strip opens with Krazy and Ignatz talking on a hill­side, the second panel places them in a suburban yard, the third further up the hill, the fourth on a drawing tacked to a wall, and the fifth against some nonde­script horizon. The sixth and final panel finds the pair back in the yard, standing by a wall from which Ignatz meaningfully extracts a brick.

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At once crude and delicate, Herriman’s line seems almost free-associational in its spontaneity. Actually, his drawings are masterpieces of dramatic economy, achieving miracles of individuation and expression through body language and suggestive absences. Less is usually more: Because Ignatz has no mouth, for exam­ple, his eyes become beacons of preter­natural alertness on an otherwise blank face. Like Paul Klee’s, this work often looks like inspired doodling, but don’t be fooled; as much as it celebrates Herri­man’s quasi-automatic drawing, the Abrams anthology emphasizes his canny vulgar modernism. From the late ’30s on, the dailies are full of referential gags — ­characters address their creator, make their own drawings, or use erasers to alter reality. In one 1940 strip, Krazy heaves a brick against the side of the frame — it ricochets like a banked billiard ball up and off the top of the frame to slam her on the head. In another, Ignatz makes strategic use of a black brick, having suc­cessfully predicted the placement of the strip’s all black frame.

In the mid-’20s, Herriman’s fanciful Sunday layouts were standardized to give newspapers greater flexibility in running them. As Herriman chafed under this new formal, the authority figure of Of­fissa Pupp came to the fore; even so, the layouts of the late Sunday pages have the sort of impacted, tightly integrated cur­vaciousness — not to mention burnt, sandy colors — of classic SoCal bunga­lows. Although some of the more extrava­gant Sunday pages are wordless (one 1918 example is an extended, chilling riff on trench warfare), Krazy Kat is as dis­tinctive for its use of language as it is for its other particulars. Krazy speaks with a kind of stage Yiddish accent, tempered with miscellaneous Sam Wellerisms: ‘”Oh what a unheppy ket I am these brickliss days-oy-yoi-yoi!” Offissa Pupp special­izeh in ineptly highfalutin (often self-­pitying) speeches: “Krazy burns a late candle tonight — I trust it attracts neither moth nor mouse.” Only Ignatz, as the reality principle (he’s also a householder with a large family), speaks relatively plain English.

Krazy Kat counted Willem DeKoon­ing and Jack Kerouac among its fans; the strip was always a cult writ large. When Herriman died in 1944, it was only being syndicated in 35 newspapers, as com­pared to the more than 1000 that carried Blondie. Indeed, William Randolph Hearst was Herriman’s incongruous patron; he liked the strip and he kept it going. (According to McDonnell, O’Con­nell, and De Havenon, he even forced Herriman, humble to a fault, to accept a raise.)

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As Herriman ‘s creation is widely held to have been the greatest of comic strips, theories of Krazy Kat abound. Gilbert Seldes’s pioneering 1922 appreciation (reprinted in the Abrams book, it first appeared in Vanity Fair) compared Her­riman to the Douanier Rousseau. For Seldes, Krazy was a combination of Don Quixote and Parsifal (with Ignatz his ma­lign Sancho Panza, if not Kundry). Twenty-four years later, when the strip was posthumously anthologized, e.e. cummings furnished a suitably high-­toned introduction. In his view, the “humbly poetic, gently clown-like, su­premely innocent, illimitably affection­ate” Krazy was nothing less than the spirit of democracy itself struggling against the excesses of individualism (Ig­natz) and the stupidity of society (Offisa Pupp).

More recently, Arthur Asa Berger has seen the strip as an existential parable; by Franklin Rosemont’s anarcho-surreal­ist lights, Krazy Kat is “utopian in the best sense, signifying the imaginative cri­tique of existing values and institutions, and the presentation of imaginary alter­native societies.” There is also a belliger­ent view that Krazy Kat has no meaning. In reviewing the 1946 anthology for Partisan Review, Robert Warshaw saw the strip as inspired nonsense, comparable to Lewis Carroll: “We do best to leave Krazy Kat alone. Good fantasy never has an easy and explicit relation to the real world.” (Although Warshaw admired the strip’s “fresh quality of pure play,” he expressed a decidedly Partisan anxiety over its “complete disregard of the stan­dards of respectable art.”)

The Abrams book provides material for some new theories. Herriman was a notoriously private person and particu­larly vague about his background. (On his death certificate, his daughter main­tained that his parents had been born in France; colleagues used to refer to him as “the Greek.”) With some difficulty, McDonnell, O’Connell, and De Havenon have researched Herriman’s background and confirmed the long-standing rumor that he was of African descent: Born in New Orleans in 1880, Herriman was clas­sified as “colored” on his birth certifi­cate, and his parents were listed as mu­lattos in that year’s census.

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Catholic and French-speaking, the so-called “colored Creoles” of New Orleans were a tight-knit, sophisticated elite, de­scended from “free persons of color” who emigrated from the West Indies. Al­though the 10,000 or so who lived in New Orleans in the late 19th century were mainly professionals and shopkeepers, their position rapidly eroded with the in­stitutionalized segregation that followed the end of Reconstruction. Indeed, it was just at this time — around 1886 — that Herriman’s family left New Orleans for Los Angeles, where his father found work as a barber and a baker. In 1900, George rode the rails to New York City. By 1903, he was on staff at the New York World.

McDonnell, O’Connell, and De Have­non suggest Krazy Kat’s distinctive patois might be a memory from the Creole quarter of New Orleans. That’s scarcely the only aspect of Coconino County the revelation of Herriman’s background throws into new light. One wonders about the folk stories Herriman might have heard as a child, and Krazy’s vaunted Egyptian heritage now seems like some­thing more than a casual conceit. “Re­member Krazy, my child, you are a Kat — a Kat of Egypt,” she’s told by Kleopatra Kat in one 1919 Sunday page, which also gives the origin of the mouse’s custom “to crease his lady’s bean with a brick laden with tender sentiment.”

In view of Herriman’s origins, the per­sistent comparison of Krazy Kat to the rhythm and spontaneity of jazz takes on an added resonance. The comics and jazz appeared on the American scene at roughly the same time. But how many comics shared Krazy’s distinctive formal mixture of sweetness and rough-and­-tumble, consistency and improvisation. Jazz, as Franklin Rosemont points out, was full of “crazy cats.” Jelly Roll Morton, another Creole given to fantasy and hyperbole, was only five years younger than Herriman. It was he who saw the riff as both jazz’s background and foundation.

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“Krazy Kat was not conceived, not born, it jes’ grew,” Herriman is quoted as saying. His admission is startling both for its equation of Krazy with Harri­et Beecher Stowe’s Topsy and for its echo of James Weldon Johnson’s state­ment about the ori­gin of “the earliest ragtime songs.” Johnson, another Herriman contem­porary, published his novel The Auto­biography of an Ex­-Colored Man two years after Krazy’s spontaneous debut. In fact, Krazy Kat did jes’ grow out of the cracks of anoth­er Herriman strip, The Dingbat Family (a/k/a The Family Upstairs, for the Dingbats’ unseen nemesis). The strip published on July 26, 1910, contains an incidental gag: the Dingbats’ cat had his bean honked by a brick-wielding mouse. Eureka!

The relationship between this cat and that mouse soon became a sort of sub­strip beneath the main action; in late 1913, they were spun off into a comic strip of their own. Thus, the Kat was an eruption from below — not just from the underworld of The Dingbat Family and the lower depths of American popular culture but also from Herriman’s uncon­scious. Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo — ­which is dedicated to, among others, “George Herriman, Afro-American” — ­uses that concept of Jes Grew as a meta­phor for jazz (and popular culture in general).

From the first, Herriman’s comic strips revolved around compulsive eccentrics — ­one wonders if he wasn’t the most com­plex of them all. His love for Monument Valley, his identification with indigenous Indian culture, his fondness for western Stetsons — not to mention Krazy’s sexual ambiguity and unrequited passion — take on a certain poignancy in view of what must have been an ontological insecurity regarding his own identity. Herriman’s most African feature was evidentally his tightly curled hair — it’s striking that, in virtually every photograph, he’s wearing a hat.

Does Krazy Kat then exorcise the sort of gut-twisting anxiety and guilt engen­dered by passing for white in a segregat­ed culture? Are these brickbats signs of love? Is Coconino County an American utopia? Denial, raised to the sublime, is what Krazy Kat is all about.❖

1986 Village Voice article by Hoberman on Krazy Kat

1986 Village Voice article by Hoberman on Krazy Kat

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From The Archives NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Republican Nation: Bill Clinton’s Unrequited Affair

Love in Vain: Bill Clinton’s Unrequited Affair
January 10, 1995

WELCOME TO REPUBLICAN NATION, where men are men and President Bill Clinton is a skirt-chasing, draft-dodging, pot-smoking, non-inhaling, pussy-whipped, pussy-eating, pussycat-owning, homo-loving, touchie-feelie, yellow-bellied peacenik wuss.

Back in 1992, the American electorate (or 43 per cent of it, anyway) voted for a lover, not a fighter. A would-be Elvis defeated a John Wayne wannabe. Woodstock eclipsed Pearl Harbor as a generational metaphor. Now, as the New Dole dawns, we peer into our Kristol ball and see two years in Limbaugh with our Newtered president making ever more feeble attempts to recast himself as an old-fashioned TruMan.

What’s Clinton’s problem? Like his similarly suspect predecessor Jimmy Carter at the midpoint of his single term, Clinton is widely regarded as an incompetent — despite a growing economy and the fact that, on his so-called watch, almost no American blood has been shed on foreign soil. So why the widespread perception that there is something frighteningly unpresidential about our maximum leader?

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REPUBLICAN NATION was eagerly inaugurated moments after the November election with the spectacle of Speaker-to-be Gingrich’s quasi-presi­dential treatment in the media. It was as if televi­sion had discovered in Newt a shining new star: Bill Clinton’s evil twin.

Fawned upon by Ted Koppel, attacked daily by the op-ed pundits of the Eastern liberal press, his peccadillos fruitlessly “exposed” by New York tabloids, his coffers swelled by a $4 million advance from Rupert Murdoch’s publishing house, the architect of Republican vic­tory stormed the zeitgeist machine — su­perseding even O.J. Simpson as the object of The New Yorker’s fasci­nation.

Yes, only six years after the show closed, it was time again for a man’s­-man’s-man’s-man’s world: Reaganism redux. Back to the sci-fi future of Star Wars in cyberspace, and maybe even a new adventure with Indiana Jones. But first, some necessary chastisement. For, Newt (like Ronbo) gives every promise of being a man who can smile broadly while wielding a large and bloody ax.

So, will Bill Clinton feel Republican pain? Is the pope Time maga­zine’s Man of the Year?

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THREE CARTOON images might be conjured by the Democratic de­feat. One is of a blubbering, defenseless fat boy being taunted by a vicious crowd of schoolyard bullies. The second, even more pa­thetic, is of that same hapless fat boy chasing frantically after his tor­mentors, huffing and puffing and hoping the gang will let him join in their game. The third and creepiest has the fat boy turning his aggres­sion on some smaller, weaker playmate.

Three years ago, Bill Clinton won a Democratic nomination very few politicians wanted largely by defining himself as an anti-Democrat Democrat. Now, in his grotesque attempt to crash the Republican party, the pres­ident can barely wait to endorse a constitutional amend­ment on school prayer, propose an additional $25 billion for defense spending, dangle again the prospect of a middle-class tax cut, offer to shut down an entire federal agency (or three), and humiliate an uppity black woman who — in keeping with his previous pattern — was also something of a personal friend.

Bill Clinton just wants everyone to love him. So why does America, defined in the received wisdom of the last election as a land of white males, hate him so much?

Last month’s drive-by shooting, which left four nine­-millimeter slugs in and around the White House, is just the most blatant evidence that it’s open season on the president — an idea coyly endorsed by Jesse Helms in the elec­tion’s heady aftermath. Did the Maryland kamikaze who crashed his light plane onto the White House lawn hear voices in his brain? Or was he just monitoring Rush on the headset? What about Martin Duran, the 26-year-old ex-­GI with a prior history of racial and homophobic violence, who — less than a week before the election — sprayed the White House and its press room with a 29-shot round from an automatic assault rife. What was his frequency, Kenneth?

Suddenly, it’s Nightmare on Pennsylvania Avenue, as real killers stalk the nation’s dreams. One might assume that the final disintegration of the Soviet Evil Empire would be cause for a national feelgood bacchanal. Wrong!!!! Instead, there is emptiness, lack of purpose, con­fused self-definition, the depression that (Oprah could tell us) is rage turned inward. No time for pleasure now.

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The Great Satan is dead, but nature abhors a vacu­um — hence the “culture war” Pat Buchanan declared at the 1992 Republican convention (seconded by two oth­er would-be presidents, Pat Robertson and Phil Gramm). “There is no ‘after the Cold War,’ ” neocon godfather Irving Kristol recently ranted in The Public Interest. “So far from having ended, my cold war has increased in in­tensity, as sector after sector of American life has been ruthlessly corrupted by the liberal ethos.… Now that the other ‘Cold War’ is over, the real cold war has be­gun.” In other words, the battle against the Soviets was only a rehearsal. The true jihad is the post–Cold War cleanup that demonizes liberals, rappers, feminazis, ille­gal aliens, counterculture McGoverniks, welfare moth­ers, secular humanists, homosexuals, performance artists, and Democrats.

Clinton, to his credit, has proven stubbornly disin­clined to designate the devils. But isn’t that exactly why we need a president? The leader is delegated to identify our enemies and thereby allow us to define ourselves­ — and this is something Bill Clinton seems temperamental­ly unable to do. He has difficulty with boundary issues, as Oprah might say. To the rage of Republicans, despair of Democrats, and contempt of all, he’s conflict-averse, a hopeless “people pleaser.”

Clinton’s failure to name the new national threat (let alone identify a threat to himself) has been compounded by his equally perverse refusal to cut and whack and there­by bind the nation to his cause. Nor has Clinton (yet) brought himself to kick wog ass in Bosnia or Haiti, Iraq or North Korea, demonstrating for the world to hear the clank of his — and our — big brass balls.

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THE LAST ELECTION was almost univer­sally explained as the white man’s re­venge — specifically, the Southern white man’s revenge. The Wall Street Journal’s postmortem inter­view with a 33-year-old unemployed Mem­phisite is typical. Mes­merized by the spectacle of women driving to work each morning, the Journal’s jobless every­man told the reporter, “You just know that has got to emasculate a die­hard, big-ego, male chauvinist. Men have got to have a scapegoat… and Clinton is just perfect for everybody’s ailment.”

Fuckin’ A! But what exactly ails us? Call it reg­is flaccidosis. It is precise­ly because men invest the nation’s leader with some sense of their own po­tency that they are so mortified by a president whose idea of human sacrifice is dumping Joycelyn Elders. Then, too, the fear and loathing occasioned by Bill Clin­ton’s “unmanliness” is further amplified in his generational association with the lost Vietnam War. As a commander-in­-chief who not only did not fight and kill for America, but openly op­posed the war and even sought to evade the draft, our Führer Bill is a griev­ous affront to that which the Germans call the Männerstaat — the state as an expression of mas­culine authority.

His scepter wilted, Clinton must wear the jester’s cap. In editorial cartoons, the president appears stripped to his heart-patterned boxer shorts, or cowering under the bed covers with a shrewish Hillary; he’s reduced to a fuzzy Easter Bunny or blown up as a bulb-nosed buf­foon. The New York Post routinely represents Clinton in the company of angst-ridden plucked chickens. The Dayton Daily News caricatures him in drag as a dowdy, befuddled “Mrs. Don’tfire.”

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Dazedly clinging to a severed, useless missile so that even her oversize pocketbook is unavailable as a weapon, Mrs. Don’tfire offers the fattest of targets for the slings and spitballs of mischievous Newt. But the negative images attached to our leader may have less to do with him than with us. So, too, the current projection on the iconically perfect yet politically blank screen that is General Colin Powell. (Won’t he please play Lou Gossett to Bill’s Richard Gere in a 1996 release of An Officer and a Gentle­man II?)

Even as the president’s endlessly reit­erated worst crime was his attempt to pan­sify the nation’s armed forces, his own ab­sent war record revived repressed feelings of Vietnam impotence, at the precise moment when the possibility of a re­duced defense budget had sent the military into a panic of perceived emasculation. (Thus, the peace dividend must be spent­ preferably on Star Wars, to defend ourselves from a nonexistent threat.)

Underlying the Reagan-era’s repression of a historical truth — that the Vietnam War was pro­foundly unpopular — is a tacit recognition that those sacrificed there were suckers. Rage at Clinton covers the survivor guilt of the millions — including Newt, Rush, and Quayle — who, no less than the president, scampered across an unleveled playing field and success­fully dodged the bullet.

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CLINTON’S MASCULINITY is suspect in other, less mar­tial ways. The 1984 and 1988 elections were widely reported and experienced as victories by manly Re­publicans over feminized Democrats. The 1992 contest, actually dubbed by the media “The Year of the Woman,” was more like the battle of the wimps.

Significantly more evolved than Mondale or Dukakis, Clinton actively promoted the idea of his spouse as an intelligent be­ing and full partner: “Buy one, get one free.” Now, Time imagines that Clinton is unable to persuade anyone to run his reelec­tion campaign because so “few believe [he] can pre­vent his wife… from tak­ing over.” Having ceded a small portion of his actual power to Hillary, Clinton is constantly being called upon to defend her hon­or, even as he himself is besieged by the other women in his life. Either way, it signifies an absence of male control.

Clinton is at once a lustful sexual harasser, swinging his dick at Paula Jones (instead of Saddam Hussein), and a hapless pawn in his wife’s mega­lomaniacal game. These contradictory images of our polymorphously perverse pander-bear, as well as the leadership style he is thought to exemplify, are conflat­ed in a recent Louisville Courier-Journal car­toon, which visualized a bloated Clinton (no Demi Moore) engulfing a terrified white man in the unwanted warmth of his smoochy embrace: “Bill Clinton & the American Middle Class in Disclosure.”

Inadvertent self-disclosure is more like it. America thinks that America doesn’t need to be hugged. America believes that, like a delinquent in Singapore, America heeds to be caned! Down with Mrs. Don’tfire! Dump Bill! As suggested by the current “mean sex” chic (featured on New York’s cover shortly after the election), what Ameri­ca craves is not therapy but discipline. And in the new Washington power equa­tion, there’s no doubt who’s the top and who’s the bottom. Left to his own devices, Clinton would surely abuse himself.

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The president doesn’t even have the courage of his skirt-chasing, draft-­dodging, pot-smoking, pussy-eating, homo-loving, peacenik convictions­ — which is why we can’t stand him either.

Out with the bleeding heart Democrats. In with the chop-and-slash Re­publicans. Failing that, there is always the Ulti­mate Weapon. As Newt told the Heritage Founda­tion a month before the election: “I do have a vi­sion of an America in which a belief in the Creator is once again at the center of defining being an American.” Forget Jesus; the Creator whom Gin­grich envisions is a punitive proponent of tough love. Or so it has been revealed to us by His prophet’s representation on successive covers of Time and Newsweek as those hard-hearted Christmasphobes, Scrooge and the Grinch.

What is the renewed insistence on prayer in public school if not a state-sanctioned return of the Great White Father? It must be time for the bloodthirsty patriarch William Blake named “Old Nobodaddy”: the cosmic bully who demands uncritical obedience from his priggish followers. They typically express their devotion through persecution and heresy-hunting. Nobodaddy has no use for sex or fun — or even National Public Radio: “Damn praying & singing/Unless they will bring in/The blood of ten thousand by fighting or swinging.”

Pleasure is the enemy. Hence the fascinated hor­ror of homosexual orgies in marine shower stalls. Hence the significance of Joycelyn Elders’s terminal transgres­sion. Masturbation priva­tizes sex, and sex without the possibility of procre­ation channels vital resources away from the production of potential workers and soldiers for the Männerstaat.

Republican Nation may hate govern­ment but it worships authority. Bill Clinton is despised because he is perceived to em­body one without projecting the other. ❖

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SCHOOL PRAYERS FOR CHRISTIAN CHILDREN
From the Right Reverend Michael Feingold, D.D.

I. LORD JESUS FULFILL THY ETERNAL PROMISE. Suffer the enemies of thy kingdom to be cast into the furnace of fire, with wailing and gnashing of teeth. Disfigure Newt Gingrich with leprosy, that he may be humbled. Send ravens to peck out Jesse Helms’s eyes, that his sight may be improved. Strip Pat Robertson naked, rend his flesh, and desolate his house, for he is as a whited sepulchre, full of hypocrisy and iniquity within. Lord, show these men no mercy, for they have dealt arrogantly with thee; they have strained at the gnats of thy law, and omitted the weightier matters of judgment, mercy, and faith; they proclaim the outside of the cup and the platter clean, while within they are full of extortion and excess. We shall endure their iniquity, Lord, because thou hast commanded it, but we pray that the great tribulation may be brought upon them soon, and that we who have suffered under the lash of their evil may see thee in thy glory, Amen.

II. LORD JESUS RESTORE OUR WELFARE SYSTEM, that it may feed the starving among us. For though hast said, “Give to him that asketh thee,” yet our wealthy refuse to give, and call judg­ment down upon the poor where thou hast said, “Judge not.” Knowing that thou lovest charity above all earthly deeds, we pray for the greedy and the selfish of our Republican party, that they may learn to see by thy light, which so many of them falsely claim to be their guide. “It is not meet,” thou teachest us, “to take children’s bread, and cast it unto the dogs,” yet these men take the bread away from children like ourselves, and cast it unto the dogs of affluence. Restore their sense of mercy, Lord, that they may feed us and our prayer to be given our daily bread may not go unanswered, in thy name, Amen.

III. LORD JESUS FREE ME FROM MY FAMILY. For thou hast come to set father against son and daughter against mother, and my father and mother are already sore set against me, for their ways are not my ways. I search, Lord, for the best way to live my life, and I know that, trusting in thee, I shall find it, given time, prayer, and patience. But my parents would compel me into their ways, without time or thought, even while their own bond is become a bitter yoke, and they cleave not to one another. Lord, free them from their bond for as in thy kingdom there is no taking nor giving in marriage, so all mortals should be free of these burdens on earth. Let us all live as we wish, men with men and women with women if we so choose, but that they be bonds of love, with couples cleaving unto one another, that these unions may be worthy by thy light, and the kingdom of heaven may be granted them, no matter how they are despised by the unrighteous here on earth. For the last shall be first and the meek shall inherit, as thou hast said it. Amen.

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From The Archives

Our Man in Havana: Face-to-Face with Fidel Castro

“Everyone who comes to Cuba has been brainwashed. Skillful prop­aganda has told them Havana is a haven of heaven.” That’s Steve Ryan talking; see his indispensable “Havana: Sucker Trap of the Caribbean,” published for your edification in the February 1957 issue of Exposed magazine (the one with Diana Dors on the cover). “Forget the Maine” is Ryan’s message. Remember the dirt, the beggars, the shoeshine urchins, the porno postcard vendors, “the thin, rag­ged women carrying babies too hungry to cry,” the guy who makes his living exhibiting a be­draggled, cawing perico trained to fire a cap gun, the hordes of hookers who can barely wait for nightfall so they can “flow over the city like a tidal wave in search of americanos.”

What’s the story? “When Ba­tista took over in 1952,” Ryan explains, “he sat on an empty wallet.” The ousted Carlos Prio “had scattered eight million in bribes during his term and Batista was stuck with the tab. The only hope for solvency was to find an angel. Ninety miles away sat the United States . . . fat, pompous, sex happy — ­and loaded.” Hey meester, you want muchachas, gambling, 24-hour crap games, a daiquiri at Señor Ernest Hemingway’s favorite bar, a night at Tropicana el cabaret más fabuloso del mundo, plus live sex show in a three-peso hotel room? You name it, you got it. “This is Cuba,” warns the implacable Steve Ryan. “Geared to Ameri­can tastes . . . with moral stan­dards so low you’d need a sub­marine to reach them.”

Well, a lot of things have changed since 1957, but Havana remains a cornucopia of ’50s imagery. It’s actually in fashion! Even modest bungalows out in the suburbs sport curlicue grill­work and harlequin mosaics, jazzily tapered columns brandishing kidney-shaped sun roofs. Half the cars on the road are Eisenhower-era De Sotos and Buicks, patched and repatched and painted tropical colors: mint green, dusty pink, hot canary, blaz­ing turquoise. Driving west along the sea­wall on the Malecón freeway you see the terraced towers of palatial hotels, blind­ingly white against the diaphanous De­cember sky. Vegas strip garish, Miami Beach deluxe, they rose even as Fidel and his bearded ones, los barbudos, were making revolution in the Sierra. There’s the Capri with its rooftop swimming pool and Salón Rojo nightclub, the Riviera (built, they say, by Meyer Lansky) with its free-form fountain sculpture and an­cillary, blue-domed something or other, once a mambotorium inaugurated by Miss Ginger Rogers. Amazingly, the Hil­ton logo is still decipherable on the glass doors of the renamed Habana Libre. Of course, the former casino is now the Salón de Solidaridad, and there’s the inevi­table Vietnamita exposition downstairs by the dollar shop, where you can buy a handstitched leather platter bearing the likeness of Che Guevara for only $140.

The French have moved over to the Libre, but all the rest of us foreigners, here for 10 days for the fifth Havana Film Festival, are holed up at the Hotel Nacional, around the corner from Casa Czechoslovakia, a block and a half from the spot where Sergio Corrieri picked up Daisy Granados in Memories of Under­development, not far from the concrete umbrella of the people’s Coppelia Ice ­Cream Center (more flavors than Baskin-­Robbins). Built in 1927, the Nacional is a stately dowager with a flaming past. It was here that the officers of the old re­gime resisted the first coup staged by then-sergeant Fulgencio Batista. In 1957, Steve Ryan called the hotel “a pile of money sitting on a rock overlooking the Malecón” with a “controlled gaming room” as “hallowed as a church.” When the Nicaraguan revolutionary priest Er­nesto Cardenal stayed here 13 years later, he noted with pleasure that “young pro­letarians” — white and black — were chat­ting in the lobby “with the confidence once possessed by millionaires.” Now the place is full of Aeroflot personnel — beefy pilots and no-nonsense stewies taking their r&r . . . only 90 miles away! The flotskis even have their own lounge up on the fifth floor, complete with fridge, TV, blackboard, and bound copies of Pravda.

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Outside the Nacional, brazen young swindlers in Bruce Lee T-shirts offer to sell you pesos at twice, three times, four times — the record is seven times — the of­ficial rate of exchange. But if you’ve read your Steve Ryan, you know that “gam­bling in Cuba is about as safe as stepping in front of the Super Chief.” Every day there’s a new story making the rounds about some gringo shmegegge exchanging his dollars for a worthless mess of Batista money, Mexican pesos, or just a fat wad of paper sandwiched between two legiti­mate bills. Although trafficking in pesos begins at the Miami Airport — one couple on the tour swears that some Hare Krish­nas tried to make a deal — you can’t walk out of the hotel without being ap­proached. These kids are persistent, too. The most entertaining way to handle it is to adopt the self-righteous persona of an American Communist. Some guy offers you five to one and, in your sternest pidgin Spanish, you say Pero compañero, esto es contra la ley — But comrade, that is against the law. When he doubles over with laughter, you make your escape.

The truth is, there’s not so much to do here with pesos anyway. (“This is a city that is bound to please a monk, a medita­tor, anyone who in the capitalist world has decided to withdraw from the world,” Ernesto Cardenal noted. “Here there is no bourgeois joy, but here there is true joy.”) Havana’s hot, dusty neighborhoods are dotted with curiosidad shops that wouldn’t seem out of place on Canal Street, selling miscellaneous pieces of hardware, old radio tubes, and second-­hand camera parts (as the ancient autos attest, the Cubans are masters of recy­cling). But most stores open late, close early, and don’t stock much besides cot­ton shirts, cheap toys, translations of The Godfather frugally designed to save pa­per, and jars of preserved Bulgarian figs.

One day there’s a book fair, and some­one unearths a 1936 American tourist-guide called Cuban Tapestry. We consult it like the I Ching and learn that “Cuba, is foreign. Havana is foreign. No amount of contact with big Tío Sam, across the Florida Strait, will ever make the island capital an American city. The Cuban likes his huge good-natured ‘uncle,’ for alone among Latin Americans he senses no covetousness in our attitude towards him. He believes the United States his awkward, bungling, but sincere cham­pion. . . . ”

 

Freedom in Cuba can be defined as freedom from the United States. Cuba is not simply the first Latin American nation to successfully defy big Tío Sam, it has openly opposed U.S. policies for the last 25 years. And, although the forced reorientation of the Cuban economy is a shock from which the island has yet to recover fully, it is certainly arguable that the U.S. trade embargo has helped Fidel Castro more than it has hurt him. The lack of consumer goods is a sign of revo­lutionary virtue. The American threat encourages national unity, permits total mobilization, and fosters a heady sense of geopolitical adventure.

Before the revolution, Cuba enjoyed one of the highest per capita incomes in the tropical world. But this apparent prosperity was founded upon 25 per cent unemployment, landless peasantry, insti­tutionalized political corruption, a con­tinual oscillation between dictatorship and democracy, utter dependence on for­eign capital, and the vagaries of the American market. Only two years before Cuban Tapestry was published, the American greenback was the lone paper currency used in Cuba. Until the Tri­umph of the Revolution, the U.S. ambas­sador was the island’s second most pow­erful man (at least), and the U.S. safely regarded Cuba as its most reliable ally. The Cuban economy was actually a sub­set of the American one. Cuba sold the U.S. sugar and bought virtually every­thing else — from nuts and bolts to TV sets and automobiles — at the company store. Americans owned Cuba’s major banks and biggest factories as well as 90 per cent of the island’s utilities. The U.S. exerted greater influence here than in any Latin American country, with the possible exception of Panama.

Now handmade signs on every block routinely excoriate yanqui asesinos, and — our naval base at Guantánamo aside­ — the official U.S. presence is reduced to the so-called “Interest Section,” located on the ground floor of the former Ameri­can embassy, an incongruously large glass building on the Malecón. Opposite the entrance is a lurid neon sign with a rifle­-toting Cubano giving the raspberry to a frothing Tío Sam. Every time the Inter­est Section gringos walk out their front door they get zapped in the face with the same pink, yellow, and orange blinking message: Señores Imperialistas, No Les Tenemos Absolutamente Ningun Miedo! We’re not scared of you! (Not exactly so: many Cubans are convinced that if Rea­gan is reelected, he will certainly invade them. “We expect another Vietnam,” one official told me. “We have the whole is­land prepared.”)

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To get inside the Interest Section­ — which I did, accompanying a friend who had her passport stolen in an after-hours dive called El Gato Tuerto, the One-­Eyed Cat — you have to first convey your business to the bored Cuban soldiers posted around the building, then con­vince the teenage American marine man­ning the reception area that you’re ko­sher (impossible, actually; the fact that you’re in Cuba automatically means you’re not). While he deliberates, you practice your upside-down reading by noting the handy Spanish phrases taped to his desk: What is your name? What do you want? Please go away! Once inside, you find an ostentatiously over-air-conditioned waiting room decorated with framed travel posters of San Francisco and Aspen, and furnished with a plastic Christmas tree and an expensive load of useless, pseudo-oak cabinets. Not since the Miami airport have you seen such waste. The inner courtyard can barely contain the satellite dish (major league, albeit not as huge as the one the Cubans use to monitor American TV). Some nest of spies: the single secretary turns out to be an employee of the Cuban govern­ment. Next to her desk she keeps an in­stitutional-size can of Tang. A week in Havana and this seems exotic.

After 24 years of embargo, modern Americana is so rare in Cuba that you’re jolted when you see a Viceroy baseball cap, a bootleg Michael Jackson tape, or a cup fashioned out of a Coca-Cola can. Only the most obscure Disney char­acters — individual dwarfs out of Snow White, the rabbit from Alice in Wonder­land — are to be found on walls and store­fronts. The almost complete eradication of Mickey Mouse is no less striking than the absence of Jesus Christ. As you walk around Havana, gawking at the home­made signs of a fanged Tío Sam devour­ing Grenada — Abajo el lmperialismo Yanqui! — that embellish each block’s Committee for the Defense of the Revo­lution bulletin board, people will inquire whether you’re Argentine or German or, most often, Russian. When you tell them that you’re a norteamericano, they’re taken aback or amused, occasionally nos­talgic, but never, in my experience, hostile.

It’s astounding how many Cubans seem to have lived on East 103rd Street between 1947 and 1949. There’s still an emotional bond; we do, after all, share the same national sport. Once upon a time, Cuba had the Havana Sugar Kings — baseball club of Sandy Amoros, Vic Davalillo, Tony Taylor, Leo Cardenas, Bert Campaneris, Tony Perez, Camilio Pascual, Elio Chacon — International League farm team for the Cincinnati Reds. In 1958, the Sugar Kings were mired in last place and all but bankrupt. After the Triumph of the Revolution, Fi­del offered to bail the team out. “The Sugar Kings are part of the Cuban peo­ple,” he is reported to have said. “It is important for us to have a connection with Triple-A baseball.” The 1959 season was a tumultuous one and, as fate would have it, July 25 turned to July 26 with the Sugar Kings and the Rochester Red Wings tied 4-4 in the bottom of the 11th. The patriotic Cubans began celebrating their revolution’s name day. A party erupted, out came the congas, but when Red Wing third-base coach Frank Verdi was grazed by a spent bullet, the game was called on account of gunfire in the stands.

There was a lot of angry talk then of yanking professional baseball out of Cuba — the details can be found in How­ard Senzel’s Baseball and the Cold War — but the red-hot Sugar Kings went on to win the International League champion­ship and then the Junior World Series. This was the time of miracles — when the last could be first, and the revolution opened Cuba’s beaches, nightclubs, and parks to all. By the 1960 season, however, relations between revolutionary Cuba and the Republican mainland had grown perilously frayed. On July 6 — shortly af­ter the American-owned oil refineries re­fused to process the Russian crude that Fidel bartered for the sugar the U.S. wouldn’t buy — Secretary of State Chris­tian Herter summoned baseball commis­sioner Ford Frick to Washington. Three days later, some evil alchemy transformed the Havana Sugar Kings into the Jersey City Jerseys. Severed from Triple­-A, Fidel howled with rage. It was one more act of treachery and aggression against the Cuban people: “Violating all codes of sportsmanship, they now take away our franchise!”

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So much for socialist baseball in the capitalist world. Nine years ago there was talk of a U.S.-Cuban series, but that got scotched by Henry Kissinger on account of the situation in Angola. Meanwhile, Cuban amateur teams have continued to dominate international play. Thus it’s with keen anticipation that we socialist baseball fans take a powder from the fes­tival for a Sunday doubleheader at Latinoamerica Stadium. Free admission and open seating notwithstanding, the ballpark is emptier than Shea on a week-day in August. You just march down to the first-base line and help yourself to a box. Does this indifferent turnout indi­cate a lack of interest in two mediocre clubs — the Havana Metropolitanos and the Guantánamo Guantánamos, respec­tively 14th and 12th in the 18-team league? Yet, it is only December; the sea­son is young. The first game is a classic, with los Metropolitanos beating los Guantanamos 3-2, when R. Lopez lofts a J. Matos fast ball over the left-field wall for a jonrón in the bottom of the 10th. (Guantánamo retaliates in the nightcap by peppering hapless R. Arocha for jit after jit to build a 7-0 lead by the middle of the third.)

Contrary to Senzel’s memories of the Sugar Kings (“a slick and speedy ball club and so colorful,” “they used to bunt a lot, hit and run a lot, try to steal home, and execute other daring feats”), the games are low-keyed to the point of som­nolence. The fans are almost all men, many seem to be pensioners basking in the sun. Our entrance causes a mild stir, and – qué coincidencia! — here’s one of the festival guides remarkably unsur­prised to see us. “Sit anywhere,” he in­vites us. “How about here?” It is interest­ing to note that while the Cubans employ cheap and durable aluminum bats (illegal in the major leagues), they have — despite the embargo — adopted the designated hitter, el bateador designado.

There’s no cerveza to be had; instead, vendors sell hits of sweet black coffee in the sort of tiny paper cups mental hospi­tals use to dispense Thorazine. Could that be why, despite some atrocious calls – including a foul ball down the third-base line that goes for a two-run Guantánamo double — there are neither rhubarbs on the field nor razzing from the stands? Or does the crystal light of the four o’clock sky have everyone daz­zled? Far from shooting off machine­-guns, the fans are so well socialized they scoop up the foul balls that are hit their way and toss them back onto the field.

In Revolutionary Cuba, not just sporting events but health care, public tele­phones, and burials are free. Day care, too, for the children of working mothers. Education is universal and compulsory. Cuba-watchers say the rural areas have been developed at the expense of the cit­ies, and Havana is still doing penance for its sinful past. The capital is shabby but clean, delapidated yet orderly. You can drive your rented Russian compact total­ly off the map, out to where the pave­ment ends by the cement factory in the deepest estuary of Havana Bay, and the hovels you find are only hovels — small, run-down stucco houses that appear to be electrified. They’re not tin shacks stacked up on cardboard boxes fronting on a raw sewage canal. Even in this alley of poverty, the kids look healthy and well-fed, playing baseball in the street and wondering what in the world you’re doing there. If this were Mexico City or Rio de Janeiro, you might fear for your life. But Havana isn’t Port-au-Prince, let alone New York. You can strolt for miles at midnight through the central city, the dark streets illuminated only by the blue glow of TV sets, and never experience the slightest anxiety. Mugging Russians, we joke, must be a capital offense.

Just as Soviet communism will always suffer from the reality of the Russian winter, so Cuban communism will always benefit from the island’s eternal summer. Often, as you walk, you get a whiff of salsa and catch a glimpse of some steamy living room, crowded with dancers. Every open window yields some fantastic ar­rangements of plastic flowers, porcelain animals, crumbling plaster, and icons of Che. Revolutionary martyr, advocate of the New Socialist Man, Che is a far more popular household deity than Fidel; his resemblance to JC can’t be denied. Bus drivers keep his image on their decal­ decorated dashboards, next to pictures of their novias, commemorative pennants, and plastic kittens with bobbing heads.

There’s an orange neon portrait of Fidel on the Malecón advising that La Revolu­ción can never be crushed, but his most widely distributed image is that of public servant supreme — a silk-screened poster of the leader dressed in fatigues, a rifle slung over his shoulder and the ambigu­ous command Ordene! Order Me!

The Catholic Church seems to have been driven totally underground — or else to Miami — but there are vest-pocket shrines to José Martí in every neighbor­hood, and many Cuban documentaries attest to a burning religious fervor. Such films are no more objective than a Pepsi­Cola spot and no less revealing for their blatant artifice. Che hoy y siempre (Che Today and Always) is the latest in a se­ries of graphically innovative shorts by the Chilean exile Pedro Chaskel. They’re formal variations on a sacred theme, not unlike medieval altarpieces. Miguel Tor­res’s Condenadme, no importa (Con­demn Me, It Does Not Matter), taking its title from Fidel’s “History Will Absolve Me” speech, is another kind of holy relic. Its incredibly well-faked “documentary” footage purports to record the failed Moncada raid of July 26, 1953, Fidel’s trial and subsequent imprisonment. The filmmaker has already made one previous pseudo-documentary, Crónica de una in­famia, concerning a 1949 incident in which a drunken U.S. marine desecrated a statue of José Martí with his yanqui urine. He plans another such “recon­struction of a history that has no docu­ments” to celebrate the January 1959 Triumph of the Revolution.

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Luis Felipe Bernaza’s Aquí y en cual­quier parte (Here and in Whatever Place) is a “love song” to “the new heroes of the Revolution,” the young Cuban sol­diers in Angola. Lyrical shots of combat training are mixed with choreographed guerrilla rituals and the vocal accompani­ment of some dulcet compañera. Along with Israel, Cuba must be one of the most highly mobilized societies on earth. Militia manuals are available in all book­stores. The ministries, politburo, and central committee are dominated by mili­tary men. The army has a film studio as well, and produced Belkis Vega’s España en el corazón (Spain in the Heart), a history of the Cuban international bri­gade during the Spanish Civil War. Not surprisingly, the film eschews nostalgia and stresses historical continuity (although it fails to note that revolutionary Cuba developed close economic ties with Franco’s Spain). Of course, most of Cu­ba’s Spanish Civil War vets were also veterans of the pre-1959 Cuban CP, an outfit which had opposed Fidel Castro until six months before the Triumph of the Revolution. Perhaps that’s why it’s Raúl — always a Communist — Castro and not brother Fidel who hands out the medals at the vets’ reunion. As for those Cubans who fought in the Abraham Lin­coln Brigade, they aren’t mentioned at all.

Che hoy y siempre was greeted with warm applause, Condenadme, no importa got a standing ovation, Aquí y en cualquier parte rocked the house with rhythmic clapping. But the documentary hit of the festival was Estela Bravo’s Los Marielitos — a film shot by a North American crew and edited in Havana — in which 11 Cubans who left the island dur­ing the mass exodus of 1980 compare their old lives with what they found in America (visualized mainly as Florida concentration camps and Lower East Side squalor). The subjects, naturally, are doozies. “In Cuba, I couldn’t drink. In Cuba there is no freedom,” one rumdum hiccups. Another rationalizes his flight as a perverse act-of loyalty to Fidel. Every­one has a lot to complain about, from shitty health care to the American habit of smoking marijuana in the street. For the finale, the filmmakers produce a suc­cessful engineer who stands outside his Miami ranch house and admits that he’s miserable.

Los Marielitos was telecast during the festival and Cubans often asked about it with pity and wonder. “Is it true that there are people sleeping in the streets of New York? And that you can get killed for· money at 10 o’clock in the evening? Are rents really so high and for apart­ments such as those? Why are blacks not permitted in the same hospitals as whites? Are there that many people who have no jobs?”

Twenty-five years ago, less than three months after los barbudos entered Ha­vana, the revolutionary Cuban regime en­acted its first cultural reform, creating the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematograficas, ICAIC. Headed by Fidel’s old college buddy, Alfredo (no relation to Che) Guevara, ICAIC appro­priated cinemas and studios, taking charge of all Cuban film activity. Official mythology has it that, although Cuba has always been a movie-mad island, there was no Cuban cinema before the revolu­tion — only ersatz Mexican musicals, bad­ly made copies of Hollywood detective films, bogus Argentine melodramas, and sleazy pornography. Within 10 years, ICAIC films were famous all over the world.

First there was Santiago Alvarez — the director of the “Latin American News­reel” series, producing one noticiero per week, a filmmaker who pulled together a Che Guevara obit less than 48 hours after the news of his death, and who once said, “Give me two photographs, a movieola, and some music, and I’ll make you a film” — the greatest revolutionary docu­mentary-maker since Dziga Vertov. Then came Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment, mixing Antonioni alienation with revolutionary pachanga, even as Julio Garcia Espinosa’s The Ad­ventures of Juan Quin Quin and Manuel Octavio Gómez’s The First Charge of the Machete conjoined formal innovation and revolutionary politics with a fervor unseen since the Soviet school of the ’20s. And after the epic Lucía won a gold med­al at the 1969 Moscow Film Festival, 26-year-old Humberto Solás was hailed as the new Eisenstein. (A recent poll of Cu­ban audiences listed Potemklin, Gone with the Wind, Citizen Kane, The Gold Rush, and Modern Times as the five most significant films of all time. Lucía, finishing 15th, was the highest ranked Cuban work.)

The late ’60s were the halcyon days of the New Cuban Cinema, but Fidel’s 1968 endorsement of the Warsaw Pact inva­sion of Czechoslovakia, the 1970 failure of the 10 million-ton sugar harvest, and the following year’s First National Con­gress on Education and Culture­ — brought the directors down to earth. Doc­umentaries were privileged over fiction films. There was a campaign against “for­eign tendencies,” “elitism,” and homo­sexuals in cultural affairs. ICAIC contin­ued to be run by the filmmakers them­selves, but formal experimentation de­clined. Since then, although Cuban movie attendance has continued to rise and the Cuban film industry currently spends far more per feature than any other in Latin America, only two movies ( the late Sara Gómez’s One Way or Another and Pastor Vega’s Portrait of Teresa) have made much impact on the international scene. But who knows what goes on in the heart of Havana? This is an anniversary year and all the heavies — Tomás Gutierrez Alea, Humberto Solás, Santiago Alvarez, Pastor Vega, Manuel Octavio Gomez­ — are scheduled to premiere new films.

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Immediate disappointment: Vega’s La Habanera — said to concern the love life of a Cuban shrink — is not yet completed, while Alvarez’s Refugees from the Cave of the Dead — his first fiction film, a doc­udrama of the Moncada raid — is so uni­versally regarded as disastrous that, al­though Santiago is a member of the central committee, the film isn’t even available to be screened in the festival market. Attention shifts to the premiere of Humberto Solás’s Amada, and with good reason. Two years ago, Solás’s mega-peso adaptation of the 19th cen­tury Cuban classic Cecilia Valdés con­sumed the lion’s share of ICAIC’s re­sources. Unveiled at Cannes, the film sank like a stone, then bombed with the home audience as well. Perhaps not coin­cidentally, ICAIC chief Alfredo Guevara was relieved of his post, shipped off to Switzerland as the new ambassador to UNESCO, and replaced at ICAIC by Ju­lio Garcia Espinosa, author of the famous manifesto “For an Imperfect Cinema.”

Understandably defensive, Solás seems to have taken the most militant (that is to say, anti-European) aesthetic stance of all the directors who contributed state­ments to the current issue of Cine Cu­bano. His position makes sense once you see that his film totally contradicts it. Solás may be skating on thin ice: Amada turns out to be an elegantly mannered, Viscontian period piece detailing an un­consummated adulterous affair between two members of the fin-de-siecle Havana bourgeoisie. A vehicle really for the su­perb Eslinda Núñez (the domestic in Memories of Underdevelopment and the second “Lucia”), Amada was not gener­ously received by the Cuban audience. In his post-screening remarks, Solás stressed his competence (pointing out that while Cecilia took 15 months to shoot, econom­ical Amada was completed in a mere eight weeks) while gamely insisting on the film’s political content — the frustrat­ed love is “a reflection of the crisis in the fight for independence.”

Nearly half of ICAIC’s new documen­taries are films with musical subjects, a bid, some think, to produce more foreign exchange. “Just as Hollywood directors must make the obligatory western,” Julio García Espinosa has suggested, “Cuban filmmakers should be required to make a musical.” Espinosa himself started a mu­sical around 1978. Titled Son o no son (a pun on the name of a Cuban musical mode and Hamlet’s “to be or not to be”), the film was evidently structured as a series of rehearsals for a musical revue at the Tropicana that never quite jells. Son o no son remains incomplete, however, and so the first director to accept the challenge is Manuel Octavio Gómez. Like Espinosa, Gómez has a long interest in popular culture as a vanguard form, and his Patakín — which takes its title from an African word for fable, its discreet crane shots and Jerome Robbins choreog­raphy from the Hollywood musicals of the 1950s, its strident colors and slangy, innuendo-ridden dialogue from Cuba’s 19th century Teatro Bufo — transposes two figures out of Yoruba mythology to contemporary Cuba. Shangó, the thunder god, is here an irresistible lumpen lay­about — when he shows up in his neigh­borhood, even octogenarians begin to rumba — while his nemesis, Ogun, is a staid model worker who drives the trac­tor on a collective farm.

With musical numbers more bossa nova than salsa, Patakín establishes a certain amiable innocence, abetted by a Tashlinesque sense of humor and some beach scenes that would hardly seem out of place in How To Stuff a Wild Bikini. The film pokes mild fun at the bureau­cracy and frequently waxes reflexive. (“Aren’t you paying attention to the pic­ture?” characters ask each other when the plot grows convoluted.) But in addi­tion to reclaiming a genre for Cuban film­makers, Patakín makes a political point, being the most candid study of machismo of the several the festival offers. Al­though the virtuous Ogun defeats Shangó in a climactic boxing match — the finale has showgirls storming the ring with bal­loons and confetti for a mass cha-cha­-cha — Shangó’s appeal is never denied. “All men want to be Shangó,” Ogun’s lady friend tells him. “Not even you want to be Ogun.”

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Although the Cuban audience appears to adore Patakín, it’s predictable that not all Oguns will find it so amusing. Indeed, it is the only Cuban premiere to get an afternoon rather than an evening slot. There is a streak of proletarian puri­tanism in the Cuban Revolution, and sure enough, Patakín is panned in the second-string CP daily, Juventud Re­belde (Rebel Youth). The music and dance are “inorganically inserted into the plot,” the movie is filled with “forced jokes” and “stereotypical behavior.” Ma­king “insufficient use of expressive modes of cinema,” it is an altogether dis­appointing effort from a director of Gó­mez’s stature. That the critic takes Patakín to task on formal grounds — rather than engaging its ideological line — only underscores the movie’s political content. But you can’t truly appreciate Patakín until you’ve seen Tropicana.

Tropicana! El cabaret más fabuloso del mundo, located in an outdoor jungle garden! It’s part of every package tour, and it’s best seen with a group of Ameri­can leftists. Imagine las contradicciones! Sexist? Of course — y un poco racist tam­bién. Tropicana! Formerly run by yanqui gangsters using George Raft as their front; the One and Only Tropicana is not simply el paraíso de las estrellas — the paradise of the stars — it’s the Pasty World of Atlantis, the story of Cuba in song and dance con mucho más razzma­tazz, it’s el teatro del embarrassment revolucionario!

Feathered chandeliers floating over­head, showgirls in top hats and sequined bikinis strut down the aisles dodging the frozen-faced waitresses with nimble pre­cision while flashing practiced smiles at bewildered Vietnamitas. The chanteuse on stage threatens to teach us how to love. The espactáculo begins. Omigod, is that capering bellhop actually wearing black face? Compañera, pass the rum. Is this number really a Yoruba ceremony celebrating the end of slavery — boys in silver lame pants and Day-Glo doo-rags? Did the Taino Indians truly sing like Yma Sumac and cavort about like the June Taylor Dancers? And dig that wild and crazy Czechoslovakian at the next table. Will he make like Desi and call on Babaloo? Oh no! It’s caballero y dama time. Lace mantillas, fluttering fans, lot­sa “mi corazón,” castanets. Más rum par favor.

Tropicana! At once ridiculous and im­pressive, ultimately infectious. During the revolution, the July 26 movement planted bombs here. Now they treat the place like a national museum. (Ask a Cu­ban Communist what he thinks. Watch him laugh and tell you that when he was a juventud rebelde he saw Liberace make his grand entrance here riding on an elefante. Yes, and he was playing the pi­ano.) With a maximum of mucho mass flouncing, the whole chorus appears in pink Flash Gordon jumpsuits singing “Never Again.” The show’s not over yet, folks: it’s time for La Habana Conga! A multicolored waterfall is descending in the background. The palm trees are scin­tillating with red, blue, and silver lights. Dry-ice geysers are shooting up at our feet. Everyone is singing Yo soy Tropi­cana! (“What’s this about orange juice?” a drunken gringo wants to know.)

The performers tell us they are a col­lective. They thank some visiting Ruma­nians, the Central American boxing champs, a Yugoslav trade delegation. They offer a fraternal hand to the Soviet people. You offer a fraternal hand to the nearest living creature and go off to dance La Habana Conga yourself.

Compared to Patakín, the new Gutiérrez Alea, Hasta Cierto Punto (To a Cer­tain Point ), is fairly predictable stuff. Al­though beautifully paced and edited, it’s a small film that, as Alea himself ob­serves, owes quite a bit in its mixture of drama and verité to Sara Gómez’s One Way or Another. A married, middle-aged dramatist, working on a script about the problems of women in the labor force, gets involved with a young compañera who works in the port, raising a number of not too startling questions about the relations between the sexes (as well as the classes ). Still, it was satisfying to see the film win the grand prize. Everyone was relieved that one of the hometown boys had come through.

Few things are duller than film festival award ceremonies. The halls where they’re held are often embarrassingly empty. The Cubans solve this problem by making invitations to a reception hosted by Fidel Castro contingent on attending the ceremonies — which are worse than most, since every ovation is a standing one of militant solidaridad. Afterwards, there’s a long wait over at the Palace of the Revolution, but finally the doors open, you’re on line, and there he is­ — large and graying with an unhealthy­-looking ruddy complexion and deep wrin­kles around his uncannily glowing eyes — ­el último diablo, the Cuban of Cubans in a spiffy olive green dress uniform. A quick hypnotized handshake and on to the best spread we’ve seen: lobster, shrimp, skewered chunks of barbecued chicken and pork, mounds of spicy corn­meal casserole, broiled red snapper, huge breads baked in the shapes of alligators. (“Now I know why they wouldn’t let us bring cameras,” someone cracks.)

Everybody is busy gorging themselves, washing the food down with 30-year-old rum — smooth as satin and straight to the cerebral cortex — when it suddenly be­comes apparent that . . . He’s in the room! It’s Fidelmania! Forget Pete See­ger, the evening’s other celeb and possi­bly the only man in Havana wearing a flannel shirt, Fidel is instantly besieged by a frantic mob of filmmakers desper­ately flacking their films. “Hey, Fidel! Did you see my movie? I’ll get you a special screening, man!” Methodically making his way around the room, Fidel seems to have come alive working the crowd. Only five minutes before, people were criticizing the Cubans for using actresses to hand out the awards — so tacky, so macho. Now, it’s as if Robert Redford had turned up at your neighborhood Pathmark. Reserved Brits clutch souve­nir swizzle sticks and swear to treasure them forever. Seasoned feminists tremble like schoolgirls, stuff napkins in their mouths, and shriek, “He touched me!” Canny pol that he is, Fidel does have an eye for the ladies — patting their heads, kissing their cheeks, whispering in their ears.

Functioning on automatic pilot, I’ve blundered into excellent field position just as Fidel comes around the bend. He spots the attractive compañera next to me, and as he rushes over to shake her hand for the third time, she tells him, “This guy has a question for you.”

“Right,” I say. “It’s about beisbol.

Beisbol. The entourage stops dead. Suddenly it’s me and Fidel and the trans­lator and the bodyguards and the compa­ñera in the bizarrely world-historic eye of the storm. “Yes,” I say. “I want to know why Cuban baseball uses the designated hitter.”

The translator translates. Fidel consid­ers the question and begins framing his reply. It’s like a major policy statement. “The designated hitter,” he says through the translator, “is part of the official in­ternational rules of baseball. As a mem­ber of the international community, Cuba, of course, must adhere to these rules . . . ”

“Wait a minute,” I hear myself say. This must be the 30-year-old rum talk­ing. “The designated hitter isn’t part of the official rules of baseball. Only one of the major leagues even uses it — the American League. Why should Cuba copy the American League?”

All around us Cubans are beginning to laugh. Did the yanqui catch Fidel? Clear­ly, the ball is still in my court, but I don’t know what to say next. Pitcher is Fidel’s position. Should I ask him how he likes giving up his turn at bat? (Ordene!) Or would that seem unduly provocative? Should I inquire how this specialization fits in with his conception of the New Socialist Man? Too theoretical. Cau­tiously, I decide to venture an opinion. “Speaking for myself, I think the desig­nated hitter ruins the strategy of the game.”

But now Fidel has formulated a line. Quickly he begins speaking through the interpreter. “That is regressive,” he maintains, cocking his head earnestly. “We must not be afraid to change the existing rules. The rules of all games must be called into question.” Now Fidel is beginning to cook: “For example,” he says, “I think we should make new rules for basketball. I propose we have three kinds of basketball. One for people who are under five feet tall. Another for peo­ple who are five and a half feet tall. And a third for people who are over six feet tall.” Fidel is watching me intently. “And that way,” he concludes, “the Vietnamese will be able to win a basketball game!”

The Vietnamese! What is this, 1968? The Vietnamese won their basketball game 10 years ago! I jumped all over Fi­del’s first pitch, but this curve ball has me baffled. The Cubans laugh. I laugh. Fidel grins: He pumps my hand vigorous­ly and the cult of personality moves on. I’m immediately surrounded by a mini­cult of Brits and Americans. What did he say? What did you say? What is a desig­nated hitter, anyway? Some guy actually wants to set up an interview. Mañana for that, compañero.

Mañana, I’m on the plane wishing I’d spent more time at the beach and still wondering what that riff meant. In bring­ing up baseball was I reminding Fidel of Cuba’s cultural links to the United States? And in invoking Vietnam was he alluding to the limitations of U.S. power? The Cuban identification with Vietnam is total. Was Fidel suggesting we judge Cuba on its own terms? And is that a novelty Americans can’t bear? ■

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The Greatest Film Review I’ve Ever Read

Orson Welles’s notoriously troubled adaptation of Othello finally hit the Criterion Collection with a gorgeous new edition several weeks ago. That the set includes two release versions of the film, from 1952 and ’55, should give you some small hint as to the picture’s chaotic production and exhibition history. But the occasion of this long-awaited home video arrival brings to mind something else for me: a film review that, 25 years ago, in many ways changed my life.

I was an eighteen-year-old college freshman in March of 1992 when I opened up an issue of the Village Voice and found J. Hoberman writing about a restoration and re-release of Welles’s film maudit. After reading the review, I did something I had never done before: I dropped what I was doing and headed to the movie theater, immediately, to see the film in question. The theater, however, was in New York City; I was in New Haven, Connecticut. So, I had to skip my classes and travel two hours on a Metro-North train, then another half-hour on the subway.

I realize that “going to see an Orson Welles movie in New York City” ranks amusingly low in the grand pantheon of Crazy Things People Did During Their Freshman Year of College. But no review had ever done anything like this to me. (Few have since.) I’d read great criticism before, but this was the first time I truly understood its power. Like a tractor beam, the review had pulled me across state lines and into a darkened theater, to watch a movie I’d never heard of before.

Looking at the piece again today, I’m still wowed by it: its economy and thoroughness, the way Hoberman eloquently condenses so much history, analysis, and appreciation into one page, while somehow also working in references to Oscar Micheaux, Raul Ruiz, André Bazin, and the Clarence Thomas nomination hearings. But there’s more to it than that — there’s that certain mystery that turns the review itself into a work of art.

To fully appreciate Welles’s Othello, you have to know something about the crazy circumstances in which it was made. His original financier went broke, and the director was left in Morocco, trying, as Hoberman puts it, “to figure out how to shoot a costume movie without costumes.” Over the next several years, Welles had to shoot parts of the film in different countries and continents, sometimes with different actors. “Abandoned by producers, deserted by cast members, the director/star raised money to continue shooting by acting in other people’s films, including Prince of Foxes, The Third Man, and The Black Rose (from which he also managed to appropriate some sets), plowing his salary back into his labor of love.” The story of the making of Othello could itself be a movie. And it was: 1979’s essay-documentary Filming Othello (also included in the Criterion set, among loads of other great features) would be Welles’s last completed work.

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But Hoberman offers much more than a history lesson. He deftly weaves the circumstances of Othello’s production with its aesthetic: “Taking necessity as its muse, Othello found its form,” he writes, then goes on to suggest that this makes the film singular. Describing how Welles’s scrappiness led to its own kind of cinematic poetry, Hoberman veers into the rhapsodic. “This is a movie of speaking shadows and mute reflections,” he observes — a lovely bit of prose that also happens to be accurate: Sometimes, the figures on screen are stand-ins and their dialogue has been dubbed, much of it by Welles himself; we don’t see their faces when they speak, and when we do see their faces, they’re quiet.

It is that kind of disorientation that Hoberman finds so alive and unforgettable — and his words convey both the electricity of Welles’s imagery and his own enthusiasm. Here he is on the movie’s opening scene:

Like Kane, Othello is structurally elegiac. The hero’s life is over before the movie begins. The pre-credit sequence has Othello’s body borne aloft along a castle’s parapet. Seen mainly in silhouette, a procession winds its way across to the accompaniment of ritualistic moan. For counterpoint, the treacherous Iago (Irish actor Micheal Mac Liammoir) is thrown into a cage and hoisted up to helplessly froth and dangle in the sky above Othello’s funeral. However hokey the individual angles, the modernistic yammering, the total effect is one of startling abstraction and overwhelming hysteria — the sorrowful aftershock of some cosmic catastrophe.

I believe it was after reading that particular passage, with those sci-fi overtones, that I knew I had to clear out my schedule and head to New York.

And yet, after all that, I didn’t actually like Othello when I first saw it. Womp womp.

It seemed to me a cacophonous mess. The awkward cutting and framing distracted; the seams showed. I felt at times like I was watching a montage of scenes from someone’s attempted version of Othello (which of course is exactly what Welles’s film is). It was weird to see Welles himself, with his face (in Hoberman’s words) “discreetly darkened,” playing the Moor — a theatrical convention of the era that seemed troubling in 1992, and registers as even more so now. I was relatively familiar with the play; they’d made us memorize its soliloquies in high school just a year or two before. I still didn’t quite get what made Welles’s short, fractured riff so momentous.

So, I returned to the review.

Some of the best film criticism works both as a prelude and a look back at the work in question: You can read it to decide whether you want to see something, or you can read it afterward, to better understand what it was exactly that you saw. Hoberman’s infectious prose had compelled me to see Othello. Now, it offered an approach for better appreciating the film.

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There is a subtle, animating thesis at work in this review. Hoberman had always been close to the avant-garde, and his admiration for Othello comes from the picture’s weird, pseudo-found-footage quality. All those distracting cuts and odd frames — those seams — that had bothered me are a part of its greatness. Here he is again:

Othello does have the courage of its restrictions — and it transcends them. At 92 minutes, the film moves very quickly. Every shot seems trimmed and the continual cutting on movement creates a roiling, hectic quality in which each brief action exists in its own eternal present. The film is full of jarring shifts, disorienting angles, sudden jumps to close-up. The sound texture ebbs and flows — long shots reverberate with booming echoes of wind and surf. Lines are declaimed behind thickets of colonnades and effaced by flourishes of reaction shots. Seemingly off-kilter, the result is, in fact, a very supple structure that allows Welles to accommodate all manner of mismatched footage.

The movie is a patchwork, and Welles was unafraid to present it as such. It seems to change form with every cut and dissolve. It never does what you expect it to. By revealing the circumstances of its production, Othello achieves a new sort of greatness, and maybe even helps point the way for the cinema of the future — to the explosive experimentalism and fractured narratives of the Sixties and Seventies.

This review of Othello, while deeply important to me, is not one of those pieces that’s bound for the history books or the big critical anthologies. (They still have those, right?) It’s not Pauline Kael proclaiming the greatness of Last Tango in Paris, or Andrew Sarris confidently declaring Psycho a masterpiece, or Roger Ebert trashing North, or Bosley Crowther missing the boat on Bonnie and Clyde. It doesn’t break an old form, nor does it present a radical new one. No, it’s just a critic — one of the greatest ever, admittedly — hammering out 1,338 words on deadline about a film he loves, and making clear his passion for cinema itself in the process. As such, it is glorious.

“Screw it, we’ll fix it in post.” Welles pursues a dream.

Below, you can find Hoberman’s review, both in digital form and as it originally appeared in the March 3, 1992, issue of the Village Voice.

Moor Better Blues

By J. Hoberman

Othello, the movie that marked Orson Welles’s break with Hollywood, was also the first film since Citizen Kane that Welles made entirely on his own terms. Although modest enough in means to have been commissioned for educational TV, Othello is also a windblown, turbulent, bravura movie — premiered exactly 40 years ago, it’s arguably Welles’s most delirious exercise in style.

It has been observed that, of all Shakespeaare’s tragedies, Othello is the one most suited to grand display. Welles’s adaptation, however, changes one’s sense of the word ostentatious. Four years in the making, this masterpiece of perseverance flaunts a wily pragmatism worthy of the pioneer black independent Oscar Micheaux; in its flagrantly cheap, go-for-baroque visual pyrotechnics, it’s the basic text for most Raul Ruiz. Abandoned by producers, deserted by cast members, the director/star raised money to continue shooting by acting in other people’s films, including Prince of Foxes, The Third Man, and The Black Rose (from which he also managed to appropriate some sets), plowing his salary back into his labor of love.

Othello was originally to have been made with Italian financing on a Roman soundstage — then, in the south of France, and then, in Venice. When the original producer went broke, stranding cast and crew in the North African city of Mogador, Welles’s first problem was to figure out how to shoot a costume movie without costumes. His solution was to set the murder of Roderigo in a Turkish bath (actually a fish market made steamy with burning incense) and to film another sequence by dressing extras in armor fashioned from sardine cans. Taking necessity as its muse, Othello found its form.

The film was produced in fits and starts and it has been circulated the same way. A version released in 1980 went on to disappear in a confusion of legal titles; another restoration, this one supervised by Welles’s daughter Beatrice and concentrating on the movie’s soundtrack, is currently at the Cinema II. No additional footage appears but the film’s been aurally tidied up. The musical score was remastered, the dialogue readings resynchronized — it’s a bit like encountering a grimy monument that’s recently been sandblasted.

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Of course, one of Othello’s great perversities was that the movie’s sound was always subordinate to its image. For Welles, Othello was “a jigsaw puzzle I had to hold in my mind.” Consecutive sequences were filmed years apart; the director once told Andre Bazin that he was never able to get Iago, Desdemona, and Roderigo together for a single shot, that “every time you see someone standing with his back turned or with a hood over his head, you can be sure that it’s a stand-in.” Virtually all of the dialogue was shot wild and later dubbed, with Welles himself providing the voice of Iago’s lackey Roderigo — among others.

This is a movie of speaking shadows and mute reflections. To a certain degree, the restoration has revealed Welles’s sleight of hand. As Richard Jameson observes in the current Film Comment, “a disconcerting but inevitable side-effect [of the resynchronized sound track] is to emphasize those shots in which Welles selected a take when the actor’s lips weren’t moving!” In the 1978 The Filming of Othello, Welles’s last film and a hall of mirrors documentary that employs many of the same strategies as Othello itself (creative geography, extreme fragmentation, auteurial ventriloquism), Welles maintains that there are scenes in which “Iago changed continents in the middle of a phrase.”

Othello was eventually entered in the 1952 Cannes Film Festival under the Moroccan flag and there shared the Palme d’Or with Renato Castellani’s now-forgotten neorealist fantasy Two Cents Worth of Hope. When it finally opened in the U.S. in 1955, Time sneered at Welles’s tawdry “brummagem genius” and rampant megalomania: “Depend on it, the camera will be angled upward from the floor so that Welles looms at least ten feet high while the other actors seem scarcely more than midgets.”

Indeed, Othello — which opens with an iris-in on Welles’s face — provided the erstwhile wunderkind with his last youthful role. Welles was 34 when Othello went into production and he would never again cast himself as a romantic lead — which is how he plays the tragic Moor. Although Welles’s Othello, a mumbling construction in noble close-ups and sidelong glances, is a relatively uncomplicated figure, the movie reeks of psychodramatic subtext. Abundant mirror shots underscore the hero’s self-absorption; the camera rotates madly around the bed whereon Othello dies. Welles, no less than his alter ego, kills the thing he most loves — namely himself.

Like Kane, Othello is structurally elegiac. The hero’s life is over before the movie begins. The pre-credit sequence has Othello’s body borne aloft along a castle’s parapet. Seen mainly in silhouette, a procession winds its way across to the accompaniment of ritualistic moan. For counterpoint, the treacherous Iago (Irish actor Micheal Mac Liammoir) is thrown into a cage and hoisted up to helplessly froth and dangle in the sky above Othello’s funeral. However hokey the individual angles, the modernistic yammering, the total effect is one of startling abstraction and overwhelming hysteria — the sorrowful aftershock of some cosmic catastrophe.

As an actor, Welles dominates Othello the way he must have dominated the production — always pushing forward, the lone character who seems able to take decisive action. Given the film’s Moroccan locations, the North African music, the strong Mediterranean light, Welles’s discreetly darkened Othello should be more at home than anyone else. Indeed, Welles proves the most “liberal” of Othello’s interpreters. His playing of the Moor is in no way exotic. On the contrary, Othello is not an Other — merely the best man to marry Desdemona and govern Cyprus.

As Welles’s Othello has no unconscious — unless it’s the movie — the burden of neurosis is projected onto Iago, who, like the filmmaker, is a master of subterfuge. (That Othello and Iago are symbiotic was borne out during the Clarence Thomas hearings when, trying to be helpful to Thomas, Senator Simpson attributed Iago’s lines to Othello: “He that filches from me my good name, robs me of that which not enriches him and makes me poor indeed.”) Welles wanted an Iago who genuinely resented him. Mac Liammóir’s relationship with Welles was frought with professional jealousy; it seems significant that Everett Sloane, who plated the dwarfish Bernstein to Welles’s outsized Kane and Rita Hayworth’s disabled husband in The Lady from Shanghai, was the movie’s original Iago. The essential relationship is between these two, although the evident fragility of Suzanne Cloutier’s sweetly doleful Desdemona gives her characterization a certain clarity.

In late 1951, while Othello was still being edited (far too prosaic a term for the frantic matching, dubbing, and cobbling together that the process entailed), Welles stirred up additional publicity by going to London to stage Shakespeare’s play. The drama critic Kenneth Tynan, who nastily dissed the production as “Citizen Coon,” was particularly hostile: “Orson Welles has the courage of his restrictions.”

Othello does have the courage of its restrictions — and it transcends them. At 92 minutes, the film moves very quickly. Every shot seems trimmed and the continual cutting on movement creates a roiling, hectic quality in which each brief action exists in its own eternal present. The film is full of jarring shifts, disorienting angles, sudden jumps to close-up. The sound texture ebbs and flows — long shots reverberate with booming echoes of wind and surf. Lines are declaimed behind thickets of colonnades and effaced by flourishes of reaction shots. Seemingly off-kilter, the result is, in fact, a very supple structure that allows Welles to accommodate all manner of mismatched footage.

Even André Bazin, who had praised the long takes and deep focus of Citizen Kane as the democratic antidote to the authoritarian deceptions of Eisensteinian montage, found a way to praise Welles’s sleight of hand. “The artifice is in the open and recreated from entirely natural materials,” he wrote. “Othello unfolds in the open, but not at all, however, in nature.” It is as if Welles wrested his studio from the raw material that came to hand.