The forms and gestures-attitudes of a body are the style of a body. Identity marks of a body: its signs, its tremors, its sparkles. In short, its writing. The body graphed and taking hold of its legibility before others and in front of the mirror of the self (the mirror of the self is also the others). The body in tune with what the self believes its body is or could be.
My first premise invites me to say the following: it is not so late, I suppose, to recover the looseness and dilation of the concept of queer, which in general is what stands out and upsets, what is feared for being strange, what is repulsive for contradicting regularity and “naturalness,” what is immoral for breaking the norms.
Ugliness of the body, for example. Set against the backdrop of androcentric rules of beauty, ugliness is also queer by dint of being weird. The eroticization of ugliness (without going into its sexualization) is queer. Here is the sexual performance of the disproportionate, the unnatural, the a-normal.
The ungodly (in the Greek sense) is queer: you ignore the mandate of the gods, you disbelieve in their power over the will of mortals, and you can be accused of impiety because, in addition, by not believing you have the possibility of corrupting others.
I say it again: it is not too late to return to the origin, to the epistemological question of queerness before the sense of queerness narrowed and gained an exclusionary, constrained sharpness, by holding a set of meanings that would then only belong, exclusively, to the universe of LGBTIQ+ eroticism and sexuality, to gender, sexual orientation, gender roles, “due appearance,” etc., etc., etc.
If you are queer, that means today, very generally, that you are neither a “normal” man nor a “normal” woman, whatever “normal” means.
Let us accept, then, that queer is, in recent years, a hazy but agglutinating solution to what is contained (allusively) in the (lengthening and lengthening) LGBTIQ+ acronym, beyond the fact that queer remains a hypertrophic word as a concept. A kind of endometrium in suspense, unsealed, osmotic.
Queer as colloid, as theoretical paramecium, which moves and changes. The queer where the canonical two already becomes a three or a four. Perhaps a five. Transitory sexual behaviors, which do not mark but moments, seasons, persons. Queer as sliding states.
My second premise would be this: I have no trouble acknowledging that it was Roger Ebert’s essay on Tales of the Pale August Moon (1953), a masterpiece that is now 70 years old, my first “fulcrum” for writing about cinema without straying from what cinema tells (and doesn’t tell). That text, so personal and sincere, establishes a style where the foundation is the description of images and, consequently, the analytical description of actions. My second “point of support” is more conjectural, sententious, perhaps objective. It is Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematograph, which constitutes a defense of cinema’s own (exclusive and characteristic) language over and above its expanded theatricality.
Having said that, I would like to think about four Cuban films that are very different from each other and that focus, with attentive lucidity, on queer behavior.
I Know There’s Something Going on with You
In Afuera (2012), a short film by Vanessa Portieles, the greatest success is the graphing of the longing for the other. Is longing effable? Hardly. The film focuses on the ungraspable subjection—of will and spirit—to a remembrance born in a bond, perhaps homosexual, sustained inside prison. It is as simple as that. A bond that has seven-eighths submerged because it alludes to companionship, to the foundational, inevitable and necessary status of human companionship. What kind of story is woven and unwoven there, in spite of the very essentialized frames of the heterosexual subject, backstitched (insistently) by a marginal ethics, which includes (as is mandatory) alcohol, verbal violence, entanglements with another woman, etc.? That is the emotional context. But there is another context: the rafters’ crisis, in the early 1990s. There is no electricity. There is hardly any food. And yet, there is an inner world: that of Ángel, a bricklayer under probation.
But that bond, drawn with artistic discretion, is not exactly a friendship between men, for it has had its incandescence, lacks words, and completely remakes (by rioting against everything else) Angel’s self. And just when what, in the recent history of the island, is called El Maleconazo is taking place—we are in August 1994—Ángel, his wife (Mirta) and his daughter take to the streets with the intention of doing something that will allow them to leave Cuba.
The bricklayer, discouraged and with his head elsewhere, lets himself be dragged by the whirlwind of the situation, and suddenly we see him attack a policeman. The gestures of both are precise, but in Ángel there is a kind of surrender. He confronts the policeman, does he throw the first blow?, receives others and is handcuffed. There is no doubt that he wants to get out of this maelstrom at any cost! He is a prisoner under surveillance, he has been warned, and he will be sent back to the correctional facility from where he has been released and where his friend would be waiting for him.
The film begins with a sequence where Ángel and the other guy measure each other with their eyes in the prison yard. They observe each other, study each other, and almost recognize each other in something impalpable, vague, but real. Then comes Angel’s return, the stampede of those who leave or want to leave Cuba, the pressures of his wife and friends. And, after the confrontation with the policeman, Angel returns to the prison and embraces the man who is waiting for him. In the scene, which lasts a few seconds, Bola de Nieve’s voice can be heard singing: You don’t suspect / these immense furies / that dominate me / every time you come near… and although there has been no intention in you to provoke what I feel / you’re going to find out once and for all that I love you… I love you.
“I know there’s something going on with you,” Mirta says to Angel. They are both in bed, incapable of communicating with each other. The gay body is destitute as tangibility. The gay body is an intensity of senses and Angel senses it.
Why Should This Island Love the Damn Drama So Much?
Irishman Paddy Breathnach directed 2015’s Viva, the story of Jesús, a motherless transvestite who one day receives an unexpected visit from his father, the man who abandoned him as a child. Almost stentorian, the drama of young Jesús—he wants to act and sing, and Mama, the owner of a salon, agrees, and he decides to call himself Viva—falls very well within the Cuban context, but with the usual dose of melodrama found in films interested in referencing the marginal queer Havana world.
Melodrama is to queer cinema what expressionist strokes are to painting.
In its intra-histories, Havana is novelistic, of course, and very foul-mouthed. That is the reason why the city divide itself many times, passing through Havana as a marvel city (not including the tenements of Teniente Rey Street, nor the terrible potholes of the Diez de Octubre avenue), the maritime and colonial Havana, the residual and elegant Havana of El Vedado, the Havana of the sex trade, or the cosmopolitan and secret Havana of the big residences, of the expensive bars, of the restaurants with invisible owners.
Viva acts and elaborates his character—he is skinny, a bit sloppy when he lets his penis to show against his dress, and prefers to wear short-haired wigs—until the day his father reappears and beats him in the middle of the show when he discovers him there. He is an alcoholic ex-boxer, violent, at odds with existence. A man without horizons, withered, full of sadness. He has returned from prison (where he was because of the death of a man) and Jesús’ life becomes complicated. However, the man who has returned has done so to die. He is granted his freedom because he has cancer and his life is running out.
But Jesús learns of this when he has already reconciled with this strange being to whom he offers the only thing he has: affection. The film is the tracing of that process of reconciliation, between the acts to drive away misery (prostituting himself under another man by whom he lets himself be sodomized very harshly in exchange for money) and the moments when Viva dazzles the audience.
“Why should this island love the damn drama so much?” cries Mama. The reformulation of Jesús’ existence passes through Viva’s definitive addition to his soul, and also passes through the ordeal of the decay and death of his father, whose corpse he painstakingly cleans. Both have regained friendship, inner companionship, confessionalism, and Ángel even becomes proud of Viva when he sees her surrounded by applause.
The film has some excesses, but it would not be improper to say, at the same time, that they are those that belong, congruently, to the story told, not to its context or to its presumed anthropological inquiry, which fortunately does not exist. In a way it is visually austere and manages frugality as an effective resource.
“He didn’t even hide it correctly; you can see that cock from Cienfuegos!” exclaims one of the transvestites backstage when Viva comes on stage for the first time. Is it important to hide the cock correctly, to suppress the proof of its existence in a figure that, even when it is known to have a penis there, should not show its signs? Viva’s epic femininity, with the bulge of the dick marked on the front of the skirt, undoubtedly transforms him into something special.
Here is a transvestite who sings. By day he is Jesús, a gay man walking through Central Park. By night he is Viva. His mannerism is sparing and tinged with sadness. His homosexuality is “properly passive” (let’s put it this way, flattering the coarse conventions, so fallacious at times, between the top male and the bottom male), and his introversion is the other side of that character who gesticulates spiritedly on stage, in search of a medullar and energetic frankness with respect to the daily stripping of his self.
Jorge de León’s El bosque de Sherwood (2008) expressly, but somewhat sarcastically, points out its documentary status. The aforementioned forest is a site of sexual encounters between men, usually young men, in the wooded surroundings of the corner of Zapata and G, two well-known streets in Havana’s El Vedado. There, in such a place—a space full of reliefs, but also intensified and watched over by passwords, suspicions, covers up, and restraint—, the camera, apparently erratic and always on the verge of witnessing moments of explicit sex—it does, but in a sort of dissemination, and with a cautious scrupulousness, as if avoiding the obviousness of a basic mechanics—, enters into the fleetingness of the intimate and records, under the sarcastic imperative of a voice-over, the recombinations of those encounters.
The voice-over belongs, what a tremendous contrast, to a child. From his innocence, what happens there becomes (in our mind) an analog of what happened to Robin Hood and his companions in the legendary Sherwood Forest, that region that becomes, after all, the place for the exercise of independence and fellowship, and which is, according to the myth, beyond the reach of Prince John’s soldiers.
The film is, in short, a nocturnal string of couples fucking contrasted by a child’s voice that tells us, once again, of Robin Hood’s heroism.
The story makes sense in the modulations of the timbre of the child’s voice, and thus we see various sex scenes where the body, without being completely hidden, is shaping, segment by segment, what seems to me the achievement of this film in relation to the issue of the body: a typology of that figure that the most despotic paradigms would call a sexual outlaw—that outlaw who exiles himself or is effectively banished—, in a city where marginalization, acceptance, assumption and contempt draw a complex plot, saturated with ambiguities, between the uncovered face, double standards, gay mythography and the masks of the exercise of sex.
To fuck in Havana is a classic notoriety, but doing it in the thickets of those areas, littered with condoms and cigarettes, becomes an inexorable adventure.
“Oh, damn!” exclaims, very satisfied, one of the young men, who has just been penetrated, with enthusiastic verve (a non-stop pistoning), by another. They are sweaty bodies performing acts of manumission and daring on a theatrical stage, despite their innate naturalness. They are men who inherit a prestigious myth of manhood and courage from the perspective of desire, which is and yearns to be here as delectable as it is inclement.
Give Me a Kiss or This Is It
Santa y Andrés (2016), directed by Carlos Lechuga, is the story of a moral “realization” in the Cuban context of the repression, by “revolutionary authorities,” of “ideologically unreliable” intellectuals and artists. Santa, an agricultural worker, is assigned as a security guard for a homosexual writer, Andrés, who must not leave his house (he has lost the trust of the authorities) while an international congress is in session very close to the rural area where he lives or barely survives. The film is the process of Santa’s “awakening” to the human complexity of Andrés, a man who, from material poverty, fights hard for his happiness and his destiny as a writer.
Santa discovers that Andrés, apart from having been repeatedly beaten for “fag stuff”, has received, in the seventies, electroconvulsive therapy. And she also discovers that he is a man long repressed, whose stigmas consist of not being a revolutionary, being a writer and being a faggot. Telling this about Lechuga’s film is relevant. And it is relevant for one reason: its definitive topicality.
There is an emotional, sexual, sordid, irresistible, morbidly wrathful and scathing bond between Andrés and this character that is also a mute; a young man who visits him, eats at his house, has sex with him and beats him from time to time. The sequence where these issues are invested with an equivocal, hesitant, afflictive lyricism, of a hard sadness, is the one that relates the reunion of the mute with Andrés when the mute, after hurting him and causing Andrés’ admission in a rustic clinic, comes after a few days to his house to apologize and, without knowing how to do it, begins to kiss the chest of his lover, his wound, his neck, while Andrés barely resists.
The mute, in his role as active, eagerly pulls out his penis (curved, semi-erect) and starts swinging it gracefully. As far as I know, this has never been seen before in Cuban cinema (I say this with fruition and complete approval, of course). And Andrés asks the mute for a kiss on the mouth. “Give me a kiss or this is it!” he says. But active gays are very manly and don’t kiss their partners, and the mute, although he has become very affectionate, is one of those men. So Andrés, when the mute is about to use cooking oil to lubricate himself, beckons to him and indicates that he is the one who is going to penetrate him. To this the mute does agree. To the kiss, no.
Afuera exhibits a meticulous syntax where the style is plotting a chain of emotions: from the longing for friendship to the longing for a subject that is a very likely object of desire. And it covers the whole spectrum of feelings without settling on any one of them. It is a very careful and ambiguous film. El bosque de Sherwood becomes, by presenting itself as a documentary, the scathing representation of a representation, to which is added an anti-canonical re-reading of a glorious myth: Robin Hood and his “vigilante comrades.” Viva becomes a narrative poem about the survival of the best emotions and the real identity of the self. The stubbornness of this act, to survive, is the axis of the film. Surviving even the disgust and discomfort of prostitution. Santa y Andrés is a novelistic film, also about survival and the powers of the individual, and it successfully avoids becoming a libel. Andrés is a writer, but his body is also part of his writing.
In all four, sex, its presumption and its expansive exercise, create autonomic moments of great energy. To the greater glory of the eager wind of freedom.