Juan Carlos Tabío or the meaning of cinema

For the inhabitants of La Fe, the small town where the story of El elefante y la bicicleta (1994) is set, going every night to see the film projected by El Isleño implies, at the same time, having fun and a growing awareness, escaping from their daily routine and reflecting on themselves, escaping from reality and meditating on the destiny of their town. Cinema is the detonator of a revolution, of a feeling for transforming the world. Like the characters in El elefante y la bicicleta ―a major work of the national cinematography, the most beautiful tribute to the seventh art ever made in the island― Juan Carlos Tabío turned cinema into a self-sufficient space and a vehicle to meditate on his circumstances. In the dramatic universe he founded, cinema is presented as an artistic expression that confers enough lucidity to think about reality, to change it ―as the neighbors of La Fe did― or to endure it ―as the residents of Yaragüey do every day in El cuerno de la abundancia (2008).

In Juan Carlos Tabío’s films a cycle is fulfilled that starts precisely from the confidence in transforming reality and ends in despair in the face of its appearance. The films of this director go from illusion to disenchantment. And, in this sense, they constitute a deep immersion in the sensibility of the Cuban nation. The poetics of this filmmaker has been nourished by the revision of many of the accidents that make up the Cuban imaginary, those strata of social subjectivity that order its physical and aspirational world. With filmic astuteness and anthropological acuity, this director traversed in his films Cuba’s spiritual journey from the 1980s to the present.

In Se permuta (1983), his first fiction feature, Gloria’s desire for social climbing is not shared by her daughter Yolanda, a young woman born in the new society, who is convinced that her individual will is enough to change the circumstances and improve society. This same generational contradiction ―which Tabío uses to map certain profiles of the social logic of that time: class differences, racism, civic stratification or bureaucratic opportunism― is taken up again in Plaff o demasiado miedo a la vida (1988), a sort of thematic variation of Se permuta, albeit of greater dramaturgical complexity and much more daring in its aesthetic proposal. The character of Clarita, rather than confront her mother-in-law Concha’s paranoia and inability to be happy, must endure an environment immersed in a retarding bureaucratic debacle that represses her individuality, her desire to make, she herself, the revolution.

Meanwhile, the suspense in which the characters of El elefante y la bicicleta are left in the shot that ends the film ―they look expectantly at themselves on the movie screen, intrigued and dissatisfied with their immobility― is a questioning that becomes a collective failure in Lista de espera (2000). In El elefante y la bicicleta, they have been able to make the revolution, but in Lista de espera they can only suffer the scenario through which the revolution passed and dream of the realization of a utopia. Everyone in Lista de espera finds in the dream happiness, their personal fulfillment, the possibility of being what they expect of themselves; the dream ―presented at the narrative level not only as a change of reality, but as a strategy to characterize the collective sensibility― is the only space where these individuals can realize their desires, that which in reality is impossible for them to achieve. The bus station of Lista de espera, in the inverse sense of the village of El elefante y la bicicleta, is a cosmos, the epitome of a society stripped of any future, of any kind of confidence in tomorrow.

The loss of that confidence, the same anguish that plunges many of the characters in Lista de espera into sadness, is precisely what makes Alberto and Mercedes so deeply unhappy in Aunque estés lejos (2003). They are victims of a political truth and a history they do not recognize as their own. Cinema helps them to exorcize those demons, but even there the fatality of their personal tragedies overtakes them. The lives of the inhabitants of Yaragüey in El cuerno de la abundancia also fall prey to tragedy. The Contrera and Contreras families are determined to escape from a material environment that oppresses them emotionally and leads them to a miserable existence where they do not know how, they cannot find happiness.

What is truly surprising about this dramatic universe is its articulation within the framework of comedy, one of the most complex genres in the history of cinema. Juan Carlos Tabío knew how to base his authorship on this genre, in the same way that masters like Alfred Hitchcock or Charles Chaplin did. Few directors manage to make their own the conventions dictated by the genres, to apprehend them in an expressive and narrative system that differentiates them from others. The singularity that this creator imparted to comedy owes a great deal to the incorporation of Brechtian distancing mechanisms to its structure, something he achieved with such organicity that it becomes an enabling tool for comedy.

In addition to the multiple textual games, the allusions to and quotations from the history of Cuban and international cinema, and the metafictive techniques and of diegetic self-consciousness that Juan Carlos Tabío incorporated as intrinsic structural components to his conception of comedy, perhaps what definitely makes his work stand out among the members of his generation who also cultivated this genre is the authorial personality with which he tried to insert it in the tradition established by Charles Chaplin himself. Juan Carlos Tabío’s films were never limited to articulating a chain of hilarious sketches indebted to the absurd or the contradictions of everyday life in Cuba. He turned humor into a means to talk about the drama of living on this island. The vicissitudes and plot twists of his films are always aimed at supporting profound reflections on the life of the people and their destiny in Cuba. No matter the form humor takes in Juan Carlos Tabío’s films ―as a comedy of intrigue in Se permuta, more corrosive and sarcastic in Plaff, with a tendency to parody in El elefante y la bicicleta, in the style of an anecdotal grotesque in Lista de espera, as a characterizing mark of the characters in Fresa y chocolate― laughter is never an end, it is a catalyst. Comicality here always depends on a sharp anthropological observation.

Probably inherited from Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, the criticism of bureaucracy is one of the motifs that nourished the poetics of this director, and he returned to it again in each new film; the figure of the bureaucrat —in a generic sense— becomes one of the main antagonists that his main characters must face, who, like the latter, are also cut out of the social chorus. The bureaucracy as a theme is an obsession that has always concerned this director; suffice it to remember his ingenious short films La cadena and La entrevista, where the expressive pursuits will also be a strong accusation of the bureaucratic order, something that will return in the characters of Guillermo (Se permuta), Contreras (Plaff), Cristóbal (Lista de espera)…

Many other constants link the very personal styles of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío, in both can be appreciated a propensity for intertextuality and a tendency to dramatically functionalize space and art direction; this, among other aspects, explains the complicity with which they were able to co-direct those interesting works that are Fresa y chocolate and Guantanamera. The functionalization of space, supported by a careful art direction, in the case of Tabío, has its greatest formal finish in El elefante y la bicicleta, Lista de espera and El cuerno de la abundancia. These films articulate the location spaces as microcosms where the physical environment explains the collective tragedy of the characters, while at the same time forming metaphors of the insular condition.

A particularly important aspect of Tabío’s films, and closely related to spatial design, is the construction of the characters. This director had the intelligence, even when drawing archetypal roles ―and somehow his characters imply an allegorical dimension beyond their individualities, which makes them representative of behaviors and attitudes of the Cuban society― to create his characters starting from an attentive look at their context. The design of the characters was so important to Tabío that in Aunque estés lejos, he included a meditation on the use of stereotypes or the handling of typical characters in cinema. The group of characters in Plaff, Lista de espera, El elefante y la bicicleta and El cuerno de la abundancia ―without the need for psychological emphasis in their characterizations, and sometimes parodying themselves― are entities with a life of their own, that speak of the exceptionality of individuals, but also turn out to be concretizations of historical conflicts or lines of thought in the country. This superimposition between individuality and generic abstraction makes the design of characters one of the authorial conquests of this director.

I said before that the metatextual techniques and the Brechtian distancing are distinctive elements of Tabío’s poetics, fundamental for the reflexive character (on life and on cinema itself) that he imparted on his updating of the codes of comedy. In this aspect there is also a revision of the theoretical postulates of Julio García Espinosa, from whom the director of Se permuta takes the conception of cinema as a vehicle for laughter and, at the same time, as something that motivates thinking about the condition of representation in the cinema and about what is being represented. This is a principle that Tabío perfectly delineated in one of his early works of fiction, a jewel of our cinematography: Dolly Back, an overflow of creative ingenuity and skill in the handling of filmic language that constitutes a sort of ars poetica capable of explaining many of the creative and intellectual concerns of this filmmaker. A harmonious, disturbing and hilarious practice of cinema within cinema, Dolly Back, through the camera movement that informs the title, unveils various planes of reality as staging of a film, until at the end, the supposed director comments in an interview: “This film aims to make the viewer reflect on how deceptive appearances can be. The movie tries to show how any superficial judgment, any schematic view of reality leads to failure.”

This is a perspective that shows the kind of cinema that interested this filmmaker. All textual and metafictive games, in addition to enriching the narrative―it is enough to remember the leaps in the level of reality and the violence with which the diegesis is modified in Plaff, or the narrator of El cuerno de la abundancia, with that extraordinary sequence in which a given situation is staged in the manner of an American western, because that is how it was told to him by a person who likes westerns a lot ―are a way of stripping appearances before the eyes of the audience so that the awareness of what is true can emerge. In this way, Juan Carlos Tabío fused art and politics, in a surprising mixture between comedy and Brechtian distancing ―understood here as a protocol of thought about cinema itself―. Perhaps the organicity with which he made of the latter a dimension of comedy makes him one of our great filmmakers.

On January 18, sometime in the early hours of the morning, Juan Carlos Tabío passed away at the age of 77. With his death, Cuba bids farewell to the creator of one of the most solid works of our national cinematography. His broad culture not only allowed him to make movies of an impressive filmic quality, born of a will for taking aesthetic risks that even today still feels surprising, but also to undertake a lucid reflection on the country and its historical travails. This is, undoubtedly, the facet we will miss the most about this exceptional creator.

ÁNGEL PÉREZ
ÁNGEL PÉREZ
Ángel Pérez (b. San Germán, Holguín, Cuba, 1991). He has a degree in Art History. His articles and essays are published in books, anthologies, and both national and international magazines. Together with Javier L. Mora, he compiled and prefaced the volume Long Playing Poetry. Cuba: Generación Años Cero (Casa Vacía Publishing House. Richmond, Virginia, 2017), and with Jamila Medina the anthology Passport. Cuba: Poetry of the Zero Years (Catafixia Publisher, Guatemala, 2019). He is the recipient of the Caracol Prize for film criticism and essays granted by the UNEAC (2017 and 2019), the International Essay Prize from the magazine Temas (2019), as well as the Dador Creative Scholarship (2018), and the Pinos Nuevos Essay Prize (2020), both awarded by the Cuban Book Institute. He is the planner of the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, and a member of the Rialta staff.

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