Speak, Memory

An artist contemplates Cuba's mid-century utopian hopes

"Everything happens to me too early or too late," laments the hero of Memories of Underdevelopment (1968), Cuban director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's masterpiece about a bourgeois playboy with intellectual aspirations, who chooses to stay behind in Havana when his estranged wife and family fled Castro's revolution for Miami. Inconsolable Memories, Canadian artist Stan Douglas's brilliantly seductive film installation at the Studio Museum in Harlem, imagines a future for Alea's hero up to the controversial 1980 Mariel boat lift, which sent a new procession of Cuban exiles to the shores of Florida.

This time our hero, Sergio, a black architect, is 38 years old in 1980; years earlier, he had watched as his wife Laura and best friend Pablo (both white) abandoned the country for points north. Pablo, upon leaving, gave Sergio his 1956 Cadillac Eldorado; Laura left him her family's penthouse apartment, a mid-century modernist palace where he spends time brooding over his failed relationships with women and gazing through a telescope at downtown Havana. We witness these assorted departures and ruminations (shot in velvety black-and-white) through fragmentary flashbacks, whose sequence keeps changing as the loops on two synchronized 16mm projectors switch on and off. The result: existentialist characters compelled to relive moments whose meanings are continually shifting.

At one point, Sergio lands in prison; it took multiple viewings before I understood the reason. (The sometimes-blurry sound didn't help; it seemed both the result of a technical glitch and part of an artistic strategy to frustrate comprehension.) Later (or is it earlier?), Sergio gets himself invited into his old apartment by its current inhabitant, a comely woman wearing a polka-dotdress Laura mistakenly left behind.

This installation is accompanied by a series of beautiful, large-scale color photographs Douglas has taken on recent trips to Cuba. Many focus on the "adaptive reuse" of buildings whose original purposes have been sacrificed to more pressing needs. Bank lobbies have become parking lots; movie theaters are carpentry workshops; one corner of a private home sells sandwiches and drinks; an elegant villa now houses a refrigerator-repairshop. Numerous contemporary photographers have found inspiration in Havana's picturesque ruins, where a variety of temporalities intersect: the remnants of a former colonial playground, the utopian hopes of mid-century, and the present-day austerities that threaten to reduce it all to rubble. Devoid of nostalgia, Douglas's deeply sober pictures reward the patient examination that teases out these multiple perspectives.

In relation to his film, they also pose the question: Is the adaptive re-use of human beings and their emotions possible? Freud—and Proust, who would appear to be Douglas's muse—would say that's what we do whenever we fall in love: We harness that old feeling and bring our memories of past affections to bear upon the person standing before us. (One beautiful woman in a polka-dot dress is as good as another.) The revolution promised an eternal present, but people like Sergio had trouble adjusting—they were glad to see the old order go, but unwilling (or unable) to marry the moment. And everything in Inconsolable Memories—from its patently faked cinematic backgrounds to its characters trapped in time, to its own status as a kind of cinematic remake—agrees with them.

When was it exactly that living with perfect attention to the present moment became impossible? I'd like to blame it on certain late-capitalist phenomena: cell phones, iPods, pagers, and BlackBerries. But reel-to-reel tape recorders work just as well in Douglas's film as devices of alienation. And really, you'd need to go much further back—to a time before the first photographs were taken, or even before the first words (those signifiers of absence) were spoken.

Speaking of quasi-utopian pasts, it would seem truly churlish not to mention my esteemed colleague Fred W. McDarrah's wonderfully absorbing show, "Artists and Writers of the 60's and 70's," at Steven Kasher Gallery (521 West 23rd Street) through January 6. McDarrah was the primary photographer at this paper during its first 30 years. Over 100 vintage prints from his archives show assorted scene makers—from a boyish Bob Dylan to a wizened old Marcel Duchamp—getting down, getting arrested, getting naked, and making art. Where is the downtown of yesteryear? Will it come again?

 
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