Film Studies: The rapture: a tribute to the genius of Cabrera Infante

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An example: "Le Journal d'un Curé de Campagne [The Diary of a Country Priest, the 1951 film by Robert Bresson] is not a film, it is a cilice [a hair-cloth garment worn by monks]. Few movies are as anguished, as crushing, as desolating as this one. Its intention is to make the spectator suffer the spiritual tortures of the village priest, without recourse to description, never speaking of the sufferings in the soul of the priest, but placing the spectator between cassock and soul..."

An example: "Le Journal d'un Curé de Campagne [The Diary of a Country Priest, the 1951 film by Robert Bresson] is not a film, it is a cilice [a hair-cloth garment worn by monks]. Few movies are as anguished, as crushing, as desolating as this one. Its intention is to make the spectator suffer the spiritual tortures of the village priest, without recourse to description, never speaking of the sufferings in the soul of the priest, but placing the spectator between cassock and soul..."

Or: "The Killing [1956, by Stanley Kubrick] ... is the apotheosis of the cinema of violence: from its beginnings with the inside view of a horse race, with its luminous and violently contrasting photography, its slashing music and its funereal vision of the deadly Percherons pulling out the starting gate, slow, their white manes in the wind with their air of dragging a hearse, the spectator is made aware that he is in the presence of an exceptional movie."

What can a film critic do? people ask. Well, he or she can help us see, and whereas there is no other thing that so guides us in seeing as the film itself, still it is something like grace in a writer if he can describe the opening of The Killing and teach you as much as Fagin taught Oliver in how to lift a fine handkerchief from a witless pocket. With that start, you might be trusted to get on with the rest of The Killing yourself, and be ready for the blizzard of money, utterly ruinous yet as slow and gentle as snow, of the bank notes at the end of the film. You are on to the way slashing music and a melancholy vision may be meant to go together.

Who is this writer? A couple of weeks ago at the National Film Theatre, I was asked which writers on film to read, and I was weary or muddled so I think that while I said "Joan Didion", I did not mention Cain. And since that night at the National Film Theatre, Cain had just one more week to live, I am as filled with regret as the need to tell you about him.

He was also known as Guillermo Cabrera Infante and he had lived nearly 40 years in London, while enduring our grey city as his cilice and his temporary alternative to Havana. He was Cuban, born in Gibara, an early devotee of wordplay, the movies, cigar smoke and liberty. He graduated from the University of Havana in 1956 and, as a supporter of Castro's revolutionary movement, he did a spell in prison. At the fall of Batista, he became editor of an important cultural weekly paper. But as time passed, and as Cabrera Infante became more critical of Fidel and Guevara, so he was sent away as a diplomat - to Brussels, before that city had sprouted (a pun, more on which in a jiffy). Soon he was in England, an exile.

He taught sometimes - he was at Cambridge and Chicago. He did the screenplay (under the credit "Guillermo Cain") for a strange road picture called Vanishing Point (1971, directed by Richard C Sarafian), in which Barry Newman plays a man intent on driving from Denver to San Francisco in 15 hours. There were other attempts at movies, as well as a little reviewing. But for the most part, he wrote. Tres Tristes Tigres appeared in Spanish in 1964 and then as Three Trapped Tigers in English in 1971. It was his masterwork, a celebration of life in Havana before Castro, likened to both Garcia Marques and Borges. Another novel, Infante's Inferno, came out in Spanish in 1979 and then in English in 1984. There were other books too.

The wit and erudition of them may be talked about, but that hardly prepares one for the ferment of language, for the chronic punning and the molten sense of Spanish, English, French and a delicious trashy American being all on the point of melting together. It's easy to conclude that the wordsmith in Cabrera Infante - and he would and could pun as steadily in conversation as in print - was a fluency learned not just in reading, but in all the suggestiveness of that device from the movies, the dissolve. His surrealism is that in which words are forever becoming other words, and concrete things are giving up the ghost of solidity and definition.

It is not going too far to say that the movies had made Cabrera Infante for he was a film critic in Havana from 1954 to 1960. A selection from that period exists in print: it was published as Un Oficio del Siglo XX in Havana in 1963, and then in 1991, by Faber, as A Twentieth Century Job. Perhaps the sharpest discovery a new reader would have with that book is that there - in far-off Havana - at a time when the movies seemed moribund, this brilliant mind was responding to what is truly an astonishing age. Let me just say that when Cain decided to list his 10 greatest films, he offered 12 (he was profoundly disobedient, even to himself) and nearly all of them were from the Fifties: Citizen Kane; Monsieur Verdoux; Ivan the Terrible ("the great Stalinist film," he said, "an epitome of terror and total power" - he reckoned Fidel had turned Stalinist too); M. Hulot's Holiday; Vertigo; Les 400 Coups; Bicycle Thieves; The Diary of a Country Priest; El (by Luis Bunuel); Ugetsu (by Kenji Mizoguchi); Pather Panchali (by Satyajit Ray); and L'Avventura ("the memorable moment in which the cinema says to the novel: move over, sister, I can tell a story too.")

The delight of A Twentieth Century Job is not just the many piercing insights into film, but the clear proof that a great writer could as easily take the screen's dream as a subject as the memories of old Havana. In addition, Cabrera Infante was a close friend to the Miami Film Festival and to the festival at Telluride. At Miami, he ran on-stage conversations with Robbe-Grillet (another novelist-filmmaker) and Sontag and he did a great deal to introduce Pedro Almodovar to America. He quipped that he had helped make him "Almodollars".

But there is another way of remembering Cain. He had been friends for 15 years with the Cuban actor, Andy Garcia. Together they had been working on a film, The Lost City, written by Cabrera Infante and adapted from Three Trapped Tigers. That film is now very close to completion, and it will star Bill Murray and Dustin Hoffman in addition to Garcia.

We can hope that The Lost City somehow recaptures the rapture that Cain felt in Havana in the Fifties when, "What has pushed the cronista to go and see the movie [Vertigo] on three successive nights, obsessive nights like a date with fate is not its absolute novelty, nor its obvious avant-garde allure, nor its terseness of manufacture, but its complete immersion in the sea of magic."

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

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