Historians, critics, theorists and audiences have consented to call “the four classics of Cuban cinema”, a set of feature films that are already half a century old. The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin (1967), Memoirs of underdevelopment (1968), Lucia (1968) and The First Burden on the Machete (1969) bear that laurel. Of these, the first has been the highest-grossing of our film industry; the second, probably the most studied; the third, much cited by academics, while the latter has been as the most pretered in those same aspects.
Cinema is entertainment, and while it seems like an irrebatible truth, the truth is that everyone has their own personal way of considering what is entertaining or not, as each historical time has its own standard to measure it. There are films that today seem extremely old to us, because the ways of narrating, interpreting or solving conceptual or formal aspects have been renewed by new technological, stylistic or narrative criteria. That is, the necessary dialectic between content and form has undergone variations such that we no longer recognize the history and conflict narrated in these films as concurrent, real, possible or credible phenomena as they concern mankind; or so, as Jean Baudrillard says “to the extent that cinematic technique and efficiency dominate, the illusion goes away.”1 Indiana Jones is getting old, what to say about Tom Mix and Douglas Fairbanks! It is clear that the communication achieved between work of art and the public marked the success of Juan Quin Quin. More than three and a half million viewers came to the cinemas to see this cinematic “jewel”. But what was he looking for, and what did the audience of that time see in such a renowned title
Directed by Julio García-Espinosa, and released on February 12, 1968, Aventuras by Juan Quin Quin is inspired by the novel of the same name by Samuel Feijóo Juan Quinquín in Pueblo Mocho. The direction of photography was carried out by Jorge Haydu, who almost managed to turn the rural and semi-mountainous landscape of the central region of Cuba into acting scenery, as the western preaches. Leo Brower was in charge of composing the music, without whose virtuosity it would have been impossible to disguise the arrhythmias that occur in the moments where the action was to be fast-paced; while the frontline performers are Julito Martínez, Erdwin Fernández and Enrique Santiesteban, in roles that did not imply a particular display of histrionic skill. Santiesteban, for example, does not go from being the Tuero Plutarco of San Nicolás del Peladero.
Julio García-Espinosa, founder of ICAIC, had stood out since his youth for his work in theater and radio. In the early 1950s he traveled to Italy to study for three years at the Experimental Centre for Cinematography in Rome. On his return he joined the Our Time Cultural Society, the intellectual avant-garde of the time, and in 1955 he directed El Mégano, a documentary of social denunciation and an important precedent of our pre-revolutionary cinematography. He also stands out as a theorist with interesting articles and essays, the most famous of which For imperfect cinema, contains the foundations of his modern conception of cinema, and constituted a reflection inspired by the film he had shot two years earlier, Adventures of Juan Quin Quin. Controversial tape in the eyes of critics suggested an experimental path, according to its author; but in whose most linear reading, audiences seemed to find at least an echo of their greed for entertainment cinema.
Gender cinema (adventure, police, western, comedy, etc.) functions as a strategy of movie business, which subdivides and classifies audiences, to manipulate them with ease, by offering them the type of entertainment product for which they have been patiently molded. The cinema manufactured by this cultural industry survives an infinite recycling of its formulas, with a certain ethical varnish, under which its true ideological potential is hidden. The founding precepts of the ICAIC were far from considering such cinema as an acceptable reference for looming Cuban cinematography. However, García-Espinosa risked everything in his attempt to “look for cinema within that cinema. You didn’t have to make another cinema, but look for the new one in the confrontation with the old cinema […] Accept and reject […] As in all true confrontations, where one assimilates at the same time as denies.”2
However, we agree with Ambrosio Fornet when referring to the estating effects used in the film he states: “Of course it is one thing to guard the viewer by showing him that there is no neutral or innocent language, and a very different one to win it for the cause itself using guilty language, but with a reverse ideological sign. In Juan Quin Quin this mutation did not occur organically.”3
John, Jachero, Teresa and a villain
Through a wooded plain looms a troop of riders, from which a man is immediately galloped away. Frozen in the image is the hero on his ride. That’s Juan Quin Quin and that’s his story. Thus it is presented in the first shots of the film, so that the viewer knows that there is an individual, emerging from the mass, empowered on it, unique, superior, ideal model (patriarchal?) for the satisfied anchoring of the male gaze. John is more or less the tough guy, the gallant, the cowboy; it manifests itself in different avatars: altar boy, bullfighter, cirquero, day laborer, guerrilla…
It has been said that Adventures of Juan Quin Quin draws on the picaresca novel, adventure cinema, satire and even vernacular. However, for me John is far from a rogue, his characterization is between the prick of the people and the reckless boy. Your partner, Jachero, is a minor guy; lacks the garbo and boldness of the protagonist; but he is the companion of experiences who will help him look better his courtesy and courage. It is the Sancho without Panza, which does not grow in the shadow of the hard guy, but which serves as archimedes’ lever. He is a bland, counterpoint character, without the charisma necessary to ignite the spark of comicity that should be expected of him. His own love story with a young peasant woman is inexplicably truncated, in one of the moments of Brechtian outburring that cross the film: Jachero appears hanged by the rural guard; upon seeing him, the girl flees to the cross-country and is shot by the sergeant; you hear the cry of John “Teresaaa”; cut, and we’re already in another moment of the film, from which neither Jachero is dead, nor is anything known about the peasant.
Third, we have Teresa (Adelaide Raymat), the object of the hero’s love, undisputed motivation. Teresa barely gets over the tropical female model proposed by the film. It is a sturdy guajira, between trigueña and mestiza, whose encounters with John border the absolute recato. Teresa’s nude, suggested in the river, is amputated and sealed by the puerile toy in which he becomes entangled with John, either out of the water and dressed again. On the contrary, the story dispatches in several scenes two women of scandalously beautiful bodies, a superb mulatto and a stunning blonde – as if to cover an arc of male preferences – semi-naked, irredeadent cirqueras who have gone a step beyond the whore of the village (to whom the priest constantly lectures). The polarized and exclusionary condition of women, virgins or whores, reiterated by Hollywood, as part of their sexist ideology, is resumed in the Cuban film, adding the biblical sentence as a mere naughty humor; therefore, while Teresa and John comment on their tender and dempathetic romance under a palm, the snake’s print is drawn on the trunk.
Finally, we see the villain (Enrique Santiesteban), fourth medullary and essential element for the story to make sense and engage the recipient. The actor unfolds into several characters: the mayor, the proxy and the manager of the headquarters. In his role as an antagonist he accompanies the hero on his journey, ingesting various obstacles that trigger the journeys and the final triumph of good over evil.
The bad guy in the film, as is commonly said, was born in American cinema as a translation of literature. The villain is a key figure in the American West, where he usually plays in a paid thug, a vengeful cowboy or a treacherous sheriff. In Cuban cinema it is given through those who represent the states of power during the republican period before 1959: latifundistas, soldiers, officers, rural guards, torturers, mayors, councillors, politiqueros in general or members of the bourgeois oligarchy. To the villain of Juan Quin Quin, we will find him later replicated in an unbeatable stereotype, Don Francisco Gavilán of El elefante y la bicicleta (Juan Carlos Tabío, 1994), played by Raúl Pomares.
It seems obvious that García-Espinosa wanted to make a film whose packaging bears the greatest resemblance to cowboy cinema, as long as its content was purely national. But every parody tends to legitimize its reference, so, for the viewer of that time, Juan Quin Quin was the closest thing to an exciting western film, with the addition of portraying a passage from recent history with unmatched Creole flavor.
Episodic situations occur, following the natural scheme that is associated with the genus alluded to: the triachet on the rooster fence replaced the coven proper to the tavern or saloon; while bullfighting and assault on the barracks homologated the assault on the post station or the bank, a typical event of the purest western. John escapes through a window jumping so golden on his horse. A couple of scenes later ordered Teresa to jump off the roof and she falls into the arms of a rural guard who obviously saves her from spliting, at least one ankle. John’s pursuit of ingenuity culminates with a little elaborate but obvious last minute rescue, a dramatic resource that is repeated with equal inefficiency in Teresa’s rescue. David Griffith, who was a master in this type of sequence, bequeathed to the history of cinema and the film language models of that dramatic action figure, which has been exploited effectively endlessly even in animation cinema, and which García-Espinosa could have taken advantage of to lift the emotional impact of the sequence. Then it was enough to close , as it happens – with the last dialogue between Teresa and John, before the lone hero is seen departing with his troop inland, as a colophon of history
Some interesting film essays on how to use dramaturgical structures or stylistic resources typical of genre cinema to tell indigenous stories, have shown that it can be done with a positive balance: The strange case of Rachel K (Oscar Valdés), El hombre de Maisinicú (Manuel Pérez), Clandestinos (Fernando Pérez), if we mean by positive balance not only conquer the public and make box office, but also give the clarified in terms of some novelty. Adventures of John Quin Quin succeeded at the time, taking as a currency that “there could be more art in a fictional short filmed in the hectic streets of any country of ours, than in the fictional film with the most finished technology, with the most finished bill you could imagine.”4
Pretending to judge the film today in the heat of the new times can be a good reason to see it again, study it, enjoy it, not let it die; knowing that very, very, very few works of cinematic art, are able to challenge the passage of time. Ω
1Jean Baudrillard: Aesthetic illusion and disappointment, in https://cinedocumentalyetnologia.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/duelo.pdf.
2 Juan A. García Borrero: Critical Guide to Cuban Fiction Cinema, Havana, Ed. Art and Literature, 2001, p. 65.
3 Ambrosio Fornet: The Traps of the Trade, Havana, ICAIC Editions, 2007, p. 49.
4 Juan A. García Borrero: ob.cit., p. 66.