José Alberto Lezcano (born 1935) is one of Cuba’s least prolific film critics. Founder of the first Cinema Club and the Film Interest Circles of his province, he was considered by Rufo Caballero as the best of our living analysts on the seventh art. Lezcano was able to follow him for a long time thanks to his collaborations with numerous cultural magazines. His texts appeared together with other specialists of his time and the new voices that were and have emerged on account of the reception understood about Cuban and international cinema. It was not until a few years ago that the author of The Magic of the Maze (Ediciones Loynaz, 2005) and The Actor of Film: Art, Myth and Reality (Icaic Editions, 2009) stopped collaborating more assiduously. He could not fail to fulfill his usual work functions such as the making and delivery of his scripts for the Radio Guamá station and the arduous process of a new book (Cinema tends its networks. Big screen relationships with other arts) with Icaic Editions. However, he has been seen commenting on or proloating some other book of colleagues by profession. Lezcano, who has always lived by personal decision in Pinar del Río, has a very intimate relationship with his typewriter. In fifty years he hasn’t been tempted by any computer. However, he doesn’t neglect his other two main loves: film and reading. What a privilege to come with the conscience of surrendering to these vital signs!
Let’s start from your present. You’re over eighty years old. You have had the opportunity to watch a lot of cinema and therefore follow the filmography of a director; the career of an interpreter; the appearance, continuity and twilight of a genre; also the comings and goings of thematic lines; new technologies with the consequences on how to make and watch cinema… Anyway, what has it meant to you as a viewer to face all these technical and artistic changes?
“Disinformation is, in my opinion, one of the worst enemies of all events cultivated by criticism. Those who do not follow the beat of technical and artistic advances, be it cinema or any other creative manifestation, will never be able to write three lines that are credible or convincing. This implies that constant study and research are top-notch premises for those who aspire to guide others with their views. In my particular case, I believe that I have acted in recent times with interest, responsibility and self-demand.”
How does Lezcano define film criticism?
“For me, film criticism amounts to a devoid examination of bigotry, accommodative positions and lack of care in language. I am resentful of the chronicles that abuse the queism, chaotic syntax or marked repetition of certain words that the author of the critic considers very elegant and only denote his scarcity of vocabulary. The content of the review can be positive, negative or moderately favorable, but under no circumstances should it become a prefabricated verborrea, which pushes the reader away rather than attracting it.”
Where did you first publish a film text?
“My first film text appeared in Pinar del Río’s weekly veteran Herald, the Pinareño Herald, who against wind and tide long directed Don Isidro Pruneda. I no longer remember the subject of that initial chronicle, but I know that it was over-simplistic, without objectivity and with an editorial (to be called somehow) ‘primitive’.
“In the newspaper itself I published numerous reviews. Practice helps the critic when the word self-cares for his profession. Gradually I learned to de-armor the essentials of the ornamental, I was able to know the cultured but somewhat ‘searched’ style of G. Cain, the casual method of whoever my co-agency René Jordan (whom I met personally and told me some phrase of encouragement), emma Pérez’s holiday mode – a typical phrase comes to mind from her, in her critique of Elia Kazan’s ‘the Tram’ : ‘How the most moving things in the world say the great, the divine Vivien Leigh!’ – and the dense approaches of Francisco Parés, of which some murmured that he sometimes criticized films he had not seen, only based on the judgment of his filmmaker wife.”
And in today’s light how do you remember that first experience?
“I remember in today’s light my first experiences as a kind of ‘accelerated training’, which later continued with my performance as a writer and announcer on Western Radio Network.”
You told me on one occasion that, reading a review by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, G. Cain, you wrote him a letter because he had made a mistake in a fact. Did he answer you? Tell me about it.
“On two occasions I wrote to Cain (Cabrera Infante) and both times he gave me space in his pages of Carteles magazine. The first, to rectify some recent chronicle data (e.g. an Oscar over humphrey Bogart). My second, most intense attack occupied an entire page of the magazine. This consisted of a kind of anatomy of his preferences, his contradictions and even his advertising poses. Today I recognize that I overdid certain blows, but they may be justified by my few years in the guild.”
Who were your paradigms for such a lonely and misunderstood vocation?
“I don’t have much definite if I really had paradigms for ‘so lonely and misunderstood vocation’. In my pre-university student days, I took advantage of the most boring classes to scribble ideas about the last premiere in town. I never seriously thought that this might be a weighty activity in my future, but my early mastery of the English language allowed me to come into contact with some works by British and American critics, from which I learned to value essences above small, suggestions rather than regency.”
Before the arrival of the video tape, mobile phones, flash drives, box… you had to go to the movies and go back to the dark room if you were interested in writing about a certain film. For a long time, you can time yourself to see a material as you please. To what extent do you think this freedom affects writing and film criticism?
“It is clear that criticism – and not just her – benefits from technical openings, the ease of coming into direct contact (at any time) with scattered or coherent images that in the past seemed as remote as the Pharaohs’ Egypt. But, attention… even traces in that direction must be linked to a clear conception of why that review, what is proposed, what it is based on, and so on.”
Your texts are distinguished by the excellence of language, your knowledge of the before, during and after a film and then, most uniquely, in my opinion, lies in the cultural association that you achieve as a result of years of rereading, that do not bypass literary genres or other artistic manifestations. What do you think of critics who only see and read about movies?
“Of the critics who only read and watch movies, what do I think? They are not, they were not and will never be critical of anything.”
Do you like criticism centered on one or two elements or that other that means something of every detail or indeed into the generality of the cinematographic work?
“The play that means something from every detail of a film fits well into a book, whether it’s memoir or rehearsal. Criticism of the generality of the film usually inhabits a specialized magazine. A little more discriminatory and with good synthesis power, you can focus the alpha and omega of a film, from the pages of a diary.”
With regard to the relationship between literature and film or vice versa, do you ask for full subordination from the director to the literary reference or creative license from the adapted script?
“The relationship between literature and film is a very complex subject, to which I dedicate a lot of space in my book Cinema tends its networks. I agree with Italian Baldelli: ‘It doesn’t matter what changes are made through the adaptation route. The important thing is that the film product has a life of its own, walk on its own.'”
What opinion do you deserve the interest and writing about cinema of other intellectuals who did not appear or appear as film critics, as they did at different stages, for example, Mirta Aguirre in Cuba or Julián Marías and Carlos Fuentes in Spain and Mexico, respectively?
“Of the intellectuals who cultivated film criticism as a ‘second violin’, I believe that Mirta Aguirre – great essayist, good poet, eminent teacher – was sometimes quite naive in her film chronicles, but she knew how to size the social, the political, the historical, in a very satisfying way.”
As for the repeated distance between the popularity of the audience and the reception of the specialized viewer, the excellent Colombian film critic already deceased Luis Alberto Alvarez said: “It is absurd to pretend that mediocrity ceases to exist due to the fact that it is consumed massively. It’s like thinking that eating excrement is good because millions of flies around the world recommend it.” How do you appreciate this relationship/divorce between public and critical?
“It has always existed and I’m afraid there will always be a divorce between public and criticism. The critic manages to master a whole strategy that, in the long run, immunizes him in a way against the effects of commercialism, advertising tricks, sympathy for a certain star and more or less stable attachment to certain genres. For every vaccinated critic there are millions of viewers who, at best, see the critic as a Martian who dresses and talks like the others, but whose brain was long lost in an of boring, endless films, in which two mutes are spoken and who do not justify the money invested in their realization. (This opinion of mine has been criticized by some critics).”
Which leads me to ask you, what is the role of the film critic?
“Given the phenomenon indicated in the previous response (and others that arise from various causes), the role of the critic must be educational (with great care, to avoid teque, the quotes of German Fulano and the Russian Ciclano, exposing valuable ideas without smell of tribune slogan, inspiring confidence and oral non-submission). He will be persuasive, with eloquent data and modest attitude. You have to get them to listen to it and understand it, and this, while difficult, is possible.”
Do you take the package because someone recommends something to you or do you check it personally and choose?
“I don’t have any package. If I had one, I would review it personally and choose.”
What importance do you attach not only to classic Hollywood cinema, but to other foreign cinematography represented by great directors such as Buñuel, Antonioni, Kurosawa, Bergman…, which new generations do not know or belittle because of the avalanche of “modern” proposals?
“I attribute my film training, first and foremost, to the great representatives of European cinema at a time when cinematevers, circles of film interest and the contribution of solid publications, allowed the expansion and enjoyment of that culture. Buñuel is a separate case. Of Spanish origin, based in Mexico, he gave both cinematography the most prominent of cinema in those countries, while the French screen owes it more than one transcendent title. I think I’m a debtor of Bergman, Antonioni, Truffaut, Malle, Lean and other teachers, without being prevented from recognizing kurosawa’s genius or ‘classic’ filmmakers like Hitchcock, Orson Welles and John Huston.”
Is it born with a critical vocation or does an unexpected day come as a surprise?
“I think it is born with a critical vocation. In my particular case, some anecdote of my childhood still circulates, when my closest relatives dragged me into the cinemas where they screened an estimated film for every dozen insufferable leaflets for me and divine for my relatives. My ‘judgment’ generally collided with theirs.”
What has cinema meant to you?
“Cinema always attracted me powerfully and, somehow, my passion for reading from an early age, helped me quickly understand works and issues that were perhaps overwhelming for viewers my age. At the age of 13, I obtained permission to travel alone to Havana to see in the Capri cinema the premiere of the English film Hamlet, directed and starring Laurence Olivier. My love for that film forced me to read, in a not very extended period, all the pieces of Shakespeare.”
Do you dream cinematically, Lezcano?
“I’m not sure I dream cinematographically, but I can say that several of the films that made the most impressions of me sometimes influenced by very depressing nightmares or very stimulating derivations. In the first group: the Italian The Shoeshine, with its final scenes; in the second, Disney’s animated long, which was always one of my favorites (say what your detractors say), Dumbo.”
Essayist, critic or film writer?
“I respect too much the word ‘essayist’ to pretend to be included in this category. I think I’m a critic, with moments of lucidity and attacks of incompetence, like most critics I know. Of course, I’ve read gloriously stretched film essayists and cinema critics of undoubted force.”
Are you happy with what you posted?
“I’m not happy with what I’ve published, but I must point out that my first book, The Magic of labyrinth, has special meaning for me, as it earned me the rapprochement, friendship and enthusiastic support of whoever was one of the most educated and sensitive people I’ve ever met, Rufo Caballero.”
I mention now names or designations to know what you think, to begin with: silent cinema…
“Silent cinema had a very marked charm and its most representative works are teachers without discussion possible. I think of The Battleship Potemkin, The Chimera of Gold, The Passion of Joan of Arc and many others. Chaplin was a relevant creator in his silent filmography, but, in my opinion, his experiences with sound were largely unfortunate.”
The sound cinema…
“Sound cinema? It covers all the extremes: there are films that should never have been made, if only out of simple respect for art in general and the intelligence of viewers. With the birth of sound there was a genuine invasion of unclassifiable verborrea, which was only stopped by very capable filmmakers. The succession of schools and movements (Neorealism, French New Wave, New English Cinema, Surrealist Gaze, etc., etc.) were eloquent evidence that film cameras were able to grow with talent and diversity. They say that everything genuinely great about spoken cinema is more or less scattered in Citizen Kane. Maybe it’s a phrase shot by Orson Welles, but I think in its development, cinema broke down barriers, covered distances, faced challenges, forged expectations, reached goals, and bewitched crowds. What more are we going to ask of him?”
Charles Chaplin or Cantinflas?
“The choice between Chaplin and Cantinflas is arguably the easiest question of the entire questionnaire. Chaplin, whose adversaries include an artist of certain values, Woody Allen, was a master of comedy, but with an addition rarely shown by his colleagues: poetry. He was able to discover laughter within the crying and pain within humorism. His dreamy, lonely tramp, rogue and moving, in love and quixotes, was a monumental achievement for all time. Mario Moreno (Cantinflas) was a great clown and with that word was defined by Chaplin himself. His character, of popular extraction, had limitations that eventually became a dead weight. I have read about postmodern reviews that prefer Buster Keaton over Chaplin. This issue is a paid ground for tremendous debates.”
“Orson Welles was an almighty film filmmaker, not only for the must-have work Citizen Kane, but also for pieces of infinite virtues such as Pride, The Lady of Shanghai, and Shadows of Evil. The actor, though efficient, never stood up to the director. His forays into Shakespeare’s theatre, in big-screen versions, show areas of great interest, but the balance sheet does not provoke enthusiasm.”
“When Olivier died in 1989, one critic compared the event to ‘the sinking of a continent’. Many considered him the ‘best actor of the twentieth century’ and there is no doubt that his greatness as an actor in theatre and film was demonstrated to the full. It was great in the classic and the modern. His prestige as a performer of theatrical stagings spread across the planet and his successes as a performer attest to Oedipus King, Hamlet, the central character of The Comedian and Othello (the last three assumed on the boards and before the cameras). A scholar of the psychology of his characters in a truly amazing way, he was helped with relief by a voice capable of transmitting a complex range of emotions, an important stage presence and an imagination without borders when it comes to profiling subtleties, perceptions, nuances and remembrances. He acted with his face and body, with his hands and with his torso, all adjusted to a precision and a feeling that conveyed to the viewer all his artistic and human charge. Marlon Brandon called him an ‘actor architect’.”
“I met Vivien Leigh in an English film (The Heroic Day) when she had just turned twelve. I fell into their nets. You know, that mixture of fascination, surprise and dismay that drives the construction of an idol. I thought it was appropriate in his role. Some time later I saw her deploy enormous skills in the personification of the Scarlett, rebellious and tormented, in love and brave, in the classic What the Wind Took. By then I was developing some discussions with myself. Who surpassed her in physical beauty? Nobody. Which American actress could have matched what was achieved by this Englishwoman, with a Southern accent for her character? Bette Davis, talented but unttractive? Katharine Hepburn, with firm office, but incompatible with the kind of magnetism required by the heroine created by Margaret Mitchell? Conclusion, the critic of that time who wrote, ‘Vivien Leigh, has played Scarlett O’Hara as possibly no other Hollywood actress would have done.’ I followed her on Waterloo Bridge, she was irreplaceable in Lady Hamilton, left me dissatisfied in Anne Karenina (which she recognized as her failure, although she was not short of admirers such as writers Marta Traba and Carlos Fuentes), I marinated her in The Deep Blue Sea and raised her to the altars with her deep, emotional and protein characterization of Blanche in A Tram called Desire by Elia Kazan , where he imposed his vision of the character against the filmmaker’s eating criteria. Years later, Mrs. Stone’s Spring and The Ship of the Madmen (her latest film) gave me the opportunity to discover other angles of this woman’s creative gift that, in one of her outings of helplessness and envy, was rated by Davis, I’m told, as an ‘overrated’ actress. Will I have to attribute to the congenital evil of Davis how expert she was in evil, destructive and, above all, harassing characters?”
Marlon Brando or Montgomery Clift?
“Talented actors on the big screen form a kaleidoscope subject to certain elements of time and space, phenomena of appreciation that can confuse the legitimate with the seemingly ‘more modern’ or certain conceptions of school and style that defrote relentlessly into the area of personal taste without the rigour of fair judgment.
“The Brando-Clift parallel shows confusing details and surprising derivations. Brando didn’t invent his ‘way of acting’. This is precedent for a small-history actor, John Garfield, who was a victim of Macartism; Clift’s resources touch that impression of despondency, informality, degano in many dialogues, more ‘physical’ than verbalized psychology, and displacements that are sometimes so impulsive that they seem to indicate momentary relief from internal conflicts. Brando inherited and polished these strategies from his film debut as a war paraplegic in Living Your Life. The brandoist image prevailed in a short time and his physique opened important doors for him.
“Clift – whose expressive apparatus later collided with something as unpredictable as a car accident that gave his face an almost sinister expression, barely disguised by plastic surgeries – was moved away from his ‘star’ route and sometimes had to settle for roles of dubious quality. Brando, who at the end of his career had some unfortunate performances (pure exaggeration, crazy makeup, etc.) and the capital example is Dr. Moreau’s Island, did not have an accident to justify it. What is very interesting is to see that, in the final stage, with a brief time before the cameras, Clift was noted in Nuremberg Trial a work of such careful design by embodying an unbalanced victim of Nazi barbarism, that the decision of the Hollywood Academy to deny him the Oscar in his fourth trophy nomination, has a bit of surrealism , some mental slackness and a lot of injustice.
“Conclusion: a shattered Clift took this master’s test when it was only five years away from his farewell to life, while the applauded rat’s Nest performer and The Godfather offered in one of his last tapes, Dr. Moreau’s Island (1996) an openly false, raucous and braised performance, which even his most fervent admirers could not justify. If we add to this the unethical words he devotes to Clift in his autobiography, I reiterate my little respect for Brando, who did not hesitate to confess several times that his main goal in film was… make money.”
A master of classic Hollywood cinema…
“Among the classic Hollywood film masters, I always remember Hitchcock with some nostalgia. The Academy never gave him the ‘best director’ award and deserved it especially for Vertigo and Psychosis, two round and enduring films, among a dozen legitimate pearls like the ones that can no longer be seen (Sinister Pact, The Shadow of Doubt, Rebekah, Birds). In the French New Wave (which destroyed so many altars), the great Truffaut was able to worship the English master and contributed significantly to the subsequent recognition of the ‘suspense wizard’. John Ford was one of the greats, but sometimes he’d leave me with a sour taste. I was attracted to Otto Preminger, Howard Hawks and, to a large extent, Billy Wilder, who gave us that monument titled The Twilight of a Lifetime. I never quite understood why Joseph L. Mankiewicz was praised by so many critics (his film The Evil One seemed exaggerated to me and, in many passages, more effective than effective and his Julius Caesar was a third-tier Shakespearean boast). William Wyler was competent, but sometimes confused the denotative with the connotative. Welles, I said, was a giant, if we ignore certain errant features on tapes from his last stage.”
A contemporary director who catches your eye…
“That I can associate with the greats of another era, there are no directors in today’s cinema. Some show lucidity and dominance. These are the cases of Sam Mendes, brothers Coen, Tarantino and a dozen other filmmakers endowed with inspiration and strength, despite the eventual struggle with small-time arguments. The problem with these directors is that they do not sustain the weight of the issues on a regular basis. Let’s hope their journeys win in consistency and rigor.”
“The Oscar can be carnival, frivolous, flirtatious and cursed. He’s been wrong about a lot of things and he’s right about others. I think he was right to deny greta Garbo, Barbara Stanwyck, Deboran Kerr and other figures who had to settle for the so-called ‘special Oscar’, hypocritical and late. I do not forgive you forgetting Richard Burton, Dick Bogarde, Hitchcock and, above all, Chaplin. He gave a statuette (the first) to Bette Davis and also the first to the insufferable Elizabeth Taylor. He was weak in overwhelming artists who did not deserve such a distinction with nominations in industrial quantities. They say ‘making laughs is harder than making people cry,’ but the Academy has almost always treated comic performers as lepers. In 1952, cast actress Jean Hagen played the sky with her perfect caricature of a silent film ‘diva’ in Singing in the Rain, and the Oscar went to Gloria Grahame for corrective work in Captives of Evil.”
Meryl Streep, Glenn Close or Jessica Lange? “Forming a threesome with Meryl, Glenn and Jessica is kind of diabolical, but I’ll be honest. For me, Meryl Streep is more calculating than a good meteorologist. Her collection of tics, faces and pseudo-spontaneous gestures, which she moves from one film to another without the slightest modesty, give me a sense of vertigo. A while ago I was presented with a Vanity Fair issue dedicated entirely to her for her forty years of ‘unforgettable performances’, according to a very visible phrase on the cover. It turns out that she has adopted thirteen accents with her film characters (from Danish and Italian to Irish and Polish), which includes several accents from different states of her country. I like to imagine filming a five-minute short film at her birthday party – for which she will again be nominated for the Oscar – and the eagerness with which she will look in the letter C of her particular dictionary for the word KNIFE to remember which face she should show when she discovers that she has no way of snacking the cake for lack of that… knife, who hid his old maid (acted by Kathy Bates). Glenn Close is something else. He showed real talent in almost everything he did a long time ago, but I don’t think he’ll be presented with new opportunities to shine in front of the movie cameras. She complains that all the papers that come as a ring to her finger are snatched from Meryl. What a crime! Jessica Lange is the one I’m most attracted to from the trio. It’s among my favorites, even if I participated in that King Kong crap, but then he found his own way. It is creative, suggestive and versatile. He doesn’t communite with Hollywood’s atrophying life and knows how to discuss his roles with the mongoose directors.”
Your favorite movie…
“My favorite film, I shout it in the four winds, is The Exterminating Angel, made by my idol, Luis Buñuel, in 1962. I don’t know if Mexicans have had the nice gesture of elevating a tremendous sculpture in a central place in the capital to this monster that gave the Aztec country and its film colony the films of greatest artistic significance that this nation records. I’ve seen The Angel… five times and I always find it just done. It is surreal but also philosophical, poetic, satirical, revolutionary, polysemic cinema, with both centripetal and centrifugal force. The filmmakers who have imitated this work could only copy the easiest thing: the situation. They forgot that Buñuel, unique in his class, made the situation dance, moan, adopt grimaces, roar inside, slide through deep basements, wipe out conventionalisms and fly white flag in his moment of suffocation. None of this can be imitated.”
Some recent proposals you recommend…
“Nothing to recommend among recent tapes.”
In these times, where visuality eclipses the conceptual, what is the greatest advice you would give to film critics in training?
“A single council, neither greater nor minor. Discover for yourself the visuality that implies the conceptual. Search, explore, penetrate, get to the bottom. You have to dive relentlessly, chase the elves who swim between simple ideas, capture the truth.”
Despite all the regrets, you preferred to stay in Pinar del Río. From there, with tremendous will, you dared to see and write assiduously about film. Maybe love your city, comfort or family issues. What did it mean to make that decision?
“I’m sorry, Daniel, you limited many opportunities. The capital guaranteed and guaranteed perhaps make you more visible. However, this is not valid as soon as you do. I met many who marched to Havana and there they were scented in the face of experiences beyond their vocation. I mean, they couldn’t even try. Besides, they forgot that opportunities aren’t manufactured. Even if some do not think so, the provincial is sometimes conducive to creating with timely calm and clarity. Pinar del Río offers that ideal environment, although it can disassociate you from what happens in artistic matters both locally, nationally and internationally. The capital is no stranger to entertaining you with experiences more frivolous than spiritual. Somehow, without visiting her so much, I managed to be present in Havana thanks to many collaborations with magazines such as Revolution and Culture, Cuban Cinema… There was also the question that I lived with my mother, who, fortunately, died of an advanced age. Then I didn’t have the verve to embark on adventures in Havana anymore. When I look back, I have confirmed it to myself and now I confess it to you: I never regret staying. Wherever one is, one has to learn to discern the good from evil. Then insist on what you like and not sacrifice so much for the future, otherwise you do not live to the fullest. That’s why I’m not obsessed with transcendence, that time takes care of estimating my work, if I really deserve it.” Ω