Bitter Sugar (1996)

Black and white movies have long served as a sort of litmus test for cultural sophistication. Those who don’t watch black and white films, or (worse) those who like colorized versions of old films can be assumed to have shallow taste in general. But if you take into account the presentation of most black-and-white material, the naysayers’ indifference starts to make sense. Most old movies are shown in theaters on faded film stock, covered with grime and scratches (even the “restored” ones aren’t great.) Black and white is usually just gray and grayer. Television broadcasts aren’t much better. Even when the source material is clean, the picture is washed out–we seem to be watching the images through a set of smudged eyeglasses. The good news is that black and white cinematography has resurged lately, mostly in rock videos and slick fashion ads. Directors use it to show how hip and in tune they are. It’s a gimmick, but it’s undeniably gorgeous. Suddenly, we see black and white movies the way audiences 60 years ago must have–vivid and intense, full of narrative possibilities. Unfortunately, Bitter Sugar has absolutely no artistic justification for being black and white. In fact, it cries out for blasting, lurid color. With that said, it’s simply beautiful to look at. It’s enough to convert the shallow people, and it suggests that the colorizers might better apply their technology to heightening blacks and whites in old films, instead of converting them all to pastels.

John Polly wrote a great summation for Rough Cut: “Bitter Sugar is…about unhappy Cubans with beautiful skin.” It’s also shallow, pretentious, ridiculous, and for the first hour it’s even oddly exhilarating. The writer/director/producer, Leon Ichaso, has said he based the characters on real people, and the story on actual events. If he wants us to be shocked at social conditions in Cuba, we’re left scratching our heads–the character seem too soft, too comfortable, to suggest a country where one waits in line for hours to get meager rations of food. (What Ichaso is actually reaching for is beyond his abilities as a filmmaker: he wants his Romeo and Juliet story to be a metaphor for modern Cuba itself.) Partly by intent, and partly because the writing is so bad (not a single line rings true), the characters work only as icons. When Gustavo (René Laven) looks in the mirror, his half-seen face juxtaposes with a poster of Castro (mounted half hidden by a mirror–never mind that it makes no sense) and you feel like you’ve been thumped on the head (not for the last time.) The movie is full of neat tricks like that, which come and go like vapor–they’re so contrived that they have no cumulative impact. Tomas (Miguel Gutierrez) is mourning his beloved wife, watching home movies and getting drunk. When Gustavo helps him up from the couch, the wife’s ghostly image is projected on their backs as they stagger out of the room. You get the point (thump), but it might as well have happened in a void because the director forgets it a minute later–he’s on to his next trick.

The writing is so bad it’s almost campy. This is the kind of movie that inspires college kids to invent dialogue to shout at the screen (which would be an improvement.) Maybe the subtitles are just bad–the Spanish might be sheer poetry. As it is, lines like “Shit. I’m taking socialism too seriously” are a hoot. Of course, the actors don’t help matters. They may have beautiful skin, but they stink. Blandly handsome René Lavan has two expressions: a blank face (for an intellectual, he never seems to have a thought in his head), and really wide eyes (which are used for lust, and sorrow, and anger, and joy…) The well-fed Mayte Vilan isn’t much better as Yolanda, though she’s just as good-looking (her line “It’s hard to have ideals on an empty stomach” will crack you up.) She pouts pleasingly most of the time, though sometimes she quivers her lower lip (it may be a special effect.) When she says, “Can’t you see I’m going crazy?” you wait for the college kids to shout “Hell no!”

With all of its visual tics and heavy-handed metaphors, what Bitter Sugar most resembles is a music video (it’s no surprise to learn that Ichaso once directed an episode of Miami Vice.) When Bobby (Larry Villaneuva) and his friends parade down the street with a boom box, there’s a rock ‘n’ roll kick to the scene. (Gustavo and Yolanda may spend more time groping each other than you’ll see in any video, but for them it beats talking.) The film is sadly far too long for a rock video, and the director loses interest in the second half. The cheap thrills that sustained our interest disappear, and Ichaso drags us to his conclusion (THUMP.) You’ll be tempted to walk out, so I’ll let you know in advance–the climax is an absurd classic unto itself. It must be seen to be believed.

So why are you here? 1) It really is a great-looking film; 2) Because really bad films can be a lot of fun; 3) To see what’s actually going on in Cuba today (NOT); 4) Because even bad films are better than just about anything on TV.

February 3, 1999


The above piece got me fired from my gig reviewing movies at the place I worked as a projectionist. Following is my farewell:

In Defense of Bad Movies (and Negative Reviews)

I should have expected it. When I began writing pieces for the Wednesday handouts in December, I considered it an only slightly hazardous diversion. I like to write, I love movies, and I enjoy sharing ideas with people through intelligent conversation. I didn’t sign my name at first, because I feared my supervisors at Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute might not like my opinionated involvement in a presentation of ours. However, it was pointed out to me that I denied the audience an avenue of response by staying anonymous, and I began signing my name. I wasn’t entirely prepared for the flood of voice mail I received last week, in the wake of my piece about Bitter Sugar.

I’ve said that good opinion needs to elaborate its own thesis, and I hope I’ve done so. There’s nothing more insulting than reading a plot summary followed by a star rating or thumb alignment–the justification is rarely clear (it’s a commercial vehicle.) However, I also recognize that many people might be put off to read a negative review before seeing the film–there’s a ”sucker” intimation to that. My approach is, and will remain, to point out aspects of a film that I find revealing, amusing, and pertinent. I believe it would be a greater insult to the audience to write a glowing interpretation of everything we show, regardless of the actual merits (although it might be a comfort to those who would then feel superior when they dismiss it themselves.)

Bad movies are necessary in order for there to be good movies. The opinions of those who indiscriminately like everything they see can’t really be taken seriously. Movies are such a broad art form, encompassing the talents and efforts of many different trades and craftsmen, that there will almost always be some redeeming virtue even in the worst subjects. The best critics will point out what parts do work even if they don’t care for the film as a whole. In fact, when you consider the enormous undertaking a movie is, and the fact that movies must make money to survive (what other art form is so limited by a fickle public?) it’s almost a miracle that any good movies are made at all.

I’d hoped that my piece on Bitter Sugar would convey some of the affection I felt for the film. I apologize to those who were offended (although I take issue with the assertion that my writing was insulting to the Cuban people. I think the movie itself is an insult to Cubans.) Bitter Sugar is uniquely bad in a way that can be highly entertaining (like vanity epics in which movie stars direct themselves as Christlike saviors.) I welcome the opinions of those who disagree, and I reassert that my goal is to inspire conversation, and a finer appreciation of all films.

February 9, 1999