Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Cuba Travel Diary - El Che

So it was Guatemala that sorted out Ernesto 'Che' Guevara's social conscience once and for all. Before that he was penning stuff that would not be destined to be immortalised here at his lasting monument in Santa Clara:

"Easter Island! There to have a white boyfriend is an honour for the female...There - what a wish - the women do all the work. One eats, sleeps, and keeps them content...what would it matter to stay a year there, who cares about work, studies, family, etc.

"The black is indolent and fanciful, he spends his money on frivolity and drink; the European comes from a tradition of working and saving which follows him to this corner of America and drives him to get ahead, even independently of his own individual aspirations.

"The blacks, those magnificent examples of the African race who have conserved their racial purity by a lack of affinity with washing..."

El Che wasn't the sort of historical personage one habitually associates with political incorrectness; yet as Christine Lagarde can surely attest, we are all prone to say things that we may later come to regret...

Friday, May 25, 2012

Awake: 'Turtles all the way down'

And so Awake has concluded...for good. Yet another attempt to blend science fiction with mainstream TV sensibilities has ended up in a first season cancellation. You might accuse the networks of lacking the courage of their convictions, but the real problem is that even the screenwriters appear to have pulled up short time and time again.

I liked this show, and will miss it. Yet its fatal flaws were altogether obvious.

The narrative consisted of four, ultimately poorly-integrated elements: police procedural, soap opera, conspiracy and high concept metaphysical mystery. It was clear from the start that the crime-writing component wasn't up to even CSI standards, and it soon became apparent that the soap opera was rather dreary and that the underlying inter-cop conspiracy was deadeningly ordinary.

So that left the metaphysical (or perhaps merely medical) mystery, discomfitingly detached from the other elements in terms of its rationale. If the duality within Britten's consciousness had no obvious relationship to his situation, it never developed into anything more than a script-writer's thought experiment. Yes, the switches between yellowy and bluey realities were used to better effect, tension-wise, in the latter episodes, but there should have been a constant flow of clues/teasers as to how and why this bifurcation might originally have occurred. 

One also wanted to have a more obvious and consistent relationship between these two worlds and the information that passed between them, especially as it related to the police procedural narrative, as this could thus have been a good deal more gripping. In the end we were treated to a kind of resolution, which was gratifying, but felt under the circumstances of summary cancellation, too obviously bolted on to be fully satisfying.

Jason Isaacs gave the show a very strong and appealing central character. But deep down he was as one-dimensional as the others: it was the performance, and the actor's own charisma, not the writing, that made him interesting. Traditionally in this genre the detective must have some obvious nagging flaws, such as an old drinking problem or an inability to keep their private life in good working order like Sarah Lund in Forbrydelsen (The Killing).
Other than the obvious psychological issues and family loss, Britten was squeaky clean with a near perfect home life.

Awake could have made better use of cliffhangers as well. Well-crafted episode conclusions were the main reason that I stuck it through all twenty episodes of the aforementioned Danish crime thriller.

Meanwhile, Season Two of Game of Thrones continues to be a right old despelote as far as its expanding cluster of storylines go. This dogged attempt to run all the different character-driven narratives concurrently is a major FAIL. They ought to have learned some lessons from series such as Lost, where a degree of rotation was successfully enforced.


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Cuba Travel Diary - Grub

In catering, as in boxing, the Cubans can count themselves amongst the world's talented amateurs. So the first thing I note as I head out for a meal in Cuba is that I am far less likely to have it ruined by the rising bile of my generalised distaste for the polished marketing culture of the strip mall.

Even here in Antigua the tail of image consistently wags the dog of content when it comes to the restaurant scene, where the few kitchens actually capable
of producing a meal that one might actually look forward to eating are submerged in a sluice of shouty brand propositions.

I suppose this is quite normal for a touristy destination where the majority of diners will visit each restaurant proposition but once, and where there is typically a marked over-supply of businesses chasing foreign-earned income. 

That the Cubans haven't quite been able to reproduce this little triumph of capitalism is nevertheless rather to their credit. 

Refreshing also is the comparative lack of that steak, spaghetti and crêpe nonsense, all too familiar round these parts. (Actually a steak is something you are unlikely to be able to indulge in in Cuba unless happen to be are a member of the political elite, given that the island suffers from a meagreness of bovine stock.) 

Back in the UK we used to have a TV game show called The Generation Game, in which some very talented individual demonstrated his or her particular professional skill and then two members of the same family from different generations had to have a go themselves. The end results varied of course. Well, when it comes to the provision of anything with even a hint of luxury or premium quality about it, the Cubans are like keen, above-averagely capable contestants on the aforementioned programme who have just watched someone else showing them how it can be done, should one happen to have many years of experience. 

The state-owned tourism and catering companies can get away with this for now because their customers are predominantly lower-middle class coach party herds from Europe...and Canadians, who, according to my father at least, will eat anything

One does indeed come across gaggles of Frenchies, but rather than the sniffy gastronomic sort, they appear to be embittered old socialists who have made it over to the free republic of the Americas with the singular intention of being allowed to smoke indoors. 

Things may eventually (have to) change if the Yanks ever decide to grow up a bit and cut the Cubans some slack.

How might the locals cope with a sudden influx of 'discerning' diners? It's not of course that Americans have higher standards when it comes to their nosh than other rich-worlders (one could indeed make quite a strong case against this presumption); it's just that they love what Marxists might call the superstructure or marketers the value-add: the shouty branding experience, the over-trained niceness, and everything else that comes packaged with products that want to be loved and remembered as a service (because the actual product experience is often pretty lousy!). 

There are signs that the Cubans are fumbling their way towards a strange simulcrum of self-referencing, late stage capitalism: in the pic above a lone diner at La Bahía restaurant in Cienfuegos has to watch a looping showreel in which the chef demonstrates the preparation of his greatest hits.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Cuba Travel Diary - Museums

Cuban museums are packed full of historical detritus, largely pertaining to the various cults of personality out of which the island's notably afflicted historiography has been formed. If Che Guevara had made use of a set of false teeth during the Sierra Maestra campaign, you can bet your bottom convertible peso that they would be sitting in a glass display case somewhere in Cuba.

For foreign visitors the format quickly becomes familiar. The entrance fee is usually 2 CUCs. But if you want to to take photos, you will be asked for an additional 5 CUCs. One soon discovers that this exorbitant tithe is avoidable, provided one is prepared to recruit one of the staff — almost always significantly outnumbering visitors  as an unofficial guide. 

He or she (though it's usually a she) will for a small gratuity, not only permit photos, but will also — with a look signalling a certain degree of perilous intrigue —  tend to open up areas that otherwise appear off limits to public scrutiny. 

By far the most melancholic exhibit I came across on this trip were the last earthly remains of Comrade Alberto Granado, Che's companion during the Argentinian pair's famous trek around South America on Granado's Norton 500, La Poderosa. These are contained within a small blue urn in the somewhat ramshackle museum beneath the Che Guevara monument in Santa Clara, not in the sombre mausoleum itself, where the Comandante is enterred along with six other guerrillas who died in the ill-fated Bolivian insurgency...and not in fact apparently meriting their very own glass case free of other revolutionary bric-a-brac.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Cuba Travel Diary - Havana-ness

I recently compiled a list of what I believe are the world's top 20 major urban destinations. Like all such things it is tinged with partiality, but the first fifteen or so entries more or less pick themselves. There are now just two names on my list which may leave me with a nagging sense of regret in my latter years, should they still remain unvisited: Istanbul and Rio de Janeiro. 

I've done well in fact when it comes to the great cities on this globe, fortunately perhaps, because I have the dark premonition that one or more of them will be properly destroyed, and thereby rendered unvisitable, before my traveling days are done.

Perhaps no-one should be surprised that La Habana makes it into my top twenty; indeed it might even scrape into the top ten. There are other cities on the island which do Cuba-ness just as well, if not better, but it is that city's overwhelming air of Havana-ness which sets it apart, and led to an almost inevitable sense of disappointment when I showed up in Santiago de Cuba, extrañando the sudden gust of sui generis qualities that sweeps up the visitor to the Cuban capital.