Wednesday, September 30, 2015

A fresh and thoughtful view of Cuba

   A CONSTANT STREAM of outsiders try to take Cuba's measure. Few succeed. An island that sets communism to a Latin beat is no easy place to figure out – especially when the island itself is adjusting to a renewed bond with a powerful neighbour.


 One who would appear to understand Cuba, however, is Anthony Bourdain, star of CNN's Parts Unknown food and travel program. In the premier episode of the sixth season, the urbane host visits Havana and Santiago, sampling dishes that will make your mouth water even as he engages Cubans from all walks on their hopes and fears.
   Some of us interpret Cuba by its cars. For Bourdain, a chef before all else, the measure, of course, is food, and the arrival of sushi alongside the beans and rice is a potent symbol of the nation's change. Still, the meals are merely an entry point to a broader examination of history and culture that speaks to painstaking research by the host and production company.
   Bourdain's take on Cuba and its nervous excitement as it tries to both reshape itself and not reshape itself? Well, it's complicated.
  "Everybody knows, everyone can feel it ... it smells like freedom," he muses.
   "But will it be victory?"

   See the full episode at the CNNgo website.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Taking a shine to Cuban Chrome – scripts and all

Central casting: Demetrio Montalvo with sons Michel, left, and Hernan and the family's 1953 Oldsmobile taxi. Photos courtesy of Discovery Communications.
   WE ALL understand that "reality show" is an oxymoron. Beyond the obvious effect of observation on the behaviour of the subject, there's the need – fed by the shortness of our attention spans – for every moment of these television programs to be interesting, even if real life doesn't work that way.
   The consequence, then, are shows that range from the selective – edited reality, which we're usually willing to accept – to the staged and scripted, which we're unlikely to believe but still watch if they are unceasingly entertaining.
   Cuban Chrome, the eight-part series that ran on Discovery in the U.S. this summer and now is airing in Canada, falls into the staged-and-scripted category. The premise – three Habaneros rushing to restore their classic vehicles in time for the one day a year a prestigious car club accepts new members – seems unlikely, at least without an ample supply of grease from the production company.
Some of the supposedly ordinary types who appear in Cuban Chrome are equally suspect. Demetrio Montalvo, who we're told is a taxi driver working to feed his family, emotes like a Barrymore as he describes the struggle to get his '53 Oldsmobile back on the road – and indeed, we see an actor by Montalvo's name listed in the cast of the 2014 French science fiction film Habana.
   Then there's Roberto Ordaz, an "apprentice mechanic" with remarkably clean fingernails, probably because his chief job, suggests the Washington Post's David Montgomery, is "delivering perfectly timed explanations in English of what’s going on and what’s at stake." The Cuban government could not have trained a better tour guide.

Roberto Ordaz and his putative boss, mechanic Fernando Barral.
   Yet like a dissident reaching Pope Francis, reality sometimes breaks through. Yes, we see the famous struggle of Cuban vehicle owners to adapt and improvise – if presented more vaguely than a car buff would desire – but we also witness the humour and elaborate courtesy that help the people of this crowded city get through their days. We take in the unspoken but evident tension between a divorced couple over ownership of an inherited Austin-Healey 2+2.
   We even hear Roberto tell mother-in-law jokes, a seeming staple of Cuban males and often of the same vintage as their cars (but perhaps just recited to North Americans because they figure we're still big on Henny Youngman).
And then there is the moment the producers could never have anticipated. We see the Cubans' jaws drop as they watch Raúl Castro announce his agreement with Barack Obama to resume diplomatic relations. Real events happen, even on reality TV.
   Here's hoping that Discovery renews Cuban Chrome. We can live with the scripted bits when the payoff is more glimpses of Cuban life and Cuban cars – two subjects that will always hold our interest.