Due to a scheduling change, the movie "Improper Conduct," reviewed yesterday, will open next Friday at the Inner Circle.
"Improper Conduct," at the very least, casts a pall on whatever is left of the American romance with Fidel Castro. This often devastating documentary, opening today at the Inner Circle, catalogues the new caudillo's two decades of oppression, particularly dealing with homosexuals.
But good intentions don't necessarily make good documentaries; "Improper Conduct" adopts the curious hectoring tone you associate with authoritarian orthodoxy. As witness after bleak witness comes forth with his tale of injustice, the movie begins to feel like a Soviet trial -- Stalin (the esthete, not the ruler) would have approved. It's an indictment, not a trial. And indictments make bad drama.
Still, the story it tells is horrifying. Hippies, homosexuals, and those guilty of "improper conduct" -- "it could fit anything," says one victim -- were rounded up wholesale into forced labor camps that could hold 100,000 inmates, camps that bore the legend, "Work will make you men." Literary men were interned because "artists and writers are all faggots"; one man was arrested because the way he walked was supposedly homosexual; an actor who had dyed his hair blond for a role was deemed gay and tossed in jail.
"Improper Conduct" finds its scene-stealer in a Cuban transvestite who joined the human tide that flowed to the United States in 1980 when Castro opened the gates of his prisons. Now working in a transvestite nightclub show in the States, he weaves a poignant narrative detailing how, jailed for his "extravagant attitudes," he and other transvestites continued to dress up in the camp, using prison sheets for gowns. "We had parties in jail and took our beatings," he says ebulliently. The quirkiness of the human spirit, it seems, can survive anything.
Writer/directors Nestor Almendros (the brilliant cinematographer of "Places in the Heart," "Days of Heaven," and many of the films of Eric Rohmer and Franc,ois Truffaut) and Orlando Jimenez Leal would have been better served by sticking to such ordinary people. Instead they have included such celebrated Cuban exiles as the novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante and the poet Heberto Padilla, who gas on about Cuban machismo and the position of the homosexual in society.
Cuba being how it is, it would have been impossible to ditch this endless string of talking heads and get out, like Frederick Wiseman, with a 16 mm camera and do some reporting. But talky documentaries like "Improper Conduct" are a perversion of the documentary form, the way Q & A interviews are bad journalism. Almendros and Leal might have considered trying to dramatize their material; a brief snippet from a stage performance by Cuban exiles in Miami, parodying Castro, suggests that satire would have been the better weapon -- you can imagine what Ken Russell could do with this material. Instead, they opt for the drudgery of the j'accuse; "Improper Conduct" is sort of like "Amnesty International Annual Report: The Motion Picture.