The retrospective on the work of Santiago Alvarez kicked off with LBJ, an acerbic look at the career of US President Lindon B. Johnson.
Santiago basically made newsreels, like the Pathe News reels we had here. But with the Cuban embargo ensuring a dearth of equipment and, well, everything needed to make a film, Santiago had to get creative. He used still photos, emotive music, and skillful editing to create a signature style of ‘nervous montage’. These are surprisingly effective and still stand up today.
In LBJ, we see a puggy display with spinning icons, which stops to read LBJ. Johnson is painted as almost comically twee, growing up in the lap of luxury, surrounded by his privilege, playing with guns and acting the soldier, the knight, the cowboy. He seems childish and faintly ridiculous. As the slots spin again, we get the single letter J, and the film focuses on JFK, a man who seems to dwarf LBJ in both politics and history. The slots spin again and we get the letter L, and we get footage of Martin Luther King’s anti-racism activism. Combining shots of police brutality towards African-Americans and civil rights protestors, with shots of the Klan, Nazis and white supremacists to show deep divisions of racial injustice. Played over this frenetic cacophony of violence is Nina Simone’s ‘Mississippi Goddamn’. As the song reaches the crescendo of its outrage, we get King’s I Have A Dream speech, punctuated the footage of gun shots from a Nazi firing squad, and news of his assassination. The film contrasts his short life of worthy work, with Johnson’s older years of empty politicking and political posturing. The slots spins again and it lands at the letter B, for Bobby Kennedy. RFK’s run against Johnson for the Democratic nomination for president showcases a number of reasons people thought Bobby would be the better man, before he too is gunned down. The film ends on LBJ, a ridiculous knight’s helmet imposed on his face, as we get footage of US violence against Native Americans, African-Americans, and those opposing racism and state oppression.
Now seems a good time to bring up the point of propaganda, which these obviously are, in the same way that Pathe News, with its RP accent narrating how our brave boys were contending with savages to bring civilisation to the colonies, obviously were. The best person to make your propaganda is a true believer, which Santiago was. This is the world as he saw it. He had stayed some time in the US, where he saw racial and social injustices first-hand.
Watching this film in 2022 makes for interesting viewing. We’ve went through a post-ideological age where neither grand theory provided the utopia it promised, but are now moving on past even that, as younger generations cotton on to the fact that while the idealists may have become disillusioned, the machinery of capitalism and the state never did, and their ideology of accruing as much power as possible has continued unimpeded.
The style of his films I found really interesting, that exciting intercutting between still images, stock footage and film, choosing to allow editing to steer your meaning rather than a narrator. Combing that with the use of music, rather than sound or narration, reminded me of music videos, which we think of belonging to a later age. It also reminded me of the frantic, machine-gun barrage of clips from the deluge of popular media in documentaries, like Adam Curtis’s The Power of Nightmares, and in films, like Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers.
Really interesting as both a view on how the world looked then, and what it shows us about today.