Hamlet is seated on a throne. He’s bent and wasted. An imperfect Hamlet, frozen in place; history stretches between him and us like an unbreachable wall. His left hand holds up a fallen brow. All is dark around him. Foreboding. Tenebrous. The only light on the set is absorbed by the deep furrows on the prince’s hands. This is the wrong way for a film to start. From the very beginning, it forces us to retune our understanding of the subject, to perk up in disagreement. As a growing sense that things are heretically amiss begins to take hold, a dramatic piano pumps life and suspense into the tableau. The camera zooms in. This confirms that our prince is the sexagenarian his deeply grooved leather-skin suggested. It also pegs other qualities to him, at least through the grain of the pirated version of the movie that we are watching. Something of the lugubrious old pervert, for instance. He raises his head, puts deep and penetrating eyes on us, admonishment for our audacity in thinking him any less a prince than other Hamlets. We take note of the cheap costume he is in. It renders him more jester than royalty, and ratifies that he is a counterpoint to the healthy young Hamlet, a bit melancholy but all the more attractive for it, that lords over the literary imagination of the West, indexing its supposed universality. Between these two Hamlets there can only be a strained relation. One that parody or deliberate misuse underwrites. It is never the young and vigorous Danish monarch who represents what is rotten in the kingdom. We cannot be quite sure this is the case with the flabby flesh of our Cuban lead. One can imagine a whiff of decay coming off him; the concoction of gases that churns in the carcass on the side of the road finds liberation through his pores as death slowly slurps the marrow in his bones and ravenous flies wait just outside the frame. A bit senile, this aged Hamlet even botches the question. “Are they or are they not?,” he asks with pointed disdain. An old bag of bones defiantly putting a challenge to the audience.
¿Son o no son?—That is the question. The first thing one has to ask is what sort of question is this, imperfect as it sounds to knowing ears, if not altogether grating and blasphemous. What is it referring to, beyond the words it misquotes? Who are these son, these “they”? Is it the Cuban people who have entered a divergent historical pattern? Is this a Hamlet with social concerns, slightly disenchanted with the timid social function that mass media and artists have surrendered to in the new society? If he’s mourning anything, then, it may be an opportunity that is being wasted. Or is the question imperfect in more ways than one? What if it is untranslatable in that it is asking about musical genres whose names have no equivalent in other languages, about rhythms pried free from the bones of dead animals? What if it’s posing an inquiry about the Cuban son, that most foundational of genres? The question ¿Son o no son? is then closer to something like The blues or not the blues? It has to do with popular music and shared experience, and not with the metaphysical inquiries that trouble the humanist or bourgeois subject—nor even with the theoretically crafted concerns for the collective that shape the unbendable militant.
Or maybe Son o no son—as in, are the methods employed in the film able or not able to do what García Espinosa needs them to do? ¿Son los que tienen que ser o no son? is a way of wondering if the contradiction between autochthonous popular culture and a transnational film industry, if the exercise of rubbing one against the other, is fruitful. The film finds its shape as variations of the titular question. Figuring out which version of ¿Son o no son? aligns with what Hamlet intended is, then, less important than the fact that the inquiry keeps itself suspended over multiple possibilities, refusing easy disentanglement from indeterminacy as a way to propel a reflexive drive to the very end and at multiple levels.
However unstable the meaning of the question may be, our sorry Hamlet is as dramatic in his delivery as any member of a teatro buffo troop would find it proper to be, professionalism making its claims on all citizens of the stage equally. He strains his gravel-in-the-throat voice, sounding more like a goat than an actor, but graced with a certain Caribbean flow nonetheless. It’s the paradox of guttural mellifluousness that renders old tobacco smokers so charming. His way of asking the question reminds one of that other botching of it. “Tupí or not Tupí?” asks Oswald de Andrade in his Anthropophagic Manifesto (1928), alluding to the deglutition of Pedro Fernandes Sardinha, Brazil’s first bishop, by the Caeté Indians, a part of the Tupí people, in 1556. Does the otherwise—which is what these pages are about—not emerge and endure with the consuming and digesting of the alien, with rearranging a corrupt state of things that we can never quite line ourselves up with? And what is as alien to us nowadays as the strange and savage ways of Portuguese conquerors must have been to the Tupí in 1556 if not an economic “intelligence” that has reformatted the planet to serve the illusory goal of its infinite perpetuation, based on the fantasy that the resources at its disposal are endless? Or is it, as experience confirms, slightly different than this: Is the otherwise precisely that which emerges from a missed encounter, the fruitless exchange, with the alien? We try to find new potentialities in immaterial labor and other novel things that Capital may have generated, we test practices that may lead to an immanent derangement of things as they are, but the freedoms come to meet us are so shamefully small and so easily recaptured. We try to swallow the alien but it turns out that it digests us instead.
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