HAVANA, May 11th “Going, Going, Gone: The Grandeur of Golden-Age Cuba” is a whimsical meander through a century and a half of Cuban history using rare black and white photos, archival film, and a smattering of modern-day commentary and news footage. Clocking in at a full six hours, this three-part “docufilm” (links below) is the brainchild of St. Croix native Wayne James, whose multifaceted career has ranged from fashion designer, lawyer, and politician to lifestyle guru.
The film’s recurring visual anchor, and indeed what seems to be its raison d’être, is James’ rare collection of over 500 photos of Cuba dating from 1890 to the 1920s, the island’s so-called “Golden Age.”
Commissioned by the Havana-based cigar manufacturer Henry Clay and Bock & Co., Ltd., these captioned picture cards were created as keep-sakes for customers.
The initial core of James’ collection is also a piece of his family history. His maternal great uncle, Alexander Messer, who migrated to Cuba in 1918 to work in the sugarcane fields, would include the picture cards in his letters home.
Conserved by the family, they were given to James when he was 11 years old. Clearly an antiquarian at heart, James gradually enlarged his collection over several decades, which now consists of over 550 images.
In addition to these images, subsets of which are interspersed throughout the six-hour film, James has brought together an impressive array of film and television footage that he has organized more or less chronologically.
However, because the filmmaker frequently provides no background information about the footage as it appears, it is often difficult to pinpoint production dates.
And while most of this information can be found in the rolling credits at the end of Part III, it would have been helpful to have this material identified as the film progresses to allow for a clearer narrative thread.
The filmmaker’s decision not to identify much of the material he includes, along with the frequently abrupt transitions between old archival footage, contemporary news accounts, modern-day interviews (often with people who are not identified), and the Golden Age photos, gives Going , Going, Gone an almost hallucinatory feel that will appeal to some but be disorienting to others.
According to the film’s promotional materials, the work is an example of the emerging genre of “quiltography” i.e., “films skillfully and artistically pieced together, quiltlike, from already existing footage for the purpose of telling a new story.”
What precisely this new story James wants to tell is not entirely clear, but on artistic grounds, he does indeed succeed. The evocative photographs from the Henry Clay and Bock & Co. series, along with the often gorgeous soundtrack that includes such musical pieces from the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century performed by contemporary artists, add greatly to the pleasure of the film.
Moreover, with effort, a skilled educator can find much in James’ work to use in the classroom. In addition to the film and television footage, some of which include famous interviews with Fidel, the Golden Age photos themselves provide rich material for interpretation.
Although varied in subject, the pictures depict a Cuba of progress, prosperity, and a tropical lushness that comes through even in grainy black and white.
And while charming, they provide no hint of the political and economic frustrations of the period caused by the United States’ intervention in Cuba’s independence war and its subsequent occupation of the island. For educators, helping students analyze the photos with an eye toward historical silences would be a fruitful endeavor.