Any cook will admit that having delicious ingredients doesn’t necessarily make for a delicious meal, even if you are faithful to the recipe. The most masterful chef can combine a snazzy main course with cool, exotic sauces and side dishes, pepper in some flair, and tie it all together with pristine presentation — but if the temperature isn’t just right, or if just one of the ingredients has started to turn, or if the sous-chef finally makes his move by sabotaging his tyrannical chef’s best meal, well, at least those would be reasons. Sometimes it just doesn’t taste good. Questions arise: why didn’t the dish work? Didn’t we follow the recipe to the letter? Did you freeze that thing overnight like I told you to? When does one traditionally bring their extended metaphor to a close? Now?
Havana had all the ingredients. Sydney Pollack’s previous film Out of Africa walked home with Best Picture and a cartful of other Academy Awards; Robert Redford, longtime Pollack collaborator, was back for his seventh (!) go-round under Pollack’s guidance. Right there you’d think success would be imminent. Of all the famous Director-Actor partnerships, Pollack-Redford is perhaps the most dynamic, the most unexpected, the one that results in classics that span more than one genre. The pair met as actors on the low-budget 1960 film War Hunt, as recounted by Redford in his tribute to Pollack in Time following the latter’s passing, wherein Redford uses the term “kindred spirits”. The success of the adventurous Jeremiah Johnson, the thrilling Three Days of the Condor, the intimate Electric Horseman and the epic Out of Africa would all support that claim.
Havana might, too, but only because it’s clear that the trust between the two puts both at ease. The film is definitely that: easygoing. This is in sharp contrast to most of the aforementioned collaborations, largely tight directorial efforts with progressive scripts to match. Even Jeremiah Johnson, which one could argue to be the most “easygoing” in terms of plot, is a subtly controlled effort. Instead of a guy toddling along on a horse for two hours, Pollack’s directing and editing convey the sense of structure and story in an important way. It doesn’t matter how cool Jeremiah himself is — he still needs a story.
Jack Weil doesn’t have a whole lot of story. He’s cool, for sure. He’s the coolest cat in the coolest city on the coolest planet besides Hoth. And in terms of character Jack Weil might seek to join Jeremiah and The Sundance Kid and Waldo Pepper and Horseman‘s Sonny as a classic Redford character. In true Pollack Protagonist fashion, he’s got style to spare on the outside and tragedy to spare on the inside.
We meet him by way of his fancy white-and-black shoes, crossed nonchalantly over the side of an unused chair as gambler Jack plays his hand at the poker table. It’s worth noting that we met Electric Horseman‘s Sonny Steele through his shoes, too, and that instance told us a whole lot about him. Sonny was so drunk in that opening scene that he couldn’t even get his own boot on, forcing a rodeo hand to do it for him. Jack Weil’s never been that useless in his life, certainly not to the point of letting someone else put his shoes on for him. Jack uncrosses his legs and tucks his fancy kicks under the table only at the moment of truth, just before he rakes in a handsome pot from the schlub of a poker player across from him.
Later, Jack’s shoes become a point of contention. “Nice shoes, Jack,” says Alan Arkin’s casino owner. “New?” He’s implying that Jack got the money to pay for those shoes by gambling, which apparently is not the most noble of professions even in Havana. Shoes, of course, are shoes — but Pollack has always known that things are more than things if you treat them as such.
Jack’s shoes are a prideful symbol and an entry point to his character, and they play off the other things adorning Jack’s personage. “I’ve been a lot of places in the world,” he says in the opening narration. “Liked something about every one of them. Even Vegas. But there is only one city I miss.” Later, though, Jack reveals by his own admission that he only really knows two things about any place: who’s in charge and how to keep out of trouble. Jack could be wearing these exact shoes in any other city in the world, gained through the exact same ill-gotten means, and yet the weight Havana attempts to carry is in the fact that wearing these shoes in this city is a completely, utterly different ballgame: an outsider making a statement of ownership. It should be noted that Pollack and Co. never actually treat Jack’s shoes as an overt or explicit symbol, but one supposes tropes like this highlight the advantages of viewing the director’s work in order and in context.
…but none of that really matters in the end because, again, you still need a story. Havana‘s story is as thin as the little pieces of paper in between the slices of cheese from the deli, the ones that you think you’ve peeled off until you bite into your sandwich and taste vellumy fibers. Havana is not an exciting movie, which is a nice way of saying it’s a boring movie, which is entirely at odds with both the main character and the city itself. Both Jack Weil and Havana, Cuba are painted with near-mythological verve, easygoing flair, snappily-dressed legends with fancy shoes they maybe have no business wearing. They both deserve a better movie.
Tough to fault Pollack and/or Redford for that, though; after six successful collaborations, they deserved to end their creative partnership on a better movie, too. It might be a case of simply being too comfortable with one another, especially considering the Oscars haul of Out of Africa. The alternate argument would be to point out that Africa kind of meanders along, too, and that Havana is just a less convincing version of that earlier film.
Either way, one hopes that the actual Havana is not as boring as the film Havana. I’ll be visiting in a few months (to play music, not to gamble) and hope to find something akin to what Jack claims he found. In fact, I hope for a creative spark not unlike the one that existed between Sydney Pollack and Robert Redford, and admittedly Havana understands, too, that a spark like that can’t be maintained by a single person. It has to be cultivated between two artists or between two lovers or between a scoundrel and an entire city, shielded from the wind that threatens to snuff it out, nurtured, cared for, championed against all odds, destined for legend or — at the very least — for an extended metaphor.