Sunday, November 07, 2010

Miami (1987)

With this, Joan Didion sets herself to addressing the fever swamp that is southern Florida, taking her snapshots and making her portrait in the mid-'80s, at about the time when Michael Mann was putting a glossy sheen on it with his hit TV series, "Miami Vice," and Brian De Palma was making a lurid cartoon you couldn't look away from of the underworld gangster life fueled by cocaine. Didion is not particularly beguiled by their preoccupations, however—though certainly she takes a good look at the effects of the drug trade—preferring instead to examine the larger Cuban cultural and political forces that have effectively controlled the city for decades, tracing its origins back to even before the Cuban revolution of the late '50s. She makes a workmanlike case for its centrality not only in local Florida politics but nationally as well, as one thing has led seemingly inexorably to the next: the run-up to the revolution in the '50s, the inept Bay of Pigs response in the early '60s, various mysteries emerging from the aftermath of the JFK assassination, the Watergate burglary, the Mariel boatlift of 1980 and the huge impact that it had, Reagan's attempts to use this political football to his advantage, and more. It's all delivered with Didion's usual terse, complex language and air of paranoid brooding and with her typical fastidiousness in nailing down factual details. It's not a topic that interests me a great deal, so for me it was a bit of a grind—I am starting to notice that Didion's thickets of language are most effective for me when they address a topic I am willing to immerse myself in as deeply as she always immerses herself. So take that as a caveat. Even so, her ability to profile the political tensions and various lacunae and blind spots of the players in Miami is so precise as to be indelible, and unquestionably persuasive, contrasting the styles of the Southern whites who felt the place was theirs at the time (and likely do still) with the Cubans who have effectively turned it into a kind of offshore base of operations from which to attack Cuba. Those, like me, wondering why more than half a century of Castro has still not produced anything like normalized relations between the United States and Cuba will find any number of clues here.

In case it's not at the library. (Everyman's)

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