Friday, October 2, 2009

Friday, February 27, 2009

Culture Warrior

I'm happy to announce that I've recently joined the staff of Film School Rejects, where I'm writing a weekly column called "Culture Warrior," an assessment of filmic trends in relation to larger culture similar to what I've done on this blog the past year and a half. Needless to say, the time I usually devote to blogging on such matters is now largely being put towards the column. Of course, "Culture Warrior" is not replacing this blog in any way, and I'll be sure to update with at least one or two posts per month (I realize that I never posted very often beforehand, but I hope the length and content of my posts make up for their rarity), but if you feel you're not getting your fix of hearing me talk a lot and say nothing, check every Saturday for my column.


Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Limits of Revolution: My Two Cents

When a movie about a security guard going above and beyond the line of duty to protect a shopping mall is #1 at the box office two weeks in a row, I say its about time for a Che Guevara biopic.

Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara is the rare 20th century icon that seems to mean something wholly different to every single person. The contradictions of his ethos at various points in his life have created a character of unending duality polarized in the collective imaginations of people in all countries of the Americas, complicated by his unfailing devotion (or, some would say, his belligerent, unrealistic, and idealistic unwillingness to compromise) to whatever cause he encountered at different ideological moments in his life. A skilled revolutionary crippled by asthma attacks, a secular humanist and sympathetic practitioner of medicine who executed his own men, a celebrated individual and political leader who enforced a philosophy of the collective good, and finally, an outspoken anti-capitalist whose image has been reappropriated and commodified by a best-selling shirt, Che’s history continues to be rewritten and reimagined.

I don’t think there can ever be a definitive movie about Che Guevara, as there is no definitive history of Che Guevara. Even in its four-and-a-half hour running time, Soderbergh’s Che feels limited in its scope, despite its focus on three very important events in Che’s life: the Cuban revolution, his visit to the UN, and the failed Bolivian “revolution” that ended in his death. Che’s running time is epic—its scope is not.

Divided into two parts, one titled “The Argentine” and the other “Guerilla,” each part has two different approaches to narrative linearity, two different technical approaches to camerawork, and two different aspect ratios, this duality in form is reflective of Che’s duality in character. Soderbergh’s film attempts an objective look at Che, trying to avoid biases on either side regarding who he really was and what he continues to represent. For Soderbergh, Che was neither a cold-blooded killer nor the signature icon of revolution. In “The Argentine,” we get hints of each side of Che, as we in one instance witness the assassination of one of his men and in another see him uncompromisingly wax his philosophy to victory in the takeover of Havana and to applause at the United Nations. This is all, of course, countered by and contrasted with the enduring test of that philosophy in Bolivia, where everything that went right in Cuba goes devastatingly wrong.

Soderbergh’s removed, almost cinéma vérité approach is probably the most responsible approach one could have to such a divisive figure. It can certainly be argued to be more objective than Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), an overall good film which perhaps depicts accurately Ernesto's life-defining discovery of humanism on the roads of South America, but fails to contextualize this with the later, better-known history of the man that arguably holds much greater weight in Latin American culture. In the United States, where 1960s Cuban history is taught from a single perspective and Che is known best as that attractive icon on a t-shirt that really knows how to sport a beret, The Motorcycle Diaries only complicated Che’s limited history and cultural role.

Soderbergh’s Che thankfully focuses on the man rather than the myth. But even stating this is misleading, for despite Benicio’s dedicated performance, Soderbergh’s lens stays only on the outside of Che’s mind. While we hear him proclaim his strong beliefs, we aren’t afforded his inner psychology and aren’t permitted to understand the reasoning behind his astounding degree of conviction. Soderbergh simply asks us to hear him speak and see his actions, then make up our minds ourselves. This extensive attempt at objectivity renders the second part’s ending all the more shocking as Che’s eyes suddenly become our own and we witness his assassination firsthand. This instance is shocking not necessarily because of its effect on the viewer, but rather because of the film’s sudden transformation in form and perspective.

Soderbergh has always been a formalist, avoiding a signature style in favor of a unique visual approach particular to each film. While his directorial decisions in Che are appropriate, responsible, and fascinating—far better than his executive-level film school experiments like Full Frontal (2002)—this sudden formal transition at the end of “Guerilla” complicates and confuses exactly what the filmmaker is trying to achieve. After deliberately avoiding the inner psychology of Che for over four hours, why does Soderbergh suddenly decide to no longer segregate our view of the man to the exterior? This is a most literalized attempt at getting inside a character's head, yet this late in the game it reveals nothing except what it might look like to be shot. For some viewers, this may be Che’s institution of violence finally coming full circle, and we are then forced to confront the unwavering devotion to an ideology in contrast with its consequences. (Had Che learned to compromise, could he have accomplished more? Doubtful. Che was hopeless against the CIA-backed Bolivian counterrevolutionaries, and he probably went into every revolutionary attempt knowing the price he might have to pay.)

Che’s death is not contextualized with his later history, and the camera focuses on his face wrapped in sheets as he is tied to a helicopter and jetted off elsewhere, the sheets showing us, even in death, how impenetrable the real Ernesto Guevara is. He is beyond approach and understanding, even when limiting oneself to his lifetime, as so much since his death has determined who he is perceived to be.

Soderbergh’s approach to Che is perhaps most appropriate because his film isn’t a biopic at all, at least in the sense that it ultimately reveals little about the man himself—favoring a simple examination of his actions from a distance rather than providing simplistic explanations to a complex man, even in such a daunting running time. My friend who endured the movie with me commented that he wished the film(s) showed the charisma of Guevara, and why people were so willing to follow him to the point of overturning the Cuban government. After all, there are few figures in history that we can regard as true philosophers of the battlefield. Though Che was undoubtedly charismatic in reality, I’m glad to see a version of him stripped of that charisma onscreen, for it removes the hip cult surrounding the development of his cultural image since his death. This isn’t a Che that fits easily on a t-shirt.

My two cents.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Daily Show in an Obama Administration

Shortly after Obama won the election, Dan Kois of New York Magazine ran an article speculating what The Daily Show would be like in an Obama administration. Now that an Obama administration is actually in place, we can see what the future of the show might entail.

Any skepticism of TDS’s function in a new administration is legitimate, as the show has served throughout Bush’s eight long years in office as a necessary podium for satirical exorcism of many a frustration with the status quo. It provided a site of relief and mutual understanding between a limited demographic of people when such relief could rarely be found elsewhere. However, the show’s representative young, liberal, or otherwise simply disaffected audience (whether expressing anger or disapproval of the Bush admin through informed logic or simple Bush-joke bandwagoneering) can be argued to be the base for which Obama initially rose in popularity, so one can argue then that the show itself now represents the status quo…Okay, maybe not the status quo, but it’s hard to fit in some good ol’ cynical comedy when your audience won’t stop clapping and cheering at each mention of Obama as the president. As goes with many forms of art, comedy is far less inspired when things are good. TDS feels right now like what Kurt Cobain or Elliot Smith’s music would have sounded like if they one day became optimists.

However, things, quite obviously, still aren’t good. Five days into Obama’s presidency, American banks and businesses continue to tank and we still find ourselves in that quagmire of a country known as Iraq. Guantanamo won’t officially close for another year, and our economy likely won’t start bouncing back for at least twice that amount of time. The major difference, however, is the tangibly drastic change in attitude. As evidenced by the content and rhetoric of his Inauguration speech, Obama as president won't necessarily bring to fruition an immediate change in our surroundings, but rather a change in attitude with respect to our current circumstances, the sign of a simultaneous return to the idealized and constantly reinterpreted values and promises of 1776 and a move forward to accommodate with a world that continues to change instead of expecting the world to accommodate us. The cynics have become the hopeful, and the new cynics of today are few, as it seems like Americans (and much of the western world) on any point of the political barometer want some degree of improvement and progress for this country more than anything else. Only the incessant and excessive ideologues emblematized by Rush Limbaugh outspokenly hope for failure, favoring party loyalty over the greater good of the many.

TDS’s first post-Inauguration episode made as much of the last minutes of the Bush presidency as they could, prepping themselves for the inevitable disappearance of Bush and Cheney from the public eye, as the public doesn’t want to see them anymore than they want to be seen. The following two episodes, however, displayed the potential best and worst of what is to come. With the closing of Guantanamo Bay, Jon Stewart brought back Gitmo, an Elmo-like puppet representing either the ethos behind Guantanamo itself or the supposed perspective of its prisoners. The only real humor of the piece was the (seemingly deliberately bad timing and) transparency of Stewart as both voices in the conversation. However, any fresh humor to be found in the piece quickly died as Stewart’s conversation with Gitmo continually reduced itself to shameless proselytizing of the Obama ethos, sounding more than ever like a voice for the new status quo rather than the source of reactionary comedy or even subversive counter-propaganda that TDS was known for in its best days. Thankfully John Oliver added some punch this last week with his segment at the rally itself, where he satirized the crowd’s impossibly high expectations for Obama. Still, this didn’t sound like a biting criticism cutting to its satirical core as much as it was stating the obvious with a light dose of humor—the excitement over a new president simply continues to drown out the inevitable sober realization that not everything will be fixed within the next four years.

From the writers of Saturday Night Live to Chris Rock, much has been made of the fact that, unlike the imitable persona of Bush, there is little humor to be found in Obama himself. This is not because Obama is a humorless person by any means, or even because of an alleged timidity in poking fun at an ethnic minority, be they in power or not (both TDS and SNL made plenty of jokes about Roland Burris during the Blagojevich senate election scandal). It’s simply hard to make fun of Obama because of his careful control of his media persona, as he has continually proved to understand how the media contextualizes and morphs information and, in turn, makes and breaks political careers, extending to his presence on and affirmation of TDS's importance in the national political process (thank goodness we have the endearing gaffe-magnet that is Joe Biden to balance out Obama). So it goes without question that, unlike Bush, decontextualized soundbites of the current president himself will not likely provide a wealth of humor.

However, TDS has proved throughout these last eight years—especially in this past election cycle—that there is no greater source of humor than turning the camera onto the media itself, and it is in this respect that the show remains strong, lampooning the absurdly meticulous coverage of Sasha and Melia’s first day in school to its lambasting of right-wing cynicism on Fox News that will no doubt continue to remain potent throughout the Obama presidency.

TDS, at its very best, can be a vessel for counter-propaganda when it aims to deconstruct common methodologies for information dissemination not by politicians but by the news media itself, regularly highlighting contradictions or hypocrisies in both information delivery and punditry while enforcing tactics (largely through careful and inventive justaposition of news segments and/or soundbites of politicians and pundits) that arguably help train its audiences to approach news media with an analytic eye. Entertaining Politics author Jeffrey P. Jones argues that TDS “skewers” classical punditry and the partisan, performative spectacle of news media discourse attempting to pass as objectivity, which in itself requires a certain knowledge of news media or news events in order to “get the joke.” While it is certainly arguable that one does not need to actually watch the news to understand the humor in TDS or even “get the joke” (as I’m sure there are many conservative or apolitical viewers of the show who watch it simply because they enjoy comedy), as seen by TDS’s covering of “legitimate” news sources covering the Obama transition to the presidency, TDS’s joke about news is, and often has been, that news rarely features any news at all.

As Jones argues, TDS has functioned best as a court jester: not by rendering reality absurd, but pointing out the absurdity of reality. In this respect, it can be argued that this brand of satire is intrinsic to the public role of the Bush administration and its endless laundry list of absurdities (not to mention overall indifference and dysfunction), and TDS may not find as functional or influential a role in news media within the next four years. Anybody can go back and look at clips from the 2004 election and see a clear difference in the show’s utility as a oh-so necessary counterpunch to an often otherwise devastating political and social reality not so long ago. However, as long as ideologues like Limbaugh continue to persist (and they will, holding desperately onto the remnants of their former status as spokespersons for the political mainstream), and as long as the news media continues its circus act, TDS will continue to be a necessary outlet for the frustrations of a certain demographic. Hopefully Stewart and co. will further embrace the lampooning of news media, like the two segments above, rather than attempting humor through proselytizing or poking holes in Obamathusiasm, as TDS has proved itself to be at its best when it reveals the illegitimacy of legitimate news.

However, despite that its cult seems to have reached its glass ceiling, The Colbert Report may prove to be the better-enabled venue for satire than TDS. Colbert’s carefully constructed persona has represented different aspects of mediated American political society each year since the show’s debut. When his show was first launched in 2005 around the time of Hurricane Katrina, Colbert embodied the absurdity, ignorance, and dysfunction of a then-still powerful ideological base whose grip on power and influence was finally beginning to lessen. In the next few years he seemed only to be a caricature of the pundits of Fox News, etc., a cartoon of an ideology that already seemed cartoonish by that point. But now Colbert has been rendered a minority, representing those frustrated few in conservative news media that scrounge for qualitative disapproval and continue to propagate a xenophobic fear of Obama and, according to Limbaugh, have yet to “drink the punch.” Instead of pretending to like Bush, Colbert only now has to pretend to dislike Obama, and thus lampoon the scrambling criticisms of the far right. After all, as The Daily Show displayed, this brand of comedy seems to work best for the political minority.