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.